The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007).
Director: Seth Gordon.
Starring: Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, Walter Day, Roy Shildt, Brian Kuh, Robert Mruczek, Mike Thompson.
Run Time: 79 minutes.
Apparently, competitive computer gaming is a serious business. A sport in its own right, some might say. A society of competitive gamers exist, battling tooth and nail for high scores and the number one spot. Name a computer game, past or present, and there will be people somewhere on the planet playing it.
This brings me nicely to the fantastically titled The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. This 2007 documentary follows the battle between long time Donkey Kong champ Billy Mitchell (no Eastenders connection) and everyman challenger Steve Wiebe. Before I get into the meat and potatoes of the review, I have to confess right now, SPOILER ALERT!!! I’m an absolutely huge fan of Steve Wiebe. I’d never heard of the guy before watching the film, and why would I? He’s an unassuming science teacher from Washington who just happens to play Donkey Kong really really well. This aside, and I don’t say this lightly, ‘Super’ Steve Wiebe is a true American hero.
I really don’t want to give too much away about King of Kong, as it really would spoil the overall experience of the film, but Steve faces a bucket load of adversity as the challenger to Mitchell’s crown. You could say that fate is against him, but I think the correct word to use would be ‘conspiracy’. Wiebe is the perennial underdog, with a catalogue of misfortunes stopping him achieving his goals in life. You can’t help but root for him, and the way he carries himself throughout just exudes like-a-bility. This, coupled with a genuine skill in Donkey Kong, sets him up very early on as our hero.
This makes Billy Mitchell our villain, and boy does he live up to his billing. Child prodigy. Hot sauce mogul. Record holder. Git. Billy Mitchell is all of these things. He is also, undoubtedly, a winner. But he is also a man willing to win at all costs, using all of the dark arts available to him throughout the film. It’s a really sad aspect of the film, as Billy Mitchell is quite clearly good enough to win at these games fairly, but every time Steve makes a breakthrough, billy seeks to destroy his rival through various means.
Most infuriating are the cast of Mitchell acolytes, including official referee and founder of the gaming’s governing body (Twin Galaxies) Walter Day, and protégé Brian Kuh, who undermine Wiebe along the way. They constantly keep Mitchell ahead of the curve, relaying messages and watching Steve over his shoulder at various gaming meets.
The characters and various interlocking subplots feel too good to be true, and I imagine you would be hard pressed to find actors who could play each person better than they already do themselves. As with other great documentaries, the cast are perfectly comedic and dramatic in real life. Whether it was intended or not, the story feels less contrived due to the omission of a narrator, allowing the plot to develop as unbiasedly as possible. You would also be hard pressed to sell the story as fiction, there are so many twists and turns throughout.
But such is the way with the best documentaries, being too surreal to not actually be true. For me, a documentary needs to either be huge in scope (Political scandals or natural disasters, for example), or like in King of Kong, microscopically trivial, exposing the viewer to a brave new world, and the film nails this perfectly. Because in essence, computer games are trivial. A documentary about playing outdated arcade games in this day and age has no right to be as compelling as the Olympic Games.
But it is.
You care about the outcome. You want Steve Wiebe to win. You want Billy Mitchell and his stupid mullet/beard/American flag tie combo to fail. You want Walter Day and the other disciples to climb out of Mitchell’s arse and recognise Wiebe’s talent. You don’t want the injustice to continue unpunished. This is what makes The King of Kong one of the greatest documentaries ever made, with its power to make you care so much about something you never thought you would. The quirky cast of oddballs and potted history of the sport add layers and depth, but the emotional core of the film is what gives it a real bite.
This is why King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters has the honour of being the subject of my inaugural review. It’s a film that rewards you for giving it a chance. It’s a film you may see and think “this isn’t my cup of beans, I’ll give it a miss”, and to that I say “fuck that”. Geek or not, I’m yet to find someone who hasn’t been forever moved by this doc. And this is my gift to you. Find me a film with more tension and drama, and I’ll buy you a coke. I will try to review new releases as much as possible, but I feel that there are films that you, dear reader, must see, and Zeus be damned I’m going to tell you about them. Just do yourselves a favour and get hold of a copy of the film and watch it before I find you. The King of Kong buzz isn’t going to last forever.
If you liked this, check out: Anvil, Spellbound, Man on Wire, Best Worst Movie, The Aristocrats. Also be sure to check out twingalaxies.com for any world record updates.