Every subculture has its king. When it comes to Donkey Kong, the 1981 arcade game, the monarch has always been Billy Mitchell, who was named Gamer of the Century by Time way back in the 1980s. Mitchell holds the world record--an untouchable score of almost 900,000 points. Later, he started a successful hot-sauce business, sported some sweet feathered hair and married the sort of breasty woman most men who are deep into the classic arcade-game scene only see online.
Yes, old-school videogames are alive and well, although the strange society that surrounds them has been jumping barrels lately, as is evident in Seth Gordon's documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which examines the rivalry between Mitchell and Steve Wiebe (a usurper of the title). It also examines the fascinating politics of the awkward man-children who populate this little-known subculture.
The story is simple. Wiebe has never been a particularly lucky guy. He's the kind of guy who gets laid off from Boeing the day he closes escrow on his house. The sort of dude who pitches his high-school baseball team all the way to the state championship, only to blow out his arm just before the big game. A talented musician who's not quite good enough to make it.
But what Wiebe does have going for him is a desire to beat the Donkey Kong world record and some time on his hands. He puts a machine in his garage, plays a lot, videotapes his world-record score, sends the tape to Twin Galaxies (the classic arcade gaming authority) and unintentionally ignites some serious controversy among a group of guys who aren't used to having the doors of their fortress of solitude knocked on.
Gordon examines the ins and outs of this culture--interviewing Walter Day, the face of classic gaming officiating, and his minions--and discovers politics and sniping that would rival any White House administration. Wiebe, an average guy cut from a different cloth than most of the gamer-lifers, is forced to travel across the country to prove that his record wasn't achieved on a souped-up machine. The guy rises to every challenge issued by Mitchell, the champ who manages to be a complete tool and undercuts his own statements about integrity and sportsmanship. For all his talk, Mitchell's inaction speaks louder than his words--in fact, never do we actually see Mitchell play Donkey Kong, though his supporters bend the rules for him over and over again, trying to prevent regime change at Funspot (the New Hampshire arcade-game haven). At the same time, you feel sorry for the guy, a onetime demigod whose arrogance and self-preservation defense mechanisms have been in place for more than two decades.
The characters who occupy this almost virtual world are just that--characters. They're hardcore. It's surprising just how affecting a movie about middle-aged men competing for a video game world record can be. But maybe it shouldn't be surprising. These guys are playing for self-respect, and the agony of defeat--being killed by a giant digital monkey or manipulated by a petulant, jealous rival--is sometimes enough to make a grown man cry.