It was the summer of 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and millions of Americans were knocking down virtual walls of their own alongside their Soviet counterparts as Nintendo released the Game Boy with Tetris packed in with the system.
Over 20 years later (25+ for Russians), the appeal of Alexey Pajitnov's creation remains high as evidenced by the large turnout at Sunday's Classic Tetris World Championship in Downtown's Independent Theater. Retro gaming fanatics poured into the theater where they played rounds of NES Tetris in order to qualify for a spot in the eight-player tournament featuring Tetris Masters Ben Mullen, Jesse Kelkar, Thor Aackerlund and others.
Vince Clemente of UncleTusk Productions and Nintendo World Champion Robin Mihara put together the event with the blessing of Blue Planet Software, which handles all licensing and management duties for The Tetris Company. The event was an entertaining experience for Henk Rogers of Blue Planet Software, who flew out on his own to the former Soviet Union over twenty years ago in order to acquire the licensing rights to bring Tetris to the U.S. He flew into the country from Japan with a tourist visa and "two days later, I'm in Moscow with no idea who I'm supposed to see."
He chased a few dead ends until he located an interpreter who took him to the Academy of Science of the USSR where Pajitnov worked. "There's a little window when you walk in where you're supposed to report to a KGB guy who controls who comes and goes," he recalled. "I didn't know about any of this so I just walked up to somebody and I showed them my box of the Nintendo Tetris game."
Pajitnov came down to meet him and the two spent the next week negotiating the rights for the handheld version of the game. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Rogers helped Pajitnov regain control of the copyrights for Tetris with the help of Nintendo and, in 1996, founded Blue Planet Software to be the 50% partner of the Tetris Company. Five years ago, Blue Planet bought out the rest of the shares of the Tetris Company and become sole owner.
"One of the greatest parts of the Tetris Company Blue Planet, especially Henk Rogers, is that they protect the brand," said Casey Pelkey of Tetris Online, Inc. "Henk really likes how people express themselves through Tetris but he also understands that it's something he's worked very hard to attain, him and Alexey together, and need to protect the brand. They've been very successful in legal battles."
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Thankfully, Rogers "loves these kinds of things," says Pelkey. "In fact, his future goal is to create a sport out of Tetris and turn this into an Olympic event. We hold tournaments every weekend through the websites [such as www.tetrisfriends.com] and there's a very competitive audience out there."
That competitive audience was in full effect once the semi-finals began. The eight contestants took their seats and fought through three rounds amid cheers, hoots and hollers from an animated crowd that filled the theater to capacity. The nerd-gasmic excitement of the crowd exploded with every "Tetris," a move that eliminates four lines on the screen at once.
The competition whittled down to Harry Hong and Jonas Neubauer in a best two-out-of-three contest for the thousand dollar grand prize. The crowd grew even wilder with one half of the audience cheering for Hong and the other half rooting for Neubauer. The competitors kept their cool amidst the applause and heckling and ended after two rounds with Neubauer crowned victorious.
"The heckling was kinda cool," admitted Neubauer. "That's never happened to me before."