THE EPSTEIN-NINTENDO CONNECTION

On July 2, 2020, Ghislaine Maxwell, an associate of convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, was arrested for allegedly aiding Epstein in his nefarious activities. According to the indictment, Maxwell “assisted, facilitated, and contributed to Jeffrey Epstein’s abuse of minor girls.”

     While videogamers may take a cursory interest in the Epstein-Maxwell scandal, they would take more interest to know that Ghislaine Maxwell has a connection to one of the most fascinating stories in videogame history… one that practically changed the course of the videogame industry itself.

     Ghislaine Maxwell’s father, Robert Maxwell, was a revered publishing powerhouse who owned several newspapers around the globe, including the New York Daily News. Maxwell also owned the computer software companies Mirrorsoft in the UK, and its American subsidiary, Spectrum Holobyte.

     In June 1984, Alexey Pajitnov created Tetris at the Computer Center in Moscow’s Soviet Academy of Sciences. This made Tetris Soviet property. Shortly after, a PC port was created and a copy was smuggled into Hungary. While in Hungary, Robert Stein, founder of Andromeda Software, encountered Tetris and instantly recognized its commercial potential. Stein traveled to Moscow to meet with Pajitnov and believed that he would obtain the rights to the game based on the strength of that meeting. Upon his return home, Stein began shopping the rights before he had actually obtained them himself, which would set off a series of events that would change videogames forever.

     Stein sold the rights to Tetris, excluding arcade and handhelds, which weren’t a significant part of the industry at that time, to Robert Maxwell’s computer software companies, Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte. Other companies including Sega, Bullet-Proof Software and Atari through its Tengen imprint would obtain the rights to Tetris as well, all improperly, unbeknownst to them. But Stein wasn’t the only party guilty of improper sub-licensing. Mirrorsoft sub-licensed the arcade rights, which was outside of its deal with Stein, to Atari. The Soviets were not aware of any of these licensing agreements until they saw news coverage of the release of the Tetris PC ports by Maxwell’s companies, and even then did not know the full extent of what was going on.

     This would need to be sorted out, and Stein, Bullet-Proof Software and Maxwell’s companies would all be in the running for the various platform rights to the game. Henk Rogers, the head of Bullet-Proof Software and a close friend of Nintendo’s CEO, Hiroshi Yamauchi, ended up benefiting the most from this fiasco. Rogers had initially been interested in securing the Tetris handheld rights for a version on Nintendo’s then-secret handheld, Game Boy. Initially, Nintendo had informed Rogers that the new handheld would be bundled with Super Mario Land, a platform game in the Super Mario franchise. Rogers said that while a Game Boy bundled with Super Mario Land would appeal to little boys, if Nintendo wanted to sell the Game Boy to everyone, they should bundle Tetris with it instead. Nintendo agreed, and it would turn out Rogers was completely right.

     After successfully securing the handheld rights, Rogers learned that the right to the console version was also available, even though he had actually already released a successful port for Nintendo’s Famicom console via what turned out to be a bad sub-licensing agreement. He and Nintendo now wanted the true console rights too, but there were complications. The major obstacle standing in Rogers’ way was that Mirrorsoft received a “protocol agreement” that gave them the right of first refusal to any available Tetris licenses that remained, including on console. As long as they made an offer for the console licenses within a week of meeting with the Soviets it was theirs. But Nintendo’s offer for the console rights was too compelling to refuse, and the Soviets awarded Nintendo with the rights, violating the agreement with Mirrorsoft.

     In response to this violation, Robert Maxwell decided to contact his friend Mikhail Gorbachev, then-President of the Soviet Union, to let him know what had happened. The Soviet official who made the deal didn’t seem to be worried and felt Nintendo would bring more money to the Soviet Union than Mirrorsoft. Maxwell flew to Moscow to meet with Gorbachev, who apparently assured him that he “should no longer worry about the Japanese company.” But the Soviet official assured Gorbachev that the deal was legal, and the President eventually agreed. The console rights were Nintendo’s. When Robert Maxwell learned of the news he reportedly shrugged, but Atari and Tengen didn’t.

     They decided to sue Nintendo, and Nintendo countersued. During the court battle Tengen released its version of Tetris for the NES on May 17, 1989 and it became a hit. Some gamers felt the Tengen version, which included a dual-play mode, was superior to what Nintendo would eventually release. But its time on store shelves were numbered. The judge reviewed all of the testimony and documents and came to the conclusion that if the suit would go to trial, Nintendo would most likely win. The judge ordered Tengen to remove its version of Tetris, approximately 150,000 units, from store shelves beginning on June 21, 1989. The trial was canceled altogether on November 13, 1989 when the judge ruled that Nintendo owned the console rights to the game.

     Robert Maxwell and his game companies didn’t do anything illegal in this case, but like other parties involved, should have done their due diligence. So much of this could have been avoided if they had, but their incompetence turned out to be our (and mostly Nintendo’s) gain. If not for Maxwell’s company Spectrum Holobyte and its version of Tetris, Henk Rogers might not have fallen in love with the game when he did. Of course, Rogers would have seen Tetris eventually, but when? If the timing had been even a little later there’s a chance Game Boy would have launched without what turned out to be one of the most important pack-in games in history. Tetris sold the Game Boy, and Game Boy established handhelds as a serious part of gaming. Would this have happened if Tetris hadn’t been included at launch? Probably not. And then there’s Tengen’s version of Tetris, typically referred to as “Tengen Tetris” by fans. It didn’t work for Atari, but fans were sure treated with one of the most beloved versions of the game, even if turned out to be illegal.

     Ghislaine Maxwell’s crime in no way tarnished the Maxwell name. Her father had done that himself, and not by the way his companies mishandled the Tetris licenses. Just prior to his death in late 1991 it came to light that Robert Maxwell had been in “severe financial straits and had been robbing the pension funds of his employees to prop up his crumbling empire.” In light of this the Maxwell companies filed for bankruptcy protection in 1992. Kevin Maxwell declared bankrupt with debts of £400 million. In 1995, Kevin went on trial for conspiracy to defraud but was unanimously acquitted.

     His sister Ghislaine could only hope for a similar verdict.

     There’s so much more to the Tetris story, and it’s covered in great detail in my book, Phoenix IV: The History of the Videogame Industry. Pick it up today!

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