Twenty-five years ago, a video game developed by a Russian mathematician was born. This game would drop-drop-drop into our collective psyches, with the strange ability to seduce players, block-by-block.
This is Tetris, purchased and downloaded more than 125 million times in its quarter century (this doesn’t include the innumerable ripoff versions). Developed by Alexey Pajitnov at a Moscow computing center, Tetris is recognized on the level of a Super Mario Bros. or Grand Theft Auto — more than mere video games, they are ingrained in popular culture.
The game began as a program on the IBM system, but Nintendo’s Game Boy gave Tetris a wider audience in 1989. These days, Tetris is an actual company making money through licensing.
The game is simple: Blocks of various shapes drop one by one while a player positions where they will stack at the bottom of the screen. Once a row is filled, that line disappears, but if the blocks reach the top of the screen, game over.
Tetris diehards know the feeling: the game makes us stare unblinkingly at the screen for hours. It makes us yell at the inanimate screen when we accidentally drop a block one square off. Its Russian folk-song theme worms its way into our ears and lingers all day. It makes us yearn, more than anything, for just one long, vertical piece.
But this is, after all, a puzzle of blocks, geometry and gravity, not exactly marketing gold for the button-mashing crowd. So what makes Tetris so endearing?
For one, playing the game is an exercise in futility. You can never win. The game is set up so that the blocks fall increasingly faster, until it catches up with you. The goal, then, is the continued pursuit of besting your previous high score. (This is classic addict behavior — “I want my highs to get higher and higher.”)
And on this 25th birthday, The Tetris Company LLC continues to expand their brand by adding new features in titles such as “New Tetris,” “Tetris World” and “Tetris Acorn Drop” (instead of blocks, it’s acorns from the film “Ice Age”). None of these versions have been as hypnotizing as the original.