Sunday, 28 February 2016

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Title: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Director:  Seth Gordon
Released: 2007
Plot: Documentary following the battle between reigning champion Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe for the high score on "Donkey Kong".

Review: It is a well established fact that to be the best at something, that it requires sacrifice and the men who the focus of this documentary are no stranger to sacrifice with many giving up hundreds of hours of their life, as well as time with their friends and family, with many clearly looking like their have also sacrificed several other things such as taking showers and the generally any form of human contact…..ladies and gentlemen please allow me to welcome you to the world of competitive classic video gaming!

At the centre of this documentary is the rivalry between two champion gamers and their battle to hold the world record score on “Donkey Kong”. On one side we have self proclaimed “Sauce King” of Florida Billy Mitchell, the current reigning champion whose score of 874,300 has remained unbeaten since he first set it back in the 80’s and who has on the back of this celebrity for this score build a successful line of homemade sauces. Now stepping up to the challenge we have high school science teacher Steve Wiebe and manages to beat Billy’s high score with a new record of 1,006,600 points unwittingly sparking a rivalry between the two men as they now battle to be the King of Kong.

Inspired by a Time Magazine article featuring the top players of the early 80’s and their scores on 12 of the top arcade games at the time, which included such classic games as Missile Command, Pac Man and the all important Donkey Kong, games which were never designed to be beaten and unlike games today required piles of quarters and countless hours of practice to master, as these were games without the  unlimited lives and replays of modern games, especially as many never even had ending screens, but rather “Kill Screens” instead were the game either appears as random computer code or even more randomly just kills your character. When director Seth Gordon set out to make this documentary he had originally intended to make it about the holders of these top scores, only to disregard the idea when he met Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, to men who play “Donkey Kong” at the highest level, knowing that he had found his story.

The two men at the heart of the documentary are almost polar opposites to each other with Steve Wiebe shown as the everyman who after being laid off from what should have been a lifelong career at Boeing had set himself a goal of beating the top “Donkey Kong” score after randomly stumbling across “Twin Galaxies” website which is recognised as the official scorekeepers for Classic Video Game High scores. Wiebe here is shown as a figure of continuous misfortune with friends noting several occasions in the past where he has come up short, from his childhood as a Star Baseball pitcher who failed to pitch at the State Championships due to injury and a talent drummer in an early grunge band who failed to get any recognition with every accomplishment his has had always taken from him at the key moment.

Billy Mitchell on the other hand is shown as unashamedly arrogant and cocky without an ounce of self doubt, as he continually peddles his own personal life philosophies and willing to do anything he can to retain his championship title, while frequently coming across like a bad villain from an 80’s action movie, which is ironic seeing how this is a documentary about video games from the same period and while it could be argued that this persona is the result of how the film is edited, despite Gordon going on record to say that Mitchell was “so much worse than we painted him out to be,” and that he only included scenes necessary to tell the story as well as stating that the film would have been much darker if he hadn’t, which is only made more believable when fellow documentary film maker Morgan Spurlock, caught up with Mitchell several years after the films release for a follow up interview for the “50 Documentaries To See Before You Die” countdown were the film charted at #41. In this interview Mitchell almost seemed to not really care what he did as long as he was able to retain his legacy, while frequently seeming aloof during the interview especially when he was questioned about various parts of the documentary.

Mainly following Wiebe as he sets about beating the score only to soon find himself battling more than Mitchell and his score, as he finds his own score under scrutiny from members of the “Twin Galaxies” officials board, which Mitchell is more baffling a member of, while also being the realm of Chief Referee Robert Mruczek and Mitchells self styled protégé Brian Kuh who are both unscrupulous in theirs bids to discredit Wiebe’s scores, even at one point breaking into Wiebe’s garage to examine his “Donkey Kong” machine. Still despite this opposition Wiebe continues to fight to get his scores recognised, while trying to arrange a live battle against Mitchell to find out who truly is the champion.

Although it’s a documentary about Classic Video Games and their more obsessed fans, the documentary still also has a lot of heart and manages to rise way about what could have been a clip show of your stereotypical nerdy gamers, but here they are shown on the same level as Olympian athletes as Gordon attempts to understand what it is about these games and more importantly the World Record Donkey Kong score, a battle which has all the feeling of a heavy weight title fight at these two titans battle to claim the top spot. Aswell as this main title fight we also get to meet a lot of interesting characters from the Classic Video Game scene, such the world’s oldest video game player Doris Self and “Twin Galaxies” founder Walter Day who frequently finds himself in the crossfire throughout the film especially as the battle lines are drawn. We also get to meet the equally colourful Roy Shildt a self styled fitness guru and pickup artist who high score on “Missile Command” has frequently brought him into conflict with several of the “Twin Galaxies” officials in particular Billy Mitchell, with Shildt’s scenes in the film being amongst my favourites, much like one gamer taking his frustration out on his car. Shildt’s scenes are also especially interesting as he frequently provides the sole counter argument to how “Twin Galaxies” is run.

Since the films release the record has since been broken again by Plastic surgeon Dr. Hank Chein with a record score of 1,090,400 points, while “Twin Galaxies” have continued to hold Video Game contests including their Iron Man contest to see if any game could be played for 100 hours straight, a challenge which remained unbeaten despite gamer James Vollandt playing “Joust” for 67½ hours frequently using dangerous techniques to stay awake including blasting himself in the face with Freon and all subject matter which would make for a great follow up documentary, even though Director Gordon seems currently set on making the follow up as a feature film focusing on how the documentary changed their lives and how the rivalry has continued, which personally I would love to see, but for now it’s fun to get lost in the nostalgia this film provides, while being one of the most surprisingly entertaining documentaries ever made.

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