Judge Erich Asperschlager only flips one way, if you know what I mean.
"This is the story of the people who truly mastered the game."
Technological innovation and explosive creativity usually come hand in hand. This was especially true at the dawn of personal computers. As tools became more accessible and easier to use, smart people found new ways to use them. Some of those smart people went on to start billion dollar tech companies. Others fell into obscurity. Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnov landed somewhere in the middle.
Pajitnov was working for a Soviet R&D company when he created Tetris, a puzzle game where players fill in lines on a vertical board with continually falling "tetrominoes"—shapes made up of four blocks—and…do I really need to explain Tetris? Since its creation in 1984, the game has been made available for just about every computer platform, from PC to handheld, arcade to home console, smartphone to toaster (probably). Despite inventing one of the most enduring and popular video games of all time, however, Pajitnov almost became a footnote to gaming history. Since the code was considered property of the state, he didn't receive any royalties for his game until a decade after it was written, long after Tetris had helped launch Nintendo's Game Boy and glued millions of kids to millions of TVs.
Some of those kids went on to become Tetris masters, although their accomplishments were limited mostly to playground bragging rights. Two decades later, the best of the best got a chance to prove it at the 2010 Classic Tetris World Championship, organized by former child champ Robin Mihara. Director Adam Cornelius found out about Mihara's attempt to crown a champion, and decided to expand his original idea for a Kickstarter-funded film about one man's attempt to max out his Tetris score, into the bigger story told in the documentary, Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters.
Ecstasy of Order is the latest in a recent line of video game documentaries, and draws some inspiration from the subgenre's first big hit, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. That movie told the story of two men vying for the world record on Donkey Kong. This documentary follows a much larger field of players going for the same glory in a different game. The profiled players include Ben Mullen, with his world record score of 296 lines; Dana Wilcox, whose obsession began with a family rivalry; Jesse Kelkar, who got serious after learning about the website Twin Galaxies; Harry Hong, the first recorded player to have maxed out the game's score at 999,999; Jonas Neubauer, who shares Hong's max-out record; Alex Kerr, grand master of a variation called "invisible Tetris"; and Thor Aackerlund, a mysterious figure who is the closest thing the film has to a hero.
Although everyone has the story and skills to earn a place in the movie, Aackerlund's tale is uniquely fascinating. For about half the documentary, Thor is discussed in hushed tones. In 1990, he won the Nintendo World Championships, beating out Robin Mihara and others by using a Tetris technique that involved rapidly moving his thumb to move pieces faster than anyone else. In the years following the NWC, Aackerlund dropped out of the public eye, avoiding video game competitions and record attempts. Add in unconfirmed reports that Thor had reached the game's mythical level 30—one past the so-called "kill screen" level 29—and you've got one compelling geek folk hero. That Mihara is able to convince him to take part in his contest is a big deal, and an immediate bummer to the other players who would be just as happy for Thor to remain out of the limelight.
The King of Kong built a story by depicting one player as good and one as bad. The approach made for a thrilling, if heavy-handed, story. Ecstasy of Order might have a de facto hero in Thor, but it has no villain. Players butt heads over technique, and everyone wants to win, but they are a genial group—which might be why it's hard to care about who wins. As one player says to another after the tournament: "It turns out, it's pretty random." True, but not exactly the stuff of great drama.
Even so, the film does one thing very right: it makes me want to play Tetris. Although it is a niche documentary in a growing field of niche documentaries, it examines a subject most people with even a passing interest in computers and consoles know something about. And it does so in great detail. Digging deep into the competitive Tetris subculture uncovers insider talk about walls, wells, longbar droughts, mushy controllers, and max outs. There's even a segment on the dreaded "Tetris Effect," familiar to all obsessive players who continue to see blocks long after closing their eyes for the night. Now imagine how bad that would get after eight hours of training every day.
Ecstasy of Order's 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is made up of a variety of sources, from HD video to archival, off-screen, and Internet footage. The 2.0 Stereo audio mix is clean and clear. In all, a fine DVD release of a low-budget documentary. Adding to the value are what the case describes as more than 76 minutes of bonus features:
• Deleted Scenes: A collection of six scenes ranging from short—"Ben's Tetris Song," "Tetris Roundtable," and "Ben and Mary's Rubik's Cube Race"—to long—14 more minutes of Thor interviews, and uncut video of the finals and Thor's level 30 attempt.
• Locksmith vs. Asteroids (10:18): This short film by the people who made Ecstasy of Order captures an Asteroids player named John McCalister's attempt to break the marathon world record of more than 54 hours straight—hallucinations and all.
• "Max-Out!" (13:02) The trailer for Cornelius's kickstarted documentary about Harry Hong's max-out quest. It also includes the full video of Hong's world record run.
• "Tetris Championship Promo" (2:34): Made by and starring Robin Mihara to promote the "Classic Tetris World Championship," part of it—showing CGI Tetris pieces mixed into Robin's morning routine—was edited into Ecstasy of Order's opening credits.
• "Original Trailer" (1:53)
Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters is an engaging and detailed documentary about the people who have devoted their lives to being the best at one of the all-time best video games. That it will mostly appeal to likeminded gaming enthusiasts doesn't diminish its greatness. Like the computer explosion that gave rise to video games, the modern media boom has made it easier than ever for budding documentary filmmakers, like Adam Cornelius, to share small stories with a large audience.
You are a Tetris master. Not guilty!
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Maintain Creative
• Deleted Scenes
Review content copyright © 2012 Erich Asperschlager; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.