Even if you're never played a single game of Donkey Kong or any Super Mario edition in your life (I swear I haven't in 10 years), THE KING OF KONG A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS is still a film you and especially one your family will enjoy. Of all the documentaries I've seen this year, this one was by far the most enjoyable.
Most kids and teens today know Donkey Kong as the big monkey who is the hero in several Nintendo games with Super Mario as merely a side character. However, in the classic 1981 arcade game of Donkey Kong, the central player is Mario and Donkey Kong is the evil villain throwing barrels that you have to jump over or hit with a hammer.
The Billy Vs. Steve match up is between Billy Mitchell, a 42-year-old restaurant owner living in Florida who is the current Donkey Kong champion, and Steve Wiebe, a 34-year-old math teacher formerly of Boeing, living in Seattle, who hopes to challenge Billy's reign as king Donkey Kong player. Steve hopes to outscore Billy in a nonstop gaming session.
There's only one problem. Both Billy and Steve have performed excellently at Donkey Kong by themselves in their own homes, but the trick is getting them to play together in the same room, not an easy feat, due to the fact that Billy Mitchell is rather arrogant and who even won't agree to sit in the same room with Steve.
First off, no one on Earth would even know who these two guys were if it weren't for a website called Twin Galaxies. Twin Galaxies, originally an arcade in Iowa, was started by Walter Day in 1981. His goal was to keep a record of the top scores and top players in arcade games all across the country. He visited many of them, gathering top scores until major companies like Atari and Nintendo caught wind of this and started putting trust in him to be the official video game scorekeeper.
In 1983, Walter Day held the first ever video game championship during which he received a massive amount of media coverage including ABC News and LIFE Magazine, proclaiming Twin Galaxies as the official database for gaming scores across all platforms, which it still remains 25 years later.
People can play their games in arcades or at home. They record their high scores and then submit them to Twin Galaxies for confirmation and recognition. Tons of high scores have been recorded for Donkey Kong but none as high as the one recorded by Billy Mitchell, which registers over a million points. With his perfect Pac-man score, Mitchell is referred to by some as the "Neo" of classic arcade.
Mitchell was riding high as the top scorer for years until one day a gamer came into Twin Galaxies with a score that threatened to throw a serious barrel into Mitchell's world. Steve Wiebe, despite having a loving wife and child, has spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the Donkey Kong arcade game that he has set up in his garage. Hours upon hours where he has learned to master the game. In fact, he's broken the game down to a science, knowing how the algorithms of each level work.
If Mitchell is considered by some to be the Darth Vader of arcade games, then Steve Wiebe is definitely the Obi Wan Kenobi. However, the rivalry and the ultimate battleground, which director Seth Gordon lays down is a whole lot more entertaining than the face-off that George Lucas cooked up for Episode III. Who knew that watching a bunch of guys in their thirties and forties play games from the 1980s could be so exciting and cool?
But, again, like with any good documentary, it all comes down to the people who are being interviewed and who are the subjects of the story. Some could just write these people off as big geeks in pursuit of something so trivial and meaningless, but no. What you get from watching these guys is that you're really tapping into something deeper that goes beyond just pressing a button and moving a joystick.
There's a sense of pride and integrity and accomplishment that's at the core of this, feelings that are easily transferable into any endeavor. There's also a perfect dichotomy that's established that shows you exactly the kinds of competitors that you come into contact with in any competition event including those in the athletic world, which tells you the similarities are not too few and far between. As with Spellbound or Word Wars, this is another mental sport of which I am more than happy to be a spectator.
THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS was made available on DVD on Jan. 29. I encourage everyone to go see it.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for a brief sexual reference but really this is a family-friendly film
Running Time: 1hr and 19 mins.