A Brief History of Match-Three Games

12 min readApr 23, 2018

As the most popular type of video game in the world, match-three games — where you line up colored gems or tiles to remove them from a grid, just as you do in Legendary: Game of Heroes — are enjoyed by hundreds of millions of players every month and make literally billions of dollars each year. While there are thousands of variations of the concept across every kind of platform capable of playing games — from phones to game consoles and computers to seat-back entertainment systems on planes, graphing calculators, media players and even oscilloscopes — the whole concept began with two simple puzzle games first released in the mid-1980s.

Origin Story: Tetris and Chain Shot!

While the basics of match-three games owe a lot to card games like Solitaire and geometric physical puzzles like Polyominoes, the origins of the video games you love today can be traced back to Russian game developer Alexey Pajitnov’s Tetris in 1984 and Japanese game maker Kuniaki Moribe’s Chain Shot! in 1985.

The original Tetris (1984)

Chances are you’re familiar with Pajitnov’s Tetris, given that it has sold over 170 million copies and has won more “best game ever” awards than just about any video game in history. In case you’re somehow not familiar with it: the game had you horizontally lining up falling geometric shapes (known as tetriminoes) in a 12-column grid. It was the first piece of entertainment software to be exported from the Soviet Union to the US, where it was published by Spectrum HoloByte for the Commodore 64 and IBM PC, before subsequently being ported to just about every piece of computer hardware capable of displaying it. Atari turned it into a popular arcade machine in 1988, and then in 1989 Nintendo released a version for its Game Boy handheld, cementing its status as a pop culture icon. It sold over 70 million copies on that system alone.

Moribe’s Chain Shot! is not as well known, but is no less influential. Rather than have you manipulating falling blocks, Chain Shot! began with a 20x10 grid of colored squares, and required you to clear the board by removing groups of adjoining blocks of the same color by clicking on them. Originally written for Fujitsu’s FM-7 and FM-8 home computers and distributed in Japanese monthly computer magazine Gekkan ASCII, the game became better known in the early Nineties when it was ported to Windows and Unix PCs (and later the Apple Mac) as SameGame.

Evolution of an Idea

Throughout the late Eighties and early Nineties we saw dozens of game developers begin to riff on the gameplay mechanics introduced by both Pajitnov and Moribe in an attempt to refine the formula.

Columns (1989)

In 1989, Hewlett-Packard engineer Jay Geertsen produced Columns — a game that blended the fundamental block dropping and tile-removal mechanics of its predecessors — for the PC, Macintosh, and Atari ST. Rather than rotating geometric shapes to fit together, Columns had players controlling falling stacks of three differently-colored gems with the goal of lining up three or more of the same colors in a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal line. Geertsen sold the rights to Tokyo-based Sega the following year, which quickly brought Columns to its System C arcade machines, before porting it to the Mega Drive/Genesis. The game became such a hit with players that it was later used as Sega’s response to the Game Boy’s Tetris as the pack-in game for its short-lived 8-bit Game Gear handheld when it was released in Japan that October, and in North America and Europe the following April. It later proved inescapeable if you were a Sega-fan, as it was ported to all of Sega’s subsequent consoles including Sega-CD, Saturn, and Dreamcast.

Around the same time over at Nintendo’s offices in Kyoto, Game Boy and Game & Watch creator Gunpei Yokoi and Super Mario Land programmer Takahiro Harada put their heads together to come up with Dr. Mario — a Mario-themed spin on the genre for the NES, which had players matching two-colored pills to eliminate ugly-looking same-colored viruses. Dr. Mario is much-loved by fans, and has been ported, remade, or has had a sequel on just about every Nintendo system since the NES, including a re-release in 2004 on the Game Boy Advance as part of the Classic NES Series. Modified versions of Dr. Mario exist as blink-and-you’ll-miss-them mini-games in 2003’s WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgames!, the original 2005 DS release of Brain Age and its sequel.

1989 also saw the release of Taito’s midly-baffling tile-matching arcade game Puzznic — later released for the NES before being ported to a variety of systems including the Game Boy, Commodore 64, and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. The Japanese arcade and FM Towns versions of the game were inexplicably “adult” with an uncomfortable-looking naked woman revealed at the end of each level. That same year also saw Puzznic derivative Plotting (also known as Flipull in Japan) which was the first of these kinds of games that tasked you with “shooting” blocks across the screen.

Taito continued to riff on this theme five years later with the 1994 release of Puzzle Bobble — a new puzzle concept starring the Bub and Bob dragon things from Bubble Bobble — which was known as Bust-a-Move in the United States. Ultimately it proved to be a hugely influential title that has served as the inspiration for a whole wave of similar bubble-popping games, particularly on Facebook and mobile platforms. Significantly, Puzzle Bobble inspired King’s 2011 Facebook game Bubble Witch Saga — which was the first “Saga” title from King, and the originator of the much-copied map-based progression system we see in so many social games today — and Rovio’s Angry Birds Pop in 2014. Unlike the majority of previous matching games, Puzzle Bobble saw players shooting colored bubbles from the bottom of the screen to the top to create collections of same-colored bubbles which would then fall, along with anything clinging to them.

Shariki: The OG Match-Three Game

While all of the games up until the mid-Nineties were experimenting with different methods of tile-matching, the granddaddy of all subsequent match-three games, and the one that set the template for what we know today was Russian programmer Eugene Alemzhin’s little-known 1994 PC ball-matching game, Shariki (literally “The Balls” in Russian.) The goal was simply to gain progressively higher scores by matching three or more of the same color in a vertical or horizontal line by swapping adjacent balls. Each swap had to result in a match, matched balls were removed, and new ones dropped from the top to fill the gaps until no more matches could be achieved.

Shariki (1994)

Although far from a household name, Shariki’s influence was widespread. In 1995, Japanese developer Intelligent Systems borrowed elements of it for Panel de Pon, a two-player block-switching puzzle game for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and Game Boy that paired the block-dropping mechanics of games like Tetris and Columns with Shariki’s tile-swapping. Panel de Pon’s history is more complex than most: significantly, it served as the foundation for Nintendo’s long-running Puzzle League series, but when it was localized into English, Nintendo reskinned it with Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island art and renamed it Tetris Attack. During a Destructoid interview with The Tetris Company founders Alexey Pajitnov and Henk Rogers in 2009, Rogers expressed some regret at the decision to do that particular deal, worrying that it ultimately diluted the Tetris brand. “When Nintendo came to us, and said ‘we would like to take this Japanese game called Panel de Pon, and rename it Tetris Attack, I’m saying, ‘it’s not Tetris,’ but my partner’s saying ‘but it is money!’ So, uhhhh, we reluctantly agreed. In retrospect, we should never have done that. I don’t think that’s a good idea. It’s like naming another cartoon character Mickey Mouse just because you need the money. It’s just a bad idea.”

The Big Daddy: Bejeweled

Whether you realize it or not, your taste in match-three games is at least partially informed by the browser-base gem-swapper Bejeweled — which borrowed liberally from Alemzhin’s Shariki — from fledgling game studio PopCap Games in May 2001. Its effect on both the genre, and the broader category of casual games was profound. In 2008 Entertainment Weekly declared Bejeweled the “Gone With the Wind of the casual-game world,” noting that it was, at that point in time, the most commercially successful and influential puzzle game in the genre’s history, with over 350 million downloads.

Diamon Mine — the original name for PopCap’s Bejeweled

Originally designed under the name Diamond Mine — named after the song by Canadian country rock band Blue Rodeo — PopCap got its lucky break when Microsoft signed a distribution deal for the game, paying the developer $1,500 a month to host it on its Zone.com (later MSN Games) web portal. “We got a deal with Microsoft and they wanted it on their site, but under a different name,” PopCap co-founder Jason Kapalka told Business Insider in 2014. “Their vague excuse was that there was some game called Diamond Mines — plural — from the Eighties and they were too close, legally.” It was Microsoft that suggested the name Bejeweled. “At first I didn’t like it,” Kapalka claims. “It seemed like a really lame effort to be topical and sound like the movie Bedazzled starring Liz Hurley.”

The game proved wildly successful, frequently seeing more than 20,000 concurrent players — a huge number in 2000. When PopCap suggested it sell the game to the Redmond giant for $50,000, Microsoft refused — so Kapalka, along with co-founders John Vechey and Brian Fiete forged a plan to double down on its success. While the studio had ownership of the game itself, it didn’t own the rights to the name — so in order to take back control, PopCap did a deal: in return for the mark, Microsoft would get the rights to create branded versions for advertisers. This led to a slew of cringeworthy integrations, including Tyson Chicken and Purina-branded versions of the game. There was even one for the “The Other White Meat” from the National Pork Board that had you swapping pieces of meat in Don’t Be Blah Bejeweled. “It was a source of mild embarrassment for a few years,” Kapalka has since claimed.

Don’t Be Blah Bejeweled — yup, a pork-themed version of the game

Once PopCap owned the rights to the Bejeweled name, the studio released a $20 downloadable version of the game dubbed Bejeweled Deluxe and saw tremendous success, selling millions of copies.

Bejeweled has since been ported to dozens of other platforms from handhelds to consoles and other devices — it was even a free built-in game for Motorola’s iconic Razr flip phone when it was released in 2004. In September 2006 it was released as one of the first downloadable games from the iTunes Store for the Apple iPod, and in October 2007 it was one of the very first web app games for the original iPhone.

PopCap subsequently released dozens of other games, including two sequels and several spin-offs to Bejeweled, and the company became a foundational influence on mobile and free-to-play gaming. In 2011, a decade after Microsoft had turned down PopCap’s proffer of $50,000, EA agreed to acquire PopCap in a deal worth $1.3 billion.

Puzzles, Quests and Dragons

With the enormous success of Bejeweled came the inevitable wave of clones and copycats. While dozens of games tried to replicate the concept with different skins and grid layouts, there were several significant releases that pushed the genre forward. In 2007 Australian developer Infinite Interactive blended a simple role playing game with quests and combat that were driven by the match-three gameplay mechanic in its PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS game Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, based on Steve Fawkner’s Warlords strategy RPG series that dates back to 1989.

Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords introduced the idea of using match-three gameplay to charge up attacks in a role-playing style game

Danielle Cassley and Jason Citron expanded on some of the ideas premiered in Puzzle Quest with Aurora Feint The Beginning, a game released in the first wave of App Store applications on iPhone in July 2008. The game blended a match-three system a lot like Nintendo’s Tetris Attack with RPG-like character building before being expanded upon later that same year with additional community and multiplayer features. Although met with some acclaim, Aurora Feint’s longer-lasting contribution was its underlying social structure, which became the foundation for the studio’s OpenFeint service — a tool best described as being like “Xbox Live for iPhone” before Apple’s introduction of GameCenter in 2010.

In 2012, UK-based mobile game developer Chillingo pioneered the concept of using match-three mechanics to drive its farming-based world-building game Puzzle Craft, an idea that ultimately proved to be several years ahead of the curve conceptually. Although beloved by critics, Puzzle Craft was overshadowed that same year by two behemoths of the genre.

GungHo’s Puzzle & Dragons was the first game ever to generate more than $1 billion in sales in a single year

In February 2012, Japanese game company GungHo Online Entertainment refined the Puzzle Quest formula further with its free-to-play mobile game Puzzle & Dragons. The game used Shariki-style orb-swapping as the main game mechanic, with the amount and type of matches determining which of the creatures on the player’s team attack enemy monsters and how much damage they inflict. The game tasked players with constructing the best possible team of monsters from thousands of available beasts ranging from standard fantasy creatures to characters from popular entertainment franchises including Batman, Fist of the North Star and Voltron.

The game has seen more than 60 million downloads since launch — mostly in Asia, but over 10 million copies have been downloaded in the US — and by the end of 2013 it was the first mobile game in history to generate more than $1 billion in sales.

2.7 billion Candy Crush Lovers

In April 2012, just three months after Puzzle & Dragons launched, King released the Facebook version of Candy Crush Saga before quickly porting it to iOS in November and Android in December. Ultimately a refinement of the Shariki or Bejeweled-style match-three genre and the map-based game progression it introduced in Bubble Witch Saga in 2011, Candy Crush blended a cheerful candy theme with a challenging series of puzzles that has proven immensely lucrative.

Candy Crush Saga has been downloaded 2.7 billion times since it launched in 2012

While the game can be played through without spending money, players can buy extra “lives” or special actions to help clear more difficult boards, from which King makes its (considerable) revenues. The game has been downloaded a staggering 2.7 billion times since its introduction, and it has routinely been one of the top-ten grossing mobile apps for the past four years. At its peak in 2014, the game made over $1.3 billion.

On the back of this huge success, CBS attempted to capitalize on the appeal by turning it into a TV game show. The first episode, hosted by former Saved by the Bell star Mario Lopez, aired in July 2017 and was eviscerated by critics — The Verge called it “an unmitigated train wreck,” noting that the enjoyment of Candy Crush games stemmed from the actual experience of playing it, and that “flattening something that discreetly dynamic into a chintzy game show completely misunderstands why people watch video games at all, which is mostly to marvel at the unbridled excellence of a pro or to sink into the antics and narration of an entertainer.” The show ran for just nine episodes before being cancelled after its two-hour finale on September 2.

Match-Three: The Next Generation

The genre continues to be refined as time goes on, and as Candy Crush Saga and Puzzle & Dragons start to slowly decline in popularity, there’s still plenty of room for it to evolve by borrowing ideas from older games and other genres.

Legendary: Game of Heroes builds on the fantasy role playing combat systems first seen in Puzzle Quest and Puzzle & Dragons, while introducing competitive player-versus-player and guild-based competitions that have players working together to fight through raids and combat arenas. Elsewhere, Big Fish Games and Playrix have upended the six-year-old map-based Saga progression system that most contemporary match-three games use and replaced it with a world-building narrative — much like Puzzle Craft did back in 2012 — in its Gardenscape and Homescape titles.

The fundamental match-three gameplay style remains a compelling, thoughtful and fast-paced way to drive more complex game concept. Few genres have the same potential for ultimately capturing a global audience and shaping popular culture as a result.