How long does it take for someone to realize they’ve made something that will outlast themselves and everyone they know?
For Alexey Pajitnov, the creator of Tetris, he is on a mission to make sure that moment of realization lasts his entire lifetime. So far so good; the simple block-stacking puzzler has outlasted almost every other video game in pop culture consciousness. When was the last time you heard someone say, “Tetris was good for its time”? Never. And it’s possible nobody ever will.
This year with Tetris hitting its 35th anniversary, Pajitnov is speaking with people on the strength of multiple hit Tetris releases, including Puyo Puyo Tetris, Tetris Effect, and of course Tetris 99 on the Nintendo Switch. We caught up with him to ask him all sorts of career-spanning questions, from how he got Tetris bundled in with the original Game Boy, to what it’s like for the creator of Tetris to have 98 other players trying to beat him all at once.
Nintendo Life: I want to start with an important moment in Tetris history. In the 1980s, you battled with Mr. Arakawa, former president of Nintendo of America, to have the original Tetris bundled with the Nintendo Gameboy, as opposed to Nintendo’s planned Mario title. How did that go down, and how did you win?
Alexey Pajitnov: He [Henk Rogers, the eventual founder of The Tetris Company] came to Moscow to acquire the rights to Tetris, and I met him for the first time in Moscow. During his visit, we had several dinners and... some private conversations, and he even visited my house in Moscow.
So he was the one interested in Tetris over Mario?
I don’t know about Mario or whatever – that’s a question for Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rodgers, he was much more involved in all this business negotiation. But Mr. Rogers introduced [Howard Lincoln, former chairman at Nintendo of America] and Mr. Arakawa to Tetris and highly recommended for them to pair this game for Game Boy. They asked, “Why not Mario?” Henk’s response to that was if they want kids to play Game Boy, it should be Mario. But if they want everyone to play Game Boy, it should be Tetris. And the right decision has been made.
Where were you when you found out it was going to be Tetris?
Well at that time, I was just in Moscow. [That’s when] we negotiated the original rights to be transferred for publishing.
Are you familiar with all the different versions of Tetris?
More or less, yes. We need to approve every version which is licensed. In the early days, I participated in this approval. They show me every version and I say yes or no. Now it’s more or less standard stuff, so I probably miss some, but I’m familiar with most.
Can we talk about some of them, then? You were the designer of Tetrisphere, correct?
Yes, we designed it with Mr. Ken Lobb [former game designer at Nintendo of America] who was with Nintendo at the time. Unfortunately, he was desperate to make this game. He was so into Tetrisphere. I couldn’t stop him! I realized the game was too complicated for most people, but he was so, so obsessed with the idea, it was like a locomotive. But it was a good game. I enjoyed playing Tetrisphere.
Do you think Tetris shouldn’t be changed, like with sphere gameplay?
It [could] be, but the game should be simple. That game was too complicated.
Speaking of which, how directly involved are you with licensing and spin-offs, like Tetris Attack and Pokémon Puzzle League? Do you have any opinion or say today when people pair characters with your game?
Well, if it’s obviously stealing, we pursue the people and we are very successful…
[laughter] No, licensed!
When Sega approached us to make Puyo Puyo Tetris game, it was a little bit strange but… [huge smile] I love Puyo Puyo. It’s a very good game. So we went for it. And I think we were right because it’s a very good title and it’s still alive and we [created] a very good game.
Tetris has made huge waves in the last couple years with Tetris Effect and Tetris 99. Can you talk about the first time you put on a VR helmet and played your game in virtual reality?
Well I... can’t say I played it... I tried it.
Oh? What happened?
Well they gave me Oculus [Rift], they showed me the game for a short time and I just tried... and spent maybe an hour [playing it], or something like that.
Was it too intense?
No. To play Tetris you need to spend much more time with it. [laughter] But I enjoyed it, it’s a good start. It’s not quite there yet with the interface, but it’s definitely a very nice beginning.
Have you played Tetris 99?
Oh yes. I love the game. Unfortunately, my son stole the Switch from me [laughter], so I can’t really enjoy it. But as soon as he gives it back to me, I will play again and again. That’s one of the best games of Tetris of the last year. I really like what was done.
Have you ever won?
No... I was third a couple of times…
What do you think people would think if they realized they were queued up against the creator of Tetris in Tetris 99?
I’m not really a good player. I think they’d be fascinated for a second and then, “So what?” I’m much more a good player in amateur [circles]. But I can’t even approach the professionals.
So we brought something… [pulls out a copy of TETRIS (2016) by Box Brown, a graphic novel detailing the invention of Tetris] Can you talk briefly about this book and how you feel you were portrayed?
Shame on me, I can’t finish it…
You haven’t finished it!
I am, about...I am about...here. [Points to page 100 of 253]
So, comics are so out of my culture where I grew up. It’s a real job for me to look through this and to get through it. But it’s an amazing book. I don’t have a bad feeling about it.
It’s... a very emotional book.
Yes, but... it’s a little alien to me, to be frank. But I’m honestly looking at it now and seeing page after page, and I like seeing myself all inside of it…
So a lot of people ask you what your favourite Tetris piece is. But nobody ever asks you what your least favourite Tetris piece is...
[Points to the square, yellow piece on his colourful, all-Tetris blazer]
I don’t like the square. It’s dumb. You don’t rotate it, you don’t do anything with it. You don’t clear a lot of lines. And you don’t get any benefits of placing it.
[At this point, Pajitnov begins pointing to each piece on his Blazer]
(On the long piece) That’s “angel”. Yesterday we were in Las Vegas and a guy came up to me with a tattoo of the I-piece with wings, and they called it “angel”. Angel, come!
[Pointing to the “J-piece”] My favourite is the J-piece. I have to work hard when I’m on the left corner, so every time, the J-piece is better than L-piece because on the right side I have no problem. I don’t know why. Probably because I always rotate clockwise. J-piece is my saviour, it’s very helpful. T-piece is also very good, but my favourite is J-piece.
I like how you went over all the pieces except the S-block.
Oh, those are good pieces, but unfortunately, they put a small piece of chaos into the field. You need to keep a special profile for them. But you know, I feel I still need to work on the combo strategy. Maybe they are very good for combos? Probably. Probably I’ll have a new life in my older years.
One last question. A lot of people have described Tetris as the “perfect” video game. Do you agree?
[long pause] Wow. Well, I don’t really understand what does it mean [to be perfect]? But it’s a really good game, no doubt. And it’s survived 35 years and people still really enjoy playing it. It’s on every platform...
...In many ways, it is the perfect game. [big smile]
Thank you to Alexey Pajitnov for his time. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.