Almost every little kid is into video games. It’s pure stimulus. Flashing colors, constant sounds, and a fully immersive interactive experience. Perfect for satisfying the ADD of the modern American child. As kids get older though the desire to play video games slows down. I used to play video games all day but nowadays I hardly ever play. Even the latest installment of Grand Theft Auto couldn’t hold my interest long enough to play past the first few missions.
To see Steve Wiebe in his garage huddled over his Donkey Kong machine while his kids and wife wait in the background wondering when he’ll be finished is an interesting sight. He never outgrew it as they expected him to. Wiebe, who was layed off from his job at Boeing, almost seems to be a career loser. It’s not that he isn’t talented or capable. His family describes his math and science talent as well as his ability to create with his hands (we get a killer drum solo from Wiebe to drive the point home). It’s just that Wiebe always seems to come up short in life…and his family knows it. This perception of Wiebe shatters one night in his garage when he breaks the seemingly unbreakable World Record High Score for Donkey Kong, setting in motion a chain of events that include breaking and entering, lying, cheating, stealing, manipulation and corruption. This is the story of KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS, an engaging documentary from Seth Gordon.
Enter Billy Mitchell, one of the greatest screen villains of recent memory. The fact that this is a documentary and Billy Mitchell is a real person make him that much more evil. Billy is the anti-Wiebe. Brash, cocky, arrogant and smug. He’s a scrawny little geek with a thick beard and a mullet that only a villain could sport. When Mitchell discovers that Wiebe, an unknown in the pro-gamer community has beaten his record, Mitchell deploys some of his acolytes (who knew Donkey Kong players HAD acolytes?) to investigate Wiebe. They go to his house, open up his Donkey Kong machine to check for malfeasance, and use Billy’s relationship with Twin Galaxies (the organization that video game World Records are submitted to for approval) to bend the rules to keep Billy on top.
All this over a Donkey Kong score. You realize quickly that few people on the planet care who holds the all time Donkey Kong score but to them it’s everything. These people’s families can barley muster up the excitement. The phrase “delusions of grandeur” seems like an understatement for these people. As referee Walter Day (yes, they have referees) says “I wanted to be a hero. I wanted to be the center of attention. I wanted the glory, I wanted the fame. I wanted the pretty girls to come up and say, “Hi, I see that you’re good at Centipede.”
What unfolds is a classic underdog story of the likable shlub trying to overcome the odds. There is a moment when Wiebe shows up to Mitchell’s turf, a well known arcade, to break the score in front of a group of people. Mitchell, however, refuses to show up. He communicates with one of his minions by cell phone to get updates. Why wouldn’t he show up and face him? Mitchell is always the puppet master, sitting behind the scenes and pulling the strings of those who follow him. When Mitchell finally shows up he slithers in the background making sure his presence is felt at a crucial moment in the game for Wiebe, and then vanishes. What follows after is more confusion regarding the rules of submitting the score, and a videotape provided by Mitchell (which he of course does not deliver himself) that has enough questionable static for Oliver Stone to make a 3 hour Kevin Costner picture about.
This film isn’t just people playing video games. It’s about success and failure, proving something to one’s self or dying trying, about preserving one’s legacy and finding one’s worth. For Wiebe it goes beyond just beating the high score. This is important to him on a personal level. For Mitchell, his legacy is all that matters to him. Though there are scenes of Mitchell running his Hot Sauce and Chicken Wing empire, he seems to spend most of his time politicking and jockeying for position to keep his Donkey Kong high score.
Looking at the Twin Galaxies website the day after I watched this film, the name for the World Record Donkey Kong score is different than the one we’re left with at the end of the film. It’s good to see this rivalry doesn’t end when the credits go up.
KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS is available on DVD.
P.S. Here is a picture of Billy Mitchell. Like I said, pure evil.