Monday, April 07, 2008

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
We rented a DVD on the weekend that I've been wanting to see for ages, and man, was it worth the wait. I first saw the trailer for The King of Kong in the summer, and howled through the whole thing. And the tone of the trailer extends to the movie.

This is a documentary about two guys, and their quest to become the world's greatest Donkey Kong player. Billy Mitchell, the lion-maned, crazy-tied adolescent in a (sort of) adult's body, set the record in the early 80s, and no one has ever beaten it. Since then he set records for all sorts of retro arcade games (we're talking the REAL games here... Pac Man, Centipede... as they say in the movie, the games that require real skill, as opposed to the games of today. And yes, I know I sound like my grandpa). As such, he became a legend in the retro gaming community. Which is sort of like being the best costumed Klingon on the sci-fi convention circuit -- you are a hero among few, but your parents don't mention it in the annual Christmas letters.

Mitchell became associated with Twin Galaxies, an arcade run by Walter Day, who fancies himself some referee on the level of champion boxing matches. A world record ain't a world record until it's been okayed by Walter Day. And when it is, and he enters that score onto his little ol' Web site, your status as a god is secured. (Until you're beaten.)

And then, along came Steve Wiebe (pronounced Wee-bee, but someone should try telling Day that). This guy was primed to be a major league baseball pitcher, until he hurt his arm. Then he could have been in one of the first grunge bands to hit it big, until the band broke up. Now... he's a high school science teacher, living with the memories of what he could have been. Back in college, he had a Donkey Kong arcade game set up in his room, and would play it endlessly just to keep his mind busy. When one day he'd been playing for a couple of hours and then suddenly Mario just died on his screen for no apparent reason, he sold the unit.

Little did he know, he'd been one of two people in the entire world to see the mystical "kill screen," a glitch in the Donkey Kong game where you can't get by a certain level, and your man just dies. Practically no one else had ever made it that far.

Fast-forward to a few years ago, when he bought another machine and began playing in his garage. Aware of Mitchell's high score (you're nobody in the gaming world unless you know Mitchell's high score), he began working to beat it. And then... he did.

What follows is a shocking, entertaining, hilarious, and painful look at what happens when an unknown underdog threatens the mantle of the "Obi Wan Kenobi" of gamers. This movie is absolutely brilliant, and will keep you in suspense right up to the end. The filmmakers were incredibly lucky to get the story they got (they were following a few attempts at breaking game records, and in the end they realized the true story was the Billy vs. Steve fight, and focused all their cameras in that direction... just in time). Be prepared for a documentary that's very skewed in one direction, however; I recently saw the equally brilliant "My Kid Could Paint That," and that one will keep you guessing long after the DVD ends. The filmmakers clearly don't like Billy Mitchell, and they've edited the movie to make you dislike him, too.

But when Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows" begins playing, you'll see the funniest use of a song in a documentary that I've seen in years.

To see the trailer, go here. Then go to your local video store and ask for it. You might not find it on the shelf, but ask before you give up (I'd tried two places, and when we finally ended up at Blockbuster, the guy looked at us like we were crazy... and then found it stuck behind another movie).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

oh my god! i just watched the trailer, and i'm so glad i'm working from home today, because i was cackling and snorting out loud as i was watching it (particularly the very, very last scene). this is HILARIOUS. thanks for the heads up, i'm going to check out blockbuster tonight.

PS: donkey kong was never my game, but boy oh boy, did i kick ass at pitfall harry (!