I’m getting old. I’ve been a video gamer since I was 4. I turned 32 yesterday. I remember clearly my earliest experiences with video games. My parents sat me down in front of the TV and turned on the Atari 2600 at my uncle’s place while the adults chilled. A couple of years later I would own a 2600, myself. I still play games when I can. I’m working my way through Bioshock on the 360. Despite the high performing consoles available today, I still like to play the classics. With severe hardware limitations, developers had to come up with extremely clever ways to entertain you if they were going to make any kind of money. Despite all the limited color palettes and freaky sounds these early arcade classics still have an allure that few games manage to recapture. My forte was Time Pilot and Spy Hunter. I experienced a brief episode of video game competition in a Florida hotel while on vacation with my parents. I topped the list and went down the next day to find someone had topped me, so I topped it again. This went on the entire trip. Pretty exciting when I was 11. I never met the person who was challenging me for the top spot.
King of Kong replicates this experience on screen. Ruthless but fun competition in old video games. A movie populated with real-life characters as weird as the premise for the entire documentary. I’m still not sure if this movie fits the Cinema Suicide formula, but it’s so strange that I feel obligated to write it up. It’s also outstanding and you’d be doing yourself a great disservice by passing it up.
In 1982, Billy Mitchell set the all-time high score record for Donkey Kong, a record no one thought could ever be broken. They explain that Donkey Kong is a particularly vicious game and I can attest to its challenge. It’s difficult right out of the gate and while it follows the same sort of pattern repetition that other games of the era followed, its patterns were so varied from board to board, that it becomes very difficult to keep it all in mind. DK requires a strong degree of hand-eye coordination and uncanny rote memorization. In 2004, Billy Mitchell still held that record. He explains that he has been able to reproduce the mindset developed in video game competitions in the real world and as a result of his drive and determination, fostered by his confidence of being the absolute best in the world at something to become the hot wings impresario of Hollywood, Florida. I realize how silly that sounds, but Billy is quite successful at what he does.
Enter Steve Wiebe, a laid off employee of Boeing who found competitive gaming while trying to keep his mind off of his real-life situation. To keep his hands busy while studying to be a middle-school science teacher, Steve played Donkey Kong in his garage and trained, with fanatical dedication, to top Billy’s high score. Finally, Steve video tapes his finest play ever, a score topping one million points, and sends it to the official score keeper of world video gaming, Twin Galaxies. Things go awry, however, when representatives of the Twin Galaxies group show up to Steve’s house and find that the DK board in his cabinet was supplied to him by Missile Command champion and competitive video gaming villain, Roy Shildt, aka Mr. Awesome. Suspecting something rotten, Steve is then called upon by Twin Galaxies to put up or shut up at a gaming tournament held at classic gaming museum/family entertainment wonderland, Funspot in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire.
The word is out that Steve is hellbent on toppling Billy’s score and the old court of competitive video gaming royalty start buzzing about the possibility and excitement of Billy’s score being beaten by this Johnny Come Lately. Billy doesn’t show up to Funspot, but Steve does and tops Billy’s score by a considerable margin as well as achieves the near-mythical Killscreen, wherein the memory runs out and the game ends your reign of terror whether you were ready or not. On the eve of his victory, Steve is upstaged by the absent Billy Mitchell when one of Billy’s friends produces a video tape Billy has been sitting on in the event that his score is ever threatened. It shows a game in which he tops one million points. Steve is crushed as his outstanding performance is crushed by Billy’s hypocritical move. Billy is best known for pushing live competition over video taped scores.
Furious, Steve goes home but it’s not long before competition is announced in Billy’s hometown and Steve is there with bells on to take down Billy’s monster score and hopefully do it in person.
This sounds like it could be a Christopher Guest directed mockumentary starring Eugene Levy as the quirky, filk singing organizer of Twin Galaxies, Walter Day yet every second is real. Mitchell is a deadly serious competitor and it’s almost as though Wiebe had no idea what he was getting himself into when he jumped into the arena.
The dynamic between Wiebe and Mitchell is the star of the show and the movie’s greatest achievement. It’s clear from the outset that director Seth Gordon understood what made each party tick and the story that unfolds is very much the three act play that you’re used to in a fictional setting. In act one, the main players are introduced and their motives are established. Wiebe is portrayed as a straight shooter, a nice guy. He means the best and he works hard to be the player that he is. His past is illustrated by his family and we learn that as well as being a frighteningly skilled Donkey Kong player, he’s an extremely talented artist, a musician and a star athlete. Steve has Dan Marino syndrome, though. He could get there but couldn’t take his skills all the way. Pressure to perform always seems to get the best of Steve when it’s most crucial. He’s very much the underdog of the story. He is Rocky to Billy Mitchell’s Apollo Creed or maybe even Clubber Lang since Mitchell is such an enormous, big-mouthed douche bag.
Mitchell is the polar opposite of Wiebe. Billy has ridden his claim to fame all the way to confidence and a successful lifestyle. For 22 years, he never expected anyone to ever beat his score. The next highest score is hundreds of thousands less. His other comptetive gaming buddies continually play and defend their scores, but Billy’s Donkey Kong score is nigh untouchable. He never expected to ever have to defend it. At first, Billy seems to have it all for a guy who’s claim to fame is kicking ass at an old video game. Successful business, a trophy wife and the unconditional adoration of lesser gamers. There is a pack of recurring characters, each with their own record-setting high score for a different game and they hold Billy up on high. He is the alpha-nerd in this pack. While the other guys are very much the same greasy weirdos they were at 13, Billy has gone on to do cool things such as have sex. Because of this comfortable padding, Billy’s world is fairly secure. Steve’s introduction clearly threatens everything that makes Billy Mitchell Billy Mitchell. As such, Mitchell is portrayed as this frightened asshole. Steve only gets to leave friendly messages of challenge in Billy’s voicemail and the one time they cross paths in the movie reveals Billy’s true inner nerd. His arrogance grows tiresome very quickly as he dismisses casual gaming and spews obviously rehearsed lines about perfection and being the best. Billy never catches a break at no point does he seem like a decent guy.
It’s very easy to fall into the drama of King of Kong and forget that you’re watching a documentary about guys who fight tooth and nail to defend high scores in games that most modern gamers have never even seen let alone heard of. The characters, even the nerdy, borderline autistic supporting cast are likable, if mildly creepy people. Steve Wiebe is easy to root for. You want to see him succeed and you badly want Mitchell to get his comeuppance.
Listen. There’s never a dull moment. If you’ve seen the hype, believe it. King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters reminded me how much I love old video games and makes me feel like I could hunker down and get the kind of practice you need to rank at Twin Galaxies.