“It is estimated that two out of every three Americans has played Tetris.” The opening line of Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters conveys just how significant a game Tetris is in not only video gaming culture but pop culture. Ecstasy of Order is a documentary about Robin Mihara’s quest to find and crown the greatest Tetris player in the world. Robin Mihara himself being one of not only the great Tetris players in the world but one of the legendary gamers of Nintendo history with his third place finish in the 1990 Nintendo World Championships and his title in the Disney Capcom Playtour in 1991.
Before I review this movie, I will say that I was dying to see this. As a self declared video game historian/enthusiast/nerd this was high on my list to watch for a long time. I had been reading Robin’s posts and other people involved with the projects updates on NintendoAge (a Nintendo centric video game community) and was sufficiently stoked over a period of time for this to be released. I even came close to signing up to get a public screening via TUGG. A site that allows you to have a screening of selected movies, so long as you can guarantee a sold out viewing. But the DVD was finally released this week much to my nerdy pleasure and I was finally able to watch this. I found my anticipation odd since I was never that much of a fan of Tetris itself. But the game has such a fascinating history and legacy that the historian part of me is in love with it.
The film opens with a fun nod to the “Tetris Effect.” The explanation of which you can find in my tiny Tetris glossary I put at the end of this article. The documentary of course covers some of the rules of Tetris and features some statements from Tetris’s creator Alexey Pajitnov. From there it begins to focus on the elite handful of Tetris players who are recognized as the best players in the world (most notably, Thor Aackerlund, the 1990 Nintendo World Champion). Someone who has been absent from the gaming community for a significant amount of time since his championship days. Truly these folk are the best part of the documentary. All the participants whom the film focuses on just come off as very genuine people with a great love of the game. Many of which have the most humble of gaming backgrounds that begin with playing games with their parents as kids. I had read some reviews in my anticipation of this film, in which many people made the poor comparison of the personalities in this film to those in King of Kong. Some citing Thor as the Billy Mitchell type bad guy of the movie whom hadn’t properly legitimated his record claims, something I didn’t get from this movie at all. If anything he came off as a fascinating and sympathetic person who had a passion for gaming before the adversities of life got in the way.
The first half of the movie focuses on the players and Thor. It also focuses briefly on whether Thor will appear at the tournament. The middle focuses on some of the games achievements along with Robin’s visits to the players before the championship. The achievements in the game the film focuses on are the “Max Out” (highest possible score) “most lines” and the highest level (kill screen). I cover these things at the bottom of the article.
The final section of the film is an intense chronicle of the Classic Tetris World Championships in Los Angeles. The interestingly tense moments in which two of the standout personalities of the film fight against the clock and each other to secure the final spot in the semi-finals comes off really well. The film does a decent job of showing the tension of the semi-final and final rounds. I watched the finals online when they happened and was way more into them in their entirety then I was watching the film. But still this film did a great job giving the atmosphere of the tournament. During the final round, the camera focused on the eyes of one of the players in the audience whom didn’t make the final (I’ll refrain from using names to avoid spoilers). That scene of the player, eyes darting back and forth following the action, was my favorite part of the film. Below is a YouTube video of the final, I’d recommend watching the movie first so as not to ruin the suspense though.
I think one of the things that will be difficult for the film is that it truly is for Tetris and video game enthusiasts. I just find it hard to conceive how someone who isn’t a fan of Tetris or gaming will enjoy this movie as much as I did. If I try to think about this from their point of view, this movie would most likely come off as very boring. A documentary like King of Kong had this great clash of personalities and interactions that could capture someone whom was not interested in Donkey Kong at all. I don’t think this movie has that same ability. But honestly, for me it wasn’t made that way and I don’t think the film would be as genuine if it tried to be a King of Kong clone. Unfortunately, that is the film all gaming documentaries will be compared against but that’s just how it is. I’d still recommend this film to anyone interested in gaming. I give this film an 8/10 but I preface that score with the statement that I might not have found the film as interesting if I didn’t already have an interest in gaming narratives. Also, the score in the trailer/film is really good in my opinion. Trailer below:
Max Out – A Max Out is when a player reaches 999,999 points in the game, which is the highest you can get because that is the point at which the score will max out and not go any higher. Here is the video of Harry Hong (one of the players featured in this documentary) attaining the first “Max Out” cited on record.
Kill Screen – In Nintendo Tetris, level 29 is referred to as the “kill screen.” It is designed to go so fast that the player can’t react fast enough and will be killed on that screen. Although the documentary explores the notion whether it is possible to get past level 29 to level 30 and comes to a resolute conclusion on the matter. If you’re reading this review I’m sure you’ve watched King of Kong, and as such, I’ll just say that “There’s a potential Donkey Kong kill screen coming!”
Tetris Effect – The “Tetris Effect” is where you see Tetris shapes and blocks in your dreams or you hallucinate and see them in everyday life situations. If you or anyone you know suffers from this ailment. See a doctor, but not Dr. Mario… that might just exacerbate the problem.