This week saw the 28th anniversary of the release of one of the most successful video games of all time. On June 6, 1984, the first version of Tetris was unveiled and quickly took the world by storm. While Tetris has appeared on every major gaming platform from the Commodore 64 to the iPhone, it arguably gained its greatest notoriety as the cartridge game bundled with the original Nintendo Game Boy.
On the strength of that bundling, Tetris became the best-selling video game in Game Boy history, with roughly 35 million units sold. Of course, the bulk of these sales came from the bundling itself. This begs the question, was Tetris popular, or was the Game Boy good enough to make any bundled game an all-time hit?
Similarly, the best-selling console game of all time at 79 million units sold is Wii Sports, which was bundled with the Nintendo Wii. So, is Wii Sports an all-time great video game, or just the happy recipient of the Wii’s unparalleled popularity? (Conversely, would the Wii have sold as well if Wii Sports wasn’t there to demonstrate the console’s motion-play capabilities from day one?)
The line gets blurrier with mobile games for smartphones and tablets. Angry Birds is the current record-holder in this arena, with roughly 1 billion games downloaded. The catch with Angry Birds is that the game is free, supported by in-game ads and paid upgrades. Would slingshot pig-smashing be as popular if everyone had to pay for the privilege? Probably not.
Perhaps there should be a separate category for unbundled games that cost money, so we can get a real sense of which video game players are most willing to shell out cash to play.
WHAT IS THE ALL-TIME BEST-SELLING VIDEO GAME THAT GAMERS ACTUALLY PAID TO PLAY?
The best-selling video game of all time as measured by unbundled, independent sales is — ironically — Tetris. More than 100 million Tetris games have been downloaded at cost to mobile phones and tablets alone. That number goes up when you consider that Tetris was sold for play on almost every console and PC platform ever released, though the exact Tetris sales numbers get fuzzy when you try to add them all up.
So, while many of us got our start with Tetris when it came bundled with our first Game Boy, the Russian puzzle game sensation has proved popular enough that people are willing to pay for it on pretty much every game system that comes along. Suffice it to say, no game has sold more than Tetris.
For you PC gamers, none of whom care about console games and their bundle-muddied statistics, The Sims ranks as the best-selling PC game of all time at a mere 16 million units sold. Yes, PC gaming is more fragmented than console gaming, but console titles simply sell more than PC games, and mobile games more than that.
And for you old-timers demanding to know where arcade games stack up, well, it’s not a one-to-one comparison, as almost nobody bought an actual stand-up arcade unit and took it home. (More’s the pity.) In any case, the most profitable arcade of all time is, no surprise, Pac-Man, which is estimated to have generated $7.6 billion in arcade revenue (adjusted for inflation) since its release in 1980. Not bad for only 400,000 actual arcade units in play.
That’s not just an eye-poppingly popular pack of pixels; it’s a ponderously profitable parcel of Geek Trivia.