From Russia with Fun: How Nintendo Got the Rights for Tetris from the USSR
KGB agents, fur coats and video games are all part of the history behind a Nintendo’s badass representative and his quest to bring Tetris to the Game Boy.
In 1984, entrenched in a dark room somewhere in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Alexey Pajitnov was ordered to run tests on brand new hardware developed by the Russians. Pajitnov liked to code small puzzle games in order to push the computers' limitations. On one inspired day, drawing from geometric puzzles and tennis, he created a little game called Tetris.
And by little I mean absolutely massive, of course. The title's fame may have started with obsessive conversations around the water cooler of the Academy of Sciences, but more than three decades later, Tetris is recognized as one of the most popular games of all time—so much so that is ported to virtually every single operating system out there, from old-school consoles to current ultra-sexy-graphics-machines, from graphing calculators to goddamn oscilloscopes. Yes, even serious electronic test instruments may come packing with a stripped-down yet fully functional version of Tetris. The game is just that successful.
Tetris quickly outgrew the walls of the Academy and took to the streets of Moscow, where a ported version of the game was being frantically played on home computers.
Soon, things get muddy with the licensing rights of the game. There are conflicting reports as to what happened next, but the consensus seems to be that Andromeda, a British software company, noticed that the quirky Soviet title was now suddenly getting popular in Hungary. They thought they could create a version of it to sell in European and North American markets. In the midst of Cold War, it wasn't an easy task to arrange a business meeting with Pajitnov, who Andromeda director Robert Stein thought held the rights to produce a Tetris game. He was granted a deal (which some later questioned the legitimacy of) to publish it only for the PC.
In 1987, Spectrum HoloByte got the rights from Andromeda and released its own version of Tetris for the IBM PC in the United States, according to some video game historians. (Honestly, I think that's one of the best versions of the game there is, since it featured amazing background art with Soviet motifs, such as a cosmonaut chilling in space, caressing falling Tetris pieces and checking out his awesome cosmonautic view of Earth's atmosphere.)
Companies were licensing and sublicensing Tetris as if they were drunken traders on a hot Wall Street day
Obviously, the game was a huge hit in the US, prompting positive reviews from outlets such as Computer Gaming World and even the New York Times, which called it "simple and addictive" in 1988. Suddenly, a bunch of companies were making a ridiculous amount of money selling their own versions of Tetris, even though none of them had full rights to do so. Everything was a mess—at least until Henk Rogers showed up.
If you're not familiar with the name, you should know that Henk Rogers is one of the most important game producers of all time. In the early 80s, he moved to Japan and popularized the RPG genre with his game The Black Onyx. In 1988, he was looking to score his next big hit in the Japanese market, so he attended the Las Vegas Consumer Electronic Show to meet new developers and try their exciting new gaming projects.
It was then that Rogers saw Tetris for the first time. He felt something different about that little Soviet game, so much so that he got in line to play it four times during his CES show floor tour. Rogers knew Tetris could be an even more tremendous success throughout the world if distributed on home consoles and other popular platforms. But that's not something he could do on his own.
At the time, Rogers had an excellent relationship with Nintendo's president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, and he knew that the company was about to launch its first Game Boy. So Rogers had an idea.
Nintendo was planning to include a copy of the portable version of Super Mario Land with every Game Boy shipped. Rogers told Yamauchi that, well, of course young boys would love to play Mario right out of their Game Boy box, but Tetris could be a bigger hit as it was made for any person of any age. Mr. Yamauchi was intrigued, so he asked Rogers to check out what he could do about the license for Tetris.
Meanwhile, companies were licensing and sublicensing Tetris as if they were drunken traders on a hot Wall Street day, which meant it was pretty hard to tell who rightfully pocketed the rights. But most of these studios were bluffing, because they knew exactly who owned that game: the Motherland herself, lady USSR.
When Pajitnov finally saw how big Tetris was going to get, he decided to publish it properly. But the creator thought the Russian regime wasn't very keen on letting him publish and profit (a lot) on his own. The best way to assure the game would see the world beyond the increasingly thin Iron Curtain was to hand it to Russia while gaining a decent stake on it in the near feature. In 1987, Pajitnov loaned the rights of Tetris to his government for 10 years through a joint venture program of the Perestroika period, which had just kicked in.
Henk Rogers didn't know that at the time, so he called up Robert Stein from Andromeda and asked to check out their copyright claim for home consoles and handhelds. With Nintendo by his side, it looked it would be easy to grant the license. But Stein went silent—because he obviously had nothing to show. He also tried to secure the rights through Spectrum HoloByte, but that company had already sold some of the licenses to Atari. Rogers got so pissed that he bought a plane ticket and flew to Moscow uninvited to knock on the doors of the Ministry of Software and Hardware Export and get the licenses himself.
Soon, Rogers realized it wasn't going to be easy to talk to the Russian government. For a couple of days, he couldn't even find the address of the building where the Ministry was supposed to be, let alone allowed to speak with any Russian civilian. Back then, it was forbidden to talk to or receive money from foreigners. That meant he couldn't buy anything and was freezing in Moscow's harsh weather without a decent coat. As if he already wasn't badass enough, Rogers was also a proper master of Go, an ancient Chinese board game. He sought the local Go club in Moscow on the off chance that he could make friends with someone. After Rogers reportedly beat the third best Go player in the country, he realized that approach wasn't really going to work out.
Nintendo's persistent emissary finally got a translator (although she may have been a KGB agent spying on Rogers' intentions in the country, as Pajitnov would later tell him). He noticed the lady was perhaps overly nice with Rogers, and a bit too curious about his affairs.
Apparently a tourist visa couldn't really guarantee an appointment with a government official, and it was highly suspicious if you try to arrange one by simply walking up to reception and asking for a meeting. But Rogers finally convinced the ministry to receive him, as he recalled in an oral history published in the Guardian. He had his first letdown: a Soviet official told him they had never given the rights to anybody. (Rogers probably got at least a bit scared at this point, since he himself worked with his team on a version for the game for the NES. If the Soviets knew they had a pirate under their roof, there was a great chance that his stay would be forcibly extended.)
Instead of dropping that deal and running back to Japan before he found himself in the gulag, he quickly arranged a meeting to discuss Nintendo's proposition.
The story actually finishes with a fine bromance. On the next meeting, Rogers met Pajitnov. Through their common background in game design, they hit it off like crazy. The creator of Tetris then made sure that the Soviet officials understood that Nintendo was the best way to go with the game, especially with the sweet promise of releasing Tetris alongside the new Game Boy.
The next day, Rogers invited Pajitnov to his hotel room to chat, sparkling a friendship that turned into The Tetris Company today and the immigration of Pajitnov to the States, where he continued to produce games. Their connection was responsible for building Tetris' legacy across decades and several platforms to this day.
Even though the Game Boy version of Tetris got delayed for a few weeks and couldn't be included in the first batch of the handheld's boxes—yes, this part is quite anti-climatic—the Game Boy version still sold an astounding 35 million copies. Tetris eventually was bundled with the Game Boy, which helped drive the enormous success of that platform.
From then on, it was an easy ride. Tetris also was properly ported to the NES. Rogers had once again proven himself to be an adept negotiator. And that's how the Game Boy became a generational icon, and the immortal Tetris right next to it.