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Published on September 16th, 2009 | by Stan


Kings of Kong

‘I wanted the pretty girls to come up and say, “Hi, I see that you’re good at Centipede”‘ – Walter Day

(Note: this piece has no substantial plot spoilers, but some of the links do.)

Right after I saw The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters for the first time, I went googling. I needed to know more about the people in the film, and I knew that the story did not – could not – end with the final credits. But I’m already ahead of myself. Some of you have no doubt seen the film or heard of it; others probably haven’t, so I’ll summarise. King of Kong is a 2007 documentary about classic arcade game champions and challengers: competitive gamers who vie to be the best in the world at, say, Q*bert, Frogger or Pac-Man.

Billy MitchellAs its name suggests, King of Kong focuses on Donkey Kong. Early on we are introduced to Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe (pronounced “Weeby”), the two main contenders for the Kong crown. Their rivalry creates much of the film’s drama, and their contrasting personalities generate much of its tension. Billy Mitchell (right) played the first authenticated perfect game of Pac-Man. He is a restaurateur with a hot-sauce mini-empire; he seems rather wary, severe and self-important. Steve Wiebe (below) holds the world record for Donkey Kong Junior. He is musical and teaches algebra; he seems likeable, kindly and down-to-earth, though he doesn’t like people talking during films.

Steve WiebeThe filmmakers soon take sides, and play up the contrast. Mitchell has the villain’s role, Wiebe the underdog’s. Wiebe clearly is an underdog, struggling to have his high scores recognised by the self-declared powers-that-be. Mitchell is a long-established star of the gaming community, and he has many supporters. Both are family men, but we see much more of Wiebe’s home life. The filmmakers say Mitchell kept them more at arm’s length. I didn’t warm to Mitchell’s persona as I did to Wiebe’s, but I don’t believe Mitchell is the kind of monster the viewer might initially be tempted to take him for.

Unless you’ve been keeping up to date on Donkey Kong high scores – and it seems fair to assume that you haven’t – the nervous anticipation to see which, if either, of these two characters comes out on top is maintained right until the end of The King of Kong. And indeed beyond: the story keeps unfolding. Even now, with electronic games becoming increasingly sophisticated, and with some consoles going mainstream as multi-modal home entertainment systems, a small band of players continue to spend untold years using a stubby joystick to conquer the early platform games.

Such is the prestige of being the best player on Earth that every new top score in any game has to be investigated and verified. A few are played at public competitions, but most are (or traditionally were) submitted on videotape. Feelings run high. Rumours spread and agendas are suspected. The film itself seems to mislead on a few crucial points, to which Twin Galaxies, the official scoreboard organisation, responded. Online forums became warrens of controversy. (Someone I know described it as “an internet rabbit hole”.) Facts fragmented, timelines were created, and accounts of the same events diverged, overlapped, and contradicted one another. This is what Seth Gordon called “the Rashomon of it”; Capturing the Friedmans is another useful reference point. Because memories are unreliable and the devil is in the editing.

poster for The King of KongKing of Kong includes several interviews with Walter Day, the founder of Twin Galaxies and the man who kick-started the organisation and promotion of competitive classic arcade gaming. Despite his best intentions, Day’s central role in the ruling hierarchy of this subculture placed him in the thick of the controversy. Then there is Roy “Mr Awesome” Shildt, whom I had seen before on Disinformation and whose story may be stranger than anyone else’s in the film. (We don’t see much of him, and anyway I couldn’t possibly judge.) At 84 minutes – whittled down from 350 hours of footage – King of Kong leaves you hungry for more.

Near the end of the film Steve Wiebe says, “I guess it’s not even about Donkey Kong any more.” He’s right, and this is one of the reasons the film was so successful and so well received. It’s a classic tussle of heroes and anti-heroes, fun and dysfunction. It’s Rocky for retro gamers, an intensely personal story with hopes and dreams, tears and frustration, love and loyalty. It’s about “how history gets documented”. More than anything else it’s a fascinating glimpse into an odd outpost of human behaviour – compulsive high-skill 8-bit gaming – and what can happen when this behaviour becomes a lifelong competitive activity.

The King of Kong is available (and cheap) on DVD. Here’s the trailer:

See also: AV Club interview with producer Ed Cunningham, director Seth Gordon, and “gamer of the century” Billy Mitchell.

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About the Author

Stan is a freelance writer and editor. He blogs about the English language at Sentence first and can also be found on Twitter.

6 Responses to Kings of Kong

  1. Ken says:

    Regardless of how it looked, I still choose to believe that Billy Mitchell is the face of evil after seeing that film.

    It’s a great film, nice look at the doc/narrative side of things too

  2. Padraic Coyne says:

    King Of Kong is one of the very few soundtracks I bought. With actual money too.

  3. Stan says:

    Ken: That’s understandable, given how he was portrayed – or rather, how he portrayed himself. You wouldn’t be the first to think he’s evil. I wondered about it myself. But there’s potential good and bad in everyone, and he did buy Doris Self her very own Q*bert machine.

    Padraic: I’m glad you mentioned that, since I didn’t. It’s a fine soundtrack with some unexpected treats, e.g. Leonard Cohen (though I don’t know if he made it to the CD). The classical pieces were well chosen, and Wiebe’s own piano melodies were quite pleasant.

  4. ollie says:

    I’d heard loads about this doc but only actually saw it for the first time a few weeks ago. Its mental. I don’t think that being good at donkey kong is deserving of being worshiped as a hero. The really sad people in this are the secondary characters. I cant’ remember his name, but Mitchell’s sidekick was especially pitiful with his obviously misplaced confidence that he would get to the last screen in kong.

    anyway, back in the arcade days I was a ‘wonder boy’ player myself!’

  5. biggs says:

    It’s a classic alright, david and goliath etc etc. i think anyone with a haircut that bad might just be the devil alright. At one point he proclaims himself to be the King of hot-sauce also (or something to that effect!). nerdlingers at their best(-:-)

  6. Stan says:

    Ollie: Glad you enjoyed it! The hero worship was one of the strangest aspects of the whole scene. When your whole life is video games, where else are you gonna find your mythology? (By Mitchell’s sidekick I suppose you mean Brian Kuh.)

    Biggs: Thanks for the comment. Yes, Billy Mitchell is apparently something of a hot-sauce guru. According to the Rickey’s Hot Sauce website, “no other brand made in America has more cayenne pepper”. Sounds hot as hell…

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