King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Some subjects are just not what people would think of as being fruitful grounds for a documentary.  Take the premise of King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.  It’s about a guy named Steve Wiebe, a regular dude who is a little down on his luck and decides to go for a high score on Donkey Kong.  Yes, that Donkey Kong.  Turns out he has a knack for the game, and decides that he wants to be at the current record holder, a hot sauce and restaurant entrepreneur named Billy Mitchell who has held the top score since the mid-80’s.

Not exactly Oscar-worthy source material.

What makes this documentary not only work, but shine, is its unrelenting focus not on video games, but on video gamers.  Specifically the odd, quirky subset of video game players who continually try to best each others’ high scores on classic 8-bit video games.  We’re talking about people with wives and kids and real jobs who spend their time playing games like Galaga, Breakout, and Donkey Kong for hours and hours at a time just to get a higher score than someone else.  And in the middle of it all is Walter Day, a former oil executive who now spends his days keeping track of official video game high scores.

You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

As we follow Steve Wiebe on his quest to beat the Donkey Kong high score (just writing that seems a little odd) we get to know several of these peoples, and come to respect and even admire their devotion to games that few people in the world even play anymore.  Mitchel, whose self-confidence is so over-the-top he reminds me of a real-life White Goodman, soon gets word of a challenge to his high score and makes it his personal mission to make sure he remains the record holder at any cost.

Does all this sound just a little weird to you?

Yes, this man can kick your butt at video games.

Yes, this man can kick your butt at video games.

If so, that’s kind of the point.  But far from being exploitative or demeaning, King of Kong treats these competitive video gamers as if they were Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.  Wiebe is as dedicated as any professional athlete, and displays concentration and stamina that could rival any Olympic athlete in the pursuit of his goal.  And when he arrives at the actual Twin Galaxies arcade to play Donkey Kong for a live audience to prove his skills to an unbelieving community of competitive gamers (Mitchell’s record had not been broken for almost 20 years, so one can understand their skepticism), and a tape sent by Mitchell is unveiled that shows him beating his own high score is unveiled, the injustice of it all is almost too much to bear.

Billy Mitchell: 8-bit video game chapion and homemade hot sauce salesman.

Billy Mitchell: 8-bit video game champion and homemade hot sauce salesman.

And that is exactly why this documentary is a success:  it draws the viewer into this very strange subset of video gaming culture so deeply, and involves us on such an emotional level with the key players involved, that it might as well be the story of an underdog NFL team on its way to the Super Bowl.  Though like many documentaries, facts were somewhat blurred to accomplish this type of audience empathy.  A rivalry between Wiebe and Mitchell that is shown onscreen is actually far from the truth, and the two men have repeatedly stated that they are friends and were always on much better terms than what was shown in the movie.  And sometimes director Seth Gordan movie does cross the line a little bit with Wiebe’s family.  Footage and interviews with his wife and kids at times seems a little too much like tabloid TV than investigative documentary, and I have to wonder how much the interviews with his wife were selectively manipulated to show a lack of confidence in her husband that may or may not have been real.

Still, I highly recommend this fun, quirky, and very entertaining documentary, whether blocky, outdated video games are your thing or not.  Wiebe’s persistence is inspiring, and the glimpse into competitive video gaming is so compelling one can’t help but watch.

Last 5 posts by Simon R.

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Rating: 4.5/5 (2 votes cast)
King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, 4.5 out of 5 based on 2 ratings 3 COMMENTS

Comments

  1. Joyce Heckman says:

    Great review, Simon! You forgot to mention the awesome old lady who shows up at the tournament to beat the Qbert score :) It’s so interesting that Wiebe and Mitchell are actually friends.

  2. Great review, TG! I actually met Billy Mitchell at a recent videogame mini-con at the hopeful sight of the video game hall of fame in Ottumwa, Iowa, the video game capital of the world. It was a trip, seeing that he was in this movie.

  3. @Movie Seal
    You met Billy Mitchell? Niiiice. Was he a jerk or friendly? The movie makes him out to be kind of a playground bully, but I’ve heard he’s actually a lot nicer.

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