It is my sincerest belief that athletes and sports teams could win and accomplish more by simply playing videogames. If you were to study a hardcore gamer, you would find a level of concentration, intensity, and competitiveness unrivaled by anything else. Billy Mitchell, one of the main subjects of the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, says something very similar in the beginning of the film. Although don’t take it from him, he’s a hypocrite.
Billy is perceived around the world as the greatest arcade gamer of all-time. He owns the high score on the game many believe is the single most difficult one created: Donkey Kong. Not only does he have the highest score but no one has come within 300,000 points of his score. Billy and an arcade owner named Walter Day are responsible for creating a league in which the best gamers in the world, or at least the nation, can compete against each other. Billy learns, as so many of us have, that no matter how good you are at something, there’s always someone better.
That someone is Washington state native Steve Wiebe, a middle school teacher who spends his spare time playing Donkey Kong. Steve videotaped himself of not only breaking Billy’s Donkey Kong record, but shattering it by crossing the one million point threshold. He sends that tape to a man who might just be the ultimate hermit with no life whatsoever. This guy is a senior member of this arcade league and his job is to sit in a room and watch an endless amount of videotapes in which people are attempting to break arcade records. Then he comes across Steve’s tape. However a videotape is not sufficient enough evidence to put Steve’s name in the record books. The only place where breaking a record high score is recognized internationally is an arcade known as FunStop. Word of Steve setting a record score of over 900,00 at FunStop has reached Billy’s ears of this and he is afraid to step up to a challenge because he fears he will be robbed of his title. Instead he devises one cowardly scheme after another to make sure Steve gets the short end of things.
As a documentary, The King of Kong does a great job of introducing something very few know a lot about and exploring the subject in an in-depth, creative way. Who would ever have thought that some people take arcade gaming so seriously. For example, two representatives of the arcade league show up at Steve’s house and examine his Donkey Kong machine to make sure it hasn’t been tampered with. These people take it so seriously that they have to write up a list of rules to follow in recording scores and deciding competitions, which they break to work in Billy’s favor. Apparently high scores are so sacred that breaking them isn’t recognized unless you go out of your way to an arcade in the middle of nowhere and do it in public, on a neutral, some say cursed, Donkey Kong machine.
What’s really unique about The King of Kong is that Billy and Steve get almost the same treatment as if they were actual characters in an actual movie. By the end of the film, we know them pretty well and we know who to root for. Steve is a guy who is out to prove himself and does so time and time again, only to be screwed over by the influence and power Billy has within the gaming community. Billy on the other hand is a hypocrite, saying that there’s nothing like competitive gaming but never once rises up to a challenge after he breaks the record on Donkey Kong. Billy gets all the recognition, including his name in the Guinness Book of World Records, by doing nothing while Steve gets no recognition by doing everything.
I have never been one for praising documentaries, with the exception of 2006’s Deliver Us From Evil. The King of Kong was an entertaining and interesting take on something I never gave much thought to. It’s hard to believe in this day and age with games like Halo that there are people who actually prefer to dedicate their lives to the old fashion arcade games. One thing that can be said about this film is that it is totally unique. You will not see another film like The King of Kong.