The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

The King of Kong. Picturehouse 2007.

Before watching the movie:

I remember hearing about this movie back when it came out, but I didn’t realize at the time that it had just come out. The underlying story is still generating headlines because new developments continue coming out, which I believe is that somebody turned out to have cheated, and that wasn’t known at the time. I haven’t followed the news too closely because I was always slightly interested in getting around to seeing the movie.

It has this reputation of being a big deal documentary for video games, an epic clash of the titans underdog video game story. I’ve seen how documentary crews can gin up events to make stories better, and I’ll be interested in picking apart the story from the truth, or the truth as we know it now.

After watching the movie:

Since the early 80s, Twin Galaxies has organized golden age arcade game high score records, and since the early 80s, Twin Galaxies has recognized Billy Mitchell as one of the best players and holder of several records for multiple games. His 1982 score of 874,300 points stood for over a decade and for a while was considered to possibly be the best score possible. Twin Galaxies leadership sees Billy as a charismatic ambassador for video games, and in addition to holding many records, is also one of their top referees on top of his day “job” of owning a lucrative hot sauce company. In the early 2000s, a Steve Wiebe begins practicing on the Donkey Kong cabinet in his garage as something to focus himself on after getting laid off the day he and his family signed on their new house, and begins submitting taped high score runs to Twin Galaxies. Twin Galaxies respects taped scores, but considers scores done live at arcades during observed events more trustworthy, and when Steve sends in a record-breaking run of 947,200 points, Twin Galaxies judges arrive at his home and inspect his cabinet, where they discover that the main board was provided to Steve by Roy “Mr. Awesome” Schildt, who has his own history and rivalry with Billy and with Twin Galaxies. The judges are unable to find any evidence of tampering, but disqualify Steve on the taint of association alone, reinstating Billy’s score as the world record. Set on proving himself, Steve travels from Washington to New Hampshire to play a live game at a recognized event, but just after Steve ends his public run at 985,600 points, a tape Billy sent to a Twin Galaxies friend gets presented, purporting to show a run of over a million points. Despite some questionable videotape artifacts, because they trust their friend Billy, Twin Galaxies publishes Billy’s score as the new record. Rejected, abused, and defeated, Steve puts away his cabinet, until the Guinness Book of World Records reaches out to Twin Galaxies to include their high scores as Guinness World Records.

Even trying to maintain skepticism about the reality being presented by the filmmakers, I found Billy to be unbearably smug from his first sentence. In the scene where they were establishing his reputation with the gaming community and all of his friends were talking about how charismatic he is, I began to wonder if this was actually some kind of satire. Indeed, many of the activities of Twin Galaxies as an organization seemed maybe more reasonable than they were being portrayed, as the movie is clearly on Steve’s side and giving more credibility to the wilder claims of Steve and Steve’s allies, even if it’s also undeniable the situation was hypocritical and unfair. It seems to me a reasonable thing to do would be to at least caveat Billy’s taped score as not completely verifiable and ask for another copy if the artifacting came from dubbing the master over to the sent copy, while giving Steve’s score equal or higher precedence as the record for a live score.

The production value is not impressive. This is an indie documentary made in the early 2000s. There are some illustrative motion graphics. but the cameras are what indie filmmakers could get in the early 2000s, and that greatly affects the video quality. I shouldn’t hold my intimate experience with indie docs from a decade later against it, but I have a hard time not doing that. Also I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the events we see Billy’s side of are staged reenactments. It’s possible they planned to have cameras with him at his home at the same time Steve was doing his live run and so had both sides of the phone calls that happened, but that seems like either an incredible amount of luck or maybe something instigated. I also really have a hard time believing that he handed off the tape to his courier in that shady a manner, but then if I question that, I have to question everything about his demeanor through the whole film and I really don’t think he’d intentionally play into a villain role for them as a kind of kayfabe.

I spent a lot of the movie questioning why everyone cares so much about all of this. Eventually I got the sense that Billy may have staked a lot of his identity on being the best at video games and couldn’t handle being unseated, especially since he spent so long without competition. While an unemployed person has a lot of time on their hands, it seems a bit excessive for Steve to spend it getting so obsessed with Donkey Kong that his wife had to ask him to only play at night because she needed him available to help with the kids. The closest we get to understanding that is her explanation that nothing he’s ever applied himself to has fully panned out to the greatness that he’s capable of achieving, and if that’s his motivation, I’m actually a little sorry for him that this is the one thing he’s hitched his wagon to.The founder Walter Day seems a bit asleep at the wheel. He never meant to be doing this for so long but keeps going because it’s so important to everyone under him and he’s not sure how long the organization will last without him. He attends events in a referee uniform, but admits he’s not detail-oriented enough to be a real observer and has a chief referee under him who he then gets pressured into overruling the concerns of for everyone’s friend Billy. I’m not sure if Twin Galaxies was set against Steve from the beginning, since it makes sense to make an equipment inspection before certifying a record, but they definitely developed a bias against him once he was associated with a known rival.

The world of this movie feels so small really, even smaller than it should. The focus has been brought so narrow that a lot of more interesting stuff is going on at the periphery. They explained a little bit about why Twin Galaxies got into high score record keeping, but I wish they would have explained better why they’re the only authority on video game scoring, or if they even are. I’m also a lot more interested in the part of Billy Mitchell’s story we didn’t see, the story that’s only hinted at. He has a whole other rivalry with Roy Shildt and I’d be interested in seeing how that factored into his trajectory from video game whiz to possibly cheating (Twin Galaxies and Guinness disqualified his records in 2018 for using emulation, but Guinness reinstated them two years later on lack of conclusive evidence he cheated) by way of hot sauce mogul. There are also a few incidental appearances by Doris Self, who set a record on Q*bert at age 58 in 1984 and is in the middle of a quest to recover her record while all of this is going on, and where is that movie?

I have to say I find this movie a bit overhyped. It probably deserved the praise it got in 2007, but it’s as much a victim of superannuation as of its own limited scope. It looks like some of the stories it knocked on the door of are other movies, but I’m also really interested in the follow up project the director is working on that is either a scripted retelling of this story (which would help a lot with the limitation of not having much archive footage of backstories) or a dramatization of what happened to the two leads as a result of being in this movie, which would have a ton of drama built in from Mitchell’s discreditation and deployment of lawsuits in all directions. Regardless, there’s an interesting story (or stories) here but I don’t believe this movie told it as effectively as it could have.


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