In 1982, Life magazine gathered the world's top video game champs for a photo shoot. The Centipede representative, Billy Mitchell, was bugged by the Donkey Kong high scorer's claims and challenged Steve Sanders to a game. Billy blew away Sanders and his 874,300 points were still considered unbeatable some twenty years later. But then down at his luck West Coaster Steve Wiebe sought something to aspire to and latched onto the old arcade game and Billy's high score. His mastery of it led to the biggest showdown in gaming history as he and Mitchell fought to be "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters."
In setting out to document the competition for an entry in the 2007 Guinness Book of World Records on video gaming, director Seth Gordon ("Shut Up & Sing's" cinematographer) arrived at something much, much more - a fascinating portrait of polar opposites driven by different needs within a freakish world of nerdy obsessives. One not need give a hoot about video games to enjoy this taught, tense and thoroughly entertaining documentary.
After rapidly establishing his players, Gordon takes a linear approach, rewinding to 1982 to establish the history of the video game acknowledged to be the most difficult and the man who became a kind of rock star based on his legendary titles. Billy Mitchell is weirdly fascinating, an egoist as trapped in the 80's as a bug in amber with his long hair, moustache and loud ties. Mitchell, all his hooded, piercing blue eyes and unnaturally perfect posture, is acknowledged, albeit fondly, as secretive and manipulative by both parents and proteges.
Billy is now runs and owns a successful hot sauce empire and acknowledges that so many balls have bounced his way that there must be one unlucky guy out there paying the price. Enter Steve Wiebe, a mathematical savant of sorts whose supportive wife Nicole believes has talent within his hands. She also notes her husband's seeming inability to ever get anything but the short end of the stick - on the verge of pitching a high school championship baseball game, he was struck down by an injury; the day he closed on his house he was laid off from his job. Nicole's beliefs are justified when Gordon shows Steve wailing on his 7 year old son Derek's drum set in an incredibly fast and complex solo. Then he has Donkey Kong delivered to his basement and begins breaking down its mysteries with analytical precision. He cracks Mitchell's score on videotape (complete with Derek screaming in the background) and attracts all kinds of media attention, but remember, of course, this is the guy who cannot catch a break.
Back in the day, Mitchell helped establish a gaming governing body known as Twin Galaxies with Walter Day, a gaming 'referee' and general all around boho who now runs the organization that verifies new world records based on specific criteria. The volunteer staff includes Todd Rogers, who spends as much as 48 hours watching videotape to determine the validity of one score. Although videotaped games are an acceptable means of proving a high score, though, it is considered more honorable to beat a record 'live' and there is no better place to do this than the Fun Spot, a New Hampshire arcade which holds regular competitions throughout the year.
When Wiebe's score is submitted the Twin Galaxies' family circle around their hero and appear to take undue diligence in acknowledging his claim. Old rivalries work against Steve who is amazed by the skeletons that spill out of the closet. When he decides to go the distance and head to Fun Spot to prove himself, Mitchell is nowhere in sight, plotting his next move to retain his champion status in secret. When Walter Day, present at Fun Spot as always, describes the situation as "Dodge City," it is immediately apparent who wears the white hat and who the black.
And if there is a complaint to be made about "Kong of Kong," it is perhaps in Gordon's clear delineation of his 'good' and 'bad' guy via music cues and some ambiguity. Make no mistake - Mitchell digs his own grave revealing his character - but when a taped score of his is questioned, it is never made clear if it was finally authenticated. Earlier, in fact, in laying out the rules, it is never made clear how a gamer's very identity is verified on video.
Gordon has succeeded, though, in making one of the best documentaries of the year nonetheless. "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," in turning over the rocks of video game obsessives, goes to unexpected places and showcases fascinating characters from its main subjects to those on the peripheries. Be sure to stick around when the film winds down with texted footnotes as it has still has surprises in store.
Robin gives "The King of Kong" a B-.
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