King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters Review

I love documentaries, especially if it is on a subject that I enjoy. Whether that be a nature documentary or one concerning the early twentieth century, I love the way documentaries edit, construct and tell the story using archive and new footage. When I heard that a film had been made about Donkey Kong, I was a little sceptical. I assumed that it would be a film about how Nintendo made the game and though that would have been interesting, it wouldn’t exactly keep me entertained for ninety minutes.

King of Kong is not about the creation of Donkey Kong. It is about something so much better. Rather than being about the creators of the game, it is about those who mastered or tried to master the game.

Billy Mitchell Circled. Doesn't he just resonate smugness?

In 2005 Billy Mitchell had held the world record on Donkey Kong, amongst other games, for over two decades at 874,300. It was a record seemingly unbeatable until Steve Wiebe, a man who had been laid off and had some time on his hands, decided to give it a go.

The ultimate underdog! Come on Steve!

The documentary follows Wiebe’s attempts to master the game and beat the record. Setting up an Arcade Cabinet in his garage he spends a considerable amount of time working out the ins and outs of the game until he has mastered it. This he does, achieving a record of 1,006,600 points which he submits to Twin Galaxies, a site dedicated to recording and verifying the authenticity of world records. Upon hearing this, Mitchell who is a thoroughly repulsive man, obsessed with his reputation and his records, sends someone to investigate Wiebe’s machine and thus has his score disqualified. Mitchell claims that the only truly authentic score is a live score and so Wiebe travels to the Funspot Arcade in New Hampshire and here not only achieves a score of 985,600 and officially crushing Mitchell’s world record, but also achieves a Kill Screen which I’m sure many of you will know is a point at which the game’s code suddenly malfunctions and glitches to the point where the screen almost falls apart. This usually happens if you go beyond a certain level (Example Level 29 on Tetris or the 22nd Stage of Donkey Kong) or if you go over a certain score level, such as 9999 etc.

If you are playing Pacman and you see this screen. You are THE MAN!

Wiebe’s victory is short lived because as soon as he has achieved this score, Mitchell sends in a VHS with him achieving a score of 1,047,200 points. The footage is of a poor quality, but due to Mitchell’s reputation is it accepted as authentic.

Don't you just want to slap him?

Upon learning that the Guinness World Records wanted to publish a number of scores including Mitchell’s Donkey Kong score he travels to Florida to challenge Mitchell to a public competition. He refuses though there is a very tense scene where Billy does arrive at the Arcade where Steve is playing and stands behind him and though Steve acknowledges that he is there Billy simply walks away. It is followed by a rather odd segment where Mitchell’s insanely hot wife (Who gives all video game nerds hope) says she has never seen her husband compete in video games and then a speech by Mitchell claiming that ‘if you don’t play when you have to play… you’re really not good enough.’ During this scene you really feel for Wiebe who even admits ‘I can handle losing if he would at least compete against me’. He leaves the Arcade unable to beat Mitchell’s high score, though they declare that he has the highest ever live score recorded.

As the film ends, you really feel for Wiebe and begin to utterly hate the smugness of Mitchell. It was at that point where I would have given this film a bad review based on the fact that the film didn’t really do anything, but that’s when it hit with its perfect ending. We see Wiebe back in his garage playing and as he plays we see his high score get bigger and bigger, illustrated by a graph and then we see him beat Mitchell’s score with a new world record of 1,049,100 points. Booyah!

To be king of kong you gotta master the game!

 

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is such a wonderful documentary that it is surprising that it was not nominated for the Oscar that year (Though I doubt it would have won over that year’s winner the excellent Man on Wire). What the film did was fuse a classic one on one contest with a trip down memory lane for all us gamers who grew up in the Arcade era. When I see Arcades now, they are usually filled with ‘Answer Questions for Money’ or Claw games and so to remember when I would spend all my pocket money on Streetfighter 2 or Space Harrier is great and this film made it clear just how important some games are. When people who play baseball talk about how many home runs they have hit and how important it is, this passion is exactly how gamers feel about a high score or fastest time to complete a game. Rather than make us look to be the geeks who shut ourselves in our basement (granted this is exactly what Wiebe did), but shows that we are normal people who have a passion and as one of the competitors says ‘I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs, I play videogames, which I think is far superior an addiction than any of those other ones.’ I couldn’t agree more.

10/10 One of the Best documentaries I have ever seen. Not just for videogamers, but for anyone who ever had a goal in life!

 

Comments

  1. This documentary and “Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade” are excellent documentaries for gamers to check out. Also this past weekend there was a “Kong Off” where some of the top competitively Donkey Kong players met up for a weekend showdown of classic gaming.

  2. I think that is half the reason why Game Arcades fail so much these days and are closing down rapidly. The games in them just aren’t fun anymore, sure you might win something but the chance is dismal. I’d rather play an actual game and win. Sure you won’t physically win anything but who cares, as long as it was fun.