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Tetris: The unbelievable true story behind the classic video game

You've played the game but do you know the story behind it?

Taron Egerton, Sofia Lebedeva and Nikita Efremov in Apple TV+ movie Tetris.
Taron Egerton, Sofia Lebedeva and Nikita Efremov in Tetris. (Apple TV+)

If you grew up in the early 1990s, odds are you lost a good few hours of your life glued to a Game Boy playing Tetris. However, the true story behind this massively addictive video game classic is so nail-biting and unexpected, it has to be seen to be believed.

Thankfully, that’ll soon be a very achievable proposition. Premiering globally on Apple TV+ on Friday, 31 March, Tetris stars Rocket Man’s Taron Egerton as the man responsible for bringing this deceptively simple block-based game from the depths of crumbling Cold War-era Russia to the wider world, all while risking everything in the process.

Directed by Stan & Ollie filmmaker Jon S. Baird and produced by X Men: First Class helmer Matthew Vaughn, audiences should expect something similar in tone to David Fincher's The Social Network but packed with enough unlikely thrills to help it sit comfortably alongside any action-packed spy thriller.

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With a dose of added comedy, plenty of intrigue and some nifty 16-bit animated sequences helping to tell its story, Tetris looks set to be one of the most unexpected gaming origin stories of recent years.

Is the Tetris movie based on a true story?

Alexey Pajitnov ( right) - Soviet computer engineer and programmer, developer of one of the most popular computer games in history - Tetris. Moscow, Soviet Union on September 3rd, 1989 (Photo by Wojtek Laski/Getty Images)
Alexey Pajitnov (right): Computer engineer and programmer, developer of Tetris in 1989. (Wojtek Laski/Getty Images)

While it takes a few creative liberties to help streamline a complex real-life series of events, the Tetris movie is indeed primarily based on a true story.

In contrast to how ubiquitous Tetris eventually became, it was actually invented by accident by a Russian software engineer with a passion for puzzles. In the late 1970s, Alexey Pajitnov worked for the Soviet Academy of Sciences and invented the game that would eventually transition into Tetris whilst trying to replicate a childhood favourite pentominoes puzzle on early computer software.

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His new concept streamlined his childhood pastime slightly, switching its twelve shapes out for seven tetrominoes and making completed lines disappear to avoid clutter and add to the tense gameplay.

By splicing the term 'tetrominoes' with his favourite sport tennis, Pajitnov coined a name for his new game — Tetris — and soon, everyone in his office was hooked.

Alexey Pajitnov ( right) - Soviet computer engineer and programmer, developer of one of the most popular computer games in history - Tetris. Moscow, Soviet Union on September 3rd, 1989 (Photo by Wojtek Laski/Getty Images)
Soviet computer engineer and programmer Alexey Pajitnov in 1989. (Wojtek Laski/Getty Images)

Before long, Pajitnov was keen to export the fun for others to enjoy but he faced a number of hurdles.

Firstly, he had no clue about the business world and even if he did, the Soviet Union had strict import and export rules, with government employees banned from selling their creations.

Calling on the help of a colleague, he was eventually able to get the game circulated outside of Russia and it soon found its way in front of Robert Stein, a salesman for London-based tech company Andromeda Software.

Spotting its potential, Stein quickly contacted Pajitnov to secure the license needed to sell it in other territories and sent the necessary details via fax. Little did Pajitnov know that by signing this fax the paperwork could be considered a legal document in the Western world.

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Believing he had his license, Stein began shopping Tetris around and soon sold the European rights to Mirrorsoft and American rights to a company named Spectrum HoloByte. However, America was where the real money was at and after a design overhaul, Stein set his sights on this lucrative market.

While its Russian links were an obvious issue during the height of the Cold War, the game’s Soviet aesthetic was actually used as a selling point, with traditional Russian music and iconography kept onboard.

TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY BAPTISTE BECQUART
The Russian creator of the video game Tetris, Alexey Pajitnov, holds on April 9, 2015 the Digital Greenhouse trophy during the inauguration of 17,000 square meters of office space entirely dedicated to digital creation in the northern French city of Valenciennes.                      AFP PHOTO / FRANCOIS LO PRESTI        (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS LO PRESTI/AFP via Getty Images)
Alexey Pajitnov in 2015. (AFP via Getty Images)

Soon, the game was made available on a host of American platforms but without any clear reference to its creator. Instead, it simply cited that Tetris was a product “made in the United States of America, designed abroad.”

However, Stein’s fax-based license was flimsy and technically, he had sold the rights to a game he didn’t really own. Knowing he had to go back to Pajitnov to secure the official license, he returned to Russia and entered into a lengthy negotiation process.

Meanwhile, Pajitnov was oblivious to the fact that his creation was actually already on sale in various markets but upon discovering this fact, he was surprisingly cool with it, saying: “the fact that so many people enjoy my game is enough for me.”

With that, Tetris was officially available in the USA on popular consoles like the Amiga, Atari and Commodore 64 but it was yet to reach Nintendo — which is where Baird’s Tetris movie picks up.

What happens in the Tetris movie?

Taron Egerton and Nikita Efremov in Apple TV+ movie Tetris.
Taron Egerton and Nikita Efremov in Tetris. (Apple TV+)

In Tetris, Egerton plays Henk Rogers, an up-and-coming video game developer and businessman who spies potential in Pajitnov's video game whilst trying and failing to flog his own game concept at a convention in Japan.

With its simple premise involving various falling shapes made of small cubes that must be positioned and aligned correctly in order to make them disappear — all while a countdown clock adds extra pressure to your mission — Rogers figures it all the ingredients necessary to make it a quick worldwide hit.

There’s just one problem. While Stein had been selling rights to a host of different markets, a handful of companies believed they were the sole owner of its licence.

Meanwhile, Elorg, the original Russian-based owner of the game remained unaware of most of these deals and as such, received no financial remuneration for any of their successes.

But Rogers had a plan. After befriending Nintendo big-wig Hiroshi Yamauchi, he believed Tetris would be the perfect co-launch product for their new hand-held gaming device, the Game Boy, and after negotiations with Stein hit a brick wall, he was forced to take matters into his own hands to secure a new, sturdy license for the game.

BOSTON - JUNE 30: The cover of Nintendo Game Boy game,
The cover of Nintendo Game Boy game, Tetris. (Getty Images)

In order to do this, he travelled behind the Iron Curtain and entered into negotiations with various political and business figures in Soviet Russia to try and untangle the complex rights issues and clear a path for a future with Nintendo.

However, with the Russian Soviet Union nearing collapse and tensions at an all-time high, he soon finds himself in a tangle of lost-in-translation legal messes and dangerous KGB shadiness.

What's more, having put his family home on the line in order to fund his quest, the race is on to beat the system, avoid danger and come out on top before everything closes in around him.

Along the way, he met the game’s inventor Pajitnov (here played by Nikita Yefremov) which helped to solidify his position. With the founder's name still largely absent from Tetris releases, Rogers makes it his mission to help secure Pajitnov the recognition he deserves.

What happened to Tetris founder Alexey Pajitnov?

Nikita Efremov in Tetris. (Apple TV+)
Nikita Efremov as Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov (Apple TV+).

By securing Nintendo the rights to Tetris, Rogers in turn helped Pajitnov to gain recognition and critical acclaim from Western eyes.

Welcomed by the tech and software community in America, the Tetris creator was regularly invited to speak at conventions and electronic shows and by 1996, all rights related to Tetris were returned to him.

Soon afterwards, Pajitnov and Rogers started their own company to oversee the future of Tetris and as of today, that organisation is responsible for managing all of its future editions and regularly squashing imitators from the app store.

When is the Tetris movie released?

Thankfully, viewers won't have to wait long to explore the compelling true story behind Nintendo's classic block game, with the film debuting on Apple TV+ on 31 March.

Tetris is released everywhere on Apple TV+ from Friday, 31 March. Watch a trailer below.