The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters

Dir: Seth Gordon, 2007. Starring: Steve Sanders, Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell. Documentary.
The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters

Going back to Grey Gardens in 1975, so many successful and fascinating documentaries have been about misfits in their exotic sub-culture world. Through Gates Of Heaven, The Cruise, American Movie, and Hell House the viewers are given a glimpse into a unique world that they may not have otherwise known exists. Not only do these often oddball worlds exist, but the people who live in them are completely passionate or even obsessed with maintaining their status in them. One such "world" is the competitive classic arcade game scene. It started - and maybe peaked - in the '80s but according to the fascinating documentary, The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters, it still continues and the nerds who occupy this world are obsessed with it.

Like many amazing documentaries, The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters has a plot so complete and ready-made, with a clear hero and a villain, it gives the impression that it could only have been concocted by a screenwriter. But no folks, it’s real.

The Hero: Steve Wiebe, a mild-mannered Washington teacher and family man. His whole life he has dreamed of greatness and always seems to politely come up short. Wiebe is completely passive, as the world always seems to work against him. Laid off from work, just after buying a new house, he starts playing on a Donkey Kong machine in his garage. He breaks the all-time scoring record and turns in a videotape of the game as proof, but again life conspires against him and his new record is not accepted for bogus technical reasons.The Villain: the original record holder, Billy Mitchell. As a teenager in the early 1980s he was the greatest video game player in the world, setting records for both Donkey Kong and Pac Man. Now he is the owner and face of an apparently successful hot sauce company and is still worshipped by gamer geeks. He is a smug and arrogant cheese ball who dresses in black and wears different American monument ties every day. Again, it would take a very clever screenwriter to dream this guy up.

An arcade called Funspot, owned by Walter Day, seems to be the center of the video game universe. Day, usually sporting a black & white referee shirt, monitors the top scores from around the world, proudly proclaiming this to be his life’s work and passion. He and his lackeys do all they can to keep Mitchell’s Donkey Kong record as is. But Wiebe, traveling to Iowa and Florida, sets out to again break the record in public so he can become the legitimate arcade king. He also challenges Mitchell to play him, but Mitchell always finds a reason not to - more reasons why the guy is a creep.

There are other conspiratorial subplots: Mitchell’s old Missile Command record-setting nemesis, who is hated by Day and his Funspot posse, ends up sponsoring Wiebe’s efforts. There are questions about playing live or turning in a videotape of a game. Wiebe’s was rejected, but after he does break Mitchell’s record in person, Mitchell turns in his own questionable videotape of himself breaking that record and regaining the title. The geeks are ecstatic and relieved to have their King back in the fold. Another interesting minor character is an old lady who hangs around the arcade trying to beat the all time record for Q-bert.

How did director Seth Gordon stumble upon this world at exactly the right time? He has since directed the lame Vince Vaughn/ Reese Witherspoon comedy Four Christmases and become a big time TV director. Did Gordon just get lucky and catch lightning in a bottle or was the plot manipulated for story effect? In the end it doesn’t matter. Each character is so vivid. And the world of competitive video game playing is so entertaining. The film employs a solid mix of old and new footage and does an excellent job of explaining the game - you don’t have to be a player to follow or understand the drama each player has riding on their share of the record. There is, however, a tacked-on happy ending that requires more information which we are not given. But other than that small squabble, this is a perfect film and as either a documentary or a piece of fiction it plays like a dream; an arcade-Rocky, a hero you can get behind and a villain who you can enjoy jeering at. Luckily, a Hollywood writer didn’t pen this, it wouldn't be as believable.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Sep 20, 2010 4:17pm
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