By Matt Singer
[Photo: Steve Wiebe in “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters,” Picturehouse, 2007]
“Video games aren’t meant to be fun,” intones one of the subjects of the riveting new documentary “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.” This is utter nonsense, but not to the man speaking it, who believe it completely. To these guys who devote their lives to classic arcade games, the pursuit isn’t recreation; it’s validation. Their self-images are wrapped up in these oversized cabinets, and they take them very seriously. Which, of course, makes what they do and the extreme lengths they will go to to protect their records and discourage others from surpassing them, completely fascinating and altogether hilarious.
Though “The King of Kong” gives a nice portrait of the entire classic gaming subculture, the movie is primarily a battle of wits, smarts and nerve between two fundamentally different men: Billy Mitchell, the so-called “gamer of the century,” and Steve Wiebe, an average joe living in the ‘burbs. Back in the early ’80s when being a great gamer was like being a rock star, Billy was gaming’s Mick Jagger: frontman and spokesperson with the big hair and a bigger attitude. He made a lot of money playing games, with which he started a profitable hot sauce empire. Billy reasons that he’s been so lucky in life that there has to be somebody out there who’s got it as bad as he’s got it good.
Cut to Steve. Back in the early ’80s, Steve was a nobody. He certainly wasn’t Mick Jagger hell, he wasn’t even Ron Wood despite the fact that Steve actually played music in bands around Seattle for years. But they never really went anywhere, and he floundered from job to job. One of his good buddies notes that he’s never seen anyone cry quite as much as Steve.
The two couldn’t be more different. Their only common ground is the old arcade game Donkey Kong; the two are, without question, the best players in the entire world. What is in doubt is who is better than the other. “The King of Kong” watches Steve’s assault on Billy’s record and Billy’s extensive attempts to stack the deck against his opponent. When Steve tapes his record-breaking round, Billy, who sits on the governing board of the organization that officiates classic arcade games, sends some of his cronies to take the machine apart and examine it for inconsistencies. Though they find none, he still refuses to acknowledge Steve’s score until he does it in a public arcade on an officially recognized machine. So Steve travels across the country, beats the record again, only to see the spotlight yanked away once again when a tape suddenly surfaces from Billy setting an even higher score. And so on.
Billy Mitchell who, by the way, is almost exclusively referred to by both his first and last names, even by his parents! is one of the great villains of the movies. Totally full of himself and draped in the colors of the American flag, this phantom menace never engages his enemy directly, playing long-distance head games with Steve from his home in the meaning-soaked town of Hollywood, Florida. The tension surrounding whether Billy and Steve will finally actually face-off against one another becomes so great that I audibly gasped the first time the two appeared in the same room.
Director Seth Gordon had no choice about the subject of his characters’ obsessions, but he couldn’t have picked a more perfect metaphor for Steve’s quest to defeat Billy than Donkey Kong. In Kong, you play as Mario as he tries to rescue his girlfriend from the clutches of a giant ape by scaling a construction site while the gorilla showers you with barrels and fire and other pitfalls. If you do manage to reach the top of the screen (a feat I was unable to accomplish even once when I played the game recently), Kong grabs the girl and climbs to the next level; cruelly, no matter how many boards you clear, you will never rescue your lady. The ultimate success in “Kong” comes by reaching “The Kill Screen,” so named because the game literally murders you for no reason at all. Without spoiling too much, “The King of Kong” is much the same, an endless chase for an unattainable goal. Steve and Mario think they’ve reached the end, but Billy and Kong yank the prize just a little bit further out of reach.
Gordon has stumbled onto one of the most compelling nonfiction stories I have ever seen, and he has captured it beautifully. This movie has just about everything you could conceivably want: outrageous characters (and an amazing villain, of course), big conflict and an endless supply of plot twists. The epilogue of “The King of Kong” brings of flurry of updates that have happened since the movie ended, and I suspect there are more developments to come in time for the DVD. There is no end to Donkey Kong and there isn’t one yet for this battle. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
“The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” opens in limited release on August 17th (official site).