New Line // 2007 // 90 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // January 29th, 2008
"No matter what I say, it draws controversy."
-- Billy Mitchell
"I guess it's not even about Donkey Kong anymore."
-- Steve Wiebe
Welcome to the world of competitive arcade video gaming: where a second chance costs a quarter, a game can last for days, and hell hath no fury like a nerd scorned. This refuge of the best and the socially awkward is the subject of director Seth Gordon's fascinating "David-versus-Goliath" documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.
The competitive gaming scene of the early-'80s was an unchecked Wild West plagued by accusations of fraud and unverifiable scores. The situation came to a head in 1982 when Life magazine brought the best arcade gamers together for a photo shoot and several champs were outed by their peers as having lied about their world records.
One of these fakes was a young man named Steve Sanders, whose Donkey Kong score was challenged and beaten by fellow gamer Billy Mitchell. Mitchell did more than expose Sanders' lies -- he set a new world record on Kong, and began his ascent as "Player of the Century."
Around the same time, Iowa musician Walter Day forever changed competitive gaming by starting an organization called Twin Galaxies. Galaxies would establish the rules of competition, verify high score attempts, and maintain the records -- and Walter Day would be its official referee.
Two decades later, Twin Galaxies is still the authority in high scores, Steve Sanders and Billy Mitchell are best friends, and Mitchell's 1982 Donkey Kong world record remains unbeaten. But he's about to face some competition...
Meet Billy Mitchell, the carefully coifed video game champion and hot sauce magnate. A powerhouse in the gaming world, Billy was the first person to play a perfect game of Pac-Man (gobbling every dot and every ghost on every board). He's held five world records on some of arcade's biggest games, and his family runs a Florida restaurant chain with its own line of spicy wing sauce. Wearing his signature black pants and American flag tie, Billy has no problem telling you he's the best. He may be cocky, but with the skills to back it up, his claim to video game greatness is undeniable.
Meet Steve Wiebe, the soft-spoken family man who always seems to come up short: a star high school athlete who missed pitching in the big game; a talented musician whose band never hit it big; and a Boeing engineer who got laid off the day he and his wife signed the papers on their house. All Steve ever wanted was to be the best at something. Why not Donkey Kong?
The King of Kong is the story of Steve Wiebe's shot at the title -- trying to beat Billy Mitchell's 20-plus-year record and get the recognition he deserves. The film follows Steve's uphill battle from his Redmond, Washington garage to a New Hampshire gaming Mecca called Funspot, to his final stand in a Florida arcade. Along the way, he faces suspicious geek cliques, guilt by association, and an opponent who doesn't play fair. This is a film about gamers who have dedicated their lives to being the best at something they love, no matter what it costs them in social status and arcade tokens.
Usually, when Hollywood takes on video games, the resulting product is either too silly (Mortal Kombat), too promotional (The Wizard) or too soul-shatteringly weird (Super Mario Bros.). The mistake these films make is assuming that video games are just for kids. Try telling that to the dedicated group of gamers who populate The King of Kong.
King of Kong is a gift to those who love games. Old games. Classic games. "What the heck is that blue dot supposed to be?" games. Chirpy sounding, quarter munching, kick-the-arcade-cabinet games. Sure, Centipede, Ms. Pac-Man, and Joust look neolithic by today's standards, but they're fun. And they're hard. As Billy Mitchell says in the film, an average game of Donkey Kong doesn't last a minute.
While Kong captures the joy of video games, what makes it a great film is that you don't have to love games to dig the movie. Gordon and his fellow filmmakers tell a classic Hollywood underdog story, set in the real world -- well, real enough, anyway. Culled from over 350 hours of footage, King of Kong's taut 90 minutes has all the elements of a carefully penned screenplay: duplicity, jealousy, injustice, jaw-dropping twists, changes of heart, triumph, and heartbreak. Wiebe v. Mitchell stands among the great film rivalries: Rocky v. Drago; Luke v. Vader; Daniel-san v. Cobra Kai. And because Wiebe's story is real, the "will-he-won't-he" tension never lets up.
Had the Wiebe/Mitchell storyline not developed, Gordon and Co. were prepared to make a more general film about the world of competitive gaming. We get to meet a lot of its key players over the course of the film. They act as a Greek chorus, giving us not only their take on the central story, but a basic education in arcade history and their personal gaming philosophies. These people take their games extremely seriously. Just ask volunteer referee and Star Wars champ Robert Mruczek, who spends his evenings wading through stacks of videotaped record attempts, looking for the smallest signs of cheating or film doctoring. With the amount of time and effort it takes to beat the best, it's no wonder Steve Wiebe has such a tough time getting the recognition he deserves.
Standard for documentaries shot on the cheap, King of Kong's video quality is all over the place. But what the film lacks in polish, it makes up for in style. Talking heads mingle with animated graphs and scenes as perfectly edited as if they had been staged in advance. In one memorable A Beautiful Mind-inspired sequence, a superimposed line follows the movement of drumsticks as Steve plays his son's toy set impossibly fast, illustrating the mathematical precision of his talents. Matching the film's visual variety, its soundtrack manages to pair songs as disparate as Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" with "Pictures of You," by The Cure. In addition to the licensed music and electronica, the soundtrack also features songs written by Steve Wiebe and Walter Day. They're a touching addition, and play well off wink-and-a-nod '80s hits like Joe "Bean" Esposito's "You're The Best" -- as heard in The Karate Kid -- and Survivor's "Eye Of The Tiger."
The film's video game aesthetic bleeds into the DVD's animated menu, which resembles the screen of an arcade cabinet, and features pixelated characters from the film set to game-inspired electronic music. The overall attention to detail makes the DVD's bland cover art so surprising. I don't know why they traded the striking blue and orange look of the theatrical poster for a forgettable mostly-white cover. Maybe they didn't want it to compete with what's printed on the other side -- flip the sleeve over and you get a hand-drawn custom cover by artist Scott Campbell.
Like the darkened bedroom of an obsessive nerd, this disc is crammed full of goodies. Even if you were lucky enough to have seen King of Kong in its limited theatrical release, buy this DVD. There are two feature commentaries, one by director Seth Gordon, producer Ed Cunningham, and associate producers J. Clay Tweed and Luis Lopez, and one by Chris Carle (from gaming web site IGN) and Jon Gibson (founder of retro video game art show i am 8-bit). Gordon and co.'s track is the more interesting of the two, with behind-the-scenes nuggets and defenses of decisions they made about what to include and what to leave out. The Carle and Gibson commentary has a higher quotient of goofballery, but these guys know their gaming trivia and history (though it should be noted that their language and subject matter go beyond the film's family friendly feel).
The extended interviews and bonus footage are the real meat of the extras, presented in widescreen and adding up to more than 90 minutes of material. Through the interviews, we get a look at the film that might have been: a scattershot overview of the top players who make up classic gaming's elite. From a discussion of Burgertime that gets downright metaphysical, to 80-year-old Doris Self's attempt to break the world record on Q*Bert, these guys (and gal) take what they do seriously, and are more than happy to share the love of minutiae that makes them so good. The bonus footage steps outside the movie's timeline, presenting (among other things) excerpts from Q&A sessions during the film's festival run, a side-by-side comparison of Wiebe and Mitchell's Donkey Kong playing styles, and Roy Schildt's complete-in-its-raunchiness "Mr. Awesome's Guide to Girls" (a brief snippet of which earned King of Kong's PG-13 rating).
For the video game challenged, there's an "Arcade Glossary," which covers terminology from the film, and the stylish "A Really, Really Brief History of Donkey Kong," written and produced by Gibson's i am 8-bit Productions. Gibson's involvement goes one step further, with the addition of an i am 8-bit gallery. The gallery is a collection of Donkey Kong-inspired art from the show's many contributors, paired with songs written by "micro-musicians" -- composers who use only the sound chips and hardware of old consoles, Game Boys, and Commodore 64s. It's awfully cool stuff, especially if you grew up during the '80s. Childhood nostalgia doesn't often mix well with fine art, so enjoy it.
For those who want to know what's happened since the film's completion, there's "The Saga Continues" -- presented in the word-crawl style of the Star Wars movie openings. Unfortunately, what starts out as clever becomes hard to read as the text scrolls by just a little too fast to follow comfortably. You'll want to read it, though, to find out where the Wiebe v. Mitchell rivalry is today, and to learn the bizarre fact that the story is being rewritten as a feature film screenplay.
It's hard to believe Billy Mitchell is as clear a villain in real life as he appears in the film. Though Billy does a good job of making himself look bad in interviews, some sequences feel a little too carefully edited for effect, especially near the end of the film. Mitchell has publicly denounced the film, while friend Steve Sanders, who supports the film, defends Mitchell every chance he gets -- including in the bonus features.
The film's depictions of certain events -- like the so-called garage "break-in" -- have come under attack since the film's release. As the filmmakers say in their commentary, everyone has their own version of what happened. The extras do a good job of presenting various viewpoints, and the filmmakers make pretty convincing arguments for their fairness. It's up to the audience to decide how literally they want to take the film.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is an amazing film, and a must-buy DVD. Whether you play video games 10 hours a day, played once as a kid, or have never held a joystick, Kong's riveting story, memorable characters, and epic rivalry means there's something here for everyone.
Not guilty! Now stop throwing barrels at me!
Review content copyright © 2008 Erich Asperschlager; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* "The Saga Continues"
* Feature Commentary with Director Seth Gordon, Producer Ed Cunningham, and Associate Producers J. Clay Tweed and Luis Lopez
* Feature Commentary with Chris Carle (Entertainment Editorial Director, IGN) And Jon M. Gibson (Founder, i am 8-bit)
* Bonus Footage
* Extended Interviews
* "A Really, Really Brief History of Donkey Kong"
* Arcade Glossary
* i am 8-bit Music & Art Gallery
* Original Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site
* Twin Galaxies