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Living Worlds of Action and Adventure, Part 1: The Atari Adventure

As regular readers of this blog are doubtless well aware, we stand now at the cusp not only of a new decade but also of a new era in terms of this history’s internal chronology. The fractious 1980s, marked by a bewildering number of viable computing platforms and an accompanying anything-goes creative spirit in the games that were made for them, are becoming the Microsoft-dominated 1990s, with budgets climbing and genres hardening (these last two things are not unrelated to one another). CD-ROM, the most disruptive technology in gaming since the invention of the microprocessor, hasn’t arrived as quickly as many expected it would, but it nevertheless looms there on the horizon as developers and publishers scramble to prepare themselves for the impact it must have. For us virtual time travelers, then, there’s a lot to look forward to. It should be as exciting a time to write about — and hopefully to read about — as it was to live through.

Yet a period of transition like this also tempts a writer to look backward, to think about the era that is passing in terms of what was missed and who was shortchanged. It’s at a time like this that all my vague promises to myself to get to this story or that at some point come home to roost. For if not now, when? In that light, I hope you’ll forgive me for forcing you to take one or two more wistful glances back with me before we stride boldly forward into our future of the past. There’s at least one more aspect of 1980s gaming, you see, that I really do feel I’d be remiss not to cover in much better detail than I have to this point: the astonishing, and largely British, legacy of the open-world action-adventure.

First, a little taxonomy to make sure we’re all on the same page. The games I want to write about take the themes and mechanics of adventure games — meaning text adventures during most of the era in question — and combine them with the graphics and input methods of action games; thus the name of “action-adventure.” Still, neither the name nor the definition conveys what audacious achievements the best of these games could be. On computers which often still had to rely on cassettes rather than disks for storage, which struggled to run even Infocom-level text adventures, almost universally young programmers, generally working alone or in pairs, proposed to create huge virtual worlds to explore — worlds which were to be depicted not in text but visually, running in organic, fluid real time. It was, needless to say, a staggeringly tall order. The programmers who tackled it did so because, being so young, they simply didn’t know any better. What’s remarkable is the extent to which they succeeded in their goals.

Which is not to say that games in this category have aged as well as, say, the majority of the Infocom catalog. Indeed, herein lies much of the reason that I’ve rather neglected these games to date. As all you regulars know by now, I place a premium on fairness and solubility in adventure-game design. I find it hard to recommend or overly praise games which lack this fundamental good faith toward their players, even if they’re wildly innovative or interesting in other ways.

That said, though, we shouldn’t entirely forget the less-playable games of history which pushed the envelope in important ways. And among the very most interesting of such interesting failures are many games of the early action-adventure tradition.

It’s not hard to pinpoint the reasons that these games ended up as they are. Their smoothly-scrolling and/or perspective-bending worlds make them hard to map, and thus hard for the player to methodically explore, in contrast to the grid-based movement of text adventures or early CRPGs. The dynamism of their worlds in contrast to those of those other genres leave them subject to all sorts of potentially game-wrecking emergent situations. Their young creators had no grounding in game design, were in fact usually far more interested in the world they were creating inside their primitive instruments than they were in the game they were asking their players to solve there. And in this era neither developers nor publishers had much of an inkling about the concept of testing. We should perhaps be more surprised that as many games of this stripe ended up as playable as they are than the reverse.

As I’ve admitted before, it’s inevitably anachronistic to return to these ancient artifacts today. In their own day, players were so awe-struck by these worlds’ very existence that they weren’t usually overly fixated on ending all the fun of exploring them with a victory screen. So, I’m going to relax my usual persnicketiness on the subject of fairness just a bit in favor of honoring what these games did manage to achieve. On this trip back through time, at least, let’s try to see what players saw back in the day and not quibble too much over the rest.

In this first article, we’ll go the United States to look at the development of the very first action-adventure. It feels appropriate for such a beast to have started life as a literal translation of the original adventure game — Will Crowther and Don Woods’s Adventure — into a form manageable on the Atari VCS game console. The consoles aren’t my primary focus for this history, but this particular console game was just so important for future games on computers that my neglect of it has been bothering me for years.

After this article, we’ll turn the focus to Britain, the land where the challenge laid down by the Atari VCS Adventure was picked up in earnest, to look at some of the more remarkable feats of virtual world-building of the 1980s. And after that, and after looking back at one more subject that’s been sticking in his craw — more on that when the time comes — your humble writer here can start to look forward again from his current perch in the historical timeline with a clearer conscience.

A final note: I am aware that games of this type have a grand tradition of their own in Japan, which arrived on American shores through Nintendo Entertainment System titles like 1986’s The Legend of Zelda. I hope fans of such games will forgive me for neglecting them. My arguments for doing so are the usual suspects: that writing about them really would be starting to roam dangerously far afield from this blog’s core focus on computer gaming, that my own knowledge of them is limited to say the least, and that it’s not hard to find in-depth coverage of them elsewhere.

 

Adventure (1980)


 

Like so many others, Warren Robinett had his life changed by Will Crowther and Don Woods’s game of Adventure. In June of 1978, he was 26 years old and was working for Atari as a programmer of games for their VCS console, which was modestly successful at the time but still over a year removed from the massive popularity that would follow. More due to the novelty of the medium and upper management’s disinterest in the process of making games than any spirit of creative idealism, Atari at the time operated on the auteur model of videogame development. Programmers like Robinett were not only expected also to fill the role of designers — a role that had yet to be clearly defined anywhere as distinct from programming — but to function as their own artists and writers. To go along with this complete responsibility, they were given complete control of every aspect of their games, including the opportunity to decide what sorts of games to make in the first place. On Robinett’s first day of work, according to his own account, his new boss Larry Kaplan had told him, “Your job is to design games. Now go design one.” The first fruit of his labor had been a game called Slot Racers, a simple two-player exercise in maze-running and shooting that was very derivative of Combat, the cartridge that was bundled with every Atari VCS sold.

With Slot Racers under his belt, Robinett was expected, naturally, to come up with a new idea for his next game. Luckily, he already knew what he wanted to do. His roommate happened to work at the storied Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, and one day had invited him to drop by after hours to play a neat game called Adventure on the big time-shared computers that lived there. Robinett declared it to be “the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” He decided that very night that he wanted to make his next project an adaptation of Adventure for the Atari VCS.

On the face of it, the proposition made little sense. My description of Robinett’s Slot Racers as derivative of Combat begins to sound like less of a condemnation if one considers that no one had ever anticipated the Atari VCS being used to run games that weren’t built, as Combat and Slot Racers had been, from the simple-minded raw material of the earliest days of the video arcades. The machine’s designers had never, in other words, intended it to go much beyond Pong and Breakout. Certainly the likes of Adventure had never crossed their minds.

Adventure consisted only of text, which the VCS wasn’t terribly adept at displaying, and its parser accepted typed commands from a keyboard, which the VCS didn’t possess; the latter’s input mechanism was limited to a joystick with a single fire button. The program code and data for Adventure took more than 100 K of storage space on the big DEC PDP-10 computer on which it ran. The Atari VCS, on the other hand, used cartridge-housed ROM chips capable of storing a program of a maximum of 4 K of code and data, and boasted just 128 bytes — yes, bytes — of memory for the volatile storage of in-game state. In contrast to a machine like the PDP-10 — or for that matter to just about any other extant machine — the VCS was shockingly primitive to program. There not being space enough to store the state of the screen in those 128 bytes, the programmer had to manually control the electron beam which swept left to right and top to bottom sixty times per second behind the television screen, telling it where it should spray its blotches of primary colors. Every other function of a game’s code had to be subsidiary to this one, to be carried out during those instants when the beam was making its way back to the left side of the screen to start a new line, or — the most precious period of all — as it moved from the end of one round of painting at the bottom right of the screen back to the top left to start another.

The creative freedom that normally held sway at Atari notwithstanding, Robinett’s bosses were understandably resistant to what they viewed as his quixotic quest. Undeterred, he worked on it for the first month in secret, hoping to prove to himself as much as anyone that it could be done.

It was appropriate in a way that it should have been Warren Robinett among all the young programmers at Atari who decided to bring to the humble VCS such an icon of 1970s institutional computing —  a rarefied environment far removed from the populist videogames, played in bars and living rooms, that were Atari’s bread and butter. Almost all of the programmers around him were self-taught hackers, masters of improvisation whose code would have made any computer-science professor gasp in horror but whose instincts were well-suited to get the most out of the primitive hardware at their disposal. Robinett’s background, however, was very different. He brought with him to Atari a Bachelor’s Degree in computer science from Rice University and a Master’s from the University of California, Berkeley, and along with them a grounding in the structure and theory of programming which his peers lacked. He was, in short, the perfect person at Atari to be having a go at this project. While he would never be one of the leading lights of the programming staff in terms of maximizing the VCS’s audiovisual capabilities, he knew how to design the data structures that would be necessary to make a virtual world come to life in 4 K of ROM and 128 bytes of RAM.

Robinett’s challenge, then, was to translate the conventions of the text adventure into a form that the VCS could manage. This naturally entailed turning Crowther and Woods’s text into graphics — and therein lies an amusing irony. In later years, after they were superseded by various forms of graphic adventures, text adventures would come to be seen by many not so much as a legitimate medium in themselves as a stopgap, an interim way to represent a virtual world on a machine that didn’t have the capability to display proper graphics. Yet Robinett came to this, the very first graphic adventure, from the opposite point of view. What he really wanted to do was to port Crowther and Woods’s Adventure in all its textual glory to the Atari VCS. But, since the VCS couldn’t display all that text, he’d have to find a way to make do with crude old graphics.

The original Adventure, like all of the text adventures that would follow, built its geography as a topology of discrete “rooms” that the player navigated by typing in compass directions. In his VCS game, Robinett represented each room as a single screen. Instead of typing compass directions, you move from room to room simply by guiding your avatar off the side of a screen using the joystick: north becomes the upper boundary of the screen, east the right-hand boundary, etc. Robinett thus created the first VCS game to have any concept of a geography that spanned beyond what was visible on the screen at any one time. The illustration below shows the text-adventure-like map he crafted for his world.

It’s important to note, though, that even such a seemingly literal translation of a text adventure’s geography to a graphical game brought with it implications that may not be immediately obvious. Most notably, your avatar can move about within the rooms of Robinett’s game, a level of granularity that its inspiration lacks; in Crowther and Woods’s Adventure, you can be “in” a “room” like “End of Road” or “Inside Building,” but the simulation of space extends no further. The effect these differences have on the respective experiences can be seen most obviously in the two games’ approaches to mazes. Crowther and Woods’s (in)famous “maze of twisty little passages” is built out of many individual rooms; the challenge comes in charting the one-way interconnections between them all. In Robinett’s game, however, the mazes — there are no less than four of them for the same reason that mazes were so common in early text adventures: they’re cheap and easy to implement — are housed within the rooms, even as they span multiple rooms when taken in their entirety.

Crowther and Woods’s maze of twisty little passages, a network of confusing room interconnections where going north and then going south usually won’t take you back to where you started.

Warren Robinett’s graphical take on the adventure-game maze; it must be navigated within the rooms as well as among them. The dot at left is the player’s avatar, which at the moment is carrying the Enchanted Chalice whose recovery is the goal of the game.

Beyond the challenges of mapping its geography, much of Crowther and Woods’s game revolves around solving a series of set-piece puzzles, usually by using a variety of objects found scattered about within the various rooms; you can pick up such things as keys and lanterns and carry them about in your character’s “inventory” to use elsewhere. Robinett, of course, had to depict such objects graphically. To pick up an object in his game, you need simply bump into it with your avatar; to drop it you push the fire button. Robinett considered trying to implement a graphical inventory screen for his game, but in the end chose to wave any such tricky-to-implement beast away by only allowing your avatar to carry one item at a time. Similarly, the “puzzles” he placed in the game, such as they are, are all simple enough that they can be solved merely by bringing an appropriate object into the vicinity of the problem. Opening a locked gate, for instance, requires only that the player walk up to it toting the appropriate key; ditto attacking a dragon with a sword.  By these means, Robinett pared down the “verbs” in his game to the equivalent of the text parser’s movement commands, its “take” and “drop” commands, and a sort of generic, automatically-triggered “use” action that took the place of all the rest of them. (Interestingly, the point-and-click, non-action-oriented graphical adventures that would eventually replace text adventures on the market would go through a similar process of simplification, albeit over a much longer stretch of time, so that by the end of the 1990s most of them too would offer no more verbs than these.)

The text-to-graphics adaptations we’ve seen so far would, with the exception only of the mazes, seem to make of Robinett’s Adventure a compromised shadow of its inspiration, lacking not only its complexity of play but also, thanks to the conversion of Crowther and Woods’s comparatively refined prose to the crudest of graphics, its flavor as well. Yet different mediums do different sorts of interactivity well. Robinett managed, despite the extreme limitations of his hardware, to improve on his inspiration in certain ways, to make some aspects of his game more complicated and engaging in compensation for its simplifications. Other than the mazes, the most notable case is that of the other creatures in the world.

The world of the original Adventure isn’t an entirely uninhabited place — it includes a dwarf and a pirate who move about the map semi-randomly — but these other actors play more the role of transitory annoyances than that of core elements of the game. With the change in medium, Robinett could make his other creatures play a much more central role. Using an approach he remains very proud of to this day, he gave his four creatures — three dragons and a pesky, object-stealing bat, an analogue to Crowther and Woods’s kleptomaniacal pirate — “fears” and “desires” to guide their movements about the world. With the addition of this basic artificial intelligence, his became a truly living world sporting much emergent possibility: the other creatures continue moving autonomously through it, pursuing their own agendas, whether you’re aware of them or not. When you do find yourself in the same room/screen as one of the dragons, you had best run away if you don’t have the sword. If you do, the hunted can become the hunter: you can attempt to kill your stalker. These combat sequences, like all of the game, run in real time, another marked contrast with the more static world of the Crowther and Woods Adventure. Almost in spite of Robinett’s best intentions, the Atari VCS’s ethos of action-based play thus crept into his staid adventure game.

Robinett’s Adventure was becoming a game with a personality of its own rather than a crude re-implementation of a text game in graphics. It was becoming, in other words, a game that maximized the strengths of its medium and minimized its weaknesses. Along the way, it only continued to move further from its source material. Robinett had originally planned so literal a translation of Crowther and Woods’s Adventure that he had sought ways to implement its individual puzzles; he remembers struggling for some time to recreate his inspiration’s “black rod with a rusty star on the end,” which when waved in the right place creates a bridge over an otherwise impassable chasm. In the end, he opted instead to create a movable bridge object which you can pick up and carry around, dropping it on walls to create passages. Robinett:

Direct transliterations from text to video format didn’t work out very well. While the general idea of a videogame with rooms and objects seemed to be a good one, the graphic language of the videogame and the verbal language of the text dialogue turned out to have significantly different strengths. Just as differences between filmed and live performance caused the art form of cinema to slowly diverge from its parent, drama, differences between the medium of animated graphics and the medium of text have caused the animated adventure game to diverge from the text-adventure game.

So, Robinett increasingly turned away from direct translation in favor of thematic analogues to the experience of playing Adventure in text form. To express the text-based game’s obsession with lighted and dark rooms and the lantern that turns the latter into the former, for instance, he included a “catacombs” maze where only the few inches immediately surrounding your avatar can be seen.

But even more radical departures from his inspiration were very nearly forced upon him. When Robinett showed his work-in-progress, heretofore a secret, to his management at Atari, they liked his innovations, but thought they could best be applied to a game based on the upcoming Superman movie, for which Atari had acquired a license. Yet Robinett remained wedded to his plans for a game of fantasy adventure, creating no small tension. Finally another programmer, John Dunn, agreed to adapt the code Robinett had already written to the purpose of the Superman game while Robinett himself continued to work on Adventure. Dunn’s game, nowhere near as complex or ambitious as Robinett’s but nevertheless clearly sporting a shared lineage with it, hit the market well before Adventure, thereby becoming the first released Atari VCS game with a multi-screen geography. Undaunted, Robinett soldiered on to finish creating the new genre of the action-adventure.

The Atari Adventure‘s modest collection of creatures and objects. The “cursor” represents the player’s avatar. Its shape was actually hard-coded into the Atari VCS, where it was intended to represent the ball in a Pong-like game — a telling sign of the only sorts of games the machine’s creators had envisioned being run on it. And if you think the dragons look like ducks, you’re not alone. Robinett never claimed to be an artist…

Ambitious though it was in contrast to Superman, his graphic-based adventure game of 4 K must be inevitably constrained in contrast to a text-based game of more than 100 K. He wound up with a world of about 30 rooms — as opposed to the 130 rooms of his inspiration — housing a slate of seven totable objects: three keys, each opening a different gate; a sword for fighting the dragons; the bridge; a magnet that attracts to it other objects that may be inaccessible directly; and the Enchanted Chalice that you must find and return to the castle where you begin the game in order to complete it. (Rather than the fifteen treasures of Crowther and Woods’s Adventure, Robinett’s game has just this one.)

The constraints of the Atari VCS ironically allowed Robinett to avoid the pitfall that dogs so many later games of this ilk: a tendency to sprawl out into incoherence. Adventure, despite or perhaps because of its primitiveness, is playable and soluble, and can be surprisingly entertaining even today. To compensate for both his constrained world and the youngsters who formed the core of Atari’s customers, Robinett designed the game with three selectable modes of play: a simplified version for beginners and/or the very young, a full version, and a version that scattered all of the objects and creatures randomly about the world to create a new challenge every time. This last mode was obviously best-suited for players who had beaten the game’s other modes, for whom it lent the $25 cartridge a welcome modicum of replayability.

Thanks to the efforts of Jason Scott and archive.org, Adventure can be played today in a browser. Failing that, the video below, prepared by Warren Robinett for his postmortem of the Atari Adventure at the 2015 Game Developers Conference, shows a speed run through the simplified version of the game — enough to demonstrate most of its major elements.


Robinett finished his Adventure in early 1979, about two years after Crowther and Woods’s game had first taken institutional computing by storm and about eight months after he’d begun working on his videogame take on their concept. (True to his role of institutional computing’s ambassador to the arcade, he’d spent most of that time working concurrently on what seemed an even more impossible task: a BASIC programming system for the Atari VCS, combining a cartridge with a pair of hardware controllers that together formed an awkward keyboard.) From the beginning right up to the date of its release, his game’s name remained simply Adventure, nobody apparently ever having given any thought to the confusion this could create among those familiar with Crowther and Woods’s game. Frustrated by Atari’s policy of giving no public credit to the programmers who created their games, one of Robinett’s last additions was a hidden Easter egg, one of videogaming’s first. It took the form of a secret room housing the only text in this game inspired by a text adventure, spelling out the message “Created by Warren Robinett.” Unhappy with his fixed salary of about $22,000 per year, Robinett left Atari shortly thereafter, going on to co-found The Learning Company, a pioneer in educational software. The first title he created there, Rocky’s Boots, built on many of the techniques he’d developed for Adventure, although it ran on an Apple II computer rather than the Atari VCS.

In the wake of Robinett’s departure, Atari’s marketing department remained nonplussed by this unusually complex and cerebral videogame he had foisted on them. Preoccupied by Atari’s big new game for the Christmas of 1979, a port of the arcade sensation Asteroids, they didn’t even release it until June of 1980, more than a year after Robinett had finished it. Yet the late release date proved to be propitious, coming as it did just after the Atari VCS’s first huge Christmas season, when demand for games was exploding and the catalog of available games was still fairly small. Adventure became something of a sleeper hit, selling first by random chance, plucked by nervous parents off of patchily-stocked store shelves, and then by word of mouth as its first players recognized what a unique experience it really was. Robinett claims it wound up selling 1 million copies, giving the vast majority of that million their very first taste of a computer-based adventure game.

For that reason, the game’s importance for our purposes extends far beyond that of being just an interesting case study in converting from one medium to another. A long time ago, when this blog was a much more casual affair than it’s since become, I wrote these words about Crowther and Woods’s Adventure:

It has long and rightfully been canonized as the urtext not just of textual interactive fiction but of a whole swathe of modern mainstream videogames. (For example, trace World of Warcraft‘s lineage back through Ultima Online and Richard Bartle’s original MUD and you arrive at Adventure.)

I’m afraid I rather let something fall by the wayside there. Robinett’s Adventure, the first of countless attempts to apply the revolutionary ideas behind Crowther and Woods’s game to the more mass-market-friendly medium of graphics, is in fact every bit as important to the progression outlined above as is MUD.1

That said, my next couple of articles will be devoted to charting the game’s more immediate legacy: the action-adventures of the 1980s, which would borrow heavily from its conventions and approaches. While the British programmers we’ll be turning to next had at their disposal machines exponentially more powerful than Robinett’s Atari VCS, they expanded their ambitions exponentially to match. Whether considered as technical or imaginative feats, or both, the action-adventures to come would be among the most awe-inspiring virtual worlds of their era. If you grew up with these games, you may be nodding along in agreement right now. If you didn’t, you may be astonished at how far their young programmers reached, and how far some of them managed to grasp despite all the issues that should have stopped them in their tracks. But then, in this respect too they were only building on the tradition of Warren Robinett’s Adventure.

(Sources: the book Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost; Warren Robinett’s chapter “Adventure as a Video Game: Adventure for the Atari 2600″ from The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology; Next Generation of January 1998; Warren Robinett’s Adventure postmortem from the 2015 Game Developers Conference; Robinett’s interview from Halcyon Days. You can play Robinett’s Adventure in your browser at 2600 Online.)


  1. As for MUD: don’t worry, I have plans to round it up soon as well. 

 
 

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A Tale of the Mirror World, Part 8: Life After Tetris

Alexey Pajitnov and Henk Rogers meet with Tetris licensees EA Mobile in 2015.

As the dust settled from the battle over Tetris and a river of money started flowing back to the Soviet Union, the Soviet Academy of Sciences made a generous offer to Alexey Pajitnov. In acknowledgment of his service to the state, they told him, they would buy him an IBM PC/AT — an obsolete computer in Western terms but one much better than the equipment Pajitnov was used to. This would be the only tangible remuneration he would ever receive from them for making the most popular videogame in the history of the world.

But the Soviet Union was changing rapidly, and Pajitnov intended to change with it. He formed a little for-profit company — such a thing was now allowed in the Soviet Union — called Dialog with a number of his old friends and colleagues from the Moscow Computer Center, among them his friendly competitor in game-making, Dmitry Pavlovsky, and the first of many psychologists who would be fascinated by the Tetris Effect, Vladimir Pokhilko. The name of the company was largely a reflection of a pet project cooked up by Pajitnov and Pokhilko, a sort of cross between Eliza and Alter Ego with the tentative name of Biographer. “This kind of software can help you to understand your life and change it,” Pajitnov believed. “This will help people. This is what I would call a ‘constructive game.'” Such a game would be, needless to say, a dramatic departure from Tetris, demanding far more time to develop than had that exercise in elegant minimalism.

In the meantime, though, Tetris was huge. Henk Rogers, now well-established as Pajitnov’s mentor in the videogame business, advised him strongly to make a sequel, and to do it soon — for if you don’t strike soon, he told him, someone else will. Pajitnov therefore came up with a game he called Welltris, a three-dimensional Tetris in which the shapes fell down into a “well” — thus the name — which the player viewed from above. While Welltris lacked the immediate, obvious appeal of Tetris, some players would come to love it for its subtle complexity. Pajitnov had no problem selling it to Spectrum Holobyte in North America, who despite their affiliation with the hated Mirrorsoft had managed by dint of luck and cleverness to remain in his good graces. In Europe, the game was picked up by the French publisher Infogrames. It was released for personal computers on both continents before 1989 was through.

Befitting his growing celebrity status, Alexey Pajitnov himself featured in the background graphics of Welltris.

Pajitnov greeted a new year and a new decade by taking his first trip to the United States. Paid for by Spectrum Holobyte, whose resources were limited, it was an oddly austere promotional junket for the designer of the most popular videogame in the world. He made the trip alone but for a translator to help out with his still-broken English. His first stop was Las Vegas, for the Winter Consumer Electronics Show — quite the introduction to American excess! He sat gaping in wonder at the food piled in mounds before him at the hotel’s $3.69 all-you-can buffet, flicked his “I Love Vegas” cigarette lighter, and remarked, “So this is a typical American city.” After Vegas, he traveled around the country in what a Boston Globe reporter described as “almost an underground manner,” “apartment to apartment, computer friend to computer friend.” But he was hardly a man of expensive tastes anyway; out of all the food he ate on the trip, it was Kentucky Fried Chicken he liked best.

Spectrum Holobyte did spring for a lavish press reception in San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel. The day after that event, he made time for a “U.S./Soviet Personal Computer Seminar” at San Francisco State University out of his desire to “grow up the game life in Moscow. I want to help, with advice.” He visited Minoru Arakawa and Howard Lincoln at Nintendo of America’s headquarters in Seattle; got to see in person paintings at the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan in New York which he’d known only from the books in his parents’ library; visited MIT’s Media Lab to view cutting-edge research into virtual reality, trying not to compare the technology that surrounded him there too closely to the spartan desk he had to share with others back at the Moscow Computer Center. And between all these glimpses of American life, he gave interview after interview to an endless stream of journalists eager to get their whack at one of the great current human-interest stories. He made time for everyone, from the slick reporters from the major newspapers and magazines to the scruffy nerds from the smallest of the trade journals. One and all treated him as living proof of the changing times, a symbol of the links that were being forged between East and West in this new, post-Cold War order.

His odyssey wound up in Hawaii with Henk Rogers, swimming and kayaking and drinking mai tais. The two friends were a long, long way from the gray streets of Moscow where they had met, but the bond they had forged there endured. Over drinks one gorgeous starlit evening, Rogers asked Pajitnov if he would be interested in leaving the Soviet Union permanently to work on games in the West. Torn between the wonders he had just seen and everyone’s natural love for the place he came from, he could only shrug for now: “I do not have an answer for that question.”

Rogers had had good reason for asking it. Ever ambitious, he had used the first influx of cash from Tetris to establish a new branch of Bullet-Proof Software in Seattle, conveniently close to Nintendo of America’s headquarters. Broadly speaking, his intention was to do in the North American Nintendo market what he had been doing in Japan: find games in other countries and on other platforms that would work well on the Nintendo Entertainment System and/or the Game Boy, license the rights, and port them over. His first big North American release, a puzzle game called Pipe Dream that had already been a hit on home computers in Europe, would do very well on the NES and Game Boy as well.

Yet Rogers was also eager to do original games with Pajitnov. He had passed on Welltris, whose 3D graphics were a little more than the Nintendo machines were realistically capable of, but kept cajoling Pajitnov to come up with yet another, more Nintendo-friendly Tetris variant. The result was Hatris, where the falling shapes of Tetris were replaced with falling hats which had to be stacked atop one another according to style. Although it presaged the later craze for matching games in the casual-game market even more obviously than had Tetris, it wasn’t all that great a game in its own right. Even on his American publicity tour, when it was still in the works, Pajitnov described it without a lot of enthusiasm. The sub-genre he had created was already in danger of being run into the ground.

Wordtris

But the industry, inevitably, was just getting started. The next several years would bring heaps more variations on the Tetris template, a few of them crediting their design fully to Pajitnov, some of them crediting him more vaguely for the “concept,” some of them not crediting him at all. Some ran on computers, some ran on consoles from Nintendo and others. Some were very playable, some less so. Personally, I have a soft spot for 1991’s Wordtris, a game designed by two of Pajitnov’s Russian partners at Dialog where you have to construct words, Scrabble-style, out of falling letters. In addition to its other merits, it became another casual pioneer, this time of the sub-genre of word-construction games. But then, I’m far better at verbal puzzles than spatial ones, so my preference for the wordy Wordtris should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt.

Despite all the industry’s enthusiasm for Tetris-like games, Pajitnov and Pokhilko’s plans for an Eliza killer came to naught. Publishers were always willing to use Pajitnov’s name to try to sell one more falling-something game, but didn’t think it had much value attached to high-concept fare like Biographer.

In 1991, Pajitnov finally answered in the affirmative the question Rogers had posed to him on that evening in Hawaii; he and his family immigrated to San Francisco. Cutting ties with Dialog back in a Soviet Union that was soon to be known simply as Russia again, he formed a design partnership with Pokhilko, who soon joined him in the United States. Over the next several years, the two created a variety of simple puzzle games, some more and some less Tetris-like, for various publishers, along with at least one truly outré concept, the meditative, non-competitive “aquarium simulator” El-Fish.

Meanwhile the times were continuing to change back in Russia, as piece after piece of the state-owned economy was privatized. Among the entities that were spun off as independent businesses was ELORG. Nikoli Belikov, savvy as ever, ended his career in the bureaucracy by becoming the owner and chief executive of the new ELORG LLC.

Henk Rogers had all but promised Pajitnov shortly after they had met in Moscow that, although he might not be able to secure a Tetris royalty for him right away, he would take care of him in the long run. He had indeed looked out for him ever since — and now he was about to deliver the ultimate prize. He came to Belikov with a proposal. Belikov still didn’t know much about the videogame business, he said, but he did. In return for a 50 percent stake in Tetris, he would take over the management of what was by now not so much a videogame as a global brand. Belikov agreed, and Rogers and Pajitnov together formed The Tetris Company in 1996 to manage the Western stake. And so at last Alexey Pajitnov started getting paid — and paid very well at that — for his signature creation.

For Rogers, protecting Tetris represented an almost unique challenge. More than virtually any other videogame, the genius of Tetris is in the concept; the implementation is trivial in comparison, manageable by any reasonably competent programmer within a few weeks. And, indeed, the public-domain and shareware software communities in the West had been flooded with clones and variants almost from the moment the game had first appeared on Western computers in 1988, just as had been the land behind the Iron Curtain in the years prior to that. No more, said Rogers. He hired a team of lawyers to go after anyone and everyone who made a game of falling somethings without the authorization of The Tetris Company, attacking with equal prejudice those who tried to sell their versions and those — often beginning game programmers who were merely proud to show off their first creations — who shared them for free. His efforts created no small uproar on the Internet of the late 1990s, leaving him to take plenty of heat as, as he once put it himself, “the jerk behind The Tetris Company.”

To this day, the bulk of The Tetris Company’s time and energy is devoted to the relentless policing of their intellectual property. As one would expect, Rogers and company have tended to draw the broadest possible line around what constitutes an infringing Tetris clone. The location of the actual line between legality and illegality, however, remains curiously unresolved. The Tetris Company has always had a lot of money and a lot of lawyers to hand, and no one has ever dared engage them in a legal battle to the death over the issue.

In addition to managing The Tetris Company, Henk Rogers continued to run Bullet-Proof Software throughout the decade of the 1990s. The first half of that period was marked by a number of successful non-Tetris titles, such as the aforementioned Pipe Dream, but over time Bullet-Proof increasingly dedicated themselves to churning out permutation after permutation on a game that many would argue had been born perfect: Tetris 2, Tetris Blast, V-Tetris, Tetris S, Tetris 4D. By decade’s end, they were running out of names. Screw it, they said in 1998, we’ll just call the next TetrisThe Next Tetris.

Bullet-Proof closed up shop shortly after that game, but Rogers formed Blue Lava Wireless in 2002 to make games for the first wave of feature phones. Their most successful titles by far were… you guessed it, mobile versions of Tetris. Indeed, the convergence of Tetris with mobile phones drove a second boom that proved just as profitable as the first, Game Boy-driven wave of mobile success.

Having long since sold Blue Lava, Rogers lives the good life today in his first geographical love of Hawaii, running the Blue Planet Foundation, which has the laudable goal of ending the use of carbon-based fuels in Hawaii and eventually all over the world; he also oversees a commercial spinoff of the foundation’s research called Blue Planet Energy. He’s still married to the girl who tempted him to move to Japan all those years ago. And yes, he’s a very, very rich man, still making millions every year from Tetris.

Alexey Pajitnov has continued to kick around the games industry, plying his stock-in-trade as a designer of simple but (hopefully) addictive puzzle games and enjoying his modest celebrity as the man who made Tetris. He spent several years at Microsoft, where he was responsible for titles like The Microsoft Puzzle Collection and Pandora’s Box; some of the puzzles found therein were new, but others were developed contemporaneously with the original Tetris during all those long days and nights at the Moscow Computer Center. He’s slowed down a bit since 2000, but keeps his hand in with an occasional mobile game, which his reputation is always sufficient to see published. In light of his ongoing design work, it was perhaps a bit unkind of a 2012 IGN article to call him one of the games industry’s “one-hit wonders.” Still, Tetris was so massively important that it was all but an inevitability that it would overshadow every other aspect of his career. Pajitnov, for his part, seems to have made his peace with that, humoring the wide-eyed reporters who continue to show up to interview him at his current home near Seattle. It may have taken Tetris a long time to pay off for him, but he can have no complaints about the rewards it brings him today: he is, like Henk Rogers, very, very rich. The two men remain close friends as well as business partners in The Tetris Company; the warm relationship forged over vodka on that cold Moscow night back in February of 1989 continues to endure.

Bosom buddies from Day One: Alexey Pajitnov and Henk Rogers in Moscow, 1989.

Nikoli Belikov, the most unlikely person ever to become a millionaire thanks to videogames, finally cashed in his Tetris chips in 2005, selling his stake in the game to The Tetris Company for $15 million. Doing business in his country remained as complicated as ever at that time. The only difference was that Belikov now had to fear the Russian Mafia finding out about his windfall rather than the KGB and the other entrenched forces of the old communist system. In an episode that had much the same spy-movie flavor as the original Tetris negotiations, Belikov and Rogers signed the deal and exchanged funds in Panama. The former then went back home to Moscow to enjoy a retirement worthy of an oligarch.

The other people Alexey Pajitnov left behind in Russia weren’t quite so fortunate. Dialog, the company he had helped found there before emigrating, collapsed soon after the departure of their star designer. And with the end of Dialog ended the game-design career of Dmitry Pavlovsky, who went back to other computer-science pursuits.

Vadim Gerasimov, the third member of the little game-making collective that had spawned Tetris, had parted ways with Pajitnov even before the brief-lived Dialog experiment. The most idealistic hacker in the Russian camp, the circus that sprang up around the Tetris rights had never set well with him. He claims that at some point after ELORG got involved in the negotiations Pajitnov came to him with a paper to sign. It stated, according to him, “that I agree to only claim porting Tetris to the PC, agree to give Pajitnov the right to handle all business arrangements, and refuse any rewards related to Tetris. I did not entirely agree with the content, but I trusted Alexey and signed the paper anyway.” Gerasimov had been given credit right after Pajitnov himself as the “original programmer” of Tetris in the Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte versions, but by the time the Nintendo versions appeared his name had been scrubbed from the game. To my knowledge, he never made any money at all from writing the first version of Tetris to reach beyond the Iron Curtain. While I hesitate to condemn Pajitnov or anyone else too roundly for that state of affairs — after all, even Pajitnov himself wasn’t paid for many years for his game — it does strike me as unfortunate that Gerasimov was allowed, whether consciously or accidentally, so completely to slip through the cracks. Had he not lent Pajitnov his talents, it’s highly unlikely that the game would ever have become more than a curiosity enjoyed by a handful of people in and around the Moscow Computer Center.

Gerasimov does evince a tinge of bitterness when he speaks about the subject, but, to his credit, he hasn’t let it consume his life. Instead he’s made a fine career for himself, immigrating to the United States, earning a doctorate from MIT, and finally winding up in Australia, where he works for Google today as a software engineer. He claims not to agree with The Tetris Company’s policy of so zealously protecting the property — although his position should perhaps be considered with a certain skepticism in light of the fact that he has never been in a position to benefit from that protection.

It was Pajitnov’s good friend and frequent design partner Vladimir Pokhilko who came to by far the worst end among the Russians who were there to witness Tetris‘s birth. Having cut his business ties with Pajitnov after the latter took a staff job with Microsoft in 1996, he tried to make a go of it in Silicon Valley, but bet on all the wrong horses. Beset by financial problems and rumored entanglements with the Russian Mafia, in 1998 he murdered his wife and son with a hammer and a hunting knife, then cut his own throat. His good-natured comment to his buddy at the Moscow Computer Center in 1984 — “I can’t live with your Tetris anymore!” — suddenly took on a different dimension in the aftermath. Pajitnov, so garrulous on most subjects, clams up when the topic turns to Pokhilko, the old friend who was obviously hiding a profound darkness behind his cheerful smile. “We [were] always friends, colleagues, and partners with good and warm relations,” he says, and leaves it at that — as shall we.


 

Pokhilko wasn’t the only character in the Tetris story to come to a bad end. Sometime during the early morning of November 5, 1991, Robert Maxwell jumped or fell off the deck of his luxury yacht into the sea near the Canary Islands. His body was discovered by a passing fishing boat the next day.

When executors and regulators began to look closely at Maxwell’s personal finances and those of his vaunted publishing empire in the aftermath of his death, what they found appalled them. He had racked up more than $3 billion in debts, and had been stealing from his employees’ pension funds and making countless other illegal transactions in order to shore up both his business interests and his own lavish lifestyle. Pathologists hadn’t been able to agree on a definite cause of death after his battered body was recovered. In light of this, and in light of his political and financial entanglements all over the world, not to mention the accusations of espionage that have occasionally dogged him, conspiracy theories abound about his fate. One suspects, however, that the more prosaic explanations are the more likely: either he deliberately threw himself into the water to escape the financial reckoning he knew was coming, or, being grossly overweight, he had a heart attack while taking in the view and simply fell into the water. There is, however, one other oddity about the whole thing to reckon with: his body was completely naked when it was recovered. It’s highly doubtful that the mystery of Robert Maxwell’s death will ever be solved beyond a shadow of doubt.

The strange circumstances of Robert Maxwell’s death caused a sensation in the British tabloid press.

In the wake of the Maxwell empire’s collapse, Kevin Maxwell filed for the biggest personal bankruptcy in British history, writing off more than $1 billion in debts. He was taken to trial for conspiracy to commit fraud for his involvement with his father’s house of cards, but was acquitted. His business record since has been checkered, encompassing another huge bankruptcy and repeated accusations of malfeasance of various stripes.

Like most of Robert Maxwell’s properties, Mirrorsoft was sold off in the scandal that followed his death. The operation wound up in the hands of Acclaim Entertainment, but the name disappeared forever.

Over in the United States, Spectrum Holobyte managed to live considerably longer. Phil Adam and Gilman Louie, the partners who had long run the publisher, pulled together enough venture capital in the midst of the Maxwell empire’s collapse to buy their complete independence. They then went on another buying spree as the merry 1990s got going in earnest, picking up both the computer-game publisher MicroProse and the American division of Henk Rogers’s Bullet-Proof Software in 1993. Combined with the good relations they enjoyed with Rogers and Pajitnov, the latter purchase seemingly left them well-positioned to continue to exploit Tetris for years to come. But they had extended themselves too far too quickly, picking up a mountain of debt in the process. Caught out in between the first and the second great Tetris booms, they were never quite able to turn the corner into reliable profitability. Hasbro Interactive bought the troubled company in 1998, and the name of Spectrum Holobyte also vanished into history.


 

Robert Stein lost his rights to Tetris on personal computers in 1990, when ELORG terminated his license due to his ongoing failure to pay them in a timely manner. Stein did cite an excuse for his tardiness this time, claiming that Mirrorsoft had simply stopped paying him for their sub-license altogether amid the brouhaha of 1989. Since Spectrum Holobyte was paying their royalties to Mirrorsoft, who were supposed to then pass them on to Stein, such a refusal would have meant that Stein himself would have received nothing at all to pass on to the Russians. Regardless of the full truth of the matter, Stein was forced out of the picture, and Spectrum Holobyte negotiated their own license directly with ELORG in order to continue making their version of Tetris.

Stein lost his last remaining Tetris deal, for the arcade rights, in 1992. Once again, ELORG cited non-payment as their reason for terminating the contract, and once again Stein claimed that his sub-licensee — this time Atari Games — wasn’t paying him.

Years before this event, Stein’s little company Andromeda Software, thoroughly unequipped to compete in the evolving international videogame market, had ceased to exist as anything other than a paper entity. With the termination of his last ELORG deal ended his time in games. I don’t know what he’s been doing in the years since, but he is alive and apparently well.

A recent still of Robert Stein from the documentary Moleman 4.

To this day, however, Stein remains deeply embittered against virtually every other character in the story of Tetris. His own narrative is at odds with that of the other principals on a number of key points. He confesses only to naiveté and perhaps the occasional bout of carelessness, never to deliberate wrongdoing. In his telling, the story of February and March of 1989 is that of a premeditated conspiracy, orchestrated by Henk Rogers, to steal Tetris away from him. While he admits to having earned about $150,000 to $200,000 from Tetris — no mean total in the context of most videogames of its era — he’s clearly haunted by all the tens of millions earned by Rogers, Pajitnov, and Belikov. “Tetris made enemies out of friends and corrupted people left, right, and center,” he says.


 

The war between the two Ataris and Nintendo raged on long after the issue of the Tetris rights was decided in November of 1989.

In May of 1989, Atari Games had launched still another lawsuit against Nintendo, this time alleging them to have violated their patent on an “apparatus for scrolling a video display” from 1979. Meanwhile Nintendo continued to put the squeeze on Atari at retail, threatening to cut off stores who dared to stock the Tengen games. Atari’s Dan Van Elderen claims that eventually all fifteen of the largest retail chains in the country dropped Tengen in the face of such pressure.

Atari found a friendly ear for their tale of woe in United States Congressman Dennis Eckart. The Democrat from Ohio was the chairman of a subcommittee focused on antitrust enforcement, and he was already inquiring into Nintendo’s business practices when he was contacted by Van Elderen. Van Elderen and other Atari executives became star witnesses in building the case for an official government investigation into Nintendo, while Eckart never even contacted anyone from the opposing camp to ask for their side of the story. On December 7, 1989, the 48th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor — the timing struck very few as coincidental — Eckart held a press conference to announce his recommendation that the Justice Department launch a probe of Nintendo’s role in the videogame market. As Howard Lincoln would later note, the press conference couldn’t have favored Atari’s position more had the latter written the script — which, in light of the cozy relationship that had sprung up between Eckart and Atari, there was grounds to suspect they had. The Justice Department soon handed the case to the Federal Trade Commission.

While the FTC investigated, Eckart continued to speak out against the Menace from Japan, blending long-established generational hysteria against videogames in general with Japophobia. Like many in the software industry, his greatest fear was that Nintendo would turn the NES into a real home computer, as they were trying to do to the Famicom in Japan, and use it to take over the entire market for consumer software. Think of the children, he thundered: “How did they [Nintendo] get in American homes? They enticed their way in through our children’s hearts. If you turn a toy into a computer, what’s the next step?”

Under mounting pressure from several sides, Nintendo eased their licensing conditions somewhat on October 22, 1990, allowing some licensees to begin manufacturing their own game cartridges. They also dropped the provisions from their standard licensing agreements that restricted their licensees from releasing their games on rival platforms. Many publishers would admit privately that the removal of this specific language from the contract changed little in actuality — “I’m not going to make games for competing systems because we know that Nintendo would get even, one way or another,” said one — but it did do much to nullify the primary charge in Jack Tramiel’s Atari Corporation’s case against Nintendo: that not allowing licensees to release a game on a rival platform for two years after its appearance on the NES constituted an abuse of monopoly. Some suspected that the changes at Nintendo had been the result of a deal with the FTC which allowed them to avoid some charges of engaging in anti-competitive practices.

Although Nintendo was clearly moderating some of their stances in response to recent developments, Atari Games still couldn’t manage to get a win in Judge Fern Smith’s courtroom. On the contrary: on March 27, 1991, she handed them another devastating defeat. A forensic study of the code used in the lockout-defeat mechanism employed by the Tengen cartridges having shown it to be virtually identical to Nintendo’s own, Judge Smith excoriated Atari for their actions in words that left no doubt about her opinion of their business ethics. She certainly made no effort to sugarcoat her verbiage: “Atari lied to the Copyright Office in order to obtain the copyrighted program,” she bluntly wrote. After having killed the Tengen Tetris fifteen months before, she now ordered all unauthorized Tengen games for the NES to be pulled from the market.

On April 10, 1991, the FTC announced that they had charged Nintendo with price-fixing in light of the latter’s policy of demanding that retailers not discount their products. But, anxious to avoid another ugly public legal battle, Nintendo had agreed to a settlement which required them to discontinue the policy in question, to pay $4.75 million to cover the government’s administrative costs in conducting the investigation, and to send consumers who the government claimed had been negatively affected a $5 coupon good for future Nintendo purchases. And with that, the FTC’s Nintendo probe was effectively finished. Everyone agreed that Nintendo had gotten off rather shockingly easy in being allowed to turn what should have been the negative press of a major judgment against them into what amounted to a new sales promotion. It almost seemed like someone at the FTC had a soft spot for them. Both Ataris blasted the easy treatment of Nintendo in the press, indelicately implying that something underhanded must be going on between Nintendo and the FTC.

But brighter news for the Atari camp did come the very next day. Atari Games had bitterly contested Judge Smith’s injunction stating that they couldn’t sell their Tengen games on the NES unless and until their appeal of her most recent ruling was concluded in their favor. They claimed the injunction could very well drive them out of business before that day arrived, making their ongoing appeal moot. On April 11, the appeals court agreed to give them back their right to sell the Tengen games while the legal proceedings ground on.

Whatever the situation in court, the two Ataris could feel fairly confident that they were at the very least holding their own in the public-relations war. In January of 1992, Michael Crichton summed up the mood of many inside and outside the American government with his novel Rising Sun. A thinly disguised polemic against Japan — Crichton himself described the book as a “wake-up call” to his country about the Japanese threat — it centers on a fictional corporation called Nakamoto whose mysterious leader sits far away in Japan at the center of a web of collusion and corruption. It was hard not to see the parallels with Nintendo’s greatly-feared-but-seldom-seen president Hiroshi Yamauchi. Price-fixing and other forms of collusion are “normal procedure in Japan,” says one of Crichton’s characters. “Collusive agreements are the way things are done.”

Just months after the publication of the novel, Yamauchi confirmed all of its worst insinuations in the eyes of some when he bought the Seattle Mariners baseball team. The Japanese, it seemed, were taking over even the Great American Pastime. What was next, Mom and apple pie? Major League Baseball approved the sale only on the condition that the day-to-day management of the team remain in American hands.

Hoping to capitalize on the political sentiment that so often painted Nintendo as a dangerous foreign invader, Tramiel’s Atari Corporation elected to take their $250 million lawsuit against Nintendo to a jury trial. But whatever abuses Nintendo may have committed, they had been smart enough not to give Atari any smoking guns in the form of written documentation of their more questionable policies. When Minoru Arakawa took the stand, he faced a barrage of aggressive accusations from Atari’s lawyers.

Isn’t it a fact that if Atari or Sega was also being carried, the salesman would go in and say they won’t be able to carry Nintendo?

Did Nintendo ever tell any licensee that they could only make games for Nintendo?

Did Nintendo ever tell them, the licensees, that if they put their games on any other system they would be penalized?

That Nintendo would reduce their allocation of chips during the chip shortage?

Cancel trade-show space?

Any threats to prevent them from making games for other home-videogame systems?

To every question, Arakawa gave a one-syllable answer: “No.”

On May 1, 1992, the verdict came back. The jury did acknowledge that Nintendo had enjoyed a de facto monopoly over the American console market at the time Atari had filed their suit, but just having a monopoly is not illegal in itself. The jury found that Atari hadn’t managed to prove that Nintendo had abused their monopoly power. Atari Corporation would elect not to appeal the verdict.

On September 10, 1992, Atari Games lost their appeal to Judge Smith’s ruling against them of the previous year, and her overturned injunction against them went into permanent effect. All Tengen games on Nintendo’s platforms were to be pulled from store shelves and destroyed, effective immediately. Tengen and Nintendo had been parted forever.

With these last two rulings, the war entered the mopping-up phase, the final result all but a foregone conclusion. In 1990, the delicate stock-balancing act that had allowed Hideyuki Nakajima to run Atari Games as an independent entity had collapsed, and Time Warner had assumed control. The latter was skeptical from the beginning of this war that felt like it had at least as much to do with pride and legacy as it did with sound business strategy. Following these latest setbacks, they pressed Nakajima hard to cut his losses and settle the remaining legal issues. Atari Games and Nintendo announced a closed settlement agreement on March 24, 1994, that put the last of the litigation to bed, presumably at the cost of some number of millions from Atari.

Shortly thereafter, Atari Games ceased to exist under that name. On April 11, 1994, Time Warner went through a restructuring which saw Atari and Tengen subsumed into the preexisting subsidiary Time Warner Interactive. With the arcade market slowly dying and Nintendo certainly not likely to let them back onto their platforms anytime soon, the storied name of Atari had become a liability rather than an asset.

Atari Corporation came to a similarly dispiriting end. After years of creeping irrelevancy brought on by the slow decline of their ST line of computers and the more dramatic failure of the Atari Jaguar, a quixotic last-ditch effort to launch a game console to compete directly with Nintendo, the remnants of the company were scooped up by JTS Storage, a maker of hard disks, on July 30, 1996. Thanks to the financial contortions that were used to bring off the deal, the transaction was counter-intuitively recorded as an acquisition of JTS by Atari, but there was no doubt on the scene about who was really acquiring whom. Like Time Warner, JTS saw little remaining value to the Atari name; they had acquired Atari Corporation for nothing more nor less than a pile of cold hard cash the company had recently collected after winning a patent-infringement judgment against Sega, not in the hope of making Atari mean something again to a new generation of gamers for whom the name’s glory days were ancient history. But the money didn’t do them much good; JTS went bankrupt in 1999.

In a previous article, I called the war between the two Ataris and Nintendo the past of videogames versus their future. As we can now see, that description is almost literally true. The two Ataris could perhaps console themselves that they had forced some changes in Nintendo’s behavior, but they had paid a Pyrrhic price for those modest tactical victories. After the war was over, both Ataris died while Nintendo thrived. Winning the war so utterly became one of the proudest achievements of Howard Lincoln, that unapologetically vindictive master strategist. “Lincoln’s motto was ‘fuck with us and we will destroy you,'” said one of Nintendo’s lawyers. “Otherwise he’s a really nice guy.”

Yet the full import of the war extended far beyond its importance to the individual combatants: it marked a watershed moment for the way that software is sold. Buried in the text of Judge Smith’s 1991 ruling against Atari Games was the statement that legitimized the future not just of console-based videogames but of much of the rest of the consumer-software market. Irrespective of the shady methods Atari had employed to violate Nintendo’s patent in the case at hand, Judge Smith affirmed that Nintendo did have the abstract right to “exclude others and reserve to itself, if it chooses” complete control of the Nintendo cartridge market. This statement essentially reversed an established precedent, dating back to an antitrust case that was decided against IBM in 1969, that a hardware manufacturer could not decide what software was allowed to run on their machines. With the legal cover Judge Smith provided, what had once been shocking enough to set most of the American software industry up in arms soon became routine. Every successful console that would follow the NES, from Nintendo or anyone else, would use the walled-garden model. Even more significantly, virtually every significant new software market to arise in the future, such as the mobile-phone and tablet markets that thrive today, would also be a walled garden controlled by a single corporation. Today, the un-walled marketplace for personal-computer software has become the exception rather than the rule, a shambling ghost from the past which no corporation has yet been able to corral. And long may it shamble on, for it continues to provide a haven in interactive media for the experimental, the controversial, the iconoclastic, and the esoteric — all the things the walled gardens reject.

The anti-Japanese, anti-Nintendo sentiment in the country, which had threatened to reach xenophobic levels in some circles, gradually faded as the decade wore on and Nintendo lost some of their standing as the be-all, end-all in videogames. Their much-feared strategy of using the NES as a Trojan Horse to take over all of consumer computing never really got off the ground. The enhancements that turned the Famicom into a full-fledged computer had never done tremendously well in Japan, and the Nintendo Network there turned into one of the company’s rare outright failures, never getting beyond the tens of thousands of subscribers. A survey found that the biggest source of consumer resistance to the idea was, ironically, Nintendo’s established reputation in videogames. People just weren’t excited about using what they thought of as their children’s toys to manage their stock portfolios. In light of these setbacks in Japan, Nintendo never introduced either the “computery” hardware enhancements they had tried on the Famicom or the Nintendo Network to North America. They instead elected to content themselves with their lot as the biggest company in videogames, much to the relief of the American software industry.

But even in the field of videogames, Nintendo wouldn’t stand alone for much longer. Sega had introduced their Genesis console in North America already at the end of 1989. Following a slow start, it eventually turned into a viable competitor for the aging NES. At mid-decade, Sony arrived with the PlayStation as a third major player in the game-console space. While both Sega and Sony adopted Nintendo’s walled-garden approach to software, one could no longer claim that videogaming writ large in North America lived by the whims of a single company. Yes, one could still be unhappy that all three popular console-sellers in the United States were Japanese — another successful born-in-America console wouldn’t arrive until the Microsoft Xbox in 2001 — but even that concern faded somewhat with the tech boom of the mid- and late-1990s. In this market, there was plenty of room for everyone, even the shifty-eyed foreigners.

Minoru Arakawa resigned as president of Nintendo of America in January of 2002. When not enjoying semi-retirement, he has since worked with Henk Rogers and Alexey Pajitnov on various projects related to Tetris.

Howard Lincoln was appointed CEO of the Seattle Mariners in 1999, signaling a scaling back in his involvement with Nintendo proper. He continued to run the team until 2016. His tenure produced no triumphs to compete with his great victory over the two Ataris; the team made the playoffs the first two years with him at the helm, but never again after that.

Minoru Arakawa and Howard Lincoln at the Interactive Achievement Awards in 2007, where they accepted lifetime-achievement awards.

In 2003, the North American arm of the French publisher Infogrames re-christened themselves Atari. Any hopes they might have had to revive the name’s glory days were, however, sadly disappointed. After years of lurching from crisis to crisis, the new Atari filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2013. Today a skeleton staff makes casino games under the name.

As for Nintendo… well, Nintendo remains Nintendo, of course. They’ve long since surpassed their old rival Atari to become the most iconic name in videogames. Once, parents would say that their children liked to “play Atari,” regardless of what name happened actually to be printed on the front of their game console. Now, they say their children like to “play Nintendo” — and, thanks largely to what Tetris first began, they’ll often say that they “play Nintendo” themselves. Nintendo has had ups and downs over the years, but have on the whole remained ridiculously successful thanks to the same old blending of strategic smarts with a deep well of ruthlessness ready to be employed when they judge the situation to call for it. Some variant or another of Tetris — usually more than one — has been a staple of every Nintendo machine since the NES and Game Boy.


 

And so we’re left with only one fate left to describe: that of the place where we began this journey, the Mirror World of the Soviet Union.

The dawn of the 1990s was an extraordinary time in the often fraught history of East/West relations. The opening of the Soviet Union brought with it the expectation that the world was witnessing the dawn of a new economic superpower even as a military superpower fell. Freed from the yoke of communism, Russia seemingly had everything going for it. It was a sprawling land bursting with natural resources, with an educated population eager to shed their isolation and become a part of the free world’s economic and political order. This was the period when Francis Fukuyama was writing The End of History, claiming that with the end of the Cold War free societies and free markets had won history’s argument, leaving humanity with nothing left to do but enjoy their fruits.

Few industries were more excited about jumping through the mirror and doing business in the lands beyond than the computer industry. As relations improved between West and East, the restrictions implemented by the Coordination Committee on Export Controls in the West were gradually eased. Already by 1988, it had been permitted to sell 16-bit microprocessors like the 80286 to the Soviet Union; by 1990, 32-bit processors like the 80386 were also allowed; by 1991, the restrictions as a whole were no more. Conferences and seminars sprung up, places for Western business executives to meet with former Eastern government bureaucrats newly thrust into the same role by their countries’ privatizing economies.

Of course, those Westerners peering eagerly through the mirror still had their work cut out for them in lots of ways. Most of the Eastern European economies were in complete disarray, with devalued currencies and thus little hard cash for buying Western products.

But where there’s a desire to do business, there’s usually a way. Some enterprising Western exporters resorted to complicated three-party deals. The would-be computer exporter would give their machines to an agent, who would send them on to Eastern Europe in exchange for raw goods. The agent would then sell the goods back in the West, and give the computer exporter a chunk of the profits. By 1992, an 80286-based PC in Russia cost about $1100. This was certainly better than the $17,000 one could have expected to pay for a shoddy Apple II clone nine years before, even if that kind of money would buy you a much more powerful 80386-based machine in the United States.

Issues of Byte magazine from the early 1990s buzz with excitement about the opportunities awaiting citizens of the Mirror World, not to mention those in the West who planned to guide them down the tricky paths of capitalism. “These are people who have felt useless — useless — all their lives!” said American business pundit Esther Dyson of the masses getting their first taste of freedom. “Do you know what it is like to feel useless all your life? Computers are turning many of these people into entrepreneurs. They are creating the entrepreneurs these countries need.”

And yet, sadly, the picture of a Russian entrepreneur in the popular imagination of the West of today is that of a mobster. Under the benighted stewardship of Boris Yeltsin, the high hopes for the Russia of the early 1990s gave way to the economic chaos of the mid- and late-decade years, paving the way for one Vladimir Putin. The new Russia proved unable to overcome the culture of corruption that had become so endemic during the old Soviet Union’s Brezhnev era.

I’m hardly qualified to provide a detailed analysis of why it has been so hard for Russia to escape its tragic past, any more than you are likely up for reading such a thing at the end of this already lengthy article. Since moving to Europe in 2009 and continuing to be subjected to my fellow Americans’ blinkered notions of what is “wrong” here and how it should be fixed, I’ve reluctantly concluded that the only way to really know a place may be to live there. So, in lieu of flaunting my ignorance on this subject I’ll just provide a few final anecdotes from my trip across Russia back in 2002.

  1. Driving around Moscow with several other backpackers and a guide we’d scraped together enough money to hire, I noticed some otherwise unmarked cars sporting flashing lights on the roof, of the sort that the driver can reach up through the window to set in place as she drives. There were a lot of these cars, all rushing about purposefully with lights undulating like mad. Was there really that much crime in the city? Or was some sort of emergency in progress? Weird if so, as the cars with the flashing lights by no means all seemed to be headed in the same direction. Curious about all these things, I finally asked our guide. “Oh, most of those cars aren’t actually police,” she said. “If you pay the right person, you can get a light like that for your personal car. Then you don’t have to stop at the traffic lights.”
  2. This being the period just after George W. Bush had looked into Putin’s eyes and seen clear to his “straightforward and trustworthy” soul, I was interested to hear what ordinary Russians thought of their new leader. To a person, the Russians I talked to found the West’s hopes that Putin would prove an enlightened steward of his people hilarious. “Putin was KGB during the Soviet times,” they told me. “Do you not understand what that means?”
  3. In all my life’s travels, I’ve never witnessed a more cash-driven economy than the Russia of 2002. Many of the Russians I met said they would accept their salary from their workplaces only in cash. Life savings were hoarded inside mattresses and behind paintings, for, after the economic collapse at the end of Yeltsin’s reign which had cost many Russians their previous life savings, banks were a bad joke, a sucker’s game. There were no ATMs outside of Moscow, nowhere to cash checks. On the plus side, you could buy most things with American dollars if you ran out of Russian rubles. Indeed, these were vastly preferable to many Russians, being the engine that made the underground economy go.
  4. I was single at the time, and families kept wanting to show me their daughters, with an obvious eye to marriage and a ticket to the West. Luckily, I was old enough to know to keep my distance from what could have been some very dangerous entanglements, although it was kind of fun for an average-looking guy like me to be fawned over like fitness-model material for a while.
  5. When being shown around Vladivostok at the end of my trip — and it is a very lovely city — I asked our guide about some huge mansions built into the hills surrounding the harbor and visible from many spots in the city proper. She seemed scared to say too much about them. “That’s where the Mafia lives, we don’t go up there” was all I could get out of her. “We” in this context apparently meant ordinary, non-Mafia Russian citizens like her.
  6. Despite such social disparities, few Russians evinced much nostalgia for the Yeltsin era, when they had enjoyed more political freedom than at any other point in their country’s history. Instead many preferred to cast their nostalgic gaze further back, to the Soviet era. Back then, they’d had security, they told me: a paid education, a guaranteed job, paid medical care, a rent-controlled apartment for their family once their name came to the top of the waiting list. If Putin could provide them with those things again, they weren’t overly inclined to quibble about issues like free speech and voting rights. They’d seen what they thought of as democracy up close and personal during the 1990s, and it hadn’t been a terribly pleasant experience for them. The West could keep it as far as they were concerned.

Perhaps somewhere in the intersection of these anecdotes can be found some clues as to what went wrong with the dreams for a healthy, stable, and free Russia.

Today Putin revels in his role of the comic-book evil mastermind, gobbling up territory here, hacking elections there, scheming always to undermine the existing world order and sometimes seeming to succeed at it to a disconcerting degree. Like most “strong-man” leaders, he tells himself and his people that he does these things in the name of nationalism and ethnic pride. Yet the would-be strong man fails to understand that by embracing the role of the geopolitical pariah, by running his country as a criminal enterprise with himself at the top of the oligarchial food chain, he actually turns Russia into a weak nation when it could be such a strong one. The largest country in the world has a gross domestic product less than that of South Korea, and 7 percent that of the United States, the nation it so desperately wishes to challenge again on the world stage. Now that the Iron Curtain no longer blocks their way, far too many of the best and the brightest in Russia flee to the West, leaving behind a generation of often hopeless men to literally drink themselves to death; the average life expectancy for a man in Russia is 64 years. The country remains what it has been for centuries: the greatest example of wasted potential on earth.

The Moscow Computer Center as it looks today.

The storied Moscow Computer Center still exists inside the changed Russia, under the official name of the Dorodnicyn Computing Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences. But even in 2004, when the BBC filmed there for a documentary about Tetris, its luster was yet more faded than it had been during Alexey Pajitnov’s time there. Yuri Yevtushenko, the director of the place at the time, painted a rather grim picture: “Our institute is getting older. The average age of the staff is fifty, and I’m afraid that in ten years if this continues without good young support we will cease to exist.” Working there paid a wage of $200 per month — hardly much enticement for the next generation of talented young Russian hackers. His analysis of the Computer Center’s future prospects could stand in for those of his country: “In Russia, the most widespread strategy is the ‘perhaps’ strategy. It has often saved us. During wars, at the beginning everything looks hopeless. Any other country would probably have been destroyed and died, but Russia somehow finds a way to pull through and survive. I hope it will be the same here too.”

Yes, hope must live on. The Putin era too shall pass, and Russia will perhaps in time get another chance to realize its potential.

The way a narrative history like this one reads has always been a function of where it begins and ends — what the historian Hayden White calls “emplotment.” Writing history at the wrong time can be intellectually dangerous, as Francis Fukuyama, who has become a walking punch line in the wake of all the history that has transpired since his The End of History, can doubtless well attest. The thing about history, for good and, yes, sometimes for ill, is that it just keeps on happening. Maybe, then, I’ll someday be able to write a less melancholic ending for this tale of the Mirror World. The people of Russia certainly deserve one.

(Sources: the books Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World by Dan Ackerman, and Rising Sun by Michael Crichton; the BBC television documentary From Russia with LoveSTart of June 1990; GamePro of December 1990; Computer Gaming World of September 1993; Byte of September 1990, January 1991, January 1992, and September 1992; Boston Globe of January 30 1990; San Francisco Examiner of September 24 1998. Online sources include Vadim Gerasimov’s personal Tetris recollections; Tetris Pressures Game Act-Alikes” from Wired; “The People Versus Mario” from Muckrock; “The Mystery of Maxwell’s Death” from The Independent; “Russian Men Losing Years to Vodka” from The Guardian; “Off the Grid” from Hawaii Business; “The Man Who Made Tetris from Motherboard. And one more big thank you to Peter Sovietov for sharing his knowledge of Soviet and Russian computing with me.)

 
 

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A Tale of the Mirror World, Part 7: Winners and Losers

Hillary Clinton plays with her Game Boy on Air Force One in 1993. While history hasn’t recorded with certainty what game she was playing, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts it was Tetris.

Atari had high hopes for the superlative implementation of Tetris they released for the Nintendo Entertainment System on May 17, 1989, and its initial performance fulfilled all of them, more than justifying their ambitious opening production run of 300,000 cartridges. Indeed, in the first month alone, fueled by positive press and even more positive word of mouth, the Tengen Tetris burned through half of that stock, with sales increasing week over week. Atari clearly had the beginnings of a massive hit on their hands — but not if Nintendo could prevent it.

Nintendo requested that Judge Fern Smith, whose San Francisco courtroom would be the home of most of the legal proceedings in the war between them and Atari, issue a preliminary injunction barring Atari from continuing to sell Tetris until the questions surrounding the rights to it had been fully resolved. Judge Smith agreed to allow the two sides to argue their cases for or against such an injunction beginning on June 15. In the scant few weeks allowed to them, the two companies’ legal teams scrambled to collect documents and depositions in the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union. Nikoli Belikov, Alexey Pajitnov, and the other Russians associated with ELORG thus got to enjoy the novel experience of being interviewed by opposing teams of American lawyers.

The current proceedings were not a full trial on the issue of the rights to the NES Tetris; that wasn’t expected to begin for months, and could then take more months to bring to a final verdict. This preliminary hearing dealt only with the question of whether Atari should be allowed to continue to sell their Tetris over the course of all those months. If Judge Smith thought it likely that Atari would prevail at the full trial, she could give them permission to do so. If she thought the opposite, she could order the Tengen Tetris pulled from the market for the interim.

When in-court arguments began, Atari pressed two separate lines of defense against Nintendo’s charge that the Tetris rights they claimed to own were ill-gotten. They hoped at least one of them would stick.

One line of defense accepted for the sake of argument the definition of “computer systems” as “PC computers which consist of a processor, monitor, disk drive(s), keyboard, and operation system” which was found in the revised contract Robert Stein had signed with ELORG the previous February. The NES did in fact — or at any rate potentially could — meet this definition, Atari argued. For proof, they looked to the console’s Japanese incarnation. There it was known, conveniently for Atari’s purposes, as the Nintendo Famicom, short for “Family Computer.” As that name would imply, Nintendo’s long-term goal had always been to turn the platform into more than just a game console. As far back as 1984, they had started selling an add-on kit called Family BASIC, an implementation of the BASIC programming language which came complete with a keyboard for typing in code. From 1986 on, it had been possible to purchase a disk system for the Famicom, which could be used for saving one’s BASIC programs as well as running commercial software sold on this alternative media. Thus a Famicom could be configured in such a way as to tick most of the boxes in the revised contract’s definition of a computer system. Should Judge Smith need more evidence, Atari pointed out that just the previous year Nintendo of Japan had introduced the Family Computer Communications Network System, a modem allowing Nintendo owners to take their machines online — albeit, in keeping with Nintendo’s walled-garden philosophy, only to access Nintendo’s own network. Once online, a Famicom could be used to play games with others, but could also be used to access a whole range of other information and services, from an encyclopedia to stock reports, from a travel agency to mail-order retail kiosks.

Sure, these things had only happened in Japan to date, but the North American NES was at bottom the same machine as the Japanese Famicom. All signs pointed to the NES as well being given capabilities that moved it from the category of game console to that of full-fledged home computer. For evidence of that, one needed look no further than Nintendo’s most recent annual report, where plans for a North American version of a Nintendo-branded online service featured prominently: “By employing the Nintendo Entertainment System as a domestic communications terminal, utilizing regular telephone lines, and the establishing of a large-scale network which to this point has been inconceivable, we plan to provide a vital supply of information for the domestic lifestyle in the fields of entertainment, finance, securities, and health management, to mention but a few.” “In court,” said an Atari spokesman, “Nintendo went to great lengths to say that the NES was a toy and its cartridges were the equivalent of Barbie’s arms and legs, but at the same time they were signing up AT&T to use the machine for stock reports. There is a Nintendo computer network in Japan and one planned for the United States. Sounds like a computer to me.”

If Judge Smith was in doubt how seriously Nintendo’s more grandiose schemes should be taken, she needed only ask the Software Publishers Association. The American software industry lived in terror of this potential Nintendo network, as it did of all of Nintendo’s much-rumored plans to use their game console as a Trojan Horse for bringing the walled-garden model of a software marketplace to applications other than games. If and when brought to fruition, such plans might force the entire industry to kowtow to the whims of this one foreign company. Thus the SPA’s support of Atari’s efforts to break into Nintendo’s extant walled garden of videogames by force, before it was too late.

In response to Atari’s claim that the NES effectively was a computer system, Nintendo noted that the contract which they claimed gave them rather than Atari the rights to make Tetris for the NES had been signed between ELORG and Nintendo of America, not Nintendo of Japan; the version of Tetris available for the Famicom in Japan was made by Henk Rogers’s Bullet-Proof Software, and its legitimacy wasn’t an issue to be decided in Judge Smith’s courtroom. Whatever its technical similarities to the Famicom, the North American NES was a separate product, and none of the Japanese accessories which could be construed as turning the Famicom into a “real” computer were available for the NES. If such accessories should become available in the future, the argument might be revisited, but right now the court should deal only in actualities, not hypotheticals.

For their other line of defense, Atari fielded the assertion that the revisions made to the original contract with Robert Stein had been made in bad faith, and that Stein had in fact been tricked into signing the contract. The Russians had originally intended, Atari argued, to license all of the rights to Stein and be done with it before they realized what a big seller the game had the potential to become. When they saw the opportunity to make more money through a deal with Nintendo, they had tried to pull a fast one to duck out of the first agreement. Stein himself testified to all of this in his deposition. Atari’s Dan Van Elderen, who had recently replaced Randy Broweleit at the head of the Tengen subsidiary, claimed the Russians “knew they had sold all those rights until they figured out, counseled by Henk Rogers and Nintendo, that there was a loophole. They realized they could have gotten a lot more money, so they double-dealt us all.” “Something went on between the Russian author and Nintendo,” said Atari’s president Hideyuki Nakajima in a deposition that might have come across better had he shown Alexey Pajitnov the respect of learning his name. “Nintendo knew we had the license, and it urged us to go forward with the game. Nintendo only cared once we filed the antitrust suit against them. They went after us. Howard Lincoln and Arakawa wanted to stop us. It was revenge.”

Nintendo yielded no ground to this argument either. They trotted out depositions from Alexey Pajitnov, Alexander Alexinko, Nikoli Belikov, and others at ELORG, all testifying that they had always understood the contract with Stein as covering only full-fledged personal computers, and had created the revised version merely to clarify what had always been the case. Furthermore, Stein had been given ample time to review this clarified version of the contract, and had signed it of his own free will.

As anyone who has followed the long and winding story of the Tetris negotiations to this point must acknowledge, neither side was presenting anything close to the unvarnished truth. Nevertheless, Judge Smith, who wasn’t privy to the inside details of the case in the way that we are today, had a hard time getting past the presence of a signed contract clearly stating that the rights Stein had licensed applied only to personal computers — which she judged that the NES, whatever it might become in the future, wasn’t as of June of 1989. On June 21, she handed the devastating news to Atari: they must immediately cease manufacturing and selling the Tengen Tetris, unless and until their right to do so was affirmed by the trial which was to follow later in the year. In the meantime, all unsold copies were to be recalled from the retail pipeline and locked away in a warehouse under the supervision of the court.

In a telling sign of which way the winds were blowing, Judge Smith issued no injunction against Nintendo releasing their own NES version of Tetris while both sides prepared for the full trial. But, perhaps wary of attracting her ire when she seemed to be favoring their side, Nintendo opted to hold their version in abeyance as well. Whose Tetris would make it permanently onto store shelves would be decided by a trial which was scheduled to begin in November. Until then, Tetris on the NES would remain in a tense state of stasis.

As the trial date drew near, Nintendo flew Nikoli Belikov to California to become their most important witness. The excitement of a free trip to the Soviet Union’s vision of a Mirror World was rather dampened by the rest of his circumstances. The pressure from Robert Maxwell’s allies inside the Kremlin hadn’t eased. Belikov faced the prospect of losing his career or possibly even his freedom if things went badly in that San Francisco courtroom. “Before my departure, I was invited into the State Committee for Computer Technology,” he remembers, “and they said, if you lose this lawsuit a special commission will be created who will look into how many millions of dollars the Soviet state has lost due to your reckless actions.” Belikov had known his fair share of bureaucratic scuffles during his day, but he had never felt so exposed as he did now. He joked darkly with his new Nintendo friends that if things went south he might just have to defect.

He needn’t have worried; Nintendo’s confidence that Judge Smith was leaning in their direction proved well-founded. The first day of the trial — November 13, 1989 — was a dream for Nintendo and a nightmare for Atari. Judge Smith came into the courtroom that morning only briefly, to announce that, having reviewed the evidence that had already been submitted, she saw no need to hear from witnesses or otherwise go through the motions of a full trial. She announced a summary judgment declaring Nintendo to be entirely in the right, Atari entirely in the wrong. The former was free to release their NES version of Tetris at their convenience, while the latter was to destroy their warehoused copies of the game forthwith. After months of preparation and buildup, the “trial” was over well before lunchtime. Atari announced that they would appeal the summary judgment, as you do in such circumstances, but soon decided that doing so would just mean more lawyers’ fees down the drain.

So, the judgment was allowed to stand, and the remaining copies of the Tengen Tetris were destroyed. Thanks to their relative scarcity as well as their sheer quality as the best implementation of Tetris ever to grace the NES, those copies which were sold during the one month the game spent on the market have become collectors’ items today, fetching prices of $100 or more.

For the Nintendo/ELORG camp, it was all over but the celebrations. “It made both Mr. Arakawa and I feel wonderful, just great” says Howard Lincoln. “There was jubilation,” says Henk Rogers. Rogers took Belikov out on the town. “I remember he turned up the stereo. We were breaking all the laws,” says Belikov. “He was speeding around San Francisco on the hilly streets. I was, honestly speaking, still in shock. Everything was happening in slow motion. The joy came a lot later. The fear started to go. I could go… I could go back!”

When Belikov did go back to Moscow, the money that came flowing the Russians’ way thanks to the deals he had made was finally enough to quiet the storm that had been battering at ELORG’s doors for so long. Robert Maxwell came to ascribe his friend Mikhail Gorbachev’s failure to deliver on his promise to oust “the Japanese company” to his need to placate certain factions within the Kremlin in order to maintain his grip on the General Secretary post: “He said other people in the government felt strongly that it should go the other way, so we stopped.” After threatening to create an international political scandal out of the issue, Maxwell allowed cooler heads to prevail in the end, washing his hands of the whole matter in that way that only the very rich are generally empowered to do. “You take your lumps along the way,” he said with a shrug. As big a deal as Tetris was in the realm of videogames, it was small potatoes in the context of his overall business empire.

And so, not without a whiff of anticlimax, the final questions about who was the rightful owner of Tetris in each of its incarnations were definitively resolved. ELORG, Bullet-Proof, and Nintendo were the winners, the new order they had sculpted in February and March of 1989 having been given the stamp of approval of an American court. Atari, Stein’s Andromeda Software, and Mirrorsoft were the losers. Somewhere in between was Spectrum Holobyte, who had managed — as much due to circumstance as conscious choice — to sit out the conflict as something of a neutral party, and was rewarded by being allowed to continue enjoying the strong sales of the North American personal-computer version of Tetris. Those sales, which would ultimately total several hundred thousand, might not have been a patch on the numbers the NES version would soon be racking up, but they suited a small computer-game publisher like Spectrum Holobyte just fine.

Nintendo’s NES Tetris was inferior to Tengen’s, but was good enough to get the job done.

As for the right and wrong of it all… well, the ethical waters surrounding Tetris had been muddy virtually from the moment Robert Stein had seen Vadim Gerasimov’s implementation of the game running on a computer in Budapest and tried to buy it from his Hungarian programmers without acknowledging where it had actually come from. Still, whomever we decide to label as the heroes and villains of this twisted tale, and in whatever ethical light we choose to see the other aspects of Atari’s war against Nintendo, it’s hard not to feel that Atari got a raw deal when it came to Tetris. They licensed the rights in good faith and created a superlative version of the game, only to be forced to pay for the sins of others. But all’s fair in love and (business) war. “It was revenge,” says Howard Lincoln of spoiling Atari’s plans and spiriting away what would go on to become the most popular videogame in history. “And you know how sweet revenge can be.” I’m not sure I do, actually — but I have a feeling that Howard Lincoln does.

Nintendo’s NES Tetris hit the market within days of the summary judgment, hoping to capitalize on whatever was left of the Christmas rush. The game would spend a year on the NES top-ten chart and sell at least 6 million copies over the course of its unusually long commercial lifetime. Yet, just as Lincoln, Arakawa, and Rogers had all suspected, and despite all the drama that had surrounded its release, this version of Tetris didn’t turn out to be the one that mattered most.

The Nintendo Game Boy had arrived in North American stores near the end of the summer of 1989, just in time to create a major headache for the teachers of all those members of Generation Nintendo who headed back to school with the gadgets in their backpacks. Game Boy would go on to become Nintendo’s second massive success story. In fact, it would become even more massive a success story than the first, selling almost 120 million units — roughly twice the total worldwide sales of the NES and Famicom lines — over the course of more than a decade in production.

For the first handful of those years, every single one of the millions upon millions of Game Boys that were sold in North America and Europe included a copy of Tetris. It was thus the Game Boy that spread Tetris absolutely everywhere, making it popular on a scale that no videogame had ever managed before nor has ever quite managed since. The irony in this is rich. While everyone’s attention had been focused on the grand legal showdown between Nintendo and Atari, the handheld Tetris, the rights to which had never been seriously disputed by anyone since Henk Rogers had picked them up on his first visit to Moscow, was the Tetris which ultimately proved to be the most important by far.

The Nintendo Game Boy Tetris, by far the most successful and historically important version of all.

In discussing such a divine synergy as that enjoyed by the Game Boy and Tetris, it’s impossible to state precisely which half of the equation got more out of the deal. Still, the preponderance of the evidence would seem to indicate that Tetris gave at least as much as it got. In the process, it did nothing less than identify a whole new potential market for videogames.

Nintendo of America’s success to date had been predicated on knowing exactly who constituted the natural market for their games, and targeting that market with pinpoint precision. Nintendo Power, the lifeline that linked the Nintendo executive suites to the youthful Generation Nintendo, looked not at all different from other magazines aimed at teens and preteens, full of exclamation points and eye-popping splashes of color plastered across every page. A closer look at the contents only cemented the impression: alongside articles about the games themselves were profiles of teen pop stars like Debbie Gibson and earnest admonitions not to let playing Nintendo supersede doing homework. While a story might occasionally surface, in Nintendo Power or for that matter in a newspaper, about a sheepish parent who had somehow picked up a Super Mario Bros. obsession, such anecdotes were amusing for the very reason that they were such an exception to the demographic rule.

But as the Game Boy’s sales only continued to increase following a launch that had been explosive beyond even Nintendo’s dearest hopes, the company’s customer surveys began to reveal a curious piece of information: many, many adults were playing with the Game Boys they had bought for their children as much or more than said children were. The adults in question were largely well-educated professionals who would never have dreamed of darkening the doors of an arcade or picking up an NES controller. Yet here they were, playing Game Boy. And, it didn’t take much further probing to reveal, the game they were almost universally playing was Tetris.

Surprised by this development but far from averse to it, Nintendo began aiming some of their marketing fusillade at adults. Game Boy advertisements were soon appearing in in-flight magazines, targeted explicitly at the business travelers leafing through their pages:

If you’re reading this ad, you’re very bored. You’ve mastered the safety instructions in every language, and the flight attendant won’t give you any more almonds. Now what? Game Boy won’t ask you for your dessert, and fits just as neatly into the mouth of that screaming child beside you as it does into your briefcase.

The cleverest of all the new advertisements neatly reversed the typical family’s videogame supply chain to suit the changing times: “This Father’s Day, treat Dad like a kid!”

Many of the Game Boys sold via such advertisements were literally never used to play any other game than Tetris. Reports had it that some players, concerned over a tendency the cartridge had to fall out of its slot as it aged, actually glued it into place — thus cementing permanently, as it were, the link between Game Boy and Tetris. This state of affairs wasn’t entirely ideal in Nintendo’s view — they sold the Game Boy cheap in the expectation of making a lot more money off the game cartridges they would later sell for it, a plan which a Game Boy that was used for nothing other than playing Tetris rather nullified — but Game Boy sales on the whole were so absurdly strong that there was little room to really complain.

Careful readers will note that I described the combination of the Game Boy and Tetris as “identifying a whole new potential market for videogames” rather than creating one in any sustained sense. For years after millions of adults went Tetris crazy, game makers — including the usually astute Nintendo — were remarkably slow to follow up this success. Many students of gaming history date the true beginning of the modern market for casual games to the release of Bejeweled in 2001. Yet if you ask these same students about the first casual game, full stop, the majority will point back to Tetris. Not coincidentally, Bejeweled and its many descendants all inhabit a subgenre broadly known as the “matching game,” which has Tetris as its forefather. When writing A Casual Revolution, his book on the phenomenon of casual games, Jesper Juul interviewed dozens of casual players. One of the constants of these interviews emerges when the players are asked about their experience of playing games before discovering modern casual-game portals like Big Fish Games. As often as not, Tetris is the first thing to spring into their minds. This indicates not simply that many of these casual gamers once played Tetris, but that they also identify it as something broadly like the games they enjoy today. Tetris gave them a glimpse of something circa 1990 that the games industry never fully managed to deliver to them again until the following decade.

Eager like all Tetris publishers to use the game’s origins in the Mirror World for marketing purposes, Nintendo did a fair amount of outreach in the Soviet Union. Here Howard Lincoln visits a Russian summer camp, where he passes out free Game Boys.

Juul published his book in 2010, when countless millions were still playing Tetris on the so-called “feature phones” of the time. For all the anecdotes from Tetris‘s heyday about playing it on work PCs in office cubicles, it was always the collision between the game and a mobile device — whether Game Boy, feature phone, or smartphone — that really brought the magic. It may have taken Tetris five years to make the journey from Alexey Pajitnov’s clunky Elektronika 60 terminal to the svelte little Game Boy, but once it arrived on mobile it was clear that this was where the game would truly thrive. A great casual game can be played obsessively or sporadically with equal success, and thus really comes into its own when combined with a portable gadget of some stripe and a player with a little — or perhaps sometimes a lot — of time to kill. Game designer Frank Lantz:

Tetris might be the ur-casual game. If you think of casual games as the PopCap-style match-3 puzzle games, Tetris is the blueprint for that, and yet it is possible to play Tetris in drunken binges. You are addicted to this activity, this repetitious thing you can’t walk away from for hours. When you finally put it down, you are groggy and have a headache. Or it is possible to play Tetris when you are standing in the line at the DMV and you think, “Okay, I am bored, I’ve got five minutes to fill and I will play some Tetris.” It is still Tetris in either sense.

Tetris, in other words, molds itself to your life rather than the other way around. Rather than gaming as lifestyle, it’s gaming as lifestyle accessory. It turns out that, contrary to almost every one of the games industry’s pre-millennial instincts, there’s even more money to be made in the latter than the former. Tetris, the urtext of the casual game, had sold an estimated 170 million physical copies and 425 million digital copies by 2016, earning nearly $1 billion in the process. By most meaningful measures, it is indeed the most popular videogame in history. A game that somehow managed to become iconic without containing any actual icons — no characters, no story, no essential style or look — it must also be, in light of the market it did so much to identify, at the very least in the conversation for the title of most important videogame of all time.

In 1993, Tetris became the first videogame to be played in space when cosmonaut Aleksandr Serebrov took his Game Boy with him into orbit. This well-publicized event was as close as the Russians ever came to achieving their hopes for a grand promotional partnership between Nintendo and the Soviet space program.

(Sources: the books Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff, The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World by Dan Ackerman, and A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players by Jesper Juul; the BBC television documentary From Russia with Love; Nintendo Power of July/August 1989, September/October 1989, and November/December 1989; The New York Times of June 22 1989 and December 21 1989.)

 

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A Tale of the Mirror World, Part 6: Total War

Howard Lincoln and Minoru Arakawa

Henk Rogers returned to Moscow on March 15, 1989, under very different circumstances from those of his first visit of a month before. Then he had officially been a tourist, a complete unknown to ELORG with no right to do business in the Soviet Union; now he had a meeting with Nikoli Belikov and his fellow bureaucrats scheduled prior to his arrival. Then he had traveled alone; now he brought with him an American named John Huhs, a lawyer and fluent Russian speaker with no experience in videogames but heaps of experience brokering complex international deals with insular non-democratic countries like the Soviet Union. Then he had been working, ostensibly at least, as a free agent, trying to secure the handheld rights to Tetris for his own Bullet-Proof Software so he could license them on to Nintendo; now he was working as a more direct proxy for the Japanese videogame giant, hoping to broker an agreement in principle to license the North American console rights to Tetris directly from ELORG to Nintendo. If he could achieve that goal, Minoru Arakawa and Howard Lincoln of Nintendo of America, two of the three most powerful people in videogames (the third being, of course, Nintendo’s overall president Hiroshi Yamauchi), were willing to drop everything and join him in Moscow for the final signing.

When Rogers walked into his meeting with Belikov, he threw Nintendo’s eye-popping offer for the console rights down onto the table without preamble. In addition to a generous royalty, Nintendo would guarantee that ELORG would make at least $5 million from the deal when all was said and done. If, in other words, royalty payments didn’t reach $5 million within a certain time frame, Nintendo would make up the difference out of their own pocket. This was big money by almost anyone’s standards, but in the context of the Soviet Union of 1989 it was an astronomical sum. The offer was intended to turn Belikov’s head, and in this it succeeded magnificently. Previous negotiations had dwelt on relative nickels and dimes: $50,000 here, $100,000 there. Nintendo’s offer elevated the discussion to another financial plane entirely. It was so much more generous than Belikov could have imagined in his wildest dreams that he was highly motivated to get an agreement finalized before cooler heads in the West prevailed. And this, needless to say, was just what Arakawa and Lincoln had intended.

As their initial offer testifies, Arakawa and Lincoln wanted those Tetris rights very, very badly. While their actions were partially motivated by their firm belief that Tetris was one hell of a game that deserved as wide an audience as possible, this was hardly the sum total of what was driving them. Nor did even the profits they expected the game to rake in fully explain their generosity. Unbeknownst to Nikoli Belikov, Alexey Pajitnov, or anyone else in the Soviet Union, the Tetris rights were about to be tossed like the mother of all live grenades into the greatest war the American videogame industry had ever known. The combatants were nothing less than the two most legendary trademarks in videogames. It was the architect of the first great videogame craze versus the architect of the second: Atari versus Nintendo.

The roots of the conflict ran deep. Forbidden from entering the console market by the agreement which had split the old Atari into two companies in the wake of the Great Videogame Crash, Atari Games had tried to content themselves with building standup arcade machines while Nintendo breathed life back into the supposedly dead North American console market. At last, unable to resist that exploding market’s allure any longer, they had formed their Tengen subsidiary to make console games of their own in 1987.

Whatever their personal feelings toward the company, Tengen had known that Nintendo was the only game — or, rather, the only game console — in town. They had thus signed a contract to become an authorized maker of games for the Nintendo Entertainment System in January of 1988. Tengen was limited, like most such licensees, to five games per year, which were to be manufactured by Nintendo at the times and in the quantities Nintendo chose. Therein lay the first concrete bone of contention between the two companies.

When Tengen delivered their first finished games to Nintendo in June of 1988, Nintendo ordered far fewer to be manufactured than Tengen had requested. They pinned the need for the reduction partially on overoptimism on Tengen’s part and partially on a worldwide microchip shortage they claimed was forcing them to scale back all cartridge production. To say the least, their licensee wasn’t convinced. A livid Atari claimed they could have sold ten times as many game cartridges as Nintendo deigned to provide them with, and openly suspected malice aforethought in Nintendo’s whole production-allotment process. Atari decided that in order to thrive again in the console market they must break Nintendo’s stranglehold on the manufacture of cartridges.

The key to breaking through on that front, they realized, was to break the lockout system employed by the NES. Nintendo’s ability to control their captive market without running afoul of antitrust laws hinged on this patented and copyrighted combination of code and circuitry, which prevented unauthorized cartridges from working on the console. If Atari could develop a lockout-defeating technology from scratch, making no use of any of Nintendo’s schematics or documentation, their lawyers believed that they would be legally in the clear to produce their own Nintendo games in whatever quantity they desired, and without paying Nintendo the customary licensing fee.

Unfortunately, reverse-engineering the lockout system was a tall order; it was by far the most advanced piece of a game console that was otherwise years out of date in purely technical terms. At last, they decided to cheat.

The code that operated the lockout system had been registered by Nintendo with the United States Copyright Office, an act which had required Nintendo to send to the Copyright Office a copy of the code. There it was kept under lock and key, inaccessible to third parties — except under one condition: if the code should become the subject of litigation, both sides were entitled to a copy. In other words, had Nintendo accused Atari of violating their copyright on the code, Atari’s lawyers would have been able to request a copy in order to defend their client.

Nintendo had not done any such thing. Nevertheless, Atari filed an affidavit with the Copyright Office in connection with legal proceedings allegedly about to get under way, for which a copy of the code was needed. The affidavit indicated that the code was “to be used only in connection with the specified litigation.” Failing to do their due diligence in verifying Atari’s claim, the Copyright Office complied, providing a copy of the code to be used in a legal case which didn’t exist. Not coincidentally, Atari’s ongoing efforts to reverse-engineer Nintendo’s lockout system finally bore fruit shortly thereafter.

On December 12, 1988, Atari Games filed suit against Nintendo, charging them with monopolistic business practices. “Through the use of a technologically sophisticated ‘lockout system,'” the complaint claimed, “Nintendo has, for the past several years, prevented all would-be competitors, including Atari, from competing with it in the manufacture of videogame cartridges compatible with the Nintendo home-videogame machine. The sole purpose of the lockout system is to lock out competition.” The complaint went on to make note of Nintendo’s stranglehold on the supply of third-party game cartridges: “The impact of Nintendo’s conduct has been to block any competition in the manufacturing market for videogame cartridges compatible with the Nintendo machine.” Atari asked for a staggering $100 million in damages.

On the same day they filed their lawsuit, Atari announced that they would start manufacturing and selling their own Nintendo games, without involving Nintendo at all or paying them anything at all. Tengen shipped new, unauthorized versions of their three extant Nintendo games — Pac-Man, Gauntlet, and R.B.I. Baseball — using their lockout-defeat technology. And they soon announced another four unauthorized games — Super Sprint, Rolling Thunder, Vindicators, and Tetris — which were to be released in May of 1989. Even more so in its way than the lawsuit, Atari’s decision to start making unauthorized games for the NES was the shot heard round the industry.

The conflict between Nintendo and Atari was a deeply personal one. Whatever Nintendo’s real or alleged legal sins, Atari, barely half a decade removed from their glory days, resented them most of all as the usurpers of what they regarded as their rightful crown. For their part, Arakawa and Lincoln had known Hideyuki Nakajima, Atari’s president, for years, had imagined there was a bond of mutual respect that would prevent him from ever taking a step like this. When Atari had signed on as a Nintendo licensee, they believed they had shown Nakajima exceptional deference, freely divulging, as Lincoln would later put it, “the crown jewels of our business.” In their eyes, then, Nakajima’s declaration of war was a personal betrayal.

It was also nothing less than an existential threat to Nintendo’s entire business model. If Atari got away with this, other publishers would inevitably find their own ways to defeat the lockout system — who knew, maybe Atari would even sell their stolen secrets to them — and the walls around Nintendo’s carefully curated and absurdly profitable videogame garden would be demolished. That scenario must be prevented at all costs. Largely thanks to Howard Lincoln, Nintendo of America already enjoyed a reputation for ruthlessness when their interests were challenged. Now, Arakawa told Lincoln to stop at nothing to quell Atari’s uprising. Atari had opted to go to total war with, in Lincoln’s colorful diction, “a tiger who will skin you piece by piece.”

Nintendo’s legal response to Atari was swift, multi-pronged, and comprehensive. On January 5, 1989, they filed a counter-suit alleging breach of contract (for reneging on Tengen’s existing agreement to sell authorized Nintendo cartridges) and trademark infringement (for printing the Nintendo logo on Tengen’s unauthorized packaging). More audaciously, the suit alleged that Atari had violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known in law-enforcement circles as RICO and normally applied to gangland money-laundering operations, in setting up Tengen as essentially a shell corporation with the intention of defrauding Nintendo. Another suit, filed on February 2, accused Atari of patent infringement of the NES lockout system.

But the courts were hardly the only weapon which Nintendo, the company which for all intents and purposes was the American game-console industry, had at their disposal. They took to calling the major retailers, telling them that selling products “which infringe Nintendo’s patent or other intellectual-property rights” would have dire consequences for their supply of official Nintendo hardware and games. “Companies would not carry our games because there was pressure from Nintendo which could jeopardize their business,” says Nakajima. “Even the big companies like Toys ‘R’ Us couldn’t stand up to them.” Atari executive Dan Van Elederen imagines the way a conversation between a major retailer and Nintendo might have gone: “You know, we really like to support those who support Nintendo, and we’re not real happy that you’re carrying a Tengen product. By the way, why don’t we sit down and talk about product allocations for next quarter. How many Super Marios did you say you wanted?” “If a retailer carried Tengen games, their Nintendo allocations would suddenly disappear,” remembers one retail buyer who was caught in the crossfire. “Since it was illegal, there were always excuses: the truck got lost, or the ship from Japan never arrived.” Tengen was slowly but methodically squeezed out of retail.

A third theater of battle was the press, which the combatants used to lob statements back and forth, jockeying for advantage with the public and especially with the American political establishment, many of whose members had long expressed concern at their country’s longstanding trade deficit with Japan. Atari tried to frame a folksy narrative of a domestic upstart just looking for a fair shake against the calculated malfeasance of a shifty-eyed foe from the Orient: “Let’s say you buy a Ford, and the company says, ‘If you buy a Ford automobile from us, you have to buy Ford gas.’ That’s not the way business is done.” Nintendo replied by claiming — being partly if not entirely truthful about their motivations — that they had put their controls in place to keep the junk games that had done so much to precipitate the Great Videogame Crash of 1983 off the market this time around: “It was the only way we could ensure that there would be consistent, quality software.” Hoping doubtless to curry favor, some American publishers who were closely identified with Nintendo parroted this company line, among them Acclaim Entertainment: “Nintendo is trying to make this into a category, not a fad, where videogaming becomes another part of our entertainment life.”

But the majority of the American software industry stood — tacitly at least — with Atari. Indeed, Atari’s cause was increasingly becoming that of the American software industry as a whole — by which I mean many companies that had never heretofore made console games at all, that had concentrated on the less volatile home-computer market. Yet in recent months, in the face of a Nintendo market that had gone from nothing to three times the size of the total American market for computer games with incomprehensible speed, it had been hard for the computer-game publishers to resist the lure of the other side. Most of those who jumped into publishing agreements with Nintendo were frustrated by the same restrictions and policies that so infuriated Atari. The whole enterprise seemed consciously engineered to let them make some money but never too much — and certainly to keep them from ever making a truly iconic Nintendo game to rival the likes of Super Mario Bros.

The Software Publishers Association, the traditional American software industry’s biggest lobbyist and trade group, left no doubt where it stood on the question: “The SPA believes that Nintendo has, through its complete control and single-sourcing of cartridge manufacturing, engineered a shortage of Nintendo-compatible cartridges. Retailers, consumers, and independent software vendors have become frustrated by the unavailability of many titles during the [1988] holiday season, and believe that these shortages could be prevented by permitting software vendors to produce their own cartridges.” The SPA warned ominously and to some extent presciently of what the walled-garden philosophy of software marketing could come to mean if it spread further: “We don’t want any computer company to get the idea that what Nintendo is doing would be acceptable in the computer business. Software is an intellectual property that thrives in an unrestricted environment.”

That said, few companies were willing to attract the attention of the Nintendo tiger by stating their views too stridently or too publicly, much less by taking the sort of aggressive action Atari Games had opted for. There was, however, one notable exception.

On January 31, 1989, the other Atari — the home-computer company run by Jack Tramiel and his sons — filed their own suit against Nintendo, asking that the latter be forced to pay the towering sum of $250 million in damages. At issue this time was Nintendo’s policy of requiring that many licensees not port their games to other systems for two years from the date of their first appearance on the NES. This policy, Tramiel’s Atari claimed, was an abuse of Nintendo’s near-monopoly of the videogame market and thus a violation of antitrust laws. Atari Corporation’s claim to being an aggrieved party in the issue was perhaps debatable; Tramiel’s company produced mostly hardware, not software, and its main strategic focus was its ST line of computers, whose most successful games tended to be dramatically different in character from those which sold best on the NES. It was, in other words, hard to imagine that the lack of hot Nintendo-style games on the Atari ST was a primary reason behind its lackluster North American sales. But Jack Tramiel had a long history of using the courts as business competition by other means, and, gauging the political mood in the country with respect to Japanese imports, he thought he smelled blood in the water here.

So, it was now the two Ataris against Nintendo — the past of videogames against their future, one might say. Thematics aside, the two Ataris made for some very unexpected bedfellows. Each part of the old, monolithic Atari felt that they were the only part truly worthy of carrying the name’s legacy onward. To put it bluntly, the two companies “don’t like each other,” admitted Atari Games’s Dan Van Elderen. But, as they say, the enemy of my enemy…

Isolated in Moscow, Nikoli Belikov was unaware of this dramatic backdrop to Nintendo’s generous offer for the Tetris console rights. From his perspective, the only thing preventing the negotiation from moving forward immediately was the promise which he had made to Kevin Maxwell to give Mirrorsoft an opportunity to bid on the rights. Thankfully, the Russians hadn’t heard anything at all from Mirrorsoft since Maxwell had departed Moscow over two weeks ago.

On the same day that Henk Rogers first presented Nintendo’s offer, Belikov fired off a telex to London, saying that ELORG was about to sign a deal for the console rights to Tetris and that, in accordance with the arrangement he and Maxwell had arrived at, Mirrorsoft urgently needed to send their own best offer — if they wished to make an offer at all, that was. He gave them exactly 24 hours to do so, an intentionally impossible time frame. When the deadline expired, Belikov considered himself to have done his legal duty. Now nothing lay between him and a deal worth at least $5 million.

When word came to Arakawa and Lincoln from Rogers that an agreement for the console rights looked very possible, they scrambled to secure the visas and airplane tickets they needed to come personally to Moscow. This latest round of Tetris negotiations offered not just the opportunity to secure an all-but-guaranteed massive hit for Nintendo, but also that of taking away an all-but-guaranteed massive hit from Atari. Neither Arakawa nor Lincoln was an especially forgiving man, and they relished this opportunity with their every last fiber of vindictiveness. Their preparations for their journey smacked more of a spy thriller than a typical business trip. The comings and goings of two men such as them within what was once again a multi-billion-dollar American videogame industry hardly went unobserved even when the industry wasn’t racked by total war. On the contrary: their every statement, action, and, yes, movement was closely scrutinized for clues to what Nintendo might do next. Arakawa and Lincoln thus felt compelled to slip away in the dead of night, telling only two of their closest confidants where they were going and why.

They arrived in Moscow on Sunday, March 19. As befit the sense of occasion that surrounded their visit, Henk Rogers forewent the taxis that were his usual mode of transportation around Moscow in favor of picking them up at the airport in a big black Mercedes he had managed to rent at an exorbitant price. The two huddled in the back seat, jet-lagged and bleary-eyed, and marveled at the Mirror World outside the windows, which Lincoln said reminded him of the mean streets of old black-and-white gangster films. Their self-appointed chauffeur, feeling himself by comparison an old hand with Moscow life, merely smiled and nodded. At the hotel, Arakawa and Lincoln were given a room with a single bed, a disconnected stove, and a refrigerator without a door. Don’t complain, Rogers told them; it can only get worse.

Whatever their other prowesses as negotiators, Arakawa and Lincoln weren’t gifted with Henk Rogers’s all-but-irresistible charm. Arakawa was reserved, stoic, even shy among new people, while Lincoln, who looked every inch the corporate lawyer he was, made the most of his native suspicious nature as Nintendo’s attack dog, willing to challenge every point and question every assertion in trying to secure for his company every possible advantage. Alexey Pajitnov, for one, sensed the change in the atmosphere around the table as soon as they all entered the conference room the next day.

Still, it was fascinating in a way to watch Belikov and Lincoln, two sly old foxes with far more in common than the gulf of culture, language, and politics that lay between them might suggest, sniff one another out. Lincoln questioned Belikov long and hard about the previous deal with Stein and the potential trouble it might present. Belikov, meanwhile, notwithstanding the incredible offer that lay on the table, pressed relentlessly for further advantage, persisted in testing every boundary. Apparently not understanding how unique Tetris was, he seemed to see game design as a commodity amenable to the typical Soviet model of mass production, proposing that Nintendo and ELORG set up a joint subsidiary to crank out many more games. Apparently not understanding that the key to Nintendo’s control of their walled garden was their ownership of the means of production of game cartridges — the very thing they were fighting so savagely to maintain far away in the United States — he proposed that the Tetris cartridges be manufactured by ELORG in the Soviet Union, a recipe for quality-control disaster if ever there was one. Then he proposed that ELORG make actual Nintendos in the Soviet Union for sale behind the Iron Curtain. The most surreal moment of the talks came when a cosmonaut trooped in to pitch an idea for plastering the Nintendo logo all over Soviet rockets; when the Soviet Union embraced capitalism, it seemed, it really embraced capitalism.

Another bizarre incident hearkened ironically back to that earlier pivotal instant when Henk Rogers had produced Bullet-Proof Software’s “pirated” Nintendo Famicom version of Tetris to gasps all around the conference table. Wanting to demonstrate how adept his people were at this consumer-electronics thing, one of the Russian bureaucrats reached under the table and came up with a Soviet knockoff of a Donkey Kong standalone handheld game which Nintendo had released back in 1982. In its Soviet form, it was bereft of any acknowledgment of its origins — and bereft of any agreement to pay Nintendo royalties for it. Under normal circumstances, such a thing would have set Howard Lincoln into a paroxysm of enraged threats. But today, managing to see the bigger picture, he swallowed hard and held his tongue with difficulty.

To be fair to Belikov, many of the kookier ideas that he was forced to pitch likely didn’t originate with him. In this era of perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev had tasked the masterminds of his nation’s economy, so long accustomed to looking inward to quotas and five-year plans, with looking out, with finding areas where the Soviet Union could compete with the other members of the community of free nations Gorbachev was intent on joining. Computer software had always seemed like an area with real potential in this regard, responsive as it seemingly was to the country’s long tradition of mathematical excellence. And now here was the Tetris deal. As a game rather than a more “serious” piece of software, it perhaps wasn’t the completely ideal vehicle for Soviet software’s coming-out party, but it would do. As soon as that $5 million figure started to spread through the Soviet bureaucracy, Belikov’s negotiations over what had heretofore been regarded as a silly little game — a minor transaction at best — took on a dramatically higher profile. Lots and lots of people with lots of different agendas were now trying to muscle their way into the room with these foreigners who so evidently had more money than sense. Lincoln batted away each crazy proposal as politely as he could, and kept trying to steer the discussion back to the deal that was already on the table.

Alexey Pajitnov in his Moscow apartment.

The atmosphere was warmer that evening when Rogers, still playing the role of chaperone and tour guide, located the only sushi restaurant in Moscow and took Arakawa, Lincoln, Pajitnov, and Nintendo’s legal consultant John Huhs out for dinner there. Pajitnov was skeptical of the notion of eating raw fish, but soon got with the program — at least until he popped an entire ball of wasabi into his mouth just ahead of his companions’ urgent warning cries, nearly causing his head to explode. Back at the Pajitnov family apartment, Arakawa gave the children a prototype Game Boy with a prototype of Tetris in the cartridge slot, telling them that they were now quite possibly the first people in the entire Soviet Union to own a Nintendo product. Pajitnov still stood to gain absolutely nothing from this game that so many others were now confidently expecting to earn them millions, but he did appreciate the attention and respect he was shown by the Nintendo delegation, so different from Robert Stein and the ELORG bureaucrats who did little more than tolerate his presence at the negotiating table. And he took Henk Rogers at his word that someday soon he would find a way to get him his financial due — if not with Tetris, than with the next game he designed.

A contract giving Nintendo exclusive worldwide-except-for-Japan console rights to Tetris was signed on March 22, 1989, alongside another giving the Japanese rights to Rogers, thus fully legitimizing in the eyes of ELORG the Bullet-Proof version of Tetris that had started this whole ruckus. Two heavyweight bureaucrats, the head of the State Committee for Computer Systems and Informatics and the head of computer research at the Soviet Academy of Sciences, came out to witness the signings, which were conducted with some pomp and circumstance. To commemorate the occasion, Rogers, who in his standard inimitable fashion was now wheeling and dealing on the Moscow black market like a native, presented Arakawa and Lincoln with tickets for that evening to the Bolshoi Ballet. Much to their amazement, Mikhail Gorbachev himself showed up for the performance — and took a seat that was worse than theirs. That was Henk Rogers for you.

From being the property of Robert Stein in their totality barely a month earlier, the rights to Tetris had now been sliced and diced into a whole pile of discrete parts. The computer-game rights lay with Mirrorsoft in Europe and, through Mirrorsoft, Spectrum Holobyte in North America and Bullet-Proof Software in Japan. The arcade rights lay with Atari Games in North America and Europe and, through Atari, Sega in Japan. The worldwide handheld rights lay with Bullet-Proof, who planned to use them to let Nintendo bundle a copy of Tetris with every Game Boy sold when the new gadget came to North America in four months or so. And now, as a product of this latest round of negotiations, the non-Japanese console rights belonged directly to Nintendo, the Japanese console rights to Bullet-Proof.

This, anyway, was the new world order according to ELORG and Nintendo. But there was soon trouble from the parties whose earlier deals had been retroactively voided, just as Rogers had warned Belikov there would be the previous month.

On the morning of March 22, even as the contract-signing ceremony was about to get under way, a belated response had finally arrived to the telex which Belikov had sent to Mirrorsoft six days before. In the message, Jim Mackonochie of Mirrorsoft, adopting a posture of bemused confusion, said that Mirrorsoft didn’t need to bid for the console rights because they already possessed them. His obvious intention was to pretend that the disastrous meeting between Belikov and Kevin Maxwell had never happened, and to hope that thereby the old status quo would be allowed to reassert itself. But he learned that that most definitely wasn’t a possibility later the same day, when Belikov sent a reply stating that the console rights had never been Stein’s to license to Mirrorsoft, and that those selfsame rights had in fact just been licensed to Nintendo. To rub salt into the wound, Belikov also dropped the bombshell that the handheld rights already belonged to Henk Rogers.

The Mirrorsoft camp’s response was predictably swift and aggressive. Evidently not recollecting how well his last decision to shove Mackonochie aside had gone, Kevin Maxwell jumped personally back into the fray the very next day with a telex telling Belikov he was “in grave breach twice over of our agreements with you.” Having apparently remedied the ignorance that had led him to call the Bullet-Proof Tetris a pirated version on his last trip to Moscow, he wrote that “we already hold the worldwide rights to Tetris on the Nintendo family computer. Indeed, we have been marketing it accordingly, [through] Bullet-Proof Software in Japan since January 1989.” But he was willing, he graciously conceded, to come to Moscow to meet once again with Belikov and learn from him “how you intend to remedy your double breach of our agreement.” Should Belikov refuse to invite him to such a meeting, he warned of legal and political — yes, political — consequences.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Robert Maxwell. The latter was so chummy with the Kremlin that questions would later surface over whether he had acted at times as a Soviet spy.

He wasn’t just blowing smoke. His father, Robert Maxwell, was an absurdly well-connected man, the ruler of a communication and publication empire that spanned the globe and that had placed him on a first-name basis with countless current and former heads of state. When told by his secretary that “the prime minister” was on the phone for him, legend has it that Maxwell would ask, “Which one?” His Rolodex contained the home address and phone number of one Mikhail Gorbachev, just as it had Gorbachev’s predecessors Yuri Andropov, Leonid Brezhnev, and Nikita Khrushchev.

After the Nintendo delegation returned home from Moscow and it became clear to Kevin Maxwell that Belikov had no intention of granting him his mea-culpa meeting, he went to his father to explain what the Russians had done to him, eliciting a desk-pounding fit of rage: “They won’t get away with it! Rest assured of that!” Robert Maxwell wrote directly to the highest levels of the Kremlin, issuing a thinly veiled threat to the many investments he was making into Gorbachev’s new Soviet Union: “We attach high importance to our excellent commercial relations with the Soviet government and many leading agencies in the fields of information, communications, publishing, and, indeed, pulp and paper production. We face the prospect of all this being jeopardized by the unilateral action of one particular agency.” Nice economy you’re building there, Gorbachev, ran the subtext. It’d be a shame if anything happened to it — and all because of one silly videogame.

Maxwell contacted the secretary of state for trade and industry within Britain’s own government, pushing him to place the Tetris issue on the agenda for an upcoming summit between Margaret Thatcher and Gorbachev. Alexey Pajitnov’s little game of falling shapes was now threatening to impinge on agendas at the highest levels of international statecraft. In late April, Maxwell flew to Moscow to meet personally with Gorbachev, ostensibly to discuss his growing number of publication ventures within and on behalf of the Soviet Union. But he brought up the issue of Tetris there as well, and claimed that before he left Gorbachev assured him that he would personally take care of the issue of “the Japanese company” for him.

In actuality, though, Gorbachev did little or nothing, presumably judging that Maxwell wouldn’t really blow up deals potentially worth billions in the long run over a videogame-licensing spat. Still, plenty of others within the Soviet government — among them many representatives of the hard-line communist order that was at odds with Gorbachev — wanted an embattled Belikov to back down and give Maxwell what he wanted.

When Howard Lincoln returned to Moscow about a month after his first visit for a follow-up meeting, a tension that verged on paranoia was palpable around the conference table. Belikov spoke of “calls from the Kremlin, calls from people who never before knew we existed. Many of them have shown up to examine our records and to question us on this deal. We have told them we have done the right thing. We have stood up to them, but we do not know what will happen.”  There were even rumors that the KGB had been put on the case to dig up dirt on Belikov and his colleagues at ELORG, rumors of bugs in telephones and men in descriptly nondescript trench coats trailing people through the streets. Belikov had hired a pair of personal bodyguards for protection.

He clung to a simple but potent line of argument against his persecutors: Gorbachev had said that producers in the Soviet Union needed to have a degree of economic freedom, needed to make decisions in response to the market rather than a hidebound bureaucratic class. That was what perestroika, the buzzword of the age, was all about. He, then, was just doing perestroika. Nintendo had offered ELORG a better deal, and he was bound — duty-bound by perestroika, one might say — to take it.

Howard Lincoln’s son Brad plays Tetris with Alexey Pajitnov.

Helping Belikov stay strong was the fact that he and Howard Lincoln had gone from cagey adversaries to something approaching friends. In the months after signing their deal, Belikov arranged for Lincoln and his son to take a private tour of Star City, the heart of the Soviet space program. He took Lincoln on a traditional Russian fishing trip — “traditional” in this case indicating much more vodka-drinking than fish-catching. He felt a bond with Howard Lincoln and also Henk Rogers, two men who had talked straight to him and treated him as an equal, that he most definitely didn’t feel with Robert Stein or the Maxwell clan. He felt that Lincoln and Rogers had been in his corner, so he would stay in theirs. Crusty old bureaucratic knife fighter though he was, his sense of loyalty ran surprisingly deep.

While Belikov was weathering the storm unleashed by Robert Maxwell upon Moscow, Arakawa and Lincoln were left to deal with the issue of Atari, Mirrorsoft sub-licensee of the Tetris rights, in the United States. It seems safe to say that they relished their situation far more than their Soviet partner did his, not least because it afforded them the luxury of going on the offensive in yet one more way against their bitterest enemy. With delicious satisfaction, Lincoln drafted a cease-and-desist letter that was sent to Atari on March 31, saying that the console rights to Tetris belonged to Nintendo rather than to Tengen, and that the latter thus needed to give up their own plans for Tetris if they didn’t wish to spark another legal battle in the ongoing war. He knew, as he would later put it, that Atari “would go nuts” when they received the letter. On April 6, Nintendo announced via an official press release their plans to release their version of Tetris for the NES that summer. Atari took the bait, suing Nintendo for infringing on their licensing deal with Mirrorsoft on April 18. They honestly believed that the rights they had licensed from Mirrorsoft were perfectly legitimate — “There was no inkling that we were in the wrong,” Tengen head Randy Broweleit would later say — and they had no intention of lying down for Nintendo. Quite the contrary. Having engulfed so much of the American videogame industry already, it hardly surprised anyone that the war between Atari and Nintendo had now sucked Tetris as well into its maw.

The Tengen Tetris, running in this version’s unique cooperative mode.

Ironically, the version of Tetris which Tengen was finalizing against the will of the game’s designer was by far the best version of the game that had yet been created. Indeed, plenty among the Tetris cognoscenti will tell you that the Tengen Tetris still stands among the best versions ever created, far superior to the versions Nintendo was preparing in-house at the time of its release. Tengen had assigned Ed Logg, creator of iconic arcade games like Asteroids, Centipede, and Gauntlet, to head up a team that wound up spending three person-years on the project, a rather extraordinary amount of time in light of what a simple game Tetris really was. Under Logg’s stewardship, Alexey Pajitnov’s core design took on a much more polished look than it had enjoyed to date. The pieces were no longer solid blocks of color, but were given texture and a pseudo-3D appearance that made them look more like falling blocks than falling abstractions, harking back to the physicality of the pentomino puzzles that had inspired the game. Logg also added a head-to-head competitive mode to the game, and an innovative cooperative mode in which two players could work together to clear away lines. And he made the speed of the falling shapes increase slowly and subtly the longer you played, instead of taking a more noticeable, granular leap only when you went up a level. Whatever you could say about the circumstances of its creation, taken purely on its own terms it was truly a Tetris to be proud of.

It needed to be great. Tengen was counting on this game becoming an unstoppable force that would bust right through the blockade Nintendo was erecting around their lifeline to retail. The launch was as lavish as they could make it, beginning with the game’s unveiling at Manhattan’s Russian Tea Room restaurant. As that location would imply, the line of marketing attack developed by Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte was employed once again by Tengen. In their hands, though, it came to read a little tone deaf, being amped up with far more testosterone than the game destined to go down in history as the very personification of a non-violent, casual puzzler really had need of. “It’s like Siberia, only harder,” ran one tagline. “It’s the nerve-wrackingest mind game since Russian roulette,” ran another. A third said it should only be played by “macho men with the first-strike capability to beat the Russian programmers who invented it. If you can’t make the pieces fit together, an avalanche of blocks thunders down and buries you weaklings!”

But, overheated rhetoric aside, Tengen clearly saw the potential of Tetris to expand the Nintendo demographic beyond boys and teenagers, buying full-page spreads in such mainstream non-adolescent publications as USA Today. And, now that they controlled the means of Nintendo cartridge production, they weren’t going to be caught out by any shortage on that front. They ordered an initial production run of fully 300,000 Tetris cartridges, at an expense of $3 million.

The Tengen Tetris was released on May 17, 1989. It took Nintendo exactly eight days to sue in response; in combination with Atari’s earlier suit against Nintendo, this latest legal salvo meant that each company was now accusing the other of making or planning to make what amounted to a pirated version of Tetris. While American courts tried to sort through the dueling lawsuits, American gamers faced the prospect of deciding between dueling versions of Tetris on the NES, each claiming to be the one and only legitimate version.

Alexey Pajitnov’s little game of falling shapes, having already sparked a bewildering amount of international intrigue, had found yet another role to play as a coveted prize in the greatest war the American videogame industry had ever known. Nintendo and Atari were both willing to use every resource at their disposal to ensure that Tetris belonged to them and them alone. All of the conspiratorial maneuvering that had taken place in Moscow the previous February and March was about to be put to the test. Did all of the rights to Tetris belong to Robert Stein to sub-license as he would, as Atari claimed, or did Stein possess only the computer-game and arcade rights, as Nintendo claimed? It must now be up to a court of law in the United States to decide.

(Sources: the books Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff and The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World by Dan Ackerman; the BBC television documentary From Russia with Love; Hardcore Gamer Vol.5 No.1; Nintendo Power of September/October 1989; The New York Times of February 3 1989 and March 9 1989.)

 

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A Time of Endings, Part 2: Epyx

On a beautiful May day in 1987, Epyx held a party behind their offices to celebrate the completion of California Games, the fifth and latest in their hugely popular Games line of sports titles. To whatever extent their skills allowed, employees and their families tried to imitate the athletes portrayed in the new game, riding skateboards, throwing Frisbees, or kicking around a Hacky Sack. Meanwhile a professional BMX freestyler and a professional skateboarder did tricks to show them how it was really done. The partiers dressed in the most outrageous beachwear they could muster — typically for this hyper-competitive company, their outfits were judged for prizes — while the sound of the Beach Boys and the smell of grilling hamburgers and hotdogs filled the air. Folks from the other offices around Epyx’s came out to look on a little wistfully, doubtless wishing their company was as fun as this one. A good time was had by all, a memory made of one of those special golden days which come along from time to time to be carried along with us for the rest of our lives.

Although no one realized it at the time, that day marked the high-water point of Epyx. By 1990, their story would for all practical purposes be over, the company having gone from a leading light of its industry to a bankrupt shell at the speed of business.

In the spring of 1987, Epyx was the American games industry’s great survivor, the oldest company still standing this side of Atari and the one which had gone through the most changes over its long — by the standards of a very young industry, that is — lifespan. Epyx had been founded by John Connelly and Jon Freeman, a couple of tabletop role-players and wargaming grognards interested in computerizing their hobbies, way back in 1978 under the considerably less exciting name of Automated Simulations. They hit paydirt the following year with Temple of Apshai, the most popular CRPG of the genre’s primordial period. Automated Simulations did well for a while on the back of that game and a bevy of spinoffs and sequels created using the same engine, but after the arrival of the more advanced Wizardry and Ultima their cruder games found it difficult to compete. In 1983, a major management shakeup came to the moribund company at the behest of a consortium of investors, who put in charge the hard-driving Michael Katz, a veteran of the cutthroat business of toys. Katz acquired a company called Starpath, populated by young and highly skilled assembly-language programmers, to complete the transformation of the stodgy Automated Simulations into the commercially aggressive Epyx. In 1984, with the release of the huge hits Summer Games and Impossible Mission, the company’s new identity as purveyors of slick action-based entertainments for the Commodore 64, the most popular gaming platform of the time, was cemented. One Gilbert Freeman (no relation to Jon Freeman) replaced Katz as Epyx’s president and CEO shortly thereafter, but the successful template his predecessor had established remained unchanged right through 1987.

By 1987, however, Freeman was beginning to view his company’s future with some trepidation despite the commercial success they were still enjoying. The new California Games, destined for yet more commercial success though it was, was ironically emblematic of the long-term problems with Epyx’s current business model. California Games pushed the five-year-old Commodore 64’s audiovisual hardware farther than had any previous Epyx game — which is to say, given Epyx’s reputation as the absolute masters of Commodore 64 graphics and sound, farther than virtually any other game ever released for the platform, period. This was of course wonderful in terms of this particular game’s commercial prospects, but it carried with it the implicit question of what Epyx could do next, for even their most technically creative programmers were increasingly of the opinion that they were reaching an end point where they had used every possible trick and simply couldn’t find any new ways to dazzle. For a company so dependent on audiovisual dazzle as Epyx, this was a potentially deadly endgame.

Very much in tandem with the question of how much longer it would be possible to continue pushing the audiovisual envelope on the Commodore 64 ran concerns about the longevity of the platform in general. Jack Tramiel’s little computer for the masses had sold more and longer than anyone could ever have predicted, but the ride couldn’t go on forever. While Epyx released their games for other platforms as well, they remained as closely identified with the Commodore 64 as, say, Cinemaware was with the Commodore Amiga, with the 64 accounting for well over half of their sales most quarters. When that market finally took the dive many had been predicting for it for years now, where would that leave Epyx?

Dave Morse

It was for these big-picture reasons that Freeman brought a man with a reputation for big-picture vision onto Epyx’s board in January of 1987. All but unknown though he was to the general public, among those working in the field of home computers Dave Morse had the reputation of a veritable miracle worker. Just a few years before, he had found ways to let the brilliant engineering team at Amiga, Incorporated, create a computer as revolutionary in its way as the Apple Macintosh on a budget that would barely have paid Steve Jobs’s annual salary. And then, in a coup worthy of The Sting, he’d proceeded to fleece Atari of the prize and sail the ship of Amiga into the (comparatively) safe harbor of Commodore Business Machines. If, as Freeman was starting to suspect, it was going to become necessary to completely remake and remodel Epyx for a second time in the near future, Morse ought to be a darn good man to have on his team.

And indeed, Morse didn’t fail to impress at his first Epyx board meetings. In fact, he impressed so much that Freeman soon decided to cede much of his own power to him. He brought Morse on full-time as CEO to help run the company as an equal partner in May of 1987, the very month of the California Games cookout. But California Games on the Commodore 64 was the present, likely all too soon to be the past. For Freeman, Morse represented Epyx’s future.

Morse had a vision for that future that was as audacious as Freeman could possibly have wished. In the months before coming to Epyx, he had been talking a lot with RJ Mical and Dave Needle, two of his star engineers from Amiga, Incorporated, in the fields of software and hardware respectively. Specifically, they’d been discussing the prospects for a handheld videogame console. Handheld videogames of a sort had enjoyed a brief bloom of popularity in the very early 1980s, at the height of the first great videogame boom when anything that beeped or squawked was en vogue with the country’s youth. Those gadgets, however, had been single-purpose devices capable of playing only one game — and, because it was difficult to pack much oomph into such a small form factor, said game usually wasn’t all that compelling anyway. But chip design and fabrication had come a long way in the past five years or so. Mical and Needle believed that the time was ripe for a handheld device that would be a gaming platform in its own right, capable of playing many titles published on cartridges, just like the living-room-based consoles that had boomed and then busted so spectacularly in 1983. For that reason alone, Morse faced an uphill climb with the venture capitalists; this was still the pre-Nintendo era when the conventional wisdom held videogame consoles to be dead. Yet when he joined the Epyx board he found a very sympathetic ear for his scheme in none other than Epyx President Gilbert Freeman.

In fact, Freeman was so excited by the idea that he was willing to bet the company on it; thus Morse’s elevation to CEO. The plan was to continue to sell traditional computer games while Mical and Needle, both of whom Morse hired immediately after his own appointment, got down to the business of making what everybody hoped would be their second revolutionary machine of the decade. It would all happen in secret, while Morse dropped only the vaguest public hints that “it is important to be able to think in new directions.” This was by any measure a very new direction for Epyx. Unlike most game publishers, they weren’t totally inexperienced making hardware: a line of high-end joysticks, advertised as the perfect complement to their games, had done well for them. Still, it was a long way from making joysticks to making an entirely new game console in such a radically new form factor. They would have to lean very heavily on Morse’s two star engineers, who couldn’t help but notice a certain ironic convergence about their latest situation: Amiga, Incorporated, had also sold joysticks among other gaming peripherals in an effort to fund the development of the Amiga computer.

R.J. Mical and Dave Needle in a very… disturbing picture. Really, perhaps it’s best if we don’t know any more about what’s going on here.

RJ Mical and Dave Needle were a pair of willfully eccentric peas in a pod; one journalist called them the Laurel and Hardy of Silicon Valley. While they had worked together at Amiga for quite some time by June of 1984, the two dated the real genesis of their bond to that relatively late date. When Amiga was showing their Lorraine prototype that month at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, they found themselves working together really closely for the first time, doing some jerry-rigging to get everything working for the demonstrations. They discovered that they understood each other in a way that “software guys” and “hardware guys” usually do not. “He was the first software guy I ever met,” remembered Needle in a joint 1989 interview, “who had more than an inkling of the real purpose of my work, which is building hardware platforms that you can launch software from.” “I could never get hardware guys to understand what I was doing,” interrupted Mical at this point in the same interview. “Dave couldn’t get software guys to understand what the guts could handle. We found ourselves a great match.” From that point forward, they were inseparable, as noted for their practical jokes and wacky antics as for their engineering brilliance. It was a true meeting of the minds, the funny bones, and, one might even say, the hearts. As illustrated by the exchange I’ve just quoted, they became the kind of friends who freely complete each other’s thoughts without pissing each other off.

The design they sketched for what they liked to call the “Potato” — for that was envisioned as its rough size and shape — bore much the same philosophical stamp as their work with Amiga. To keep the size and power consumption down, the Potato was to be built around the aged old 8-bit 6502, the chip at the heart of the Commodore 64, rather than a newer CPU like the Amiga’s 68000. But, as in the Amiga, the chip at the Potato’s core was surrounded with custom hardware designed to alleviate as much of the processing burden as possible, including a blitter for fast animation and a four-channel sound chip that came complete with digital-to-analog converters for playing back sampled sounds and voices. (In the old Amiga tradition, the two custom chips were given the names “Suzy” and “Mikey.”) The 3.5-inch LCD display, with a palette of 4096 colors (the same as the Amiga) and a resolution of 160 X 102, was the most technologically cutting-edge and thus for many months the most problematic feature of the design; Epyx would wind up buying the technology to make it from the Japanese watchmaker Citizen, who had created it as the basis for a handheld television but had yet to use it in one of their own products. Still, perhaps the Potato’s most innovative and impressive feature of all was the port that let you link it up with your mates’ machines for multiplayer gaming. (Another visionary proposed feature was an accelerometer that would have let you play games by tilting the entire unit rather than manipulating the controls, but it would ultimately prove just too costly to include. Ditto a port to let you connect the Potato to your television.)

While few would question the raw talent of Mical and Needle and the small team they assembled to help them make the Potato, this sort of high-wire engineering is always expensive. Freeman and Morse estimated that they would need about two years and $4 million to bring the Potato from a sketch to a finished product ready to market in consumer-electronics stores. Investing this much in the project, it seemed to Freeman and Morse, should be manageable based on Epyx’s current revenue stream, and should be a very wise investment at that. Licking their chops over the anticipated worldwide mobile-gaming domination to come, they publicly declared that Epyx, whose total sales had amounted to $27 million in 1987, would be a $100 million company by 1990.

At first, everything went according to plan. Upon its release in the early summer of 1987, California Games became the hit everyone had been so confidently anticipating. Indeed, it sold more than 300,000 copies in its first nine months and then just kept on selling, becoming Epyx’s biggest hit ever. But after that nothing else ever went quite right for Epyx’s core business. Few inside or outside of the company could have guessed that California Games, Epyx’s biggest hit, would also mark the end of the company’s golden age.

From the time of their name change and associated remaking up through California Games, Epyx had been almost uniquely in touch with the teenage boys who bought the vast majority of Commodore 64 games. “We don’t simply invent games that we like and hope for the best,” said Morse, parroting Epyx’s official company line shortly after his arrival there. “Instead, we pay attention to current trends that are of interest to teenagers. It’s similar to consumer research carried out by other companies, except we’re aiming for a very specific group.” After California Games, though — in fact, even as Morse was making this statement — Epyx lost the plot of what had made the Games line so successful. Like an aging rock star grown fat and complacent, they decided to join the Establishment.

When they had come up with the idea of making Summer Games to capitalize on the 1984 Summer Olympics, Epyx had been in no position to pay for an official Olympic license, even had Atari not already scooped that up. Instead they winged it, producing what amounted to an Olympics with the serial numbers filed away. Summer Games had all the trappings — opening and closing ceremonies; torches; national anthems; medals of gold, silver, and bronze — alongside the Olympic events themselves. What very few players likely noticed, though, was that it had all these things without ever actually using the word “Olympics” or the famous (and zealously guarded) five-ring Olympic logo.

Far from being a detriment, the lack of an official license had a freeing effect on Epyx. Whilst hewing to the basic templates of the sports in question, they produced more rough-and-ready versions of same — more the way the teenage boys who dominated among their customers would have liked the events to be than the somewhat more staid Olympic realities. Even that original Summer Games, which looked itself a little staid and graphically crude in contrast to what would follow, found room for flashes of wit and whimsy. Players soon learned to delight in an athlete — hopefully not the one they were controlling — landing on her head after a gymnastics vault, or falling backward and cracking up spectacularly instead of clearing the pole vault. Atari, who had the official Olympic license, produced more respectful — read, boring — implementations of the Olympics that didn’t sell particularly well, while Summer Games blew up huge.

Seeing how postively their players responded to this sort of thing, Epyx pushed ever further into the realm of the fanciful in their later Games iterations. World Games and California Games, the fourth and fifth title in the line respectively, abandoned the Olympics conceit entirely in favor of gathering up a bunch of weird and wild sports that the designers just thought would be fun to try on a computer. In a final act of Olympics sacrilege, California Games even dropped the national anthems in favor of having you play for the likes of Ocean Pacific or Kawasaki. As California Games so amply demonstrated, the Games series as a whole had never had as much to do with the Olympics or even sports in general as it did with contemporary teenage culture.

But now Epyx saw another Olympics year fast approaching (during this period, the Winter and Summer Olympics were still held during the same year rather than being staggered two years apart as they are today) and decided to come full circle and then some, to make a pair of Games games shrouded in the legitimacy that the original Summer Games had lacked. Epyx, in other words, would become the 1988 Olympics’s version of Atari. In October of 1987, they signed a final contract of over 40 pages with the United States Olympic Committee (if ever a gold medal were to be awarded in legalese and bureaucratic nitpicking, the Olympic Games themselves would have to be prime contenders). Not only would Epyx have to pay a 10 percent royalty to the Olympic Committee for every copy of The Games: Winter Edition and The Games: Summer Edition that they sold, but the same Committee would have veto rights over every aspect of the finished product. Giving such authority to such a famously non-whimsical body inevitably spelled the death of the series’s heretofore trademark sense of whimsy. While working on the luge event a developer came up with the idea of sending the luger hurling out of the trough and into outer space after a major crash. The old Epyx would have been all over it with gusto. But no, said the stubbornly humorless Committee in their usual literal-minded fashion, lugers don’t ever exit the trough when they crash, they only spill over inside it, and that’s how the computer game has to be as well.

When The Games: Winter Edition appeared right on schedule along with the Winter Olympics themselves in February of 1988, it did very well out of the gate, just like any other Games game. Yet in time the word spread through the adolescent grapevine that this latest Games just wasn’t as much fun as the older ones. In addition to the stifling effect of the Olympic Committee’s bureaucracy, its development had been rushed; because of the need to release the Winter Edition to coincide with the real Winter Olympics, it had had to go from nothing to boxed finished product in just five months. The Summer Edition, which appeared later in the year to coincide with the Summer Olympics, was in some ways a better outing, what with Epyx having had a bit more time to work on it. But something was still missing. California Games, a title Epyx’s core teenage demographic loved for all the reasons they didn’t love the two stodgy new officially licensed Games, easily outsold both of them despite being in its second year on the market. That was, of course, good in its way. But would the same buyers turn out to buy the next big Games title in the wake of the betrayal so many of them had come to see the two most recent efforts to represent? It wasn’t clear that they would.

The disappointing reception of these latest Games, then, was a big cause of concern for Epyx as 1988 wore on. Their other major cause for worry was more generalized, more typical of their industry as a whole. As we’ve seen in an earlier article, 1988 was the year that the Nintendo Entertainment System went from being a gathering storm on the horizon to a full-blown cyclone sweeping across the American gaming landscape. Epyx was hardly alone among publishers in feeling the Nintendo’s effect, but they were all too well positioned to get the absolute worst of it. While they had, generally with mixed results, made occasional forays into other genres, the bulk of their sales since the name change had always come from their action-oriented games for the Commodore 64 — the industry’s low-end platform, one whose demographics skewed even younger than the norm. The sorts of teenage and pre-teen boys who had once played on the Commodore 64 were exactly the ones who now flocked to the Nintendo in droves. The Christmas of 1988 marked the tipping point; it was at this point that the Nintendo essentially destroyed the Commodore 64 as a viable platform. “Games can be done better on the 64 than on a Nintendo,” insisted Morse, but fewer and fewer people were buying his argument. By this point, many American publishers and developers had begun to come to Nintendo, hat in hand, asking for permission to publish on the platform, but this Epyx refused to do, being determined to hold out for their own handheld console.

It’s not as if the Commodore 64’s collapse entirely sneaked up on Epyx. As I noted earlier, Gilbert Freeman had been aware it might be in the offing even before he had hired Dave Morse as CEO. Over the course of 1987 and 1988, Epyx had set up a bulwark of sorts on the higher-end platforms with a so-called “Masters Collection” of more high-toned and cerebral titles, similar to the ones that were continuing to sell quite well for some other publishers despite the Nintendo onslaught. (The line included a submarine simulator, an elaborate CRPG, etc.) They also started a line of personal-creativity software similar to Electronic Arts’s “Deluxe” line, and began importing ever more European action games to sell as budget titles to low-end customers. All told, their total revenues for 1988 actually increased robustly over that of the year before, from $27 million to $36 million. Yet such figures can be deceiving. Because this total was generated from many more products, with all the extra expenses that implied, the ultimate arbiter of net profits on computer software plunged instead of rising commensurately. Other ventures were truly misguided by any standard. Like a number of other publishers, Epyx launched forays into the interactive VCR-based systems that were briefly all the rage as substitutes for Phillips’s long-promised but still undelivered CD-I system. They might as well have just set fire to that money. The Epyx of earlier years had had a recognizable identity, which the Epyx of 1988 had somehow lost. There was no thematic glue binding their latest products together.

R.J. Mical with a work-in-progress version of the Handy.

Meanwhile Epyx was investing hugely in games for the Potato — investing just about as much money in Potato software, in fact, as they were pouring into the hardware. Accounts of just how much the Potato’s development ended up costing Epyx vary, ranging from $4 million to $8 million and up. I suspect that, when viewed in terms of both hardware and software development, the figure quite likely skews into the double digits.

Whatever the exact numbers, as the curtain came up on 1989 Dave Morse, RJ Mical, and Dave Needle found themselves in a position all too familiar from the old days with Amiga, Incorporated. They had another nascent revolution in silicon in the form of the Potato, which had reached the prototype stage and was to be publicly known as the Epyx Handy. Yet their company’s finances were hopelessly askew. If the Handy was to become an actual product, it looked like Morse would need to pull off another miracle.

So, he did what he had done for the Amiga Lorraine. In a tiny private auditorium behind Epyx’s public booth at the January 1989 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, the inventors of the Handy showed it off to a select group of representatives from other companies, all of whom were required to sign a strict non-disclosure agreement before seeing what was still officially a top-secret project, even though rumors of the Handy’s existence had been spreading like wildfire for months now. The objective was to find a partner to help manufacture and market the Handy — or, perhaps better, a buyer for the entire troubled company. Nintendo had a look, but passed; they had a handheld console of their own in the works which would emerge later in the year as the Nintendo Game Boy. Sega also passed. In fact, just about everyone passed, as they had on the Amiga Lorraine, until Morse was left with just one suitor. And, incredibly, it was the very same suitor as last time: Atari. Déjà vu all over again.

On the positive side, this Atari was a very different company from the 800-pound gorilla that had tried to seize the Lorraine and carve it up into its component parts five years before. On the negative, this Atari was run by Jack Tramiel, Mr. “Business is War” himself, the man who had tied up Commodore in court for years after Atari’s would-be acquisition of the Amiga Lorraine had become Commodore’s. From Tramiel’s perspective, getting a stake in a potential winner like the Handy made a lot of sense; his Atari really didn’t have that much going for it at all at that point beyond a fairly robust market for their ST line in Europe and an ongoing trickle of nostalgia-fueled sales of their vintage game consoles in North America. Atari had missed out almost entirely on the great second wave of videogame consoles, losing the market they had once owned to Nintendo and Sega. If mobile gaming was destined to be the next big thing, this was the perfect way to get into that space without having to invest money Atari didn’t have into research and development.

For his part, Morse certainly knew even as he pulled the trigger on the deal that he was getting into bed with the most devious man in consumer electronics, but he didn’t see that he had much choice. He could only shoot from the hip, as he had five years before, and hope it would all work out in the end. The deal he struck from a position of extreme weakness — nobody could smell blood in the water quite like Jack Tramiel — would see the Handy become an Atari product in the eyes of the marketplace. Atari would buy the Handy hardware design from Epyx, put their logo on it, and would take over responsibility for its manufacturing, distribution, and marketing. Epyx would remain the “software partner” only, responsible for delivering an initial suite of launch titles and a steady stream of desirable games thereafter. No one at Epyx was thrilled at the prospect of giving away their baby this way, but, again, the situation was what it was.

At this point in our history, it becomes my sad duty as your historian to acknowledge that I simply don’t know precisely what went down next between Atari and Epyx. The source I’ve been able to find that dates closest to the events in question is the “Roomers” column of the December 1989 issue of the magazine Amazing Computing. According to it, the deal was structured at Tramiel’s demand as a series of ongoing milestone payments from Atari to Epyx as the latter met their obligations to deliver to the former the finished Handy in production-ready form. Epyx, the column claims, was unable to deliver the cable used for linking two Handys together for play in the time frame specified in the contract, whereupon Atari cancelled a desperately needed $2 million payment as well as all the ones that were to follow. The Handy, Atari said, was now theirs thanks to Epyx’s breach of contract; Epyx would just have to wait for the royalties on the Handy games they were still under contract to deliver to get more money out of Atari. In no condition to engage Atari in a protracted legal battle, Epyx felt they had no choice but to concede and continue to play along with the company that had just stolen their proudest achievement from them.

Dave Needle, who admittedly had plenty of axes to grind with Atari, told a slight variation of this tale many years later, saying that the crisis hinged on Epyx’s software rather than hardware efforts. It seems that Epyx had sixty days to fix any bugs that were discovered after the initial delivery of each game to Atari. But, according to Needle, “Atari routinely waited until the end of the time period to comment on the Epyx fixes. There was then inadequate time for Epyx to make the fixes.” Within a few months of inking the deal, Atari used a petty violation like this to withhold payment from Epyx, who, of course, needed that money now. At last, Atari offered them a classic Jack Tramiel ultimatum: accept one more lump-sum payout — Needle didn’t reveal the amount — or die on the vine.

A music programmer who went by the name of “Lx Rudis” is perhaps the closest thing to an unbiased source we can hope to find; he worked for Epyx while the Handy was under development, then accepted a job with Atari, where he says he was “close” with Jack Tramiel’s sons Sam and Leonard, both of whom played important roles within their father’s company. “The terms [of the contract] were quite strict,” he says. “Epyx was unable to meet all points, and Atari was able to withhold a desperately needed milestone payment. In the chaos that ensued, everyone got laid off and I guess Atari’s lawyers and Epyx’s lawyers worked out a ‘compromise’ where Atari got the Handy.”

No smoking gun in the form of any actual paperwork has ever surfaced to my knowledge, leaving us with only anecdotal accounts like these from people who weren’t the ones signing the contracts and making the deals. What we do know is that Epyx by the end of 1989 was bankrupt, while Atari owned the Handy outright — or at least acted as if they did. Although it’s possible that Tramiel was guilty of nothing more than driving a hard bargain, his well-earned reputation as a dirty dealer does make it rather difficult to give him the benefit of too much doubt. Certainly lots of people at Epyx were left feeling very ill-served indeed. Dave Morse had tried to tweak the tiger’s tail a second time, and this time he had gotten mauled. As should have been part of the core curriculum at every business school by this point: don’t sign any deal, ever, with Jack Tramiel.

Dave Morse, RJ Mical and Dave Needle walked away from the whole affair disgusted and disillusioned, having seen their baby kidnapped by the man they had come to regard as Evil incarnated in an ill-fitting pinstriped suit. Their one bitter consolation was that the Handy development system they’d built could run only on an Amiga. Thus Atari would have to buy dozens of specimens of the arch-rival platform for internal use, and suffer the indignity of telling their development licensees that they too would need to buy Amigas to make their games. It wasn’t much, but, hey, at least it was something to hold onto.

The erstwhile Epyx Handy made its public debut at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1989 as the Atari Portable Entertainment System. But when someone pointed out that that name would inevitably get abbreviated to “APES,” Atari moved on from it, finally settling on the name of “Lynx,” a sly reference to the ability to link the machines together via cable for multiplayer action. Thus christened, the handheld console shipped on September 1, 1989. Recent unpleasantness aside, Mical and Needle had good cause to be proud of their work. One far-seeing Atari executive said that the Lynx had the potential to become a revolutionary hit on the level of the Sony Walkman of 1979, the product which largely created the idea of personal portable electronics as we think of them today. Now it was up to Atari to realize that potential.

The Nintendo Game Boy and the Atari Lynx

That part of the equation, alas, didn’t go as well as Atari had hoped. Just one month before the Lynx, Nintendo of America had released the Game Boy, their own handheld console. Purely as a piece of kit, the black-and-white-only Game Boy wasn’t a patch on the Lynx. But then, Nintendo has always thrived by transcending technical specifications, and the Game Boy proved no exception to that rule. Like all of their products, it was laser-targeted to the needs and desires of the burgeoning Generation Nintendo, with a price tag of just $90, battery life long enough to get you through an entire school week of illicit playing under the desk, a size small enough to slip into a coat pocket, and a selection of well-honed launch games designed to maximize its strengths. Best of all, every Game Boy came bundled with a copy of Tetris, an insanely addictive little puzzle game that became a veritable worldwide obsession, the urtext of casual mobile gaming as we’ve come to know it today; many a child’s shiny new Game Boy ended up being monopolized by a Tetris-addled parent.

The Lynx, by contrast, was twice as expensive as the Game Boy, ate its AA batteries at a prodigious rate, was bigger and chunkier than the Game Boy, and offered just three less-than-stellar games to buy beyond the rather brilliant Epyx port of California Games that came included in the box. Weirdly, its overall fit and finish also lagged far behind the cheap but rugged little Game Boy. Atari struggled mightily to find suppliers who could deliver the Lynx’s components on time and on budget with acceptable quality control. According to RJ Mical — again, not the most unbiased of sources — this was largely a case of Jack Tramiel’s chickens coming home to roost. “The new ownership of the Lynx had really bad reputations with hardware manufacturers in Asia and with software developers all over the world,” says Mical. “Suddenly all those sweet deals we’d made for low-cost parts for the Lynx dried up on them. They’d be like, ‘We remember you from five years ago. Guess what — the price just doubled!'” Mical claims that a “magnificent library” of Lynx games, the result of many deals Epyx had made with outside developers, fell by the wayside as soon as the developers in question learned that they’d have to deal from now on with Jack Tramiel instead of Dave Morse.

California Games on the Lynx’s (tiny) screen.

In the face of these disadvantages, the Lynx wasn’t the complete failure one could so easily imagine it becoming. It remained in production for more than five years, over the course of which it sold nearly 3 million units to buyers who wanted a little more from their mobile games than what the Game Boy could offer. By most measures, the Atari Lynx was a fairly successful product. It suffers only by comparison with the Game Boy, which spent an astonishing total of almost fifteen years in production and sold an even more astonishing 118.69 million units, becoming in the process Nintendo’s biggest single success story of all; in the end, Nintendo sold nearly twice as many Game Boys as they did of the original Nintendo Entertainment System that had done such a number on Epyx’s software business. So, a handheld game console did become worthy of mention in the same breath as the Sony Walkman, but it wasn’t the Atari Lynx; it was the Nintendo Game Boy.

Needless to say, Dave Morse’s old plan to make Epyx a $100 million company by 1990 didn’t come to fruition. In addition to all their travails with Atari, the Commodore 64 market, the old heart of their strength, had imploded like a pricked balloon. After peaking at 145 employees in 1988, when work on the Handy as well as games for it was buzzing, frantic layoffs brought Epyx’s total down to less than 20 by the end of 1989, at which point the firm, vowing to soldier on in spite of it all, went through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Just to add insult to the mortal injury Jack Tramiel had done them, they came out of the bankruptcy still under contract to deliver games for the Lynx. Indeed, doing so offered their only realistic hope of survival, slim though it was, and so they told the world they were through developing for computers and turned what meager resources they had left entirely to the Lynx. They wouldn’t even be a publisher in their own right anymore, relying instead on Atari to sell and distribute their games for them. Tramiel had, as the kids say today, thoroughly pwned them.

This zombie version of Epyx shambled on for a disconcertingly long time, plotting always for ways to become relevant to someone again without ever quite managing it. It finally lay down for the last time in 1993, when the remnants of the company were bought up by Bridgestone Media Group, a Christian advocacy organization with ties to one of Epyx’s few remaining employees. By this time, the real “end of the Epyx era,” as Computer Gaming World editor Johnny Wilson put it, had come long ago. In 1993, the name “Epyx” felt as much like an anachronism as the Commodore 64.

What, then, shall we say in closing about Epyx? If Cinemaware, the subject of my last article, was the prototypical Amiga developer, Epyx has a solid claim to the same title in the case of the Commodore 64. As with Cinemaware, manifold and multifarious mistakes were made at Epyx that led directly to the company’s death, mistakes so obvious in hindsight that there seems little point in belaboring them any further here. (Don’t try to design, manufacture, and launch an entirely new gaming platform if you don’t have deep pockets and a rock-solid revenue stream, kids!) They bit off far more than they could chew with the Handy. Combined with their failure to create a coherent identity for themselves in the post-Commodore 64 computer-games industry, it spelled their undoing.

And yet, earnest autopsying aside, when all is said and done it does feel somehow appropriate that Epyx should have for all intents and purposes died along with their favored platform. For a generation of teenage boys, the Epyx years were those between 1984 and 1988, corresponding with the four or five dominant years which the Commodore 64 enjoyed as the most popular gaming platform in North America. It seems safe to say that as long as any of that generation remain on the planet, the name of Epyx will always bring back memories of halcyon summer days of yore spent gathered with mates around the television, joysticks in hand. Summer Games indeed.

(Sources: Questbusters of November 1989; ACE of May 1990; Retro Gamer 18 and 129; Commodore Magazine of July 1988 and August 1989; Small Business Report of February 1988; San Francisco Business Times of July 25 1988; Amazing Computing of June 1988, November 1988, March 1989, April 1989, June 1989, August 1989, November 1989, December 1989, January 1990, and February 1990; Info of November/December 1989; Games Machine of March 1989 and January 1990; Compute!’s Gazette of April 1988; Compute! of November 1987 and September 1988; Computer Gaming World of November 1989, December 1989, and November 1991; Electronic Gaming Monthly of September 1989. Online sources include articles on US Gamer, Now Gamer, Wired, and The Atari Times. My huge thanks to Alex Smith, who shared his take on Epyx’s collapse with me along with some of the sources listed above.)

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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