Around these parts, I tend to write a lot about video game documentaries when the fancy strikes*. This is because while we have yet to see a truly excellent movie based on a video game (though I haven’t given up hope), recent years have given us a slew of documentaries that capture excellent snapshots of video games and the people who make and play them (as well as some that don’t). There may not be many satisfying big-screen adaptations of video games, but there’s a cornucopia of great docs that delve into the history, the joy of play, and the determination and competition in the world of video games and the subcultures that surround them. King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters is perhaps the purest expression of those last two.
Directed by Seth Gordon and released in 2007, King of Kong explores the rivalry between the greatest Donkey Kong players in the world as they compete for the highest score known to man and tie-wearing ape**. The documentary follows newcomer Steve Wiebe as he seeks to usurp the high score from the reigning record holder, the charismatic and cocky Billy Mitchell. Over the course of several tournaments, Wiebe must prove his prowess to Twin Galaxies, the officiating body for video game world records and to its officials, all of whom seem to be a little too biased towards their golden boy Mitchell. It’s a documentary that explores the drive for success and recognition and what goes in to trying to become the world’s greatest.
The film’s narrative is familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a Rocky movie in particular or a movie about competition in general. Steve Wiebe, humble family man whose life never reached the fruition his many talents promised as a teenager, is pitted as the underdog against Billy Mitchell, reigning champion since the 80s and a businessman with a knack for self promotion whose demeanor cries out to be portrayed by Tom Cruise if the scripted retake that’s threatened to happen since the doc’s release ever comes to fruition. Between the two is a collection of supporters and conspirators, all striving for their own version of success and immortality. The degree to which King of Kong presents the facts of the competition as they occurred is up in the aether (both Wiebe and Mitchell claim director Seth Gordon took liberties with how both men and their relationship were portrayed), but these are details that are smoothed out in the name of narrative and cinema. If the order of the events in King of Kong are up to dispute, the emotion and drive of the documentary’s subjects are unmistakably authentic.
The high score for Donkey Kong has changed hands several times since the documentary was released eight years ago, but this fact doesn’t diminish the competition between the two profiled here. Though they are poised as ideological and circumstantial opposites, Wiebe and Mitchell are driven by the goal to prove that they are the best at the same thing, albeit from different places in life. Wiebe, coming off a string of personal and professional setbacks, has an opportunity to stake his claim as an undisputed winner. Mitchell masks a fear of losing his legacy behind arrogance and aloofness, never dealing directly with his challenge to DK supremacy until late in the film. The doc’s detractors around its release criticized King of Kong for its low stakes, a criticism I find uncharitable at best. The stakes are painted on the faces of the competitors and the people that surround them. They’re imprinted in the expression of the third-highest-score holder as he processes that Wiebe has reached Donkey Kong‘s infamous last level “kill screen” before he could. The stakes are prevalent as a long shot finds Billy Mitchell, heretofore unwilling to meet his rival, framed in the background of a shot at Steve Wiebe plays his game, and in the quick glance over his shoulder Wiebe spares. That anyone could watch this movie and not understand personal stakes at hand and the tension, the meticulous precision that goes into high-profile gaming, boggles the mind.
As much as the facts may be manipulated for a narrative, King of Kong is a success because it ultimately cares more about the people at the heart of the competition rather than the competition itself. The officials and staffers of scorekeepers Twin Galaxies do not come off looking particularly stellar– their chumminess with Mitchell brings the issue of objective analysis of all contenders into question–are recognizable, sympathetic people. Whether it’s in the Donkey Kong cabinet or in the running of a unique organization, these are people who want to make their mark on the world and who have a tortured relationship with those who have. Many of the officials at Twin Galaxies and other arcade high scorers appear to seek out Mitchell’s approval, while perhaps resenting him; one DK player going as far as to invoking biblical language to describe being bested and humbled by Mitchell. Most won’t become world champions at arcade games (try as I might), but anyone can recognize the ambition, the search for recognition, and the envy that are glimpsed in King of Kong ‘s subjects.
It’s curious that King of Kong is one of the great video game documentaries, because it is only superficially about them. Yes, it is about a competition for the high score in Donkey Kong and about the occasionally bizarre, insular subculture of world-class arcade champions, but the story it tells about the drive for success is universal. King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters may have taken liberties with fact for a story, but it’s in the name of a well-told, and damn well relatable story.
King of Kong can be found on Hulu Plus.
*Or, more accurately, when I can’t make it to a new release that particular week.
**I know he doesn’t get the tie until the Rare games. Chill out, nerds.