|The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
Starring: Billy Mitchell, Steve Wiebe, Walter Day, Steve Sanders
Director: Seth Gordon
Leave it to an unassuming documentary about classic arcade games to become the most entertaining, suspenseful movie of the summer. “King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” is both hilarious and depressing in that it has a fantastic underdog story that gives way to political intrigue of Macbeth proportions. I had heard the hype, but even I was surprised at the goods this movie delivers.
The movie begins in 2005 in the garage of Steve Wiebe, a recently unemployed father of two from Redmond, Washington who channels all of his frustrations into…his Donkey Kong machine. Steve, a naturally gifted individual to begin with, turns out to be quite good at Donkey Kong, and in fact, he videotapes himself breaking the world record, set by legendary gamer Billy Mitchell back in 1982 at the tender age of 17. Mitchell, who comes off as a man lacking both humility and a sense of irony, is none too pleased by this development. Nor, it appears, is Twin Galaxies, the official record-keepers for arcade games. In fact, they disqualify Steve’s new record on a technicality, and Steve, determined to prove himself, flies to an annual arcade tournament in New Hampshire to clear his name, and even challenges Billy to a game in a bit of friendly rivalry. Billy declines to attend, and Steve ends up setting a new record on a machine recognized by Twin Galaxies’ main referee Walter Day. Billy, however, always has a backup plan, and he is not about to let this newcomer steal his glory.
That last word tells you everything you need to know about Billy, Steve, and everyone else who participates in the classic arcade tournaments. They take these world records very, very seriously, even if the people around them don’t (Steve’s daughter actually has the movie’s best line in regard to the lengths her father goes to break the record). To these men – there is only one female gamer featured here, and she’s an 80-year-old Qbert fan, of all things – there is great glory in holding the world record high score on these games, and while Billy pretends that his true interests lay elsewhere, like the restaurant chain he bought from his parents, he will stop at nothing to maintain his status as the world’s best Donkey Kong player.
It’s a common dilemma for documentary filmmakers to lose their objectivity during filming and ultimately slant the story in favor of one of their subjects, and while it appears that director Seth Gordon is guilty of portraying Steve as the victim, you cannot deny that Billy, Walter and everyone else in this movie gave Gordon plenty of reasons to tell the story the way he has. Billy, for one, is the physical embodiment of hyperbole, answering the phone on one occasion as “World Record Headquarters” and even going so far as to suggest that his commenting on a controversial issue regarding the gamer world records is like talking about abortion. The rest of the gamers, as well as the supposedly impartial Twin Galaxies, fall at Billy’s feet, as if any of them has anything tangible to lose (other than Billy’s “wrath,” whatever the hell that is) if Steve breaks Billy’s record. They even seemed to be offended when Steve dared to eat at Billy’s restaurant.
Two years after principal photography for “The King of Kong” was completed, the battle still rages. In 2006, Steve officially beat Billy’s world record once again (again, you ask? You’ll have to see the movie to find out the whole story), and just last month, Billy seemed to take it back, though his new record has yet to be acknowledged since he recorded the game using a direct feed, which is not allowed under current gaming guidelines. Are these men determined or obsessed? Champions or laughingstocks? To Gordon’s credit, he made sure that that is for the viewer to decide, and this viewer found them utterly fascinating. And sad. But mostly fascinating.
“Kong” fans, rejoice: Picturehouse stuffs the DVD release of “The King of Kong” to the gills with bonus features and commentaries. Along with two audio commentaries, one featuring the movie’s director and producers and the other featuring Chris Carle of IGN and Jon M. Gibson of i am 8-bit, there are a slew of extended interviews of the movie’s principal characters, and small features on “The Stylings of Billy Mitchell” (his stepdaughter has the best line), the Roy Awesome Disinformation clip (where he admits that he’ll swing both ways if it benefits him), and a fascinating side-by-side gameplay feature of Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe’s highest scoring games. The best feature of the bunch is also the shortest, an animated clip titled “A Really, Really Brief History of Donkey Kong.” No joke, the DVD is worth buying for this alone.