Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Awesome

Last night (after an incredible time at the Toy Story double feature) I settled down with a documentary I'd heard a lot about from a friend of mine in film school. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters follows the world of competitive gaming, which to most of us is as foreign as Mars.

The film starts with a quote from American novelist William S. Burroughs:
"This is a war universe. War all the time. There may be other universes, but ours seems to based on war and games."
Well, that is most definitely true of this competitive gaming universe. Donkey Kong is the game in question. Released in 1981, it was voted the #3 coin-operated game in history. Basically you, as Mario, have to avoid the obstacles Kong throws at you and save the princess. Almost 30 years after the game was initially released, grown men still pursue the record score over countless other gamers all over the world.

The documentary first chronicles the setting of the world record by Billy Mitchell in 1982. The score was 874,300 and went unchallenged for 25 years. If competitive gaming is a real universe, Mitchell is Zeus, adored by gamers and girls everywhere and widely considered the best video game player alive.

Until Steve Wiebe, an everyman from Seattle, gets a machine and starts playing in his garage. After getting laid off from his job, he asked himself what he could do to fill his time and to give him some control in his life. He decided the Donkey Kong world record was an attainable goal.

The film follows Wiebe's earnest attempts to get on top, and Mitchell's desperate attempts to cling to his world record and his image. All of this is judged by Walter Day, official competitive gaming referee and founder of Twin Galaxies, a sort of haven for gamers across the country (incidentally, Twin Galaxies happens to be located right on the way from our house to St. Louis, where we'll be going for the holidays, so I'm planning to swing by and see it for myself).

This is one of the most immersive documentaries I've ever seen. I know this because I really can't stand the gaming community, but I found myself groaning and cheering with each of Wiebe's failures and victories. Director Seth Gordon definitely means for us to hate Billy Mitchell. And we do. He's egotistical and conniving. At one point he sends in a tape of his latest high score, and talks to a man on the phone who reports the reaction of those viewing it. There are maybe fifteen people huddled around watching his VHS and cheering as he bests his own record, and Mitchell says, "Not even Helen of Troy had that much attention." Douchebag.

Who ends up with the record? I won't tell you. The film is an amazingly engaging look at world few ever see or care to experience, definitely a fun ride and worth your time.


thistimeitwillbedifferent said...

I watched this myself over the weekend and completely agree with everything you're saying here. A really fantastic film.

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