Wednesday 2 July 2008

The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters (2007)

Wednesday 2 July 2008
Director: Seth Gordon
Starring: Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, Walter Day, Brian Kuh, Steve Sanders, Roy Schildt, Todd Rogers & Doris Self

A tale of obsession and rivalry in the arcade, as filmmaker Seth Gordon's documentary introduces us to the world of competitive video-gaming. Steve Wiebe (pronounced "Wee-Bee") is a family man living in Redmond, Washington with his wife Nicole and young son Derek; a once-promising baseball player who suffered an injury and is now a science teacher. But he spends most of his time in his garage, playing '80s arcade classic Donkey Kong...

If Wiebe's the underdog hero, then gaming legend Billy Mitchell is the "villain"; the world champion of Donkey Kong and widely considered the best video-game player of all time. He has the certificates and awards to prove it, not to mention the required taped evidence players must submit to Twin Galaxies for score authentication. Galaxies is run by bearded geezer Walter Day, who created the company back in 1981 and has seen it become the place to have your video-game high-score validated and officially recognized.

Trouble brews when Wiebe beats grandmaster Mitchell's score of 874,300 on Donkey Kong (set in 1982) -- taking it past a million points for the very first time. He has the required video-tape evidence and becomes a local celebrity overnight, but the close-knit team of Twin Galaxies suspect foul play when it's revealed Wiebe got his arcade machine from renowned Mitchell-hater Roy Schildt -- whose top-score on Missile Command was refused because of Mitchell's misgivings. History repeats itself and Wiebe's Donkey Kong score of 1,006,600 is unjustly discounted, setting the scene for bitter rivalry as the modest Wiebe struggles to gain acceptance and authentication by suspicious Walter's team...

Gordon's documentary is amusing, entertaining, yet tinged with a quiet sadness. Obviously the idea of grown men competing with each other on retro arcade games, often at the expense of their family life, has its clichés and instils a negative reaction. And yes, these guys are definitely nerds with social hang-ups -- but their passionate thirst for excellence in their pastime is totally relatable. Hey, one day I'll write the perfect screenplay! Wiebe comes across as a decent guy, whose hand-eye coordination and scientific mind, together with the spare time afforded by his sporting injury, steered him down this path of pixels.

Mitchell, a gawky Jesus look-alike in skinny black jeans, cuts a more tragic figure. He's a big fish in a small pond, who's sustained fame and reputation means there's only way for him to go: down. When someone's sat at the top of a tree for 30 years, most people perched on the branches become used to the shade. So, Mitchell being usurped by the unknown Wiebe had to sting. Despite Wiebe's score being discredited, it only fuels Wiebe's commitment to crack the million point barrier on Mitchell's home turf of Florida, in front of all his critics... as Mitchell contemplates someone officially snatching his crown as the king of Kong...

The King Of Kong walks a fine line between reality and fiction, as Walter Day later called into question a number of things the documentary states as fact, with the storyline likely tinkered to be more entertaining in the edit. It's worth mentioning that Gordon's film is currently being reworked as a "true story" drama -- a film that will likely hit the emotional highs this documentary couldn't quite achieve. You spend the movie hoping for thrilling competitive battles and a final face-off between Mitchell and Wiebe, but real life just doesn't work like that. I suspect the fictionalized version of this story will be more fulfilling, though.

A case in point: geeky Mitchell protégé Brian Kuh, a top player of Donkey Kong who has never reached the fabled "Kill Screen" (where limitations of system memory means you dies on the last screen at a random time) tries to drum-up a crowd to see Wiebe reach that stage... and gets very little reaction. It begged the question: are only the top players of Donkey Kong actually bothered about who's numero uno? The fictionalized remake will doubtless find Kuh amassing a huge crowd of square-eyed geeks, salivating behind Wiebe's shoulder. But "henchman" Kuh -- keeping tabs on Wiebe's gaming, and relating his progress to Mitchell via payphone -- should need no tinkering!

Overall, this will primarily appeal to gamers or anyone with a geeky side that needs a scratch, but there's definitely a compelling "underdog vs. top dog" storyline that everyone can enjoy and get caught up in. I suspect the drama based on this documentary will be more crowd-pleasing and an easier watch, while the evolving nature of gaming means King Of Kong is already outdated (see the DVD extra's for a post-doc catch-up on Billy vs. Steve's battle, or the Twin Galaxies website for the latest scores.) While Seth Gordon's documentary never attains greatness, it's an intriguing glimpse into a little-known world that got me psyched to test my own skill against the barrel-rolling ape...

Game over.

79 minutes