Ladder to the Top: 'The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters' Review
I never grew up with arcade games. I was born during the “home console boom, ” and as a result, the things most talked about around my neighborhood were which kid had gotten a PlayStation 2 or who had finally beaten Majora’s Mask, not who held the highest Centipede score at the local arcade’s machine. Personally, I’ve never understood classic arcade games, at least not their execution. The games themselves are incredible marvels of simplicity and masterful engineering under the limits of early computer hardware. I just always abhorred the idea of having to pay money every time you wanted to play a round of any game. It seemed like a waste when I could pay a one-time fee for a system and some games with better graphics, storytelling, and cooperative play options and enjoy those for hours on end without ever having to beg my parents for some quarters.
I’ve never understood arcade games, but that’s okay because The King of Kong is not a film about arcade games – thought it tries its damnedest to make you think it is.
Following the fierce rivalry between arcade superstar Billy Mitchell and small-town elementary teacher Steve Wiebe, The King of Kong is a surprisingly introspective documentary with a colorful collection of themes borne from the tense relationship between the film’s two lead subjects. Directed by Seth Gordon (of Horrible Bosses and Identity Thief fame), the film follows both protagonists through their day to day life and interviews them and their loved ones about their relationship with arcade culture and most importantly, the brutal, soul-crushing classic arcade kingpin that is Donkey Kong and the race to achieve the highest score.
One of the most common praises you’ll hear thrown around this film’s mention from people who’ve seen it is “it was a lot better than I thought it’d be.” I don’t disagree with that, hell, if I had to sum the film up in a short sentence I’d probably use that as my answer too. But to the everyman, to anyone who hasn’t seen it or is enthralled with arcade culture, it sounds like an exceptional waste of time. Who cares who holds the highest score in a video game? More specifically, who cares about classic arcade games in general anymore? E-sports, primarily concerning popular PC titles such as League of Legends and DOTA, itself is just getting off the ground and gaining legal recognition, but old, dimly lit, prone-to-glitching, barely existent arcade games? Who gives a rat’s ass about the competition surrounding those?
Turns out, quite a few people. One of the most famous individuals in the film, Walter Day, is the founder of the company Twin Galaxies, an organization dedicated to recording and upholding a legitimate leaderboard list of various classic arcade games. Through the film’s presentation, we see a tightly-knit, fiercely loyal community of gamers who love the games they grew up with and strive to be the best at them. But as heartwarming as it is to see the dusty old grandfathers of gaming continue to have some attention, that’s not what film is about.
The King of Kong is ultimately an observation of conflict and rivalry. Of competition and perfection. Of the toll of passion and excellence and that toll’s effect on the ones we love. The King of Kong is not a film about arcade games. It is something much more.
Primarily, the film is about competition and by extension, the changes people undergo as a result of that contest. Take one of the movie’s first major subjects Billy Mitchell. Mitchell started his competitive arcade gaming career as a superstar right out the gate. He held five world record titles in 5 separate games concurrently, and his Donkey Kong high score was deemed unconquerable for decades. Today, Billy is still as successful as ever as a restaurant and hot sauce company owner, always achieving and never resting. Through the film, however, we learn that all but two of Mitchell’s world records had been beaten until only his Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. records remained. Both of which were surpassed by newcomer Steve Wiebe. Though Mitchell at the beginning was presented as a down-to-earth, self-made businessman with a thriving company and beautiful family, we slowly begin to see the lengths to which Mitchell will go to preserve his legacy. As the film progresses, Mitchell’s original integrity and drive falter and he become painted, intentionally or not, as a sort of conniving antagonist standing in the way of Steve Wiebe’s success. Though in all other facets of life, Mitchell is supremely satisfied and content, he still tries to hold onto those last shreds of his gaming past. Billy’s transformation is ultimately from a bright, hope-filled prodigy to that of a bitter athlete of the yesteryear unwilling to part with his last call to fame.
Conversely, we have the film’s other protagonist, Steve Wiebe serving as Billy Mitchell’s foil. Unlike Mitchell, Wiebe was always *almost* something. Through a series of interviews with his family and friends, we learn that Wiebe was a successful athlete and student, but when it came time to perform in an extreme situation, take for example a state championship baseball game, he folded. It’s evident that even those closest to Steve believe he never actually fulfilled a dream of his and was always resigned to the shadows of second place. So, it’s almost good providence that he would come out as one of the best Donkey Kong players in a long time and be seen as one of the only real threats to Mitchell’s remaining legacy. Wiebe’s progression through the film serves as a stark contrast to Mitchell’s; where Mitchell’s legacy wound down after decades of dominance, Wiebe’s steady climb towards the top of the Donkey Kong leaderboard is fondly reminiscent of your typical underdog story. While there are times where the depressed and competitively battered Wiebe is romanticized through the lens of the camera while Mitchell is slowly but assuredly painted in an increasingly negative light, the sincere honesty of the story shines through it all. While it seems ridiculous and full of staple Hollywood tropes, the most enthralling aspect of The King of Kong is that at the end of the day, it’s a real story about real people.
Perhaps I’ve over exaggerated, lionized the details and downplayed the documentary’s flaws. But truth be told, it depends on the viewer. A lot of people walk away from the film feeling that it was above average but beat their subpar expectations with a brisk pace and enthralling story. Personally, I adore the film because of the depth to which one can analyze it thematically. It’s no Citizen Kane or The Godfather, but The King of Kong is a true story; it happened – and that counts for something.