Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Day 98: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
"There's a Donkey Kong kill screen coming up, if anyone wants to see it."
There's a really odd phenomenon within the geek community, and it's unsettling at best. Typically geeks are outcasts from normal society because of their unhealthy obsessions with with things like comic books, movies, music, toys & video games. What happens within these geek communities though is that an hierarchy will inevitably form, and many geeks within those individual communities will become snobs and think that they're better than everyone else (hence the title of my blog). There is a difference however between the nice snobs (like me) and the assholes that truly do believe in their heart of hearts that they are better people than the rest of their kind.
In the video game world, there is no bigger snob than Billy Mitchell. Let me rephrase that: There is no bigger asshole than Billy Mitchell. In 1982, Billy broke the world record high scores in both Pac-Man & Donkey Kong, and they have stood for over two decades. All of the world record high scores are logged and tracked by a man named Walter Day who owns an arcade named Twin Galaxies in a small town in Iowa. In the early 80s, Twin Galaxies was the video game mecca of North America, attracting the top young talent of the time to come and beat world records in front of the video gaming world at the time.
As much as King of Kong is about video games and high scores, it is actually a very human story about one man's attempt to get officially recognized as the all time high scorer on Donkey Kong. That man's name is Steve Wiebe. Steve Wiebe is one of the most humble, down-to-earth average joes you'll ever meet, and after suffering a layoff from his job at Boeing, Steve drowns his sorrows in Donkey Kong, on a vintage machine in his garage. Steve gets good at it. Really good at it. So good, he decides that it might be worth his time to video tape himself playing and send it in to Twin Galaxies to challenge Mitchell's record.
This is where the trouble for Steve Wiebe begins, and it's a fascinating saga of intrigue, deception, lying, and massive egos that all adds up to one of the most incredibly entertaining documentaries I've ever seen. The cast of characters involved in this saga is one of the most incredible ever captured on film. There's Roy Schildt, aka Mr. Awesome, who sold Billy the board for his Donkey Kong machine, and sort of started all the controversy in the first place. Robert Mruczek, the head referee at Twin Galaxies who watches the videos people send in, and looks so fried from years of watching video games, he doesn't seem to have a brain cell left to spare. There's Brian Kuh, the douchebag who wanders around Funspot repeating the quote at the beginning of my review ad nauseam until it doesn't mean anything anymore.
Then of course, there's Billy Mitchell. Mitchell is given three opportunities to go head-to-head with Wiebe for the record, and never shows up for any of them. He talks a big game about records not meaning anything unless it's done in front of a crowd, under a high pressure situation, but he does not walk his big talk in any way, shape or form. Yet he's adored by Day & Kuh, and guys like Steve Sanders, who seems like a decent enough guy, yet is still beholden to this ridiculous idol worship at Mitchell's altar. Billy Mitchell has one thing going for him though, and no, it's not his hair.
It's the fact that he joins the ranks of Darth Vader and The Wicked Witch of the West as one of the greatest villains in film history. The legend that builds up around Mitchell throughout the course of the film, and the way he fans his own flames without even a hint of irony add up to a dude who oozes pure evil. He's one of those epic assholes who actually subscribes to his own hype to the extent that he has gone out of his way to contact reviewers of the film to set the record straight about himself (like here for example), and has ended up making himself look even worse as a result.
At the end of the day, director Seth Gordon has given us a really great story about a really great guy in Steve Wiebe. His wife ends up going from someone who seems to tolerate his obsession with Donkey Kong to becoming a staunch advocate in his favor when all of the events begin to unfold. His daughter also says some of the most profound statements in the entire film, like when she tells her dad that a lot of people have probably ruined their lives to get in the Guiness Book of World Records.
The King of Kong is not a film just for video game geeks, it wouldn't be any good if it was. It's a film about achieving your dreams and making people believe in you, whether you deserve it (Steve Wiebe) or not (Billy Mitchell), and isn't that the basis for any great story?