The Real Life Thriller that Inspired Apple TV’s ‘Tetris’

The incredible true story of Tetris and its journey from Soviet-era Moscow to the worldwide phenomenon we know today has been adapted into a feature film. The Apple TV+ movie, simply titled Tetris, stars Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers, with a supporting cast including Roger Allam, Toby Jones, Anthony Boyle, and Togo Igawa. The film is directed by Jon S. Baird and written by Noah Pink.

Tetris, the movie, explores the gripping tale of the game’s origins and the high-stakes battle for its rights during the Cold War era, complete with car chases, tense negotiations, and the ever-present threat of the KGB. The film offers a first-hand look into the world of video game licensing and the challenges faced by entrepreneurs and visionaries in the late 80s.

The Origins of Tetris

The Tetris story begins in Moscow during the 1980’s, in the heart of the Soviet Union. Alexey Pajitnov (played by Nikita Efremov), a game designer and computer engineer, created the original concept for Tetris in 1984 while working at the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Drawing inspiration from tetrominoes and his love of puzzles, Pajitnov devised a game in which players had to arrange falling geometric shapes to form complete lines. Little did he know that his simple yet addictive game would become an international phenomenon.

Tetris Meets the West

Robert Stein (played by Toby Jones), a British businessman and the founder of Andromeda Software, discovered Tetris during a visit to Hungary in 1986. Recognizing its potential, Stein quickly entered into negotiations with the USSR to obtain the rights to the game. Unbeknownst to Pajitnov, Stein struck a deal with the Soviet organization Elorg, which managed the export of software and hardware, to distribute Tetris worldwide.

Robert Stein sublicensed Tetris rights to various companies, including Mirrorsoft in the UK and its American counterpart, Spectrum HoloByte. The game soon reached the hands of Kevin Maxwell, (played by Anthony Boyle) son of British media tycoon Robert Maxwell (played by Roger Allam), who helped to distribute Tetris on several platforms, including Atari and Nintendo.

Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers

In 1988, Dutch video game entrepreneur Henk Rogers, played by Taron Egerton, discovered Tetris at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Envisioning Tetris as the perfect game for Nintendo’s upcoming Game Boy console.

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Rogers embarked on a mission to acquire the handheld console rights. This journey led him to Moscow, Russia, where he met with Elorg and competed with other industry players, including representatives from Atari, to secure the coveted rights.

Taron Egerton is a British actor born on November 10, 1989, in Birkenhead, Merseyside, England, has built an impressive career with a diverse range of roles in film and television. He first gained recognition for his breakout role in the television series “The Smoke,” and since then, his career has been on an upward trajectory, marked by a number of outstanding performances.

One of his most notable roles came in the action-comedy film “Kingsman: The Secret Service” (2014), directed by Matthew Vaughn. Egerton portrayed the lead character, Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin, who transforms from an aimless youth into a refined and skilled secret agent. His performance was widely praised, and the film’s success led to a sequel, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” (2017), in which Egerton reprised his role as Eggsy.

In 2016, Egerton took on the role of the titular character in the biographical sports comedy-drama, “Eddie the Eagle.” Directed by Dexter Fletcher, the film tells the story of Michael ‘Eddie’ Edwards, a British ski jumper who defied the odds to compete in the 1988 Winter Olympics. Egerton’s portrayal of the determined yet vulnerable Eddie demonstrated his ability to bring depth and humanity to his characters.

Another significant role in Egerton’s filmography is his portrayal of the legendary musician Elton John in the 2019 musical biopic “Rocketman.” Also directed by Dexter Fletcher, the film chronicles the life and career of the iconic singer-songwriter, with Egerton delivering a remarkable performance that showcased his acting and singing abilities. His portrayal earned him critical acclaim and a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.

A High-Stakes Showdown in Moscow

Rogers’ pursuit of Tetris culminated in a tense meeting with Elorg’s Deputy Director, Nikolai Belikov, and his legal team. Despite Atari’s claims to the handheld console rights, Rogers successfully negotiated a deal with Elorg, securing the rights for Nintendo.

In the process, it was discovered that Robert Stein had only obtained limited rights to Tetris, which did not extend to console versions of the game. This revelation forced Atari to cease production of its version of Tetris, allowing Nintendo to dominate the market with its Game Boy release.

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As the battle for Tetris rights unfolded, the KGB, the Soviet Union’s primary security agency, played a crucial role in monitoring the situation. The KGB was deeply involved in ensuring the USSR’s interests were protected and that the rights to Tetris were not handed over without proper compensation.

The Aftermath and Legacy of Tetris

Though Alexey Pajitnov had created Tetris, he initially received little compensation or recognition for his work due to the Soviet Union’s control of the game’s rights. However, in 1996, after the collapse of the USSR, Pajitnov finally regained control of his creation and founded The Tetris Company, along with his friend, Henk Rogers. They have since overseen the development, licensing, and distribution of Tetris worldwide.

The story of Tetris is inextricably linked to the political climate of the Cold War era. The struggle to secure the rights to the game, as well as the involvement of the KGB, is emblematic of the tensions that existed between the Soviet Union and the West during this time. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was instrumental in fostering a more open and cooperative relationship with the West, which ultimately helped to pave the way for the global release of Tetris.

Tetris’ Impact on the Gaming Industry

The game’s success on the Nintendo Game Boy demonstrated the potential of handheld gaming devices and helped to popularize portable consoles. Tetris has inspired countless puzzle games and has been a significant influence on game design in general.

In the end, he story of Tetris, its journey from the Soviet Union to the Western gaming industry, and the players involved in its acquisition is an extraordinary tale of international intrigue and high-stakes business deals.

Speaking of incredible true stories and the KGB, read our other article on the hit TV show The Americans here.