King of the Blocks

After 22 years in an 8-bit world, Robin Mihara still wants to be master of Tetris.

AGONY AND ECSTASY: Former Nintendo champion Robin Mihara schooled WW in a reproduction game but came up short against top competition.

In 1990, with the original Nintendo console at its peak popularity, the Mariomaker staged a national tour of convention centers, complete with a competition that looked something like Fred Savage's The Wizard. I was 9 on the big day it came through my city, and can remember only an American Idol-style line of excited kids in Hammer pants stretching across an acre of musty red carpet and a monitor displaying the opening screen of the not-yet-released Castlevania III.

Robin Mihara's memories of the event are much clearer. At 13, the Portlander went to his city's Nintendo World Championships with serious intentions of going on to Florida to win a $10,000 savings bond, a Geo Metro convertible, a giant projection television and a trophy shaped like a squat Italian plumber. The competition remains one of the defining moments of his life—something that brings him both pride and disappointment.

"I was really, really good at video games," he says. "To the point that I'd buy a game and it'd seem like a waste of money because I'd beat it in two days. I remember this game Rygar, it was a $35 game—which is like $80 today—and I beat it in two hours. It was like I wished I wasn't as good as I was.... And I've never been as good at anything else in my life."

Maybe that's why it's been so hard to walk away from a 27-year-old video game system. Though he took a decade off, Mihara is still playing Nintendo games—including competing in this weekend's World Tetris Championship at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo. He's also still hoping to win, once. Mihara is the Buffalo Bills of electronic gaming, always getting close but never quite grabbing the glory. 

"Video games were basically an addiction since the Intellivision came out," he says. "I was 6 and got Pitfall. My parents didn't really know that you shouldn't let your kids play for eight hours a day."

A boy genius who was given the SATs as a child for a possible Doogie Howser-like path to early postgraduate education and country-club life, Mihara instead ended up dropping out of high school. Today he makes his living selling vintage video games, something he fell into a few years ago when he needed quick cash after the birth of his daughter. He sold off his copy of the Nintendo World Championship game cartridge, one of only 116 made for finalists in the NWC, and one of the most valuable games ever made.

The NWC was a triathlon of sorts. Played on a special cartridge developed for the 29-city roving contest in 1990, it featured the first several levels of Super Mario Bros., one course from Road Racer, and Tetris. In order to race, players needed to get 50 coins in Mario. Players then had to finish the race before they got to dissolve lines of blocks in Tetris. The amount of time contestants have to rack up points in Tetris—everyone got a total of 6:21 to play all three games—depended on how quickly they could navigate the other two games.

Tetris, it turns out, is Mihara's passion. "I'd rented Tetris but I didn't like it, I just thought it was ridiculous. [But] Tetris is where the World Championship was won or lost, so I started practicing."

As players trained for the NWC, they started figuring out all the angles. For example, it's faster to wreck your car across the finish line in Road Racer than to let the computer stop you. In the mania of the tour, families made sacrifices to travel to competitions so their kids could practice. Mihara didn't win at the Portland stop, but did well enough to want to mow lawns to buy a bus ticket to Oakland, where he qualified for the final matchup in Florida.

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Mihara eventually took third at the NWC finals, losing to a kid named Thor Aackerlund, a home-schooled Nintendo prodigy who dominated the field. Aackerlund, who didn't even own a Nintendo when he entered the competition, became a paid spokesman for several games, actually supporting his entire family with the money. Aackerlund's rough life figures prominently in a documentary called Ecstasy of Order, about the world's best Tetris players engaging in a King of Kong-like quest to battle for perfection straight up to the kill screen. The movie will screen at this weekend's Portland Retro Gaming Expo, where this year's championship competition will be held.

The film also follows Mihara as he organizes the world's first Tetris championship in Los Angeles. Unlike the famed documentary about a quarter-powered gorilla's barrel hopping, there's no good and bad guys. Everyone still living in the 8-bit era is likable—if also a little damaged.

"It's kind of interesting. Of all the top seven players in the NWC—I've met five of them in the last three years—none of us were working," Mihara says. "We all had this story of unfulfilled potential. It was almost the same as kid stars—they get all of this fame and don't know how to put it together in the real world."

Mihara's last taste of glory was when Street Fighter II ruled the arcade. He skipped classes his freshman year of high school to play through a line of challengers that formed at the player-two spot. 

"I was an asshole. I'd show up in head-to-toe Chicago Bulls gear with my hair gelled up and just beat up on these kids who waited 45 minutes to play me," he says. "I'd win the first game, then let them win the second, and then crush them. It was the only thing that was like being on stage with a crowd behind me. But then people moved on to the first-person shooters and I didn't get into that."

Despite being the local king, Mihara has lost the big matches that matter to him. In Ecstasy of Order, Mihara sets a world record in the little-known Tengen version of Tetris, only to see Aackerlund, his old nemesis, pick up the controller for the first time in years and double his score.

And yet he keeps hitting start—because he always has. His son, though, is limited to an hour of video games at a time. Which Mihara recommends to all parents—especially ones with bright and obsessive children.

"I have ADD and I actually believe that a large part of my ADD at least was caused by this constant feedback stimulus, because then I had to go to school and listen to this analog, boring teacher with a piece of chalk," Mihara says. "I just didn't have the attention for her to sit there and get through things. Whereas with video games you get this score and reward—all these great things happen so fast. To this day I can't read a book—it’s just boring.” 

GO: The Portland Retro Gaming Expo is at the Oregon Convention Center, 777 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., on Saturday-Sunday, Sept. 29-30. $25 weekend pass.

WWeek 2015

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