Seasoned web site viewers have probably seen The Tetris Saga and, hopefully, enjoyed it. (I noticed the other day that Yahoo links directly to it under its Tetris section, but they didn't actually link to the main page for the longest time...) The article is already two years old, yet the game itself is still alive, from the pizza joints of America to the Game Boy Colors of the next generation.
Still, for me the most fascinating part of the game is still the legal battles between the Western companies who wanted to make the most money possible out of this Russian creation. It eventually brought Tengen to the grave, and Nintendo to new heights of profit-making.
In this interview, I talk with Ed Logg, programmer of the Tengen version of Tetris for the NES. Mr. Logg's more well known for his arcade works like Asteroids, Centipede and Gauntlet, but since this is a NES site I can't have any of that. While working at Atari Games in the late 80s, Logg contributed to Tetris and a few other games at the Tengen division. Here he tells us a little bit about the creation of Tengen, the defeating of the NES lockout, and (as always) the modern game industry. Nintendo's side of the Tetris story has been heard often enough - here's the other part.
I tracked down Logg at the Classic Gaming Expo '99 a while back over a couple of hot dogs. Make a note before reading this that Logg wasn't directly involved with such things as Tetris and Atari contract negotiations or lockout-chip defeating; the information he gives is what he heard while working at Atari.
But anyway.. obviously you're going to be more well known for your
arcade stuff here at CGE. Since I run a NES site I can't have that, and
as a result I wanted to ask you a couple of questions. I know you were
involved with porting Tetris to the NES; I don't know if you were
involved with the arcade game or not -
So I went to the Summer CES in June... probably June of 88, and I had
shown Tetris there. And it was pretty well received, but Randy Browleit,
who was in charge of Tengen at the time, wanted to see things improved.
I think it was in black and white at the time, and they wanted color
pieces... So I found a way to do that, and I got a much better look on
it. It was shown again at the January CES in 89, and it was well
received again... and we actually released it, and it was selling well,
and of course then we hear from Nintendo that they suddenly have the
license! They have the license for this.. "home entertainment systems"
So I went to the Summer CES in June... probably June of 88, and I had shown Tetris there. And it was pretty well received, but Randy Browleit, who was in charge of Tengen at the time, wanted to see things improved. I think it was in black and white at the time, and they wanted color pieces... So I found a way to do that, and I got a much better look on it. It was shown again at the January CES in 89, and it was well received again... and we actually released it, and it was selling well, and of course then we hear from Nintendo that they suddenly have the license! They have the license for this.. "home entertainment systems" and...
EL: Yes, it was. Lemme take a step back, though. Atari Inc. was the Atari at one point, and Warner Communications was trying to get rid of the consumer business 'cos it just lost a billion dollars. My understanding was, they basically gave to Jack Tramiel $350 million in receivables owed, all the inventories, 35 buildings worth of [consumer] equipment and stuff. And the story I heard was, he did not want coin-op at all. So Warner kept it, then found out they were in trouble with Namco, owing them ten million or so. So Warner said to Namco, instead of paying the money do you want half interest in Atari Games? And they were like "Okay, fine". (laughs)
So we had these two companies, and I think they did it in such a rush that Warner never bothered worrying about their decisions. For example, we had to go back to get coin-op related patents from the other Atari, and we finally had to sue them to see who actually owned them. And the judge basically threw up her hands and said, "You own the rights in coin-op, and you own the rights in consumer." And that was the resolution. That shows you how bad the contract was. We didn't even know who owned what.
tsr: So how did the Tengen division of Atari Games come about?
EL: EL: Well, we couldn't use the name Atari in consumer, basically. So we had to come up with our own name. Now, Tengen has some connotation.. I forget the Japanese usage for it, but it was decided to use that name for our coin-op ports and products.
And at one point we did have a license from Nintendo to sell games, and Nintendo the first year was jacking everyone around with "ROM shortages". Their contract was very one-sided; you paid all the money up front, assume all risk, they tell you how many [cartridges] you're gonna get...
tsr: Well, what were the conditions that you had to satisfy if you wanted to be a licensee of Nintendo?
EL: There was a lot of exclusivity involved, and being a company where we were trying to port our games to every platform... that's not our business model. And Nintendo is jerking us around with all sorts of stuff, they say "Oh sorry, you can't have your quota this Christmas," or it was delayed, and so on. They did that to everybody, probably except themselves. So then we decided to reverse engineer the lockout chip. Unfortunately there was a fiasco; one of our lawyers went to the patent office and actually sent a copy of the stuff [Nintendo's patents] to Atari. And whether or not we actually looked at it, we basically were tainted.
tsr: Yeah, Game Over painted Tengen as basically stealing the patents for the lockout chip.
EL: The trouble was it was already done before we saw it. We had already done the Rabbit chip long before we had seen it. So it's already done, and we see this and we're like "Oh shit". (laughs)
tsr: So you know for a fact the Rabbit was 100% original?
EL: Yeah. I walked into the lab and they were reverse engineering the chip, and I asked what they were doing and they said "Don't ask". (laughs) So I know the company was doing it, and I knew the people involved doing it.
tsr: Was this a major undertaking, the engineering?
EL: EL: It was basically three people. And they were certainly looking at the chip, let's put it that way. I'm sure they did a lot more that I didn't see. Tweaking the signals, seeing what comes out, that kind of stuff. And I was working on the FC at the time. We had reverse engineered the Famicom and I was already developing on it.
tsr: You reverse engineered the Famicom to program the NES?
EL: EL: Well, no, I was programming the Famicom and we were gonna sell games in Japan. This was before they sold the NES in the US. I had actually gone to Namco and heard their business plans for the FC, and I did the calcuations and thought "This is ludicrous! We should be in this business!"
tsr: So Tetris isn't your only NES work?
EL: I did Centipede, and a couple others. But I couldn't use it, since we didn't have the rights; Atari Corp. had those, and Atari Corp made and licensed their own versions of Millipede and Stargate. So I did a few games, but we couldn't release them. [HAL later released their own versions of these two games.]
EL: I must admit, I was working on another project at the time, so I was never fully on Tetris. It was also hit and miss. But in six weeks I had it up and running, and they asked me to do changes, then I returned to another project, and so on.
tsr: So when you started coding Tetris, you were under the impression that...
EL: EL: That I had a license, yeah. Well, actually, Namco owned half of us, so it was clear Namco was gonna sell it in Japan. But when the NES came out, then Tengen had to do that.
tsr: At the same time, though, Tengen had an official license from Nintendo for three games: RBI Baseball, Pac-Man and Gauntlet. Did you have a hand in NES Gauntlet?
EL: No, Eric Horne did that. Now, someone else did one afterwards that was far superior, really nice...
tsr: Gauntlet II?
EL: Yeah, Gauntlet II, really good, and the graphics looked like it should too. Very impressive.
tsr: So by the time Nintendo claimed they had the license, Tetris was already done by then?
EL: EL: Yeah, it was already done. I think Nintendo announced it in February and Tengen released it in January. We actually had a warehouse of cartridges that we got back, that we had to destroy.
tsr: Speaking of which, how did you advertise Tetris?
EL: We had a launch at the Russian Tea Room in New York in tuxes for the press kick-off in January.. I was playing against Mike Klug [the chief beta tester] for the championships, for the press event. I still have one of the original sell sheets; the magazine ads. The theme used was "The Tetris Affair". How little did we know that indeed this is exactly what it would be...
So once Nintendo had the license, what was the next step for you?
We were panicking about that. We were hearing from Toys 'R' Us... this is hearsay
of hearsay, but we were contacted by the Toys 'R' Us exec. Nintendo made it
quite clear that if they carried our games, their allotment would get reduced.
And at that time 50 percent of Toys 'R' Us's profit came from Nintendo. There
was nothing we could do.
We were panicking about that. We were hearing from Toys 'R' Us... this is hearsay of hearsay, but we were contacted by the Toys 'R' Us exec. Nintendo made it quite clear that if they carried our games, their allotment would get reduced. And at that time 50 percent of Toys 'R' Us's profit came from Nintendo. There was nothing we could do.
Do you know what Tengen's top sellers were?
EL: Yeah, it was pretty similar... well, they basically used our patents. They violated Atari's patent while they were suing us, so it was the basic same scrolling algorithm and such. So it was pretty much identical to what we were dealing with. Most of the difficulty came from figuring out what registers and bits did what, and when.
tsr: What are your favorite NES games?
EL: Tetris is probably the only one I can think of... (laughs) I really liked how that turned out. RBI Baseball was done really well too, I really liked that. Namco did a great game for us to port over. Those are the two that come to mind. Ms. Pac-Man came out well too.
tsr: Was Tengen's Ms. Pac-Man done in house or by Namco?
EL: EL: I think Franz Lanzinger did that. He was with Tengen at the time.
OK, to sum this thing up, compared with the atmosphere in which you did Tetris to the
game world of today... Nintendo was pretty tyrannical at the time, but what do
you think of Sony now, for example?
And finally, which version of Tetris do you like the best?
Well, I think that covers it all. Do you have any closing remarks for our
- Eee hehehehe. Well, someone needs to study history... =) Anyway, thanks very much for the interview, Ed!