The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Director : Seth Gordon
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2007
Perhaps because the filmmakers couldn't decide exactly which classic movie title they wanted to riff for their film about the pursuit of the world-record highest score in the classic arcade game Donkey Kong, they went with two: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Thankfully, that rather unwieldy title and the indecisiveness it suggests in no way reflects the film itself, which is a concise, utterly entertaining, if sometimes a bit facile, documentary about the pursuit of greatness in an area that most people dismiss as a waste of time.
The narrative centers on a cross-country rivalry between two men: Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe. In classic arcade game circles, Mitchell is a legend, having held the world record scores on virtually every game since Life magazine assembled the world's best players back in 1982. At the time, Mitchell was 17, and even though Mitchell is now in his early 40s and is a successful restaurateur, his identity is still entirely wrapped around his role as video game Jedi. This identity does not serve him well, as he comes across in the film like the world's cockiest braggart (and worst Kenny Loggins impersonator), constantly espousing self-serving mantras that he ironically fails to live up to. This includes his bold assertion that real video game records should be scored live in front of other people, something he has apparently not done in decades. One gets the sense of an aging giant hiding away in his castle and allowing his fearsome reputation to do all the work.
Steve Wiebe is, in many ways, Billy Mitchell's opposite. A rather plan-looking suburban dad from Washington, he started playing Donkey Kong in his garage after being laid off from his job at Boeing. Among gamers, Donkey Kong is considered the most difficult of classic arcade challenges because of the level of hand-eye coordination it requires, not to mention the random nature of the game's dangers. Always the perennial second-place contender (he had to drop out of high school baseball after an arm injury and his rock band never made it), for Steve the idea of winning the world record for highest Donkey Kong score becomes a genuine opportunity for redemption--a chance to show that he can be the best. (In this respect, Donkey Kong is the perfect metaphor for his situation because in every screen you maneuver Mario to the top of the construction site where he is temporarily reunited with his love before Donkey Kong snatches her away and you have to move on to the next screen.) Of course, in doing so he would take down Billy Mitchell's record, which has stood since 1982, and if there's one thing someone who speaks about himself in the third person can't stand, it's losing a piece of his legacy (Billy actually answers his phone by saying, “World Record Headquarters”).
For those not enmeshed in the world of “competitive gaming,” this will probably all sound pretty silly. And this is where The King of Kong gets a bit confused. On the one hand, director Seth Gordon seems genuinely interested in conveying the seriousness of the endeavor, and he involves people like Walter Day, who founded Twin Galaxies back in the early 1980s as a means of maintaining and verifying record high scores. He also gives the film an underlying emotional resonance by taking seriously Steve's desire to crack Billy's world record as a redemptive achievement worthy of the time and energy he pours into it.
Yet, at the same time, Gordon can't help but allow an edge of parody to slip into the film at times, particularly his deployment of cheesy '80s power-pop tunes from the Rocky and Karate Kid movies, including Joe Esposito's “You're the Best” (I guess they couldn't afford the rights to Survivor's “Eye of the Tiger”). Of course, sometimes the real deal beats any parody, and the relentless seriousness with which the gamers take their vocation will likely draw chuckles from those who see earning a million points on Donkey Kong to be a ridiculous endeavor. But, and I ask this as someone who has spent very little time playing video games, what is the real difference between being the best in the world at a video game and being the best in the world at hitting a small, hard ball with a piece of wood? Is the distance between the two so great?
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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