‘The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters’ documents competitive gaming and arcade politics

king of kongThe King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Directed by Seth Gordon
US, 2007

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
is a documentary that follows Steve Wiebe’s attempt to break the Donkey Kong high score held by “Gamer of the Century” Billy Mitchell. Director Seth Gordon captures a classic underdog story on film that has you rooting for Steve the moment he takes on the Donkey Kong challenge, even though it means snatching the crown from Billy. More importantly, The King of Kong demonstrates the importance of good sportsmanship.

Initially Billy appears to he a pretty stand-up guy. His charisma pulls you into his world and makes you want to be a better gamer. I was actually torn at the beginning of the documentary. On one hand I wanted Billy to hold onto the title, but on the other I’ve always cheered for the underdog. I mean, who doesn’t love an underdog story? The longer the race to be the “King of Kong” continued however, the more I found myself rooting for Steve’s success.

When Steve found himself between jobs, he looked for something to give him a sense of control, that something was Donkey Kong. Steve dedicated countless hours to the game with one goal in mind, beating the high score held by Billy. One fateful day, Steve did.

Steve submitted a video tape of his record-breaking score, with his son Derek yelling in the background and all, to Twin Galaxies, an American organization that tracks video game world records. The tape was reviewed and verified, and shortly thereafter Steve was declared the new Donkey Kong champion–until Billy stepped in that is.

Billy and his pals at Twin Galaxies were skeptical of Steve’s score and looked for any reason to discredit his accomplishment because Steve received aid from Billy’s biggest rivals, Roy Shildt. Steve’s Donkey Kong circuit board burnt out so Roy, eager to see Billy topple from his throne, provided a new board for his game. Although Steve genuinely had no idea who Roy was, the Twin Galaxies folks couldn’t take Steve seriously. As a result of Roy’s involvement, Steve’s score was tossed out. To be fair Billy was a Twin Galaxies hero. Naturally, Twin Galaxies wants to protect Billy’s score and preserve his legendary status.

But here is where the tide begins to turn. Steve is asked to compete in a live challenge at Twin Galaxies, and he welcomes the chance to prove that he is a Donkey Kong master.

donkeykong_big

We witness Steve struggle to improve his score and work through the rough reception he received from the Twin Galaxies family. How rough you ask? Well aside from pushing their way into Steve’s garage and pulling apart his Donkey Kong machine, during a live competition Steve beat Billy’s score. The sweet taste of victory was soured by a video that the Twin Galaxies proudly showed on the same night, in which Billy blew past a million points. Thanks to arcade politics, Billy is still seen as the “King of Kong” even though there are questionable moments on the tape. I get that Billy is their boy, but come on. That’s a seriously low blow. Especially since Twin Galaxies made a big deal about performing in person in order to prove ones merit. Billy didn’t bother to show up. He had an old friend deliver the tape. Guess all that talk about live performances was just a bunch of hot air.

So where is Billy throughout this race to the top? I waited and waited for the Gamer of the Century to show up and go joystick to joystick against the Newbie, but alas it never happened.

Instead of a champion bringing his A-game, we see Billy running his restaurant, inspecting his hot sauce, and relaxing on his couch listening to his friends rattle off Steve’s scores. The Guinness Book of World Records even hosted a live competition in Billy’s hometown, and he refused to show up. The guy was like ten minutes away from the competition location. Poor sportsmanship at its finest folks.

If Billy really scored over a million points, it was most likely done long before Steve came on the scene. Otherwise Billy wouldn’t have been so opposed to playing Donkey Kong in front of people. I know that if it were me, I would absolutely show up to defend my title. Competitions are meant to push you to the limit, to bring out the very best in you. Billy believes that gamers should be able to take the pressure, and he’s right. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. Sadly, this documentary makes it clear Billy isn’t ready to have all eyes on him again. Billy appears standoffish, afraid to lose the place of honor that he has held for so many years. By avoiding a showdown with Steve however, Billy vanishes into the background even quicker than he would have liked.

thekingofkongpic

It is only Steve’s tenacity and Billy’s reluctance to compete one-on-one that wins over the Twin Galaxies crew. They recognized Steve’s willingness to put his reputation on the line. As for Billy, he will always be remembered as a brilliant gamer, but his reign is over. The joystick must be passed onto a new generation of Donkey Kong masters. That is the nature of competitive gaming. The King of Kong hopes audiences realize this too. Gaming masters come, inspire others to do better, and fade into legend.

Scroll to Top