The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a video game documentary directed by Seth Gordon; which highlights the duel between two top arcade gamers, as they fight it out to set the record for the arcade game Donkey Kong! The two gamers at the centre of this film are Billy Mitchell (who set the original record and was the first person to achieve a perfect score in Pac-Man), and Steve Wiebe (a teacher and former engineer at Boeing). The other major player in the film is Walter Day; the founder of Twin Galaxies, which collects and tracks the world records for video games.
Firstly; a quick history lesson! Donkey Kong is a video game released by Nintendo in 1981. It was a platform game which involved a character then called Jumpman (later renamed Mario), trying to rescue a lady named Pauline from the clutches of rampant Ape Donkey Kong. Developed as part of Nintendo’s desperate attempts to create a rival to Pac-Man and break into the American arcade market; the game was designed by Shigeru Miyamoto alongside chief engineer Gunpei Yokoi. Once it debuted on the American arcade scene, it became a commercial and critical success and has not only become a classic video game, but is widely considered one of the most important video games ever produced.
In 1982, at Twin Galaxies; Life Magazine did a photo shoot of the top arcade gamers in America. Each gamer was the world champion of a particular arcade game. But there was an issue. A player from Kansas City called Steve Sanders made a claim that he was the Record Holder for Donkey Kong. The score was ‘bogus’. Step in Centipede Champion Billy Mitchell, who sat down at Twin Galaxies, and set a real record, beating Steve Sanders in the process.
Twenty One years later, an out of work Engineer called Steve Wiebe uses his mathematical knowledge to identify patterns in the game; sets a new record, becoming the new Donkey Kong champion. Steve Wiebe becomes a local celebrity as a result of this victory.
Sometime later, a group of referees are sent to Steve Wiebe’s home to inspect his Donkey Kong Machine. The board was supplied by Roy Shildt; a fitness guru who has been at odds with Billy Mitchell for years; and Twin Galaxies believe that Roy may have tampered with the board, so they disqualify Steve Wiebe’s Donkey Kong score, and pass the title back to Mitchell. The stage is now set for Wiebe to attempt a comeback, and take back what was taken from him!
I first heard of this documentary back in about 2007; and was able to acquire a DVD copy of the film many years later and watch it a few times. It’s an interesting film as it depicts the battle of wills between two players trying to best each other in an arcade game. The film does other things too though, as it shows the working life of Billy Mitchell as a restaurateur; whilst also highlighting Steve Wiebe’s struggles in the working world, and how Donkey Kong may have helped him prevail over that. It also paints an interesting picture of the life of Walter Day too, as the as the chief record keeper of Video Games at Twin Galaxies.
The film is also packed with interesting tit-bits of video games. One of the show’s highlights is the Kill Screen. Basically, due to a software bug in the game, some old games have a kill screen, where the game will just halt the player’s progress. In this film we see a Donkey Kong kill screen, where Mario just suddenly dies, meaning the game can’t be completed, because it just ends.
Also, as an additional treat, the film’s soundtrack and DVD menu features repeated use of Clay Tweel‘s Gummy Substance; which throughout is just a perfect match-up of film to soundtrack.
The film though does have it’s low points; chief among which is the bad attitude of some of the film’s other participating gamers. I don’t know if it’s a fictional element created to drama within the film, or if they are really like that; but some gamers featured in the film (especially Brian Kuh) are just so unsympathetic. Firstly there is the part where the referees take a look at Wiebe’s machine. Wiebe’s wife describes how they came to take a look, but she expressed to them that they should wait until Steve came home. But apparently they just entered the garage. It just feels wrong that however respected these gaming referee’s were, they felt like they could enter someone’s home without permission; it’s a real surprise how the police weren’t phoned. Then secondly there is Brian Kuh’s attitude when he doesn’t really congratulate Wiebe being the man to reach the Kill Screen, as it was he who wanted to do it. I mean seriously; this man has a really bad and selfish attitude, you just don’t care about him. Again I don’t know how much was set-up for the benefit of the film; but you just don’t have any sympathy for these people!
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters; is a really interesting insight into the lives of video game players, as well as the history of early arcade gamers. It also provides continued insight into gaming in general, especially when considering the Billy Mitchell Emulator Controversy a few years ago. But on the whole it’s just a really deep and interesting documentary which charts the start of competitive gaming at it’s most basic level, and how this competition continued to grow, and become both a spectator’s sport in it’s own right; and how accessible it is for anyone who wants to give it a go!
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