/Best Of 2020: How Nintendo Killed The Best Version Of Tetris

Best Of 2020: How Nintendo Killed The Best Version Of Tetris

Tetris Tengen

Over the holiday season we’ll be republishing a series of Nintendo Life articles, interviews and other features from the previous twelve months that we consider to be our Best of 2020. Hopefully, this will give you a chance to catch up on pieces you missed, or simply enjoy looking back on a year which did have some highlights — honest!

This feature was originally published in April 2020.

Ed Logg knew a thing or two about lines. He’d co-created Asteroids at Atari, a game where players piloted a ship and blasted the eponymous space rocks into smaller and smaller bits. Released in 1979, Asteroids was in black and white, but the animation was slick and fluid thanks to vector graphics, a technique that rendered graphics from lines.

But the game he was staring at was beyond anything he’d ever seen. On the monitor of an Atari ST, segmented lines in different shapes – a proper “L,” a mirrored “L,” a plus-shaped block, a straight line that could be flipped horizontally or vertically – rained down from the sky into stacks at the bottom. There was no one at the controls. It was an automated demo, what arcade developers called an attract mode.

As Logg watched, the AI guided the lines to fill in gaps in the stack. The lines could be flipped to face different directions as they fell, like puzzle pieces adjusted to fit their spaces. When blocks formed a horizontal line, it flashed and disappeared, and the score increased. Logg tapped a key and began to play. With every block he dropped and every line he filled out, his addiction grew. It was a puzzle, almost mathematical in its precise execution. Blocks fell, and he had to maneuver them into place to form horizontal lines as quickly as possible before the screen filled up.

Ed Logg during his time at Atari
Ed Logg during his time at Atari (Image: Ed Logg)

Logg went to track down a manager. This game, Tetris, could be the next big thing on home consoles, and he would be the one to write it.

Curiosity guided Logg to computers. In high school, he enrolled in programming classes as a means of learning what made the machines tick. Programming fed the part of his brain that was addicted to problem-solving. After studying computer science in college, he was hired by Control Data Corp, where he wrote a little bit of this and that: games, Snoopy calendars, printable artwork. “I did conversions of the original Adventure and Star Trek between CDC Fortran and the IBM Fortran,” he said. “So although I was paid to support CDC software, I often did games on the side.”

Logg discovered Adventure, Atari programmer Warren Robinett’s game in which players controlled a square and explored simple dungeons and caves, at a Christmas party where someone had brought a prototype of the Atari video Computer System (2600) game console. The following year, he built his own computer and wrote games for it. games remained a hobby until a friend at CDC got a job at Atari, which happened to be across the street from the CDC offices. His friend encouraged him to apply, and he was hired in February 1978.

Logg worked in a group led by Dave Stubben, an engineer known among the team for what the rest of Atari called the “Stubben test.” A monster of a man at roughly 350 pounds, Stubben would beat, bend, twist, and perform handstands on hardware to test its durability. Logg’s first project was to finish Avalanche, a reflex-based game where players caught rocks as they tumbled from rows at the top of the screen to the bottom. The game had been started by Dennis Koble before he’d moved over to the consumer division to write games for the 2600. After Avalanche, Logg wrapped up another Koble title, Dirt Bike, but it failed Atari’s field test – putting a cabinet in the wild to see how players responded to it – and did not enter production.

Logg hit his stride when, in 1978, he answered Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell’s call for an expanded version of Breakout. The game, which Logg dubbed Super Breakout, bridged Atari’s past with its future. Super Breakout arrived in arcades in 1976, and became Logg’s first commercial hit. He rode his momentum when designer Lyle Rains proposed they team up to write a space game like Space Invaders, but with ships and asteroids that could move in any direction. That game became Asteroids.

The Calm Before The Storm

Things were looking up for Logg, but looking grim for Atari Nolan Bushnell. Atari’s co-founder had sold the company to Warner Communication in 1976, a move he admitted was “stupid” in retrospect, and stemmed from his failure to grasp the machinations of Wall Street. To shore up the company’s wild culture, Warner brought in Ray Kassar, a professional from the textiles industry, as a consultant. Kassar recalled wearing a suit on his first day only to be greeted by Bushnell wearing a t-shirt with ‘I love to f**k’ printed on the front. During a meeting later the same day, Bushnell interrupted proceedings to offer Kassar a cannabis joint. It was, Kassar went on to discover, only the tip of the iceberg of freewheeling drug use within the company. He left the meeting immediately. Smoking pot didn’t bother him. This was California; everybody lit up. He was bothered by the fact that they were lighting up at work.

In late 1978, following an argument with Emanuel “Manny” Gerard, the Warner executive who had pushed his bosses to acquire Atari, Bushnell was fired by Warner. (Bushnell claimed the decision was mutual in his account of the incident, and that he decided to quit around the same time Warner attempted to fire him.)

Asteroids was Logg's breakout hit for Atari
Asteroids was Logg’s breakout hit for Atari

Kassar wasn’t sad to see him go. Atari couldn’t operate at tip-top efficiency with two bosses. Now firmly in charge, Kassar made the call to throw all of Atari’s weight behind the aging 2600 console, which Bushnell had wanted to put out to pasture. He swept away the clutter and chaos of the company’s laidback culture and replaced it with one rooted in order and efficiency. Instead of advertising its games only during Christmas, Kassar worked with marketing to promote the Atari brand year-round. Under his leadership, Atari, Inc.’s sales exploded from $75 million in 1977 to $2.1 billion in 1980. Shareholders were thrilled. Programmers were less enthused. They still weren’t receiving public credit for their work and had to resort to burying Easter eggs in their games. “It seemed more of a small company atmosphere except Time Warner did own us at the time,” Logg remembered. “There was certainly less management when I started than there was later.”

In 1979, after programmer David Crane and others had complained about the unfairness of compensation, the marketing department drafted a memo breaking down the most successful cartridge games. The purpose of the memo was to alert programmers to the types of software most popular with consumers so they could pivot to writing more games in that vein. Crane and several others interpreted the memo differently: Right there, in black and white, were sales stats for each game they’d made. To them, it was proof that they were valuable. In fact, Crane found that games he had programmed on his own had generated over twenty million in revenue. So why was he working overtime every week on a salary of $20,000?

Another programmer, Alan Miller, pitched Kassar and other executives on a compensation plan that would give programmers credit and royalties on their software. When management shot them down, Miller, along with Crane, Bob Whitehead, and Larry Kaplan decided to leave. Their cohort had made Atari over $60 million, and went directly to Kassar to inform him as much. According to Crane, Kassar told them they were no more important than the workers on assembly lines who dropped cartridges into boxes.

The “Gang of Four,” as they became known, walked away from Atari and founded Activision, the first third-party publisher to release games for hardware another company had manufactured, in 1979. At Activision, Crane went on to develop titles including Pitfall, an action-platformer that became the second-bestselling game on the 2600, after Tod Frye’s Pac-Man conversion.

After the crash of '83, Logg helped Atari's arcade arm recover with hits like Gauntlet
After the crash of ’83, Logg helped Atari’s arcade arm recover with hits like Gauntlet

Atari and Activision soon found themselves on common ground in 1983, when North America’s video game market collapsed under its own weight. Atari’s heavy involvement in the games business caused Warner to weather a loss of $425 million, leading the communications company to sell the PC and consumer divisions to computer tycoon Jack Tramiel for a song. Tramiel rebranded his acquisition as Atari Corp., while the arcade division continued as Atari games under the auspices of Warner.

Through the turbulence, Logg continued to pump out games. One of his biggest hits was 1985’s Gauntlet, a dungeon-crawl where up to four players hacked and slashed their way through labyrinths displayed from a top-down perspective. Gauntlet was a success, but on a different scale than earlier games due to the aftereffects of the market crash. Over 7,800 Gauntlet cabinets were sold in ’85, but that was a far cry from the 70,000 Asteroids machines in operation around the world, making it Atari’s most lucrative coin-op title and the seventh highest-grossing coin-op video game of all time.

Logg, employed by Atari Games, soon gained a crystal-clear understanding of how far the company’s split went. “I had done a version of Centipede for the NES around 1986 when we learned that it was not clear if we could release our own titles in the consumer group,” he said. Logg had partnered with Atari engineer Dona Bailey to co-design Centipede, a shooter in which players open fire on a gigantic centipede as it wriggles its way down the screen, back in 1981. “So we had to [ask] the other company to find out what we could do. The result was we no longer owned any coin-operated titles created before the split in 1985, so I could not release my version of Centipede.”

Namco sold Atari games to Atari Corp. in 1985, but there was another obstacle in the path to releasing home ports of Atari’s coin-op games. Nintendo had been credited with single-handedly resurrecting the North American games market that Atari had been somewhat responsible for killing. Recognizing that a lack of quality control over software had been one of Atari’s faults, Nintendo, riding high on the success of the NES, wielded near-total control over who could make NES games, how many, and how often. “A pain in the ass is a mild way to put it,” Logg said. “Think anti-trust.”

Atari’s designers went from being furious to cautiously optimistic when they exploited a loophole in Nintendo’s publisher-developer contract. According to its draconian terms, Nintendo permitted developers of NES software to release no more than five titles per year, a form of quality control to make sure the market wasn’t flooded with subpar games. Atari games wanted to branch out from coin-op. To do so, it would have to form a consumer division of its own, separate from Atari Corp. It chose the name Tengen, Japanese for the central part of the strategy game Go’s board. Other publishers exploited the same loophole to produce more NES titles, such as Contra and Castlevania studio Konami establishing Ultra games as a shell corporation that launched titles such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Metal Gear.

Nintendo permitted Tengen to publish games on NES. The two entities co-existed until 1988, when Tetris tore them apart for good.

From Russia With Fun

Soviet researchers Alexey Pajitnov and Dmitry Pavlovsky knew that all work and no play made for dull scientists. Employed at the Computer Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Pavlovsky noticed sixteen-year-old Gerasimov writing an encryption program for Microsoft’s DOS command-line operating system. They began to chat, and Pavlovsky said he liked to write games in his spare time, and introduced Gerasimov to Pajitnov. The trio decided to write a computer game of their own, with Gerasimov taking point as programmer and graphics designer. They warmed up by converting some of Pavlovsky’s older projects and daydreamed about selling a collection of their work, which they called a computer funfair.

A few weeks into their working relationship, Pajitnov came to his friends with an idea. A while back, he’d written a game called Genetic Engineering in which the player moved four-square pieces, called tetraminos, into groups. Gerasimov thought the game sounded like a bore, until Pajitnov rattled off ways he’d thought of improving it. Tetraminos would fall from the top of the screen into a glass jar-like enclosure, and would pile up unless the player grouped them to form horizontal lines, causing them to disappear. Excited, the three friends expanded the idea so two players could challenge each other to see who could clear lines the fastest. They called their game Tetris.

Logg's version of Tetris added features not present in other versions
Logg’s version of Tetris added features not present in other versions

Though excited by their creation, the trio couldn’t simply drop floppy disks in a Ziploc bag – common packaging in the days before colorful boxes – and sell it in stores. They lived in a communist country, meaning the state owned Tetris, not its creators. Instead, they uploaded it to a network, where it spread across computers. Robert Stein, president of publisher Mirrorsoft, caught wind of it and approached Pajitnov with a worldwide distribution offer for Tetris. Stein secured publishing rights and turned them over to Spectrum HoloByte, where engineer John Jones-Steele converted it to the Atari ST.

That was when Ed Logg discovered it. Entranced by Tetris’s easy-to-pick-up-too-addictive-to-quit nature, he went to Robert Stein and negotiated distribution rights for Atari Games. Per their agreement, Atari games would bring the game to arcades, while Logg would develop an NES port under the Tengen label. “I thought it was best for the home market because of the possibility of never-ending game play,” Logg explained. “I asked our management to get the license for the home market which they did via a sub-license through a couple of parties. It turned out later the contract was not very ironclad and the parties were not the most trustworthy to deal with.”

Logg kicked off the project by writing Tetris for Nintendo’s 8-bit Famicom. “I completed one version for the Consumer Electronics Show before the coin-operated game was started. When someone wanted it for the coin-operated market, another team took over,” he said.

Right around the time Logg was ready to get started, Nintendo threw up another roadblock. According to the manufacturer, there were shortages of the ROM chips that held code for NES games on cartridges. In order to satisfy demand, Nintendo would determine which companies would receive cartridges, and how many. Fed up, Tengen’s engineers decided to reverse-engineer the lockout chip, a little piece on every NES cartridge intended to prevent pirates from bootlegging software. They called their modification the Rabbit chip.

Logg found out about the project when he walked into Tengen’s lab and asked the three engineers huddled around a table full of hardware what they were up to. One of them looked up and said, “Don’t ask.”

Meanwhile, Logg continued his conversion of Tetris. He used no code that Pajitnov and the other Russian engineers had written, designing a look-and-feel replica by playing the game on a PC and retooling it with his own code. The basic logic, making pieces fall, was easy enough to implement. Within weeks, his game looked slicker and played more smoothly than the original. Logg focused on fleshing out what Tetris’s creators had built, adding a competitive multiplayer mode as well as a cooperative style of play where two players worked together to clear lines. Another improvement was gradually increasing the speed of falling blocks over time, a more subtle, flowing method than Pajitnov’s jumps in pacing. Whereas the original game’s tetraminos were each made of a solid block painted a single color, Logg’s were black and white at first.

Nintendo's own version of Tetris is regarded as inferior to Logg's
Nintendo’s own version of Tetris is regarded as inferior to Logg’s

“The first version for the January CES was probably more mono-chromatic,” he recalled. In advance of the June Consumer Electronics Show, he added colors and applied textures that gave each piece a segmented, 3D appearance. When Atari’s programmers were ready to develop an arcade cabinet for Tetris, Logg suppliedhis code as a foundation. The inverted process marked one of few examples when the console version of a game influenced arcade hardware.

After three years of work between the NES and arcade adaptations, Tengen sent its NES version of Tetris to Nintendo for approval in the spring of 1989. Once again, Nintendo hit the brakes, this time by ordering a pitifully small quantity of cartridges.

Behind the scenes, the company’s agents were working on locking down Tetris. That March, Bullet-Proof Software executive Henk Rogers flew to Moscow and met with bureaucrats to discuss licensing. The bureaucrats were happy to listen. They were aware of Tetris’s burgeoning popularity and were eager to make money off of the work completed by its creators. To their amazement, Rogers offered five million in exchange for the rights to all console and handheld adaptations, a much higher proposal than they had expected. Rogers bowled them over again by delivering a promise from Nintendo that the Japanese gaming giant would make up any differences if their royalties failed to reach the five million marker.

The rights to Tetris were summarily divided up like a holiday pie. Nintendo signed paperwork giving it worldwide rights (except in Japan) to Tetris on March 22, 1989. Mirrorsoft claimed Europe and, through its Spectrum HoloByte division, North America. Atari games kept the rights to release its arcade version, and Bullet-Proof allowed Nintendo to bundle a portable version of Tetris with its Game Boy, due out later in the year.

When Two Tribes Go To War

Nintendo of America legal counsel Howard Lincoln wrote and submitted a cease-and-desist letter to Tengen on March 31, declaring that his company had secured all console rights. If Atari didn’t pull its Tengen-developed version of Tetris for NES from shelves, the two companies would settle the matter in court. All-out war followed, but both companies had fired shots earlier.

In December 1988, Atari filed a lawsuit accusing Nintendo of monopolistic practices centered on the company’s lockout chip. That same day, Atari games announced that Tengen would release games without going through the proper channels established by Nintendo. There were three, Pac-Man, R.B.I. Baseball, and Gauntlet, with more on the way. Tetris would be the tip of that spear.

Nintendo couldn’t allow Atari to get away with selling unlicensed software for NES. Its executives believed its policies were the dam that held back a flood of poor software that would kill the North American game market for good. More to the point, Nintendo wanted control. The company responded by delivering a one-two punch. First, it countersued Atari for patent infringement on February 2, 1989. Concurrently it threatened retailers: Anyone who carried unlicensed game software for Nintendo’s hardware would suddenly find that its well of Nintendo products had run dry. Retailers capitulated. They had no choice. Nintendo was red hot, and they would rather lose a few Atari and Tengen games than their relationship with Nintendo.

Logg (left) at the launch party for Tengen's Tetris
Logg (left) at the launch party for Tengen’s Tetris (Image: Ed Logg)

Other software manufacturers in North America sympathized with Atari. Nintendo’s practices were draconian, but the fact was they depended on Nintendo for money. Atari sued again, demanding $250 million in damages from Nintendo.

The war raged until May 17, 1989, when Tengen, true to its word, released Tetris for NES. Not that anyone could find it. Few stores were brave enough to stock it, and Nintendo doubled down by filing yet another suit eight days later. Now both companies were accusing the other of infringing upon its rights to develop Tetris for consoles.

In June, Nintendo delivered a knockout blow when a Federal judge ruled in its favor, decreeing that Tengen and Atari were prohibited from selling any home version of Tetris, and had to recall all unsold cartridges. Executives from Atari and Tengen estimated that around 50,000 copies of the game had been sold. Hundreds of thousands were returned. Although Tengen continued to develop games – understandably throwing its weight behind Sega hardware, which rose up to challenge Nintendo’s iron grip on the console market – Ed Logg was devastated. He had fallen in love with his version of Tetris over working tirelessly for three years, only for a figurative handful of consumers to get to enjoy it.

“Heartbroken is a good summary. It was so much better than the version Nintendo did,” he said. Critics and players tended to agree. While there was no denying the addictive simplicity of the Game Boy port – and the NES edition Nintendo would release itself – Logg’s NES version boasted richer features and game modes than the editions Nintendo put onto the market.

“I was glad I had started working in the consumer area. I am greatly disappointed that my early efforts, Centipede and Tetris, did not make it out to the public,” Logg said. His awareness of support for his work buoyed his spirits and justified his labour. “To back this up, many years later when I worked for another company and we wanted to do a Tetris version on our platform, our management went to Blue Planet, I believe, who owned the rights to Tetris at the time. During the discussion they pointed out the best version they had ever seen was the version behind them. It was the Tengen version of Tetris.”

This feature appears in its entirety in David L. Craddock’s book Arcade Perfect: How Pac-Man, Mortal Kombat, and Other Coin-Op Classics Invaded the Living Room, available now on Amazon.

Please note that some external links on this page are affiliate links, which means if you click them and make a purchase we may receive a small percentage of the sale. Please read our FTC Disclosure for more information.