The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Originally published 9/1/07
Full review behind the jump

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

: Seth Gordon
: Seth Gordon
: Ed Cunningham
: Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, Walter Day, Brian Kuh, Steve Sanders

I heard a story once about a behavioral psychologist who was studying a tribe of apes, learning how one ape achieved dominance over the others, how mates were selected, what plots displaced apes might undertake to topple the alpha. Everything changed, the psychologist noted, once she gave the apes names. Their activities suddenly read like the plot summary of a soap opera.

Donkey Kong
is not a real ape, but a cartoon made of pixels to resemble an ape. He got his name when legendary game artist Shigeru Miyamoto (the father of Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda) opened a Japanese-to-English dictionary and chose words it claimed were synonymous with “Stubborn Animal Gorilla”. This virtual stubborn animal gorilla will chuck barrels and springs and fireballs at you, frustrating and punishing every attempt you make to climb the ladder to reach him. And each time you reach the top, he just grabs your girlfriend and climbs up yet another ladder with her. Unless – unless you reach the level that represents the limits of this legendary 1982 arcade game’s program capacity. On that level, spoken of in reverent whispers as the “Kill Screen”, your on-screen counterpart simply takes a few steps and dies, like victims of the 5-Point Palm Exploding-Heart Technique in Kill Bill.

So the cartoon ape’s philosophy is simple: life’s a bitch, and then you die. And in his electronic world, the big ape always wins.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, is a ragged and dorky but immensely appealing documentary about two men who’ve allowed their lives to be taken over by this implacable, infuriating game; and about how their quest to be the world’s greatest player reveals the way they conduct their lives, and reminds us all too easily of that behavioral study about the apes in the wild, tearing and howling for superiority. Are we apes or men? How we play the game tells us.

As the movie opens the world record for Donkey Kong is well over 800,000 points, and held by Billy Mitchell, the first man in history to achieve a perfect score on Pac-Man. He is the face of Twin Galaxies, the official record-keeping organization for video gaming, and ambassador for a sport whose fans seem to number in the hundreds on a good day. Outside of the arcade world he drives a minivan and owns a buffalo wings restaurant in Hollywood, Florida, but he carries himself with a self-confidence that is mesmerizingly absolute. He favors black shirts and has the long hair of a dark wizard; other gamers speak of him as if he’s a combination of Wilt Chamberlain and Eddie Van Halen. We can sense that the active movers in his world have not only a professional investment in his fame, but a deeper psychological one. They want to be following the right alpha, and what better one than the man with the perfect Pac-Man score?

But Donkey Kong is a game with such an insidious arrangements of variables – its cruelest actions are essentially random but so frustrating that devotees speak of it as a living thing with a malignant will – that a “perfect” score isn’t really possible. So on this game, Mitchell is only as invincible as people believe him to be. And a few years ago, a middle school science teacher named Steve Wiebe looked at Mitchell’s 1982 record and thought “I could beat that.” Little did he know that joystick skill would not be all that’s required of him.

Wiebe’s life has a lot to envy. He is smart and decent, appears good at his job, has a patient wife, two precocious children, and a comfortable house in Redmond, Washington. He was a two-sport star athlete in high school and can play the hell out of the drums and piano. And yet there is a discontent to him, a sense of coming up short in life. He remembers keenly the day he pitched at the state championships, only his arm was worn out and he failed in front of the largest audience of his life. It stings that he got laid off from Boeing, his father’s company, the same day he closed paperwork on his house. He’s doing well enough, but is still haunted by the sense that fate has thwarted his potential.

He sets up a Donkey Kong machine in his garage with a video camera pointed at the screen, and every night he plays. He stares at that screen for hours upon hours – mapping the game’s patterns, training his reactions, cracking its secrets. It’s when he finally blows by Mitchell’s record, scoring over 1,000,000 points, that his life turns upside-down.

Mitchell is one of the people in authority to verify the authenticity of Wiebe’s score, and what results is an agonizing series of inquiries, insinuations, and psychological games. Wiebe undertakes a cross-country odyssey to prove his skills live in arcades - with referees, and Mitchell’s acolytes, watching. Mitchell, meanwhile, adopts an air of aloof unconcern, avoiding direct contact with Wiebe but trying to intimidate from afar. Could he really beat Wiebe head-to-head? If so, why all the mystery and chicanery?

This movie doesn’t necessarily benefit from big-screen exposure, the camerawork (director/editor Seth Gordon shot most of the footage himself) is low-grade and handheld for the most part, and the presentation lacks usual standards of polish. But Gordon is a canny storyteller who has either unearthed or blundered into, likely some combination of both, a fascinating Petri dish of paranoid and desperately competitive personalities in a world many people don’t know exists. Brian Kuh and Steve Sanders, two also-rans on the Donkey Kong scoreboard, are captivating portraits of subsumed egos writhing in the face of an unexpected threat – staring over Wiebe’s shoulder, breathlessly calling reports in to Mitchell, trying so hard to please their master so they can claim table scraps of his glory.

You have a clear hero to root for: Wiebe tries hard, faces setbacks, plays by the rules, refuses to knuckle under to Mitchell’s maneuverings, and even takes time out to go swimming with his kids. And you’ve got a sterling villain in Mitchell, who speaks of himself in the third person and enjoys the will he can exert over the expert gamers he’s whipped into obedience. Where their clashes end I will not reveal, but I will ask you, if you do see this picture, to pay close attention to two scenes where Wiebe calls Mitchell and leaves him voice-mails asking for a head-to-head challenge. The difference between the two phone calls says everything about the way this quest has given Wiebe a purpose; even, strangely, made him more of a man.

The current world-record score for Donkey Kong, according to Twin Galaxies, now stands at 1,050,200. Go there yourself if you want to know who holds it. I must confess that after watching The King of King: A Fistful of Quarters, I fired up an arcade emulator on my computer and spent an hour wrangling with the old stubborn animal gorilla. The best score I managed was 25,600 – but I was sure that I could do better, with just a little more practice…


  • I can confirm that King of Kong is the most compelling video game documentary i've ever seen (okay so it's the only video game doc. i've ever seen, but it's still good)

    By Anonymous grasshopper, at 10:00 PM  

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