King of Kong

A few weeks ago, Ann, Greg, Evelyn and I went to the Red River Theater in Concord and saw King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. I was prepared to see a movie that did for competitive video gaming what Spellbound did for spelling bees, what Scrabylon did for competitive Scrabble and what Wordplay did for competitive crossword. I got that and so much more. You need to see this movie.

The documentary tells the story of a Donkey Kong rivalry between Billy Mitchell, a restaurant owner from Hollywood, Florida, who gained a modicum of fame in the early 1980’s when he scored the first perfect score on Pac-Man and Steve Weibe, a family guy from Seattle. Billy is part of competitive gaming royalty, a rock star admired by other competitive gamers for his charisma, gaming ability and mullet haircut.  In 1982, he set a high score on Donkey Kong that stood for many years. The film shows Steve Wiebe’s quest to beat that high score. At every turn, Steve is thwarted in his quest by the fact that he is not an insider. The judges of the competition are from an organization called Twin Galaxies, an organization in which Billy Mitchell plays an integral part. At every turn, Steve is screwed over by Billy’s buddies who seem to be unusually invested in maintaining Billy’s mythology. Billy is a bad guy in the movie, proclaiming lofty philosophies of gaming while behaving in ways that are directly opposed to those philosophies. Throughout the movie, I was angry at the injustice of what Steve faced.

And isn’t that the mark of a good movie? Why should I care about whose name goes into the Guinness World Book of Records next to “Live Donkey Kong High Score”? But I did. And that’s why you need to see this movie. It makes you care about a bunch of geeks and their attempts to set records on an obscure game from the early days of video gaming. Even Steve’s young daughter understands the ridiculousness of it all when she tells Steve that Donkey Kong ruins people’s lives.

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