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Happy 30th Birthday, Tetris!

June 6, 2014

Tetris should never have become a hit, let alone a global sensation. But you just can’t keep a great game down.

Today, Tetris celebrates its 30th birthday. Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov says despite the obstacles, he knew the legendary puzzler was destined to be something special the moment he released in on June 6, 1984.

“I felt it was a very addictive game when the first prototypes left my computer,” he told Yahoo Games. “I couldn’t stop [playing], and then I saw my friends couldn’t stop playing.”

They certainly couldn’t. Available on more than 50 platforms in more than 185 countries, Tetris has sold more than 140 million retail copies since its debut, far and away the most of any single video game. It’s a pop-culture beast, counting the likes of Beyoncé, Patrick Stewart, and The Simpsons as fans. It’s in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Heck, it’s even been played on the side of buildings.

But it almost didn’t happen.

Initially written while Pajitnov was working at the Soviet Academy of Sciences Computer Center in Moscow, Tetris began as a program to help assess the power of a Russian computer called an Elektronika 60. The name was a portmanteau of tennis and tetra, the Greek word for “four” (there are four bricks in every Tetris block).

Pirated copies soon began spreading across Europe, prompting a nightmarish licensing struggle between the Russian government and a number of European game publishers. The big loser? Pajitnov, who got cut out of millions in royalties raked in by the Kremlin.

That all changed thanks to Henk Rogers. As the owner of Bullet-Proof Software, Rogers was responsible for bringing games from around the world to Japan. He fell in love with Pajitnov’s creation and went about securing the Western rights for the PC and the original Nintendo Entertainment System. But where he really saw potential for it was on the upcoming Game Boy system.

To get those rights, he had to fly to Moscow and meet with Elektronorgtechnica (ELORG), the state-owned bureau in charge of importing and exporting software.

"I wasn’t supposed to talk to any Soviets, and they weren’t supposed to talk to me," he says. "I certainly wasn’t supposed to do any business. So when I knocked on the door, it was a big surprise to them."

The meeting consisted of nine people (including some Rogers says were “KGB types”), who grilled him for two hours. One of those nine was Pajitnov.

"Almost every week somebody came to knock on the door and ask for rights to Tetris," he says. "But when Henk came, I realized that he was a game developer — and the right person for Tetris. That same night he came to my house and I showed him my other games. It was very exciting."

Securing the rights from Russia was one matter. Persuading Nintendo to bundle the game with the Game Boy was another. The company’s original plan, Rogers says, was to include a Mario title with its new handheld, a proven method to attract players. But he strenuously argued with Minoru Arakawa, founder and then-president of Nintendo of America, to opt instead for Tetris.

"I told him, if you want little boys to play Game Boy, pack in Mario. But if you want everyone to play Game Boy, pack in Tetris," says Rogers, who is now managing director of The Tetris Company.

Rogers, of course, won the argument. The game went on to sell more than 35 million copies on the system, and its popularity has only increased through the years. The game has sold brilliantly on mobile devices — more than 400 million copies — while the Facebook Tetris Battle game has seen over 20 billion games to date.

And once you start, Tetris is hard to stop. For years players have found themselves seeing those pesky blocks fall even when they shut their eyes, a legit (and nightmarish) syndrome known as the “Tetris effect.”

The flip side is that Tetris also might be good for you. In February, Plymouth University found that playing Tetris for just three minutes can help reduce cravings for food, alcohol, and cigarettes. Last year, doctors at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre found a variation of the game was effective at treating adult amblyopia, also known as “lazy eye.”

Now if they can just come up with a way to get that pesky theme song out of our heads …