This brilliant 2007 documentary from Seth Gordon follows one man's attempt to break the world record for the highest score in the classic Donkey Kong arcade game. In addition to being a resonating tale of heroes and villains, it is also a fascinating look at a unique subculture and all of its baggage, and a study of the human condition – the desire to make something of ourselves, and how we react to successes and failures. It is a film that will make you root for the underdog, laugh and cry, and shake your fists in anger at the screen. It does what great films do – simultaneously entertain and provoke emotion. 1. The Hero
Steve Weibe, a likable family man and self-taught gamer, is trying to beat the longtime high score set by arcade legend Billy Mitchell. Steve played in his garage for hours and hours, learning how to overcome the game’s toughest obstacles. With a quest strewn with bad luck, gaming politics, and corrupt tactics, Steve challenges his rival (Mitchell) to a head-to-head game to decide the worthy successor.
2. The Villains
Billy Mitchell was a big name in the world of arcade gaming during the 80s, and in addition to maintaining his reign as the record holder of many games (including Donkey Kong) for years to follow, he goes on to run a successful restaurant and hot-sauce business. Seriously, you couldn’t write this stuff. He has peculiar dress sense and a thick beard and mullet, and while carrying a sense of scumbag entitlement he always seems to be aggressive. He does have the scores to back up his swagger…until a challenger emerges. Billy is good friends with Walter Day, the founder of Twin Galaxies, an organization founded in the 80’s to promote gaming and keep track of high scores. Day is a really eccentric guy, and his interviews are very entertaining. In addition to mispronouncing Steve’s name throughout the film, he is front-and-centre where the questionable politics are concerned, despite his best intentions to give Steve a fair shot.
The insight into the world of arcade gaming – a club that attracts a variety of eccentric individuals – is fascinating. The mechanics of Donkey Kong are dissected, and we understand the coordination and endurance involved and learn that there are difficult parts of the game that only a few people can pass. This comes mostly through the testimonies of friends and acquaintances of both Steve and Billy, further enriching the experience.
This is a documentary that took me completely by surprise. It is a short and concise with very little cinematic flair and a subject you expect to appeal to a particular target audience. But there is something here for anyone who has had a passion and been driven to achieve something, and been forced to overcome unexpected obstacles along the way. Not many people talk about this film, but it is now amongst my favourite docos.
5. Hilarious & Heartbreaking
Often very funny, The King of Kong is tense and exciting, and asks you really engage with Steve's quest. He is a likable and easily supportable guy and you feel like you live the pressure of each of his attempts. As the villain of the piece, Billy Mitchell is a despicable prick. Perhaps the light shed on his character was a tad dark, but I believe to maintain the film's playful tone a lot of his testimony was cut out.
The most heartbreaking moment in the film, for me, is when Steve is attempting a high score in a public arcade – an arena agreed to by Twin Galaxies. Billy has been contacted and asked to appear, having been challenged by Steve to defend his high score in a public domain. Billy has agreed to come and compete alongside Steve. After many hours (and I think Steve is in town for several days), there is still no sign of Billy. Suddenly, with Steve immersed in his latest attempt, Billy enters the room. It is a shock, for the audience, for Steve, and I wager for the filmmakers too. A quick glance over his shoulder reveals Billy’s arrival, and Steve whispers: “There’s Billy” or something to that extent. Billy, holding hands with his girlfriend, strolls awkwardly around the arcade for a few minutes, barely looking over at Steve, before leaving again. From what we have learned about Billy throughout the documentary, and how much we respect Steve for throwing in all of his chips to coordinate a face-off, this is as cowardly an act as they come.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22