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Tetris (Apple TV+) review: A thrilling history lesson

By Hoots the Owl & Aaron Yip - 17 Mar 2023

Tetris (Apple TV+) review: A thrilling history lesson

Image Source: Apple TV+

Nearly 40 years after its creation, Tetris continues to command an imposing cachet as possibly the most iconic video game of all time. While video games have since evolved by leaps and bounds, Tetris has retained its claim to fame as one of the most recognizable games in history and a giant in the nascent video games industry.

It is also one of the best-selling video games, with over 520 million units sold to date. The addictive puzzle game is timeless – and its popularity is made even more incredible by the unlikely story behind it. If not for the intrepid actions and determination of Dutch video game designer and entrepreneur Henk Rogers, the world might never have known the joy of rotating, moving, and dropping blocks.

Tetris the movie is a dramatic retelling of that story, told in an almost light-hearted fashion with a frisson of danger. There is a certain inevitability to the tale – we all know that Henk was successful in securing the global rights to distribute the game – but there is just enough intrigue to keep viewers at the edge of their seats.

Image Source: Apple TV+

After all, Tetris was designed in the Soviet Union. And in communist Russia, there is no such thing as individual ownership. Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Yefremov) may have created the game, but the communist government isn't about to let something as capitalist as a licensing deal go through so easily. From the moment Henk (Taron Egerton) lands in Moscow to secure the handheld rights to the game, he is surveilled and tailed by KGB agents.

You've also got to marvel at Henk's daring and sheer audacity. Even after being roughed up by KGB agents and told explicitly to go home, he refuses to quit. Flying to Moscow to conduct business under the guise of a tourist visa is one thing, but blatantly ignoring KGB warnings is another. 

What's interesting about Tetris is that its source material is not particularly riveting. At its core, it's really about licensing contracts and convoluted business deals – dry tedium that puts people to sleep in boardrooms.

But in a deft sleight of hand, writer Noah Pink has turned the tale behind the block-stacking game into a Cold War spy thriller. When Henk visits Alexey in his home, the two bond over the original version of Tetris, where the blocks are mere parentheses stacked together. However, their moment is soon interrupted by an ominous knock on the door – and Alexey and his wife soon hurry to squirrel Henk away.

Image Source: Apple TV+

It is scenes like this that make Tetris such a fun watch. It cuts through the interminable tangle of negotiations, injecting just the right dose of comedy and tension. With rivals like Andromeda and Mirrorsoft also jostling for space, the film artfully depicts how the Soviets played them against each other to hilarious effect.

It also helps that the stakes are incredibly high for Henk. With his entire life savings, house, and possibly marriage on the line with Tetris, and the possibility of ending up on the wrong side of a Russian gulag, he steels himself and goes on to become the man who brings Tetris to the world.

The film also doesn't miss the opportunity to milk some video game nostalgia. The rise of Tetris is intertwined with the launch of the Nintendo Game Boy, the seminal handheld device that would be bundled with the game. When Henk first lays eyes on a Game Boy prototype, the magic in the air is palpable. This is the device that will popularise handheld games, and form core childhood memories for an entire generation.

Image Source: Apple TV+

Tetris eventually ramps up to a frenzied finale as Henk and his Nintendo partners flee for the airport with a corrupt KGB agent in pursuit, having finally secured the coveted distribution rights to the game. It is like something straight out of a spy flick. Henk's party scrambles to board a departing flight, while the Russians race through the airport to stop them.

The Soviets manage to strong-arm their way onto a flight to Tokyo, which they think Henk boarded because he lives in Japan, and we think that maybe his luck has run out after all. But in a classic twist, it is revealed that Henk is actually on another flight.

The rest, as they say, is history. Tetris goes on to sell hundreds of millions of copies, and the Nintendo Game Boy exceeds its sales forecasts by three times.

Tetris is streaming now on Apple TV+.

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