King of Kong
Hello all, Dann here again.
Sarah asked me to take on the letter K in her alphabet series, and we’d all but agreed that it was going to be about Kickstarter — a brilliant topic choice of which there’s an absolutely mass of stuff to talk about.
That’ll have to wait another 26 weeks though, because today I’m going to write about The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, a movie from 2007 about the earliest competitive gaming scene: The arcade high-score circuit.
It would have been late 2007, or early 2008, when my brother introduced me to the movie. He did it with practically no background as to what actually happens in it, and what with me being a British lad who was born after the UK arcade scene died I had no idea about the story behind the film or the people in it — at all.
If anything this actually made it a vastly more interesting film, and that’s because the people in the film feel completely fictitious, leaving it feeling like a cheesy underdog story filmed as a mockumentary. More fool me then, when it turned out that it was actually real and unscripted.
The King of Kong follows Steve Wiebe, a contender for the world record for the Donkey Kong arcade machines, as he attempts to best the score set by reigning record holder Billy Mitchell. Wiebe, who is a kindly savant, is introduced as painfully luckless, having just lost his job and, despite his various talents both artistic and practical, still wearing the pain of an injury which ruined a potential sports career.
While Wiebe is clearly made out as a talented individual who deserves a chance and has the attitude of the kind of person you want to see winning competitions; a modest, talented sort. Mitchell is the complete opposite.
Mitchell obviously has skills, after all he is the record holder for a reason, but his joking, brotherly camaraderie with Walter Day —the person who oversees the award in question as well as acting as a living historian of arcade machine records— his overwhelming self-confidence, and his cold, no nonsense attitude to debates sets him up as a comedy victim. He is the kind of person who dismisses the contenders as they are, simply, contenders, he is the boxing champion we love to hate, or the wrestler who wins through a dirty trick.
And, that’s the thing, all the way through you’re rooting for Weibe, and due to the excellent editing, filming, and framing from the team behind it, it always feels like Day & Mitchell are constantly moving the goalposts, having things disallowed and discarded, or lost, in order to ensure that the two friends get to maintain their cool gig.
It is, for those concerned, not just an hour-and-a-half of off-screen footage while two people mutter through gritted teeth. There’s an impressive amount of ‘story’ and history squeezed into the production, and even what would —were it scripted— be termed sub-plots and historical rivalries which come to the foreground as the story advances.
I won’t talk too much on the resolution of the film, which after the pace and competition ramps up still feels like a bit of a let down for Team Wiebe, but it certainly feels like a solid ending to the first chapter of a story. Something rarely achieved in what is, essentially, a feature-length documentary.
Since The King of Kong first aired Walter Day has gone on to a music career, although he does still occasionally do the rounds with Billy Mitchell. Mitchell’s Twitter soley touts him as a Pacman champion, and has the perfect Mitchell-ism of “Work is for people who can’t play video games.” as a bio.
Anyway, that’s enough waffle about that niche film, if you’re the kind of person who loves a good underdog story then it’s really worth a watch, although it’s also an amazing look in the mindset of an arcade champion.