King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

The real star: Walter Day of TwinGalaxies. Taken at MagFest VII in January 2009 by Chris Duglosz. Click image for his Flickr page.

Last week I watched King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters after a friend recommended it. I was told it was a documentary about guys competing against each other for the world record score on the arcade classic Donkey Kong. That’s true, but I will say that description was hardly the most appealing and I wasn’t really expecting anything genuinely interesting. This opinion had changed hugely within the first 10 minutes of watching the film.

The subject matter of dank, dark arcades, sweaty middle-aged men and constantly irritating beeps might put off non-gamers, but you definitely don’t need to have an interest in the gaming world to enjoy King of  Kong – it’s a massively entertaining documentary in its own right. The film uses gaming culture as the backdrop that binds the film together and tells a story and once you meet the people in the documentary you realise that it’s all about them and their lives and not gaming. Billy Mitchell (think Damon Hill with longer hair and an infinite collection of shit ties) holds the world record high score for Donkey Kong at the beginning of the film and is, well, a proper twat. Steve Wiebe is the man challenging the world record score, a very likeable bloke who is excellent at nearly everything he turns his hand to but has “come up short at a lot of things in life” according to his wife, letting the world sneakily know that Steve might have erectile dysfunction. He’s the guy you want to knock Mitchell off the top spot. Actually, I wanted anyone to knock Mitchell off the top spot. His words, his bullish and cocky attitude, his dress sense and his cowardice make him as much of a villain as any bad guy in a film. He even LOOKS like the villain of the piece thanks to a face that is completely incapable of relaying a single emotion. Wiebe might be the man everyone is rooting for throughout the film, but he isn’t the true star of King of Kong: Walter Day is.

If you’ve seen Old School you’ll probably laugh the first time you see Walter Day. He is Blue. An aging man wearing a referee’s shirt  who has devoted his life to building a community-based organisation that is the definitive source of world record video game and pinball scores. He’s passionate, friendly and committed, and by the end of the film I found myself wishing Walter was my uncle. Walter and the staff of Twin Galaxies spend day after day watching videos mailed to them by prospective world record champions to make sure the record is genuine and there is no foul play.  Stacks and stacks of videos sit in a pile in one corner of the office as head Twin Galaxies referee Robert Mruczek (Dwight Schrute, anyone?) comments about the next videos he’ll need to watch and verify: 48 hours worth of game footage submitted by one person. Billy Mitchell says that no one at the organisation gets paid for their work and Mruczek counters this by saying that he gets to watch world records being set every day, which not many people can boast about. He’s right, though I’m not sure how many passionate gamers would gladly devote their life to watching hours of recorded game footage to check for cheating.

It’s difficult to talk about King of Kong properly without spoiling it and I don’t want to give away anything because the documentary goes through more than a few twists and turns during it’s  83 minute duration and all of them make the film more gripping as they happen. There’s frustration, sadness, joy, anger and much more as grown men, who’ve arguably dedicated their life to achieving a high score, battle with each other to become the champion.

Regardless of whether you have an interest in video games, King of Kong is very much worth watching.  It uses the subject matter of classic video games as a canvas for a much more fascinating focus: the length that some people will go to to be the best in the world at something.  After the film has finished and you know who the world record holder is, you still can’t help wondering about what it has cost them.

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2 responses to “King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

  1. I’ll second the recommendation. Brilliant documentary that’s equal parts sad, funny and tragic. Apparently, both Billy Mitchell and (the awesome) Walter Day contest certain elements of the documentary.
    I have to admit, although Billy Mitchell does come across as someone severly lacking in self-awareness, it did seem as though there was a slight agenda from the filmmakers against him. I was still rooting for Wiebe (wi-be!) throughout though – felt genuinely sorry for him at times.
    I’ve just finished watching ‘Chasing Ghosts’ (http://imdb.to/zjWVc) which covers some of the same territory, but takes a wider view of the burgeoning arcade scene and the early ‘superstars’. Well worth watching. It has that same mix of sad and tragic characters that made ‘King of Kong’ so compelling.

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