The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Ah, the glorious road of the champion! Honing one's skills and strength! Seeking victory, recognition, and even glory! And battling a giant ape throwing battles at you! Okay, that last part is a bit unusual, but it forms the basis of the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. And it's quite compelling.

The King of Kong looks at the world of competitive gaming -- not current video games or card games or board games, but arcade games from the 1980s. The story begins in 1982, when a LIFE Magazine photo shoot brought together some of the best arcade players at the time. Billy Mitchell held the record for Donkey Kong -- and held the record into the 21st century. He has other successes since then -- his business, his family -- and claims his determination in winning the record is how he approaches life.

The challenge to Mitchell's record comes from an unlikely person: Steve Wiebe. Steve is a family man who has had varied interests several brushes with victory but never quite reached the top; some family members and friends even wonder if he has OCD. During a period of unemployment Steve gets a Donkey Kong machine -- and tapes himself breaking the world record!

What follows is a give-and-take battle between Wiebe and Mitchell to claim the title of the greatest Donkey Kong player in the world. This begins as bragging rights within the organization that tracks record holders for arcade games, but the competition becomes more serious when the Guiness Book of World Records gets involved.

The world of competitive gaming could have become bathetic -- adults obsessed about winning at arcade games from the 1980s -- but The King of Kong transforms this into a classic battle between the underdog and the empowered. Billy Mitchell is established as the villain fairly early, from having his fans (one describes himself as Mitchell's "protege") spy on Steve Wiebe's record-breaking attempts to his questioning Wiebe mailing in a tape of his record -- then doing the same thing himself. As for Steve Wiebe, he's made out to be a simple man who broke a held record and just wants to prove it.

We also see the world around these two people. The hardcore competitive gamers appear obsessive, from referee Walter Day linking his meditation and work with keeping these records to the people who brag that they play the games every day in the hopes of breaking these records. The outside people are mostly represented by Wiebe's family: His wife alternately supports his obsession and wishes it was over, while his young daughter wonders why he cares about it at all. The end result is a nice balance of this world, from inside and outside.

A good documentary can invest the viewer in something they may not have cared about (or even known about) before, and The King of Kong delivers. Framed as a classic struggle, this documentary gets us to care about the people involved, to wonder who will come out on top concerning a game we probably haven't played in years. The King of Kong is a fascinating look at the nature of competition, the quest for perfection -- and those deadly barrels.

Overall grade: A

Reviewed by James Lynch

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