Sunday, May 8, 2022

Game 315: Tetris

Prior to the explosion of mobile phone gaming popularity, Tetris may have been the most widely played video game of all time, and might still be. It's nearly impossible to really quantify a statement like that, but Wikipedia estimates 70 million physical copies sold, well outstripping contemporary 80's megahits Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros., and this figure doesn't include those who played the many computer shareware versions and clones, or the arcade versions, the web versions both authorized and unauthorized, the dedicated handheld machines, the early cell phone versions, or the Microsoft-developed version that came with Windows Entertainment Pack.

The biggest slice of that 70 million figure no doubt goes to Nintendo, whose Gameboy pack-in irrevocably associated Korobeiniki & Troika with the game for generations of westerners, even as mobile app gaming has long replaced Nintendo's stranglehold on the market. My own first exposure to Tetris was Spectrum Holobyte's 1988 release on the Macintosh, and long held that to be the definitive version in my own mind. Today, over 425 million people have purchased paid downloads on their phones, and an untold number that could be in the billions have played a freemium version without paying.

An unusual property of Tetris is that, unlike any other massively successful computer game, there's no such thing as a Tetris imitation. The rules are simple enough to be described in their entirety in a few pages of plain English, and anyone who knows how to program can likely program it without looking at any code from another version. Space Invaders launched a thousand imitators that did little to distinguish and yet were not Space Invaders, but an imitation of Tetris, even a poor one, is still Tetris, so long as its rules are followed. The physics, scoring system, and shape distribution may differ. The look and feel, including music, can distinguish one version from the others. Tricks that work in one version might not work in another. A release may have the official Tetris seal of approval, and it may not. Any game that follows the basic rules of Tetris, regardless of anything else about it, is Tetris. Just about the only other computer game I can think of that this holds true for is Sokoban, which ironically plays differently from the standard ruleset in its original format once you reach its second act surprise.

This brings us to the state of Tetris in 1984, when there were no Gameboys, when Spectrum Holobyte just shipped its first game GATO, Bullet Proof Software's greatest success was bringing Wizardry-style dungeon crawling to Japan via The Black Onyx, and activities east of the Berlin Wall were cloaked in secrecy. Tetris was just a thing that some nerd programmed at a Soviet computer lab when he was supposed to be working. It had quickly spread throughout Moscow, disrupting productivity and wasting CPU cycles anywhere prestigious enough to have its own computer, but remained unknown outside the iron curtain partly due to pre-perestroika politics, and partly due to incompatibility with the Electronika 60 it ran on, a rackmounted machine based on the PDP-11 minicomputer that the west had long abandoned as a gaming platform in favor of personal computers.

To emulate this early version of Tetris, I followed a Youtube tutorial which combines SIMH and MESS. This is not quite the original version of Tetris - footage of the game running on Soviet hardware shows that the blocks are, indeed, shown as solid blocks, and not square brackets later used for PDP-11 compatibility. More notably, this version, as all extant versions of Tetris do, features a scoring system and incrementing speed, which did not feature in the 1984 build according to Wikipedia. Vadim Gerasimov, author of the first IBM version, suggests these were backported into the Electronika version.


You might want to mute this video. The IE15 terminal being emulated emits a shrill beep every time you complete a keystroke. I muted my speakers while playing, anyway.

If you want to play this version too, here are some notes that are not explained in the tutorial:

  • Press the single-quote key to type a colon for the initial launch command (RUN DL1:TETRIS)
  • The game is controlled with the numpad, and controls are:
    • 7 - Left
    • 9 - Right
    • 8 - Rotate
    • 4 - Increase game speed (careful!)
    • 5 - Hard drop
    • 1 - Toggle preview
    • 0 - Hide instructions
  • When the game prompts 'ВАШЕ ИМЯ?' it is asking for your name to register on the high score board.
  • When it prompts "ЕЩЕ ПАРТИЮ?" it is asking if you want another game. Type "D" for dа!


This is Tetris, as I remember it for the most part, though there's definitely a touch of exotic appeal going on here, with the Cyrillic text and the unconventional platform, so far removed from a Gameboy or even a personal computer. It feels like running software you weren't meant to see, on a computer that wasn't meant to be emulated. You almost have to imagine yourself at a museum, standing in front of a 70's-era terminal connected to a refrigerator-sized computer rack, and seeing green phosphorous bricks fall into a well, knowing that this is more or less how Tetris was conceived, and that whatever format you're accustomed to, ultimately derived from this industrial monstrosity.

The gameplay is, unfortunately, harmed by slightly unresponsive controls, which caused me to make a few really costly mistakes. The numpad control mappings are a bit awkward too, and you've got to be really careful not to hit the '4' key by accident or else you prematurely speed up the game. It also never gets nearly as fast as commercial versions (let alone TGM), but with the unreliable controls, this is probably for the best. Scoring is handled strangely too, with points awarded for placing pieces, more points given for hard dropping them early (typically in the range of 20-50 per share), and no reward is given for clearing lines except breathing room.

GAB rating: Good. Tetris is unimpeachable, and you don't need me to explain why. The original Elecronika 60 version isn't the best version, but wound up being surprisingly playable and complete. I had fun playing it, and could easily see myself wasting more time playing it again, even with access to far improved versions.


  1. Funny, I was just recently thinking about how great Soviet cinema was, I'd highly recommend Andrei Tartovsky's modern classic Come and See, possibly the greatest movie ever made about WWII, released approximately a year after that fateful day Tetris was fiddled around into existance.

    1. Come and See was directed by Elem Klimov. But yes, a great film and one that single-handedly disproves Truffaut's claim that there can be no war film that doesn't glorify war.

      Tetris is also greatness. I've played (in a museum) what I assume was the first 1984 Soviet IBM version (Cyrillic text and I think it also used brackets but I might be misremembering). I'm not sure it's available online, at least didn't find it with a quick Google search.

    2. Ah got my directors mixed up. Actually, Pajitnov, who now lives in Vegas, has a website where you can download the most recent updated PC port from 1987, no ads completely FOSS

  2. Yes, the 1987 version is also available on Gerasimov's web page that Ahab linked above.

    It turns out the one I played is actually the same emulated version as here, running on a Linux machine. I thought it was the IBM version as they definitely didn't have old Soviet computers in the museum. Explains the brackets as well.


Most popular posts