The King of Kong
Let’s face it – pretty much all of us have spent some part of our formative years involved in something we really should have grown out of before it got too serious. For some, the addiction was sport; for other it was popularity contests – but in the King of Kong, the addiction is video games.
Well to be precise, more classic video games – your Pac-Man, Galaga, Donkey Kong. As one gamer puts it early on – “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs. I play video games, which I think is a far superior addiction to any of those other ones.” And believe you and me, the depths some of these gamers appear to plumb to simply protect their cult status – and high score – will leave you stunned in this doco from Seth Gordon.
Set in America, this is the cautionary – almost fable like – tale of a King of the video gaming world named Billy Mitchell, who in the early 1980s set a Donkey Kong record which led to his legendary status as many tried, but none could beat him. That record stood for nearly 25 years and Mitchell’s rule of the nerd kingdom was safe – as was his stature among his nerdy acolytes – until one day, from nowhere, a challenger arose. His name was Steve Wiebe, a teacher from Washington who narrowly failed at everything he did – from the baseball field to the basketball court, he just was the kind of guy who fell at the last hurdle. As his wife explains, “The day we signed the papers for our house, was the day Steve got laid off.”
The King of Kong follows Steve, your classic underdog, who sets his mind to beating the high score on Donkey Kong – partly for the challenge and partly for the restoration of some of his own self esteem. This doco follows earnest Steve’s attempts to enter the gaming world from the confines of his garage where the Kong machine is stored. But little does he realize the world of subterfuge and deception he’s entering into.
There’s a governing body which oversees the breaking of records – and these are manned by people who’ve been in the industry for years and who spend mind numbing hours watching tapes sent in by players to ratify them. It’s an absurd world, but it’s one you can’t help but feel has been running for years and has taken many over with its ways.
The tape Steve submits shows how his family life – to a degree – begins to suffer in his quest. As he notches up a high score, his son can be heard imploring his dad to “wipe my butt” but his dad simply encourages him to bring the toilet paper from the washroom to the garage where his gaming world is.
Gordon paints an honest picture of Steve Wiebe and as a result, we all root for this underdog. And yet at the same time, by simply giving the spotlight to Billy Mitchell, every now and then, Gordon manages to (rightfully) turn Mitchell into an evil character, a man who has every opportunity to do the right thing and play on a level field but fails every inch of the way. Mitchell has a dead look in his eyes when he looks in the camera which belies the fact behind his lanky shoulder length hair and 80s beard, there is a lot of scheming and devious plotting underway.
But the real contest emerges when Mitchell hears of Wiebe’s high score and pushes him to show he can do it in the live public arena of the Funspot arcade. It’s here you really start to see how out of his depth Steve Wiebe is as sycophantic acolytes true only to Mitchell’s cause surround him and report his every move back to their Mitchell master.
Ultimately a chain of events is set in progress which culminate in Wiebe having to travel thousands of miles to prove once again he can set a high score at a Florida championship – and claim once and for all that he can become the King of Kong. However, all this does is simply lay bare the seedy underbelly and dirty dog tactics which Mitchell will employ to keep his crown….
The King of Kong is a riot – the fact it’s based on reality sets itself on a level which simply accentuates the absurdity of the situation. It’s one of the best docos I’ve seen for a while – whether that’s because of the retro feel of the games from my youth, the music from the Karate Kid and Rocky or because of its gentle humour, you simply can’t help but get sucked into the contest which becomes an epic struggle along the lines of good versus evil. In fact, you openly get so involved in their contest, you’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat throughout. The feeling of the whole film can be encapsulated by one 30 second moment between Wiebe and his daughter – but to reveal that would spoil it. And the ending is superb – coupled with a credits epilogue – you’ll leave the King of Kong feeling elated and amused. Just one piece of advice – don’t head to an arcade afterwards trying to emulate their ways.
(Slight warning – there is one moment of profanity and sexual content within the film but it’s incredibly brief)
Reviewed By: Darren Bevan
Director: Seth Gordon
Starring: Billy Mitchell, Steve Wiebe, Walter Day
Duration: 80 minutes