My sister Linda is the best Tetris player I have ever watched play in person. Tetris is simple. It consists of seven different rotating pieces (trivia fact: “Tetriminos”) that must be placed in rows to prevent them from reaching the top of the screen, thus ending the game. When the pieces are dropping slowly and you’re getting the ones you need, anyone can play the game; it’s when things start speeding up and you hit a “drought” (a long period of time in which players do not receive straight pieces) that separates the men from the boys — oh, and the women from the girls. If I’d had any since at all I would have pulled my sister out of school and driven her cross country, hustling Tetris players for cash in seedy 80s arcades.
Even at her prime, I’m not sure my sister could have out-Tetrised the players that appear in the 2011 documentary Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters, which follows Robin Mihara’s attempt to find the world’s best Tetris player by establishing a national tournament.
The documentary begins with Mihara tracking down the country’s best Tetris players, who have all declared the NES version to be the de facto version of the game. This is done by searching Twin Galaxies (not getting a quip from Walter Day seems like a glaring omission). Unsurprisingly, most of the country’s best Tetris players look and act exactly what one might imagine adults in their 30s and 40s who have dedicated their lives to mastering a Nintendo game might look like. Along the way we meet a guy who mastered solving Rubik’s Cubes “in order to pick up women,” a girl who often ignores her spouse while playing Tetris, and another girl who plans on wearing a sweatshirt that says “I > U” along with Nintendo-branded pajama bottoms to the tournament. None of the potential contestants come off as annoying, but none are particularly charismatic either.
The dark horse of the tournament is Thor Aackerlund, one of the winners from the 1990 Nintendo World Championships who became a spokesman for Nintendo before turning into a recluse and walking away from the industry. For a while the film teases a Billy Mitchell “will he or won’t he show up,” but eventually he does and although a bit hesitant to reenter the limelight, he turns out to be a nice guy.
Like the Donkey Kong kill screen from The King of Kong, Tetris too has its own mythical achievements: one involves maxing the game out at 999,999 and the other involves reaching level 30. Thor claims to have done both but doesn’t feel the need to take or share any photographic evidence of his achievements. A few of the other competitors timidly hint that they have their doubts about Thor’s achievements, but no one goes as far as to call him out. In fact, it turns out that for the most part people who spend 10-12 hours a day mastering a Nintendo game tend to like one another.
After establishing the fact that there’s going to be a tournament, Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters spends the next 45 minutes introducing us to the contestants. During this part of the film you’ll be exposed to a lot of people who play a lot of Tetris, and also a lot of Tetris. Along the filmmaker’s journey he got to watch a lot of Tetris footage, and you’ll get to see some of it, too. Some of the footage is impressive and a lot of it goes by too fast to tell what’s going on. All the footage made me think (a) all these people deserve to be in a Tetris tournament, and (b) I hope it happens soon.
The final third of the film covers the tournament itself. Some of the players do well and some don’t go as well as they had hoped. Will one of our new friends win the tournament or will Thor reclaim his former title?
During one of the film’s interviews, Thor explains that shortly after winning the 1990 Nintendo tournament, his house burned down and his family became essentially homeless, their only income being his endorsements and paid appearances. “In one way life is a lot like Tetris,” he says. “It throws random things at you, but what you do with them is up to you.” For me, this was the film’s takeaway moment.
While The King of Kong transcended Donkey Kong and perhaps video games in general in its simplified (and in many cases, forced) “good vs. evil” theme, I don’t think Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters does the same. While it’s a good film, I’m not sure it would appeal to those not interested in Tetris or at least video game tournaments. If you’ve ever played Tetris so long that you’ve dreamed about the game or attended a classic video game expo, no doubt you’ll enjoy this film.
In 10 minutes I’m about to go wake my sister up, get her out of bed, and start her Tetris training regimen for the inevitable sequel.