Documentaries are rarely mainstream fare; they are too often relegated to the dusty corners of non-fiction shelves, and left for consumption by political activists and intellectuals willing to stomach the sometimes dry content.
Not so with The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters. The truth behind this real-life narrative, and behind many other documentary features, is that reality is stranger, funnier, and more believable than any type of fiction could ever be. This film in particular is especially theatrical in its execution, perhaps because of its subject: the competition over who holds the world’s highest score on the classic video game Donkey Kong. As any sports fan can tell you, the drama of competitive games can be riveting, with the ultimate challenge often gluing you to the edge of your seat.
This is exactly the case with The King Of Kong. At its heart it is a sports rivalry story – but it expands into something much greater by the time it concludes. It slowly unfolds itself beginning with the life stories of the middle aging video game wizards, and telling the history of Walter Day and Twin Galaxies (the individual and his arcade/organization that made itself responsible for keeping scores). Billy Mitchell, the champ (and his twenty year Donkey Kong record), stands proudly beside Twin Galaxies – and is himself a referee of scoring, while also holding multiple records on several classic games. Steve Wiebe, the challenger, is a schoolteacher who just happens to have incredible hand-eye coordination and obsessive determination. Steve is the focus of the film, as he fights an uphill battle to get his score recognized by an organization that refuses to recognize him.
Gathered around these nearly archetypal personalities of crowned champ and quietly raging contender are a constellation of nerds, geeks, dorks, and combinations of all three; a literal cavalcade of wacky characters who frame the conflict in the most human terms possible. And this conflict is exactly what the film is all about: human nature at its best and most base; the drive to win, and the prices people will pay; and yes – “the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.”
We’re talking about a microcosm in an arcade that mirrors the deepest metaphors of human conflict: bad guy versus good guy, dark versus light, empire versus rebellion, Donkey Kong versus Mario. Even the game itself represents the fight between Billy and Steve! To paraphrase Ed Cunningham (former football star, ESPN commentator, and the film’s producer):
“The metaphor extends into the game itself! You’ve got this great big gorilla [Billy] hucking barrels at the hero [Steve] who keeps on going no matter what!”
I was lucky enough to attend two events for the film this week (the photos come from those events, more can be found here); the first was a screening at the Museum of the Moving Image, followed by a party and a Donkey Kong demonstration, and the second was a screening party at Dave & Busters Times Square, where Steve Wiebe managed to achieve the fourth ever known “kill screen” on Donkey Kong (video link) (For those not in the know: a kill screen is the point where the game truly ends – the program of the arcade game doesn’t loop forever, so when it reaches the limits of its capacity, the player dies for no apparent reason… GAME OVER).
It may seem strange to think of a lone man bathed in the glowing lights of an arcade game as a hero or a great competitor – but I promise you that this story will make you laugh, cry, and even think! You should also know that the rights to create a fictionalized version of the documentary have already been sold. That’s how good it is; if you can imagine Dodgeball being based on a true story, where the characters are based on real people, this movie would be akin to that precursory tale.
I can’t recommend this movie enough. I plan to see it again on opening night (it starts this Friday at the IFC center and AMC Empire Times Square in New York, and opens nationally next week), and I also plan to start working once more on my own mad DK skillz…