You’ve played it. You’ve struggled for a high score. You’ve cursed the universe when that damn line block just wouldn’t show. But what challenges face the world’s greatest Tetris masters? Today’s entry is “Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters.”
Whether it was on a Nintendo, a Game Boy, or a TI-83 calculator, there’s a good chance you’ve engaged in Russia’s greatest contribution to western civilization since Yakov Smirnoff. Tetris, the granddaddy of puzzle video games, has been entertaining, frustrating, and claiming hours of the lives of gamers since 1984. In those three decades, a select few have earned the title of Tetris Master, having achieved milestones such as a maxed out score or a record number of lines formed in a single game. Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters is the story of Tetris enthusiast Robin Mihara’s quest to find and unite these expert gamers in a tournament to determine who is the ultimate master of “Line Droughts” and “T-Spins.”
Directed by Adam Cornelius, Ecstasy primarily follows Mihara on his nationwide search for the top block builders while interspersing the history, rules, and strategies of Tetris throughout the film. These periodic cutaways may be old news to a seasoned player, but they can be informative to a casual viewer who might not know certain facts, such as the word tetris actually refers to a move that clears four lines simultaneously, a maneuver that holds the highest point value. These brief yet comprehensive overviews of the game’s history and legacy eases the viewer, gamer or not, into this in-depth look at the world of Tetris and its players.
After discovering Twin Galaxies, the video game record-keeping website, Robin Mihara seeks out all-stars Ben Mullen, record holder for most lines in a game (296), Harry Hong and Jonas Neubauer, co-record holders for a maxed-out score (999,999), and Thor Aackerlund, the 1990 Nintendo World Championships winner in the Tetris category (Mihara himself came in third in that same tournament). Others sought out by Mihara include Twin Galaxies-ranked players Dana Wilcox and Jesse Kelkar, and fellow NWC competitor, Trey Harrison. Mihara’s interviews with the players are done very casually, some even conducted while they play the game. This presents an excellent opportunity to see them in action, but also provides a genuine look at their personalities as they seem to forget they are on camera.
From its beginning, Ecstasy feels very similar to another gaming documentary, Seth Gordon’s The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. However, Ecstasy keeps its focus on Mihara’s simple goal of assembling players and conducting a tournament, whereas Kong centered heavily on the drama between Donkey Kong high score competitors Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe. Whereas these two men were seen as rivals, Mitchell portrayed as more of an arrogant villain and Wiebe as the sympathetic everyman, Tetris players like Neubauer and Wilcox know they are among the top tier gamers, but maintain that it is just a hobby that may or may not have earned them a little recognition. Even during the Classic Tetris World Championship, Mihara’s tournament, we see small glimpses of sportsmanship as Harry Hong and Ben Mullen offer friendly acknowledgement of each other’s performances between rounds.
Oddly enough, Thor Aackerlund , the player who one might think would fill the role of antagonist, turns out to be the most humble of all. His winning performance at the 1990 NWC and an unsubstantiated claim of having reached the fabled Level 30 had the potential to color him as Mitchell-like, but after his brief time in the gaming spotlight in the 1990s, Aackerlund disappeared into obscurity, shying away from notoriety. In his quest to unite the top Tetris players, Mihara sees Aackerlund as his white whale, tirelessly tracking him down in the hopes that he may come out of “retirement” and participate in the CTWC. When Aackerlund agrees to travel to Los Angeles for the tournament, he initially avoids the cameras, but eventually opens up to the audience, sharing stories of his difficult adolescence, and how the money from gaming tournaments and endorsements helped keep his family afloat.
As Robin Mihara sees all his hard work come to fruition, the first annual CTWC plays out, featuring appearances by Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov and The Tetris Company CEO, Henk Rogers (the former via video). After multiple rounds to achieve high line counts and overall score, Jonas Neubauer is crowned Tetris Champion, solidifying an event that will doubtlessly draw new contenders in years to come. With a renewed love of the game following the tournament, Thor Aackerlund returns home to Texas to finally prove that Level 30 is attainable. A video submitted to Twin Galaxies not only shows Aackerlund reaching Level 30, but also tying Hong’s and Neubauer’s 999,999 score record all in the same game. He may not have won the tournament, but Thor Aackerlund is definitely a Tetris Master.
Verdict: Highly Recommended. Gamers with an appreciation for the classics will enjoy the respectful look at one of the sub-culture’s most renowned icons, and casual viewers will doubtlessly be entertained by the exploration of those who can maneuver pixelated tetrominoes so fast it’ll make your head “T-Spin.” So, go dust off your NES or download it from the App Store, because after watching Ecstasy of Order, you’ll be in the mood to play some Tetris. (Good luck getting the song out of your head.)