Every boy grows up loving videogames, whether it be the clunky arcades of the ’80s or the virtual fighters of the ’90s and beyond, but we never loved them as much as the men in “King of Kong”. My biggest commitment to videogames peaked at skipping school while in Middle School to spend the entire day at the local laundrymat, playing games with a pocket full of pennies. (The arcades of the ’80s were built in a manner where, if you were creative and nimble-fingered enough, you could activate a free game by “popping” a penny upwards into the game’s change receptacle.) However, compared to the men in “King of Kong”, I and every other kid that ever tried their hand at Donkey Kong are hopeless amateurs.
“King of Kong” begins by chronicling the rise and eventual leveling off of the 1980s arcade craze, back when Pac-Man, Galaga, and Donkey Kong represented the best gaming technology out there. The documentary then sets up a competition between two men: Billy Mitchell, the original Donkey Kong champion, a mullet-sporting restaurateur with all the confidence in the world and a flare for the theatrics; and upstart Steve Wiebe, a science teacher, father of two and husband, a natural athlete turned grunge musician who never found his way in the world. After Steve’s supposed trumping of Billy’s Donkey Kong score comes into question, it is up to Steve to prove his doubters wrong. But can he?
The documentary also introduces us into the oddball world of videogame record keeping, where we meet our third main character, Walter Day. Day is the founder of Twin Galaxies, a non-for-profit organization created for the singular purpose of monitoring high scores, the Holy Grail for arcade gamers. Day is seen throughout the documentary in a referee’s uniform, strumming guitar in the dead of winter and holding live competition events for arcade glory seekers. When the Guinness Book of World Records come calling, Twin Galaxies becomes the conduit for the records, and it is this prestige that is the impetus for Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell’s rematch of sorts.
“King of Kong” is a fun documentary brimming with personality. There is a man name Roy Shildt, who self-styles himself as “Mister Awesome” back in the day, but is now a slightly balding gamer who is distrusted by the boys at Twin Galaxies for his vendetta against Billy Mitchell. His association with Steve does little to help the father of two achieve the recognition he seeks, but Steve is simply too nice of a guy to wholly sever their relationship. What it all comes down to is that Steve is one hell of a nice guy, and that makes you fell for his pain as he attempts to do the right thing in what is shockingly a very political world.
Director Seth Gordon has achieved the impossible: made a documentary about adult men playing videogames from the ’80s look cool. Gordon knows his subject matter, and every now and then the ’80s hit “You’re the Best” by Joe Esposito pops up to remind the audience of the documentary’s kitsch and, most of all, fun nature, even if the grown men arguing about the scores take it way too seriously.
“King of Kong” also has a surprising amount of drama. Steve Wiebe’s quest to make something more of his life beyond teaching science and finally achieve the success he’s always been missing, and those around him have always expected of him, drives much of the narrative. In perhaps the documentary’s most crushing moment, Steve has just broken Billy Mitchell’s record playing Donkey Kong live, only to have his long-in-coming moment in the spotlight shattered when he is “Obi-wan Kenobi’ed” by Mitchell, who does the brutal deed without ever having left his home in Florida.
You don’t have to be a videogame “geek” to think that “King of Kong” is one fascinating documentary. It is entirely populated by interesting characters made all the more interesting because they are very much real. Even Billy Mitchell, who at times come across like a poorly scripted Hollywood character, is entirely too human and real not in spite of his colorful quirks, but because of them. There are even rumors that the documentary may be getting a Hollywood fictional remake, with no other than Johnny Depp possibly being sought to play Mitchell.
You don’t have to have slaved on those ’80s arcade games in your childhood to have a grand ol time with “King of Kong”, you just have to like good movies, period.
Seth Gordon (director)
CAST: Billy Mitchell … Himself
Steve Wiebe … Himself
Walter Day … Himself
Brian Kuh … Himself
Robert Mruczek … Himself
Roy Shildt … Himself – ‘Mr. Awesome’