Tetris: New film reveals international Cold War battle over video game

The politically charged story behind one of the world’s bestselling titles is coming to Apple TV+

From left, Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov; the title enjoyed huge success on Nintendo's Game Boy; the battle of who owned it pulled in Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Photos: Getty Images
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The Cold War secrets behind block-building game Tetris are set to be unlocked in a new film.

Also called Tetris, the movie will share the little-known story of the global turmoil that surrounded the bestselling title. It will be released on Apple TV+ on March 31.

British actor Taron Egerton takes on the role of Henk Rogers, the Dutch video game designer who set his sights on securing the rights to distribute Tetris after realising its potential popularity.

Created by Soviet computer engineer Alexey Pajitnov in 1984, Tetris became a cultural and financial flashpoint for relations between the West and the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

Sold without the creator knowing

Alexey Pajitnov created Tetris in Moscow in 1984. Getty Images

The absence of intellectual property rights in the Soviet Union meant Pajitnov could not capitalise on his game’s growing success, which had spread from the offices of Moscow's Academy of Sciences, where he worked, across the city. According to Pajitnov, it was soon being played on "every computer in Moscow", eventually gaining the government’s attention.

Approaching his supervisor Victor Brjabrin to help him publish the game beyond the Berlin Wall, Pajitnov’s creation soon sparked a copyright war, which would wage for years.

After coming across the game, software salesman Robert Stein faxed Pajitnov and Brjabrin to obtain the rights and quickly set about selling it before a contract had been signed. Between 1987 and 1989, a version of the game was released on platforms owned by IBM, Spectrum, Amiga, Atari, Commodore and Amstrad.

Taken by surprise by its popularity, Stein approached state-owned company Elektronorgtechnica, more commonly known as Elorg, which handled the Soviet Union’s import and export of computer software, to retroactively sign a 10-year licence for Tetris. Pajitnov and Brjabrin remained unaware it was on sale and proving a huge commercial success in North America, Europe and Asia.

In the film, Pajitnov is played by Nikita Efremov and Stein is played by Toby Jones. It also stars Anthony Boyle and Rick Yune.

Enter the Game Boy

Nintendo's Game Boy launched in 1989, with Tetris as part of the bundle. Getty Images

In 1989, after becoming one of only a handful of people to see the early prototype of Japanese video game company Nintendo’s handheld Game Boy, Rogers wanted Tetris to be installed on the console to maximise sales.

Travelling to Moscow to secure the rights, Rogers soon found himself being trailed by the KGB amid growing unease behind the Iron Curtain in the final days of the Soviet Union.

Catching wind of the potential deal, British newspaper magnate Robert Maxwell, whose Mirror Group owned the Japanese licensing rights, put pressure on Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to cancel the contract between Elorg and Nintendo. Maxwell’s subsidiary Mirrorsoft had already sold the rights to Atari, which then sold them to Sega.

Gorbachev and Elorg refused after Henk offered a financial deal more attractive than the ones with Mirrorsoft and Stein.

Pajitnov wins back his game

According to The Tetris Company, the game has sold more than 520 million copies. Getty Images

In January 1990, two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Pajitnov visited the US for the first time as a guest of video game developer and publisher Spectrum HoloByte. The following year he emigrated there, moving to Seattle, and in April 1996, the rights to Tetris reverted back to him after the previous agreements had expired.

Pajitnov and Rogers formed The Tetris Company in June 1996, winning back the final rights from Elorg in 2002 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

According to The Tetris Company, the game has sold more than 520 million copies, making it, along with Minecraft, Super Mario Bros and Pac-Man, one of the bestselling video games of all time.

Tetris is set to be released on Apple TV+ on March 31

Updated: March 10, 2023, 3:53 PM