Has any game ever defined a platform so clearly? Wii Sports, probably. Possibly Halo. But Tetris didn’t merely move systems – though it certainly did that – it established the tone and style of the Game Boy. Until Pokémon came along, Tetris served as the Game Boy’s statement of intent.
Game Boy Tetris carries several levels of significance. There are the politics and history of the game, of course; Tetris was a massive coup for Nintendo, and locking down the exclusive handheld rights to the game probably did nearly as much to give it an edge over Lynx and Game Gear as price and battery life did. Klax and Columns were nice and all, but they weren’t Tetris. Neither were Nintendo-exclusive puzzlers like Dr. Mario or Hatris, for what it’s worth – but that didn’t matter. Nintendo had Tetris, and everything else seemed secondary.
In the U.S. and Europe, Tetris came packed in with the system for much of the Game Boy’s life. In Japan, however, the handheld came bare, without a free game. That’s par for the course in Japan, actually, but even if Nintendo had wanted to include Tetris with the system, the timing wouldn’t have worked out; Tetris didn’t launch until nearly two months after Game Boy over there.
I can’t speak to the Japanese reaction to Tetris, but I can only assume it was positive based on the fact that it sold more than four million units over there, making it the best-selling title for the original Game Boy in Japan save Pokémon Red and Green. And that’s without it being a pack-in, meaning consumers actively sought it out.
In America, though, Tetris literally sold systems. In the early days of the machine’s life, most store displays for Game Boy simply consisted of a single mounted unit running Tetris. It served the task perfectly: It’s one of the rare games whose appeal communicates immediately, even in a crowded and noisy electronics department. And that same instant appeal served it well as a portable game. Just as you could find yourself entertained by a two-minute demo in the camera department of Montgomery Wards or Best, so too could you switch on Tetris to kill a few minutes here or there.
Tetris‘s abstract visuals, intuitive play, and gently ascending difficulty curve created a play experience that transcended age, gender, race, nationality, or skill. Game Boy probably would have been a hit regardless of what game came included in the box, as its success in Japan demonstrated. But with Tetris in tow, it became a monster.
Tetris becomes all the more fascinating when you know the story behind the game. It’s not as though Nintendo simply invented it out of thin air just in time for Game Boy; on the contrary, Tetris was four or five years old by the time it went portable. It had already appeared on several platforms in the U.S., including personal computers, standalone arcade units, and even the NES.
However, there was considerable debate over the legitimacy of several of those versions (particularly the original NES port) due to the peculiar origins of the game. Where most games came from Japanese, American, or European corporations dedicated to the business of making money off video games, Tetris had been designed by a Russian computer engineer named Alexey Pajitnov.
Pajitnov developed Tetris on a state-owned computer in a state-owned lab, a situation that can make for tricky rights issues under the best of circumstances. Soviet-era Russia, however, made it even more complicated – even in the relatively lenient Gorbachev era, at the cusp of perestroika, the rights issues surrounding Tetris were perilous indeed. Nintendo was no stranger to licensing confusion, as the home rights to Donkey Kong had been a matter of some significance in the early ’80s console race, but this was a matter on a completely different matter.
Ultimately, Henk Rogers of Bullet Proof Software managed to lock down the proper rights to Tetris (both for consoles and handhelds) for Nintendo’s benefit. Rogers was perhaps the ideal man for the job: A Dutch programmer who had waded into the Japanese market early on and helped establish the computer role-playing genre as a national addiction with his Wizardry-alike maze crawler The Black Onyx. Clearly he had no fear when it came to navigating the challenges of computer gaming in unfamiliar lands, and he collaborated with Nintendo to sort out the legal ins and outs of Tetris‘ rights – much to the detriment of Atari, who had already been distributing Tetris both for the arcade and for NES under the auspices of their Tengen division.
Tetris would have fared well for itself on the strength of its gameplay, but Nintendo got behind the game in a big way. They contracted with Rogers’ Bullet Proof Software to develop both NES and Game Boy renditions of the game (the latter, unsurprisingly, in conjunction with R&D1). They pushed the NES version heavily through advertising and through their company magazine, Nintendo Power. But for Game Boy, they went the extra mile and simply stuck the game in the box with the system.
Nintendo sacrificed some easy money on the U.S. pack-in; the system with game cost $89 in the U.S., whereas the system alone cost Japanese consumers ¥12500, roughly $95 at the time — and it didn’t even include the headphones. But given that Tetris helped move roughly nine million units in the system’s first three years of life in America alone, I can’t imagine Nintendo felt too badly about the slimmer profit margins.
And what of Tetris itself? At this point, the game itself requires practically no explanation. It’s practically hard-wired into our DNA. Players guide falling blocks as they drop into a deep well, trying arrange the pieces in such a way as to cause the blocks to create uninterrupted rows spanning the entirety of the well. The pieces come in seven different arrangements of four squares, effectively representing every possible permutation of four contiguous squares. Unbroken horizontal lines vanish once the pieces settle, causing all pieces above that line to shift downward to fill the gaps. A “tetris” is the game’s most impressive feat: Clearing four horizontal lines at once.
Tetris‘ particulars vary from game to game (infinite spin, naïve gravity, etc.), but by and large the experience is essentially the same regardless of the platform it appears on. The simplicity and universality of Tetris serve it well, and that was especially true of the Game Boy version.
Pajitnov’s original version of Tetris ran on a Russian VAX-style terminal called the Electronika 60, a system incapable of generating bitmap-style graphics. Tetris originally worked entirely with ASCII (or, well, Cyrillic Unicode, I suppose), with the blocks originally represented by means of square brackets or escape characters. It literally will play on any device capable of generating a 10×20 grid – and you could probably even make it work on the 16×16 screen of the Milton Bradley Microvision.
Other versions of Tetris offered great bells and whistles absent in the Game Boy release: The Atari arcade version featured high-resolution head-to-head graphics, while Nintendo’s NES rendition gave the playing field an appealingly candy-like patina of color. And yet, many people will argue that the game has never been better than on Game Boy.
Despite the small screen dimensions (Game Boy’s resolution topped out at 160×144 pixels, a fraction of the NES’ 256×244 and barely more than a quarter of the 320×240 offered on Sega’s impressive new Genesis) and the four-shade monochrome graphics, Tetris looked and played great on Game Boy. The graphical limitations didn’t matter, thanks to excellent use of contrast; the pieces stood out, with just enough variety in their shading that you could catch the next piece display out of the corner of your eye and it would “read” flawlessly even without the color-coding of the NES version. And while it lacked the hi-rez head-to-head format of Atari and Tengen’s versions, it still managed to incorporate multiplayer the same way as Baseball and Tennis: Through the Link Cable.
Compared to contemporary renditions of Tetris, the Game Boy release may seem a bit light on features, but the two modes complemented one another nicely. For longer sessions, Game A offered a traditional take on the game, with blocks falling into an empty well and accelerating for every 10 lines cleared. Game B, on the other hand, worked well for quick sessions; it filled the screen with a played-determined amount of clutter and challenged players to clear away the existing blocks or erase 25 lines.
Whether for long or short sessions, any time, any place, Tetris made a perfect fit for the Game Boy platform. It matched nicely with Nintendo’s sale pitch to older players, and the decidedly neutral visual style of the game worked for any age. It was artful enough to entice younger eyes, but stolid enough not to turn off adults. A truly universal play experience that helped Game Boy transcend the seeming limitations of its name.
The Game Boy would see tons of games in the Tetris style, especially in its first few years – not just falling-block puzzles, but single-screen games mixing mental and finger dexterity. No doubt those games would have appeared on the system regardless, given their suitability for the platform. But Tetris surely accelerated their appearance, just as it accelerated Game Boy sales.
I don’t know that it would be possible to properly gauge the impact of Tetris on Game Boy’s sales, since the game appeared at or near launch in every territory. But really, what the point of even attempting that little mental exercise? The fact is, Game Boy and Tetris made a perfect match; the fact that it played such a key role in the system’s launch means it’s simply an inextricable part of the Game Boy story. Despite all the maneuvers that went on behind the scenes to make it happen, the important thing is that it did in fact happen – and Game Boy rode the crest of Tetris fever to success.
Japanese title: Tetris • テトリス
Developer: Bullet Proof Software/Nintendo R&D1
Release date: 6.14.1989 [JP] | 8.1989* [US] | 9.28.1990 [EU]
Genre: Puzzle (falling block)
Super Game Boy: Enhanced color palette (built into Super Game Boy)
Previous in series: N/A
Next in series: Tetris Flash 
Similar titles: Hatris [Bullet Proof Software, 1991], Dr. Mario [Nintendo, 1990], Kirby Star Stacker [HAL/Nintendo, 1995]
*Specific launch date unavailable; available online newspaper archives from 1989 do not contain a specific news story marking the debut of Game Boy, and articles on the system variously cite its U.S. debut as anything from “summer” to “September.”
Tetris | U.S. packaging
Tetris | U.S. complete contents
Tetris | U.S. box front
Tetris | U.S. box back
Tetris | U.S. cartridge
Tetris | U.S. manual
Tetris | Japanese packaging
Tetris | Japanese complete contents
Tetris | Japanese box front
Tetris | Japanese box back
Tetris | Japanese cartridge
Tetris | Japanese manual