December 1, 2007 -- “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” is a documentary film about fascinating people competing to be top dog in the world of classic video games. Even though this competition means practically nothing to most people in the rest of the world, including me, this film is so compelling I found myself caught up in this competition and taking sides, rooting for the good guy and hissing at the bad guy. This film has to be seen to be believed. The characters are pathetic, but utterly fascinating. It is one of the best films of the year.
The film's two main characters are the reigning world title holder in the video game Donkey Kong, Billy Mitchell, an entrepreneur who owns a restaurant and company that makes his own brand of chicken wing hot sauce. The challenger is a Redmond, Washington school teacher, Steve Wiebe, toiling away in his garage on his vintage Donkey Kong machine, trying to break Mitchell's world record. It is a classic story of the slippery, sneaky bad guy (Mitchell), the master of gamesmanship, against the regular guy underdog, Wiebe. His long-suffering wife, Nicole, notes that Wiebe has what it takes to break Mitchell's record, great hand-eye coordination and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Wiebe, a star athlete in high school, has total concentration on the game. Even his two screaming kids don't faze him.
Mitchell talks a good game, but we never actually see him play the game. He slides around in the background, getting reports from his various operatives about what's going on. He schemes and sends his operatives out to do his dirty work. He is very careful when he talks. He implies more than he actually says. Mitchell has a black beard, hair slicked back and usually wears dark clothing. He is the perfect villain in this story. Though he is repeatedly challenged to play man to man against Wiebe, the challenger, he never shows up to play. He stays in the background, just out of sight. In 20 years, no one has come within 200,000 points of his Donkey Kong record of 874,300. Eventually, Wiebe beats Mitchell's record by scoring an incredible 1,006,600 points. He records the game on videotape and submits the tape to Twin Galaxies, the governing body for classic video game records.
Walter Day, founder of Twin Galaxies, is another character out of left field. He teaches transcendental mediation and runs the Twin Galaxies operation as a sideline with volunteers like the geeky Robert Mrucsek, his head referee. At first, Twin Galaxies upholds Wiebe's new world record, but then Mitchell persuades his disciple Brian Kuh and a couple of other guys to take Wiebe's Donkey Kong machine apart to see if it has been tampered with. They take machine apart over the objections of Wiebe's wife (her husband was not home at the time) and take pictures of the circuit board. By rifling through Wiebe's garage, they find out the board was given to Wiebe by Roy “Mr. Awesome” Schildt (star of “Mr. Awesome's Guide to Girls,” a self-produced 1989 film with a jaw-droppingly awful imitation of George C. Scott). Schildt is Mitchell's arch enemy (I'm not making this up, I swear!). Wiebe's score is invalidated, without, apparently actually testing the board to see if it works properly.
Mrucsek said, “To find out that this gamer potentially has a fraudulent score has upset Billy's master plan for what he wanted to do.” And he was being totally serious. You can't make this stuff up. First of all, these guys at Double Galaxy ought to know how to test a circuit board if they really are gaming experts. Secondly, you don't disqualify someone on the basis of a tiny smudge on a chip. Third, if Mrucsek is an impartial referee, why should he be so concerned about Mitchell's “master plan.” You can see I'm getting all worked up about this and it is all just silly. That's how compelling this film is.
At the urging of his friends Wiebe drives 3,000 miles to the Funspot arcade at Lake Winnipesaukee, N.H. to the “Seventh Annual Classic Arcade Museum Tournament” in 2005 to show everyone he is the real deal. There, in front of witnesses, he smashes Mitchell's record with a score of 985,600, at which time the Donkey Kong machine at Funspot runs out of memory and, as a result, the game ends with a “kill screen.” Just before the kill screen comes up, a geeky guy walks around Funspot telling everyone that “a potential kill screen is coming up if you want to see it.” Now who wouldn't?
If this was a fictional movie, this would be the end of the third act. Game over. Wiebe wins. Mitchell didn't even show up to compete, although Wiebe asked him to. Wiebe's new world record has been officially posted on the Twin Galaxy's web site. He is the new world champion, and this time, there is no doubt. Mitchell has a plan, however. Pulling the strings from his home in Hollywood, Florida, a plan is being carried out by his operatives. A package has been delivered to the home of Brian Kuh, 30 (retired) who lives near Funspot. It is a videotape. Soon the arcade tournament will be in an uproar about what's on the tape. I could tell you what happens next, and what happens after that, and after that, but that would spoil the film.
Suffice it to say, I can't remember a more compelling film this year. Director Seth Gordon (“Fears of a Clown”) has given us some of the year's most memorable characters. Mitchell is the best villain I've seen all year. Wiebe is heroic in his own way. He's got game, especially when it counts and the pressure is on, he delivers, with music from “Ride of the Valkyries” playing on the film's soundtrack. The crowning achievement of this film is that it makes you care about something which is completely trivial. It will make you laugh and it will make you angry, but don't stop watching when the credits start to roll, there's a lot more to come. This is a great film. One of the year's best. It rates an A.
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