The King of Kong
Ninety Minutes with the Geeks
Being a student at the
Down at the foot of The Ave lay heaven for the procrastinating geek.
And in 1983, Billy Mitchell made a promotional appearance at
Mitchell was one of those Life cover boys, a
Oddly enough, I had never heard of Billy Mitchell until I saw the new documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. In the film, Seth Gordon follows Steve Weibe’s contemporary quest to break Billy Mitchell’s 20-year-old Donkey Kong record—and along the way uncovers a whole subculture devoted to keeping the spirit of those Life boys alive, a subculture highly protective of its own.
At the center of that culture—its sun, if you will—is Billy Mitchell. Also revolving in a tight orbit around Mitchell is Walter Day, a one-time arcade operator and game sales rep who, in 1981, began keeping official records of high scores posted on games in arcades around the country. With Mitchell and others, Day began Twin Galaxies, an outfit that keeps and validates scoring records, officiates at tournaments, promotes the sale of arcade games—and protects the legend of Billy Mitchell.
What drives these gamers? The possibility of becoming certifiably the best at something, no matter how trivial it might seem to others. It’s a passion I understand at the most personal of levels. I myself was validated when, long after Arnold’s had closed, I won the Vanguard game at Spaceport, further up the Ave, by setting the high score on the machine over the course of a week-long tournament. It cost me all of three quarters to do that; and every time I walked into my living room, I could look over in the corner at that Vanguard machine and think, I am the best Vanguard player in Seattle—maybe the country.
A couple of years ago, such thinking struck Steve Weibe, a private-minded technologist who had gotten laid off just after signing the papers on a new house. With an empty garage and a ton of free time on his hands, he bought an old Donkey Kong game; and when he caught wind of Twin Galaxies and Billy Mitchell’s record, he thought, Now here’s something I could really be the best at.
How Seth Gordon came to document Weiebe’s quest is a mystery to me. Clearly, he had to be in a whole bunch of places at a whole bunch of right times—and yet there he was, capturing Weibe’s reaction to the Twin Galaxies rejection of Weibe’s record bid, accompanying Weibe back to the East Coast and Mitchell’s own turf in pursuit of a face-to-face challenge, even squatting in Mitchell’s living room as he hears, live via phone, of Weibe’s legendary record attempt in front of an arcade full of witnesses.
And Gordon’s also there as the chicanery and drama escalate.
I won’t divulge how the conflict between Mitchell and Weibe ultimately plays out. But I can guarantee that if you—or anyone you care about—have ever been lost in the lure of an arcade game, The King of Kong will knock you out. Gordon perfectly captures the personalities, the quirks, the goofiness, and the grandness of the whole scene. And like a great video game, the film is as great to watch as it was to film. The King of Kong is to film what Marble Madness was to arcade games.
And in any case, you’ll probably be astounded at the subculture that has grown up around this most childish—and deadly serious—of adult pastimes.
The King of Kong is rated PG-13 for “a brief sexual reference.” Holy cow. That makes this film the ratings equivalent of Norbit and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Patently absurd. Preposterous. These are G-rated geeks we’re talking about here. Whatever that “sexual reference” might have been, it was completely incidental. This film should be rated PG at most, and a very soft PG at that. If you have teens who are gamers and into the whole retro arcade thing, have no worries at all about taking them to see this movie. I have recommended this film to more people in just one week than any film I have ever recommended. PG-13. Huh.
Courtesy of a local publicist, Greg attended a press screening of The King of Kong.e50