King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Directed by Seth Gordon
Christians have Jesus Christ, Islam has Allah and classic video gamers have Billy Mitchell. The man who held the Donkey Kong record for almost twenty five years is the subject of a documentary in which an unknown newcomer in the classic gaming circle, Steve Wiebe, poses a serious threat to Mitchell’s ancient record and the subsequent mind games that ensues between both men.
Mitchell is a character unlike any other. Not only does he compare himself to the Red Baron, the most prolific World War II fighter pilot, he also models his life around the idea that he is leaps and bounds ahead of the pack when it comes to classic gaming. Although the community is so small and otherwise insignificant, he revels in the fact that he sits atop a virtual throne and praised by his followers. He exudes a level of confidence so unhealthy that it borders megalomania. His ties are decked in American colors and his trophy wife follows him around with a fake smile of epic proportions. Mitchell’s public appearances are carefully choreographed and his constant smugness makes it easy to dislike him as a person. In his mind, he is truly the greatest classic gamer ever, although many of his records have been broken since the 80s.
That leads us to his competitor, Steve Wiebe. When he proclaims to having a new Donkey Kong record, the married father of two from Washington State quickly becomes thrust into the gaming limelight as he does his best to withstand the onslaught from the myriad of Mitchell disciples wishing to see him fail. Wiebe is Mitchell’s anti-thesis: timid and soft-spoken, unaccomplished and unstylish. Although he has always been talented at several things, he was never able to overcome his greatest nemesis, himself. Too afraid to stand up to others and often failing at the most critical moments in his life. A self-taught Donkey Kong expert, he manages to beat Mitchell’s long-standing record of 874,000 and is soon recognized as the all-time best. It’s around this time that his rivalry against Mitchell goes into fifth gear.
Without giving away too much of the movie, it’s a fascinating portrayal of the lengths at which some people will go to defend what is theirs. It also exposes the other major players in this scene, people such as Walter Day and Robert Mruczek, founder and head referee respectively of Twin Galaxies, the only ‘official’ score keepers of classic gaming. These people would appear demented by the untrained eye, but they just live for their passion. Day refers to gamers as superstars and often speaks extremely highly of Mitchell, a regular occurrence in the documentary. Brian Kuh, another disciple, is sent to Wiebe’s house on one occasion to ‘investigate’ his Donkey Kong machine in the hopes of finding incriminating evidence that would discredit the record he had set on it. The movie probes even further into the compulsivity that most gamers have: a lot of them will stoop to sabotage and deceitful behavior to put someone off their game. I guess that only goes to show how important this is to them.
The most frustrating element of the movie lies in the fact that Mitchell repeatedly refuses to accept Wiebe’s challenges, wherever they are. The aura of mystery that surrounds him is astonishing, considering that he is a staunch advocate of playing in front of an audience to have a gaming record validated. At one point a competition is held no more than ten miles away from Mitchell’s home yet he declines to even appear. Mitchell might seem confident of his abilities on the outside, but that flair is overshadowed by his reluctance to meet or even play head to head against Wiebe, the only other player in the world capable of beating the record.
The movie does an excellent job of portraying the childishness exhibited by Mitchell and his followers. I laughed out loud when Kuh sneaks upstairs and calls Mitchell to update him on Wiebe’s progress during a game. Mitchell, sitting comfortably in his living room looks completely unfazed, as if he were planning his next move at the very moment. Further more, the absurdities caught on tape are consistently topped by others: Walter Day referring to Mitchell as a Jedi, calling the gaming community ‘his child’ or the obsession over reaching the mythical kill screen in Donkey Kong. So much importance is placed on these scores and results that it consequently traps these people in this surreal world that is restricted to other ‘mortals,’ i.e. normal gamers. The doings of this tightly-knit community left me baffled by the end of my first viewing but as I watched more and more, I came to understand their motives. Why would people let something so trivial take over their entire lives, you might ask? It’s an addiction I suppose and everyone has a different one.
The saga continues to this day, as the Donkey Kong record continues to be broken, almost on a yearly basis. At the end of the movie we’re told that Wiebe had successfully taken over as the official record holder with a score of 1,047,000 points, but Mitchell allegedly took back his title on the 25th anniversary of his first record-setting day. The virtual war has just begun…