The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007) / Documentary
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for a brief sexual reference
Running time: 79 min.
Cast: Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, Walter Day, Todd Rogers, Steve Sanders
Director: Seth Gordon
Review published September 16, 2007
Like any other competitive gaming, videogames have their own masters who are head and shoulders above the vast majority of people who play just for fun. Each particular game has its addicts who have achieved top scores at their local arcade, but there can be only one top high score. When you're talking about games that millions have played, such as "Pac Man" and "Space Invaders", being the best is enough to gain you some serious recognition among video game fanatics and historians.
The King of Kong tells about one particular game, "Donkey Kong", which features characters known by those who were gamers in the early 1980s, as well as the youngest of game fanatics today. Anyone who has ever played a "Mario" game is probably familiar with the infamous plumber, and also the titular giant ape who, once upon a time, was his main nemesis, hurtling barrels and setting off fireballs in an effort to escape with the princess to increasingly difficult levels. Practically anyone who has ever been to an arcade in the 1980s has played the game at least once, and one of the primary the joys of old school arcade games comes when it shows that your awesome score has made it to the top of the "best scores" screen. Not everyone knows there is a national scorekeeper organization that tries to keep track of the best ever scores, and this is what The King of Kong, a documentary about two men claiming to be the all-time best, is all about.
Since 1982, one man has always been atop the high score for "Donkey Kong", Billy Mtchell, who made a name for himself by owning the best scores for several notable games in the arcade revolution of the 1980s. Not only has the score been the best for 25 years, no documented game has even come close in score. That is until Steve Wiebe comes along and not only surpasses Billy's score, but puts it way over the top. Few know that there is a final screen of "Donkey Kong", albeit an unintentional end, where the game's memory can take no more, freezes (the level is called the "Kill Screen" because it kills the hero, ending the game) and forces the player to stop.
I think the best thing about The King of Kong is that its director, Seth Gordon, takes the competition for the world's best video game score with the seriousness that its participants do. It would be easy to semi-mock the people in the film as nerds out of touch with reality, which would probably have made it more entertaining for some viewers, but that would have diminished the crux of the movie's theme of wanting to be the best at something that many others can identify with. Sure, Wiebe and Mitchell could have been the best at a lesser-known game like "Mappy" or "Qix", but would anyone care about that except for the previous record holder? Doubtful. "Donkey Kong" is a crown jewel among classic arcade games, and being known as the best who has ever touched the control stick is a vaunted achievement for anyone who has ever cared enough to spend the extra time to look to see where their score ranks once the game is over.
What also makes The King of Kong so riveting is that the rivalry has a clear-cut good guy and bad guy. Billy Mitchell is arrogant, rude, self-centered and a royal bastard. With his Vegas magician look and smarmy attitude, he's like an eccentric character taken right out of one of those sports comedies that make a big deal about sports most people couldn't care less about, like Dodgeball or Balls of Fury, except he actually walks around in public carrying that chip on his shoulder. These days, he spends more time on his hair and image than he does on the world of video games. So long as no one bests his score on "Donkey Kong", he doesn't really need to prove himself to anyone. His trophy wife sticks by him gazing adoringly at him as if on cue, not seeming to mind that the guy doesn't care enough to wear his wedding ring. He tries carefully to be impartial to the whole affair, but he is so obstinate to accepting any facts he doesn't like, he makes himself out to be a bigger jackass than he is a champion.
By contrast, family man Steve Wiebe is such a nice guy, except with none of the success that Mitchell has tasted, whether in gaming or his personal life. Through his exceptional downs (he was fired from his job the day he signed the papers for his house), his wife and kids have stuck by his depression, even allowing him to channel his OCD tendencies into spending countless hours in the basement trying his best to become the champion at "Donkey Kong" (and its lesser sequel, "Donkey Kong Jr."). One senses that, should he break Mitchell's long-standing record, Wiebe would use that small victory to show himself that he can do anything he puts his mind to, and perhaps turn his life around in a substantial way with this newfound confidence.
Wiebe's video tape busting of Mitchell's record causes not just ripples, but tidal waves among the game score keeper's world, particularly when it is revealed that Wiebe was assisted by a man who the organization considers to be an enemy. Men unceremoniously visit Wiebe's home when he isn't there, dismantle his machine to see if there is any tampering, and later, they claim that his score can only be official if he goes to a sanctioned public place to show he can break it again. That Wiebe does so at great expense would make for a happy conclusion, but Mitchell, portraying every bit like the mad magician he looks like, throws in a monkey wrench in the "Donkey Kong" works by producing a tape he's been holding onto on the off chance that someone has the audacity to break his score. Before Wiebe's name can even be put on the gamer's score hall of fame, Mitchell has already trumped it.
The last half of the film deals with Wiebe's quest to challenge Mitchell to a duel "in the ring" by getting him to come out of the shadows and show what he can do head to head. Quotes from Mitchell's mouth that belittle everything Wiebe has done make him come off as a huge hypocrite, as he refuses to accept Wiebe's score because it was taped and not live and under pressure, then wants his own score submitted under the circumstances he initially dismissed. By the end of the film, you want Wiebe to beat that asshole so bad that you are riveted by his quest. As Wiebe and his wife practically break down in tears after being literally insulted and nearly spit upon by the organization that invited him out in the name of good sportsmanship, it's truly a heartbreaking spectacle.
I'd like to think that Mitchell, ever the showman, played up his role as the villain for marketing purposes of the movie, willing to smear his own image in order to promote more of a ripping good time. Whether he really is caught up by his own image or if it's just for show is hard to tell, but the look on the faces of his friends say it all, especially after they have seen that Wiebe is the real deal, as well as a good person. One gets the sense that, although they are all cronies of Mitchell, they secretly wish for his comeuppance, wanting very much for him to get a taste of humble pie, even if it is at the hands of someone that their sworn enemy has taken under his wing.
Digressing a bit, I have been asked on occasion what the difference between a geek and a nerd is, as I don't tend to use them interchangeably. I realize that, to someone who is neither, they probably appear to be one and the same. My pat answer (I'm greatly simplifying it here for brevity) is that a geek passionately engages in activities for fun to a degree that fall out of the mainstream, while nerds do these same activities to the point where they aren't any fun anymore -- they are a way of life. Mitchell, Wiebe and all of the rest of the people who passionately care so much about getting top score are among the biggest nerds you'll ever see in a documentary. It would be easy to laugh at them from beginning to end, much as we did in seeing equally nerdy people in Trekkies.
Eventually, you forget all about the fact that their lives are being completely undone by a game that 99.99% of the population see as nothing but a fun but trivial distraction. If you find yourself applauding when Wiebe bests Mitchell's score, hissing at Mitchell's acts of boldfaced rudeness, and tears start welling up when Wiebe's longsuffering wife is disappointed that her husband's achievements are so unceremoniously slighted, you'll find that we're all a little nerdier as result of being completely enrapt by The King of Kong. That you'll dig in your pocket or purse for a quarter the next time you're in an establishment with a "Donkey Kong" game is the ultimate proof.
©2007 Vince Leo