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Why Game Boy and 'Tetris' were the perfect fit, according to the game's creator

"Tetris" creator Alexey Pajitnov spoke to TODAY about his puzzle game's massive popularity on the portable video game system for our Summer of '89 series.
/ Source: TODAY

All week long, TODAY is marking the 30th anniversary of the summer of 1989 with a look back at some of the notable (and not-so-notable) people, milestones and moments from that wild and crazy time.

Long before the smartphone, long before the Nintendo Switch, there was the Nintendo Game Boy, the first truly popular electronic device that allowed both kids and adults to play a library of games on the go.

The Game Boy was released in 1989 and, in the words of Nintendo, is the “most successful video game system ever released,” with more than 150 million systems sold worldwide.

Game Boy and "Tetris"
The Game Boy was a hot item in 1989 thanks in part to "Tetris," which came bundled with every console. Getty Images stock

It had its limitations — compared to the 8-bit and 16-bit home consoles of its day, the Game Boy’s visuals were dull. As Nintendo plainly states, “The screen was four-colors-of-gray.”

Still, the Game Boy proved an instant hit, thanks in no small part to an addictive puzzle game that came bundled with the system. Though “Tetris” had already been released on other platforms by 1989, it was the Game Boy version that really had gamers hooked.

In an email interview with TODAY, “Tetris” creator Alexey Pajitnov explained why the game worked so well as a launch title for the Game Boy.

“‘Tetris’ was a good fit because it was a fun game that appealed to everyone, no matter your age, gender or culture,” said Pajitnov, who developed the game as a computer programmer in Russia in 1984. “It wasn’t a game just aimed at kids, for instance, or limited because of the language you speak.

“Also, seeing the colors in ‘Tetris’ were not needed to play the game, which was a benefit given that the Game Boy was one color.”

"Tetris" creator Alexey Pajitnov
Alexey Pajitnov created a game that's been enjoyed by fans for more than three decades.Zebra Partners

Still, Pajitnov noted, his game was “visually attractive because of its use of geometry, and (it was) intellectually challenging. And it doesn’t hurt that the game has a peaceful, non-distractive style.”

Adding to its appeal was its earworm of a theme, a spin on a Russian folk song. It was so recognizable that “The Simpsons” once used it in an homage to “Tetris.”

“It’s a catchy tune that speaks to the roots of where it was created,” Pajitnov said.

When asked about memorable encounters with “Tetris” fans, Pajitnov recalled a teenage boy who approached him at a competition and asked him to sign his “Tetris” cartridge.

“Then, he glued it into his Game Boy forever,” he said.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the creation of “Tetris.” Did Pajitnov ever think we’d be talking about his game all these years later?

“Well, I didn’t expect my game to be popular that long, but it is such a good mind game. I think that’s why it’s lasted so long,” he said.

There’s no doubt that “Tetris” still resonates today. Earlier this year, a new iteration titled “Tetris 99” was released for the Nintendo Switch.

The basic concept is the same, though there are new twists, including an upbeat version of the theme. And, there’s more than one color.