Game Boy and 'Tetris': A Puzzling, 30-Year Love Story

Alexey Pajitnov, creator of the classic puzzle game (which has sold the most copies of any video game in history), explains the relationship with Nintendo's portable console that made 'Tetris' a worldwide phenomenon.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

In April, Nintendo celebrated the 30th anniversary of the release of the Game Boy. The portable video game console debuted on April 21, 1989, to an eager fan base, and sales between the original Game Boy and its 1998 successor, Game Boy Color, total over 118 million worldwide. The major success of the hardware was tied, from the beginning, to a legendary piece of software: a Russian import called Tetris

Designed as a pack-in to accompany the Game Boy for its North American and European releases, Tetris was a downsized version of the original game that, while devoid of color, preserved everything there was to love about the title it sprang from.

The relationship between the Game Boy and Tetris, in many ways, is almost like an old-fashioned love story. From the start, the two were destined to be together. "Those two were born for each other: Game Boy for Tetris and Tetris for the Game Boy," Tetris creator and developer Alexey Pajitnov tells The Hollywood Reporter. "They complement each other so well that it's really hard to say who benefits from what."

It's easy to see why the game (and its platform) was such a breakout hit. All Tetris requires is a modicum of understanding. Differently shaped bricks, or tetrominoes, fall from the top of the playing field. The player's goal? Manipulate them by rotating the blocks until they fit together perfectly, interlocked in configurations that enable the player to clear "lines" of the bricks before the screen fills up. Repeat ad infinitum until you begin seeing the blocks everywhere you look: that’s the “Tetris Effect.”

Tetris is a game that anyone can pick up and immediately learn to play, but it can also take years to master. It's accessible in a way that even the Mario series isn't, because everyone understands the concept of a puzzle. Given gamers’ tendency to want to play such a title in short bursts, Tetris was perfect for what would eventually become one of the greatest handheld gaming systems of all time.

The Game Boy made the ideal oasis for the imported puzzler, with its sharp (for the time) visuals, simple controls, and excellent battery life. The console was sized just right for most users’ hands, and players didn’t even need to purchase an additional game thanks to the Tetris pack-in deal. In fact, the allure of the Game Boy worked its charm on Pajitnov before he ever saw Tetris come to life on the system.

"It wasn't what I expected from what I thought was a kid's game device," says Pajitnov. "As soon as I switched it on and started playing the game, though, it was Tetris, sure enough. I realized it was a great device."

Pajitnov had a vision for portable Tetris from the very beginning of the game's lifespan, anticipating that it would be massively popular for on-the-go play before it ever made its Game Boy debut.

"I did expect that it would be popular on handheld machines," he says. "But there was something really magical about it being on the Game Boy, because the game and [console] worked so well with each other. I don't think that any other platform was as beneficial [for Tetris] as the Game Boy; that's very true.”

Getting Tetris on the Game Boy was no easy affair. In 1988, Bullet-Proof Software's Henk Rogers, now Pajitnov's longtime partner, fell in love with Tetris after spotting the game at the booth of publisher Spectrum HoloByte at Las Vegas' Consumer Electronics Show. He went to Nintendo of America with his idea to package the game with the forthcoming Game Boy. With permission to pursue the handheld rights on Nintendo's behalf, Rogers traveled to the USSR to meet with ELORG, the state-owned company that handled the all country's software and hardware rights (Tetris had been created by Pajitnov while he was working at the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and the rights were Russian state property) — as well as Pajitnov. The two became fast friends, and after lengthy proceedings and a back-and-forth battle between Rogers and several other suitors, Rogers was granted handheld rights to Tetris, due in part to Pajitnov's endorsement. 

Since it first made the leap from home computers and Nintendo’s NES console to the Game Boy in the late 1989, Tetris has been just about everywhere, in so many incarnations it’ll make your head spin, from last year's avant garde PlayStation 4 exclusive Tetris Effect to this year's battle royale Nintendo Switch incarnation, Tetris 99. It is the best-selling game in history, across all platforms. Since its commercial debut in 1984, the Tetris franchise has sold more than 170 million copies worldwide.

But the puzzler still owes most of its popularity to the Game Boy.

For Pajitnov, the portable version of his legendary game is still his favorite. "I like the original Game Boy the best, but just because I am personally more attached to it," he says, laughing.