Bold biplane-pilot lives need not have been wasted back in 1933, if only the military had known then what all video-game players came to understand in the ’80s: The best way to defeat a giant ape perched atop a high building with a hot chick in his hands is to send in a fat Italian plumber with a large mallet. Just make sure he can jump over a flaming barrel, and Kong is doomed for sure.
Such was the thrust of the arcade hit Donkey Kong, which introduced the world to Nintendo’s now-ubiquitous mascot Mario, and took its name from an awkward Japanese translation — the game’s creator intended it to mean “stupid ape.” (Some have claimed it was originally a misspelling of “Monkey Kong,” but that seems to be an urban legend.)
Donkey Kong spawned sequels, toys, breakfast cereal, and, it turns out, at least one intense rivalry that dominated the lives of its participants to the exclusion of all else. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is the true story of the battle to attain the world-record score in the game, and the bizarre, soap-opera-like twists that emerged from this very real grudge match.
Back in 1982, a Life magazine photo shoot paid homage to the world-record score holders of the most popular arcade games of the day, an event more thoroughly documented in yet another movie currently making the festival rounds, Chasing Ghosts, which is in many ways trumped by King of Kong, though it also serves as a prequel to it. Both docs, however, are dominated by Billy Mitchell, honored in 1982 for his Centipede record, though he also was the true record holder of Donkey Kong (alleged champ Steve Sanders had lied about his score) and the first person to ever play a perfect game of Pac-Man. What’s compelling about Mitchell is that he doesn’t look at all like the expected stereotype — with his blow-dried ’70s rocker hair, omnipresent patriotic neckties and massive-breasted wife, he looks more than anything like a country-music executive. (He now sells hot wing sauce for a living.) Yet Mitchell has that obsessive nerd personality, all braggadocio and devious schemes to undermine his rivals, prone to comparing himself to Obi-Wan Kenobi and making self-important statements like “No matter what I say, it draws controversy — sort of like the abortion issue.”
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Much like online film reviewers, who tend toward hyperbolic remarks about how they’d rather gouge their eyes out than watch a particular movie, these gamers tend to phrase things in life-and-death terms, with Sanders claiming, for instance, that Mitchell made him a better human being by teaching him humility when he beat his Donkey Kong score. Mitchell even has something of a cult-leader vibe; all the other champion gamers adore him, including those who are the officially recognized master scorekeepers in the U.S. — a group called Twin Galaxies, presided over by a folk singer named Walter Day who’s the self-designated head referee, and wears a striped shirt just so you’ll know it.
So it comes as a smart-bomb blow to Mitchell’s asteroid-size ego when a laid-off Boeing employee named Steve Wiebe decides to find meaning in his life by beating the Donkey Kong record. Wiebe, described as borderline autistic and OCD by most of his family members, buys a home arcade machine, and plots out the game’s patterns using a grease pencil on the screen. He beats Mitchell’s score . . . and then the apeshit hits the fan, as various players with other agendas become involved. A helpful ally to Steve named Roy Shildt turns out to be a self-professed superhero named “Mr. Awesome,” who has a long-standing vendetta against Mitchell and Twin Galaxies for failing to recognize his Missile Command high score. Mitchell sends over some of his cronies to take apart Wiebe’s machine and inspect it for flaws. Wiebe must prove himself again and again in public venues, but will Mitchell ever show up to take him on head to head?
I won’t spoil the outcome here, folks, because you need to see the beauty of it for yourselves. It may seem overblown when one of the gamers calls Donkey Kong a metaphor for life, but The King of Kong is just that — a reminder of how we all have to prove ourselves to others, and the extent to which the odds are often stacked against outsiders and newcomers. It’s sadly ironic that many of these nerds turn out to be some of the most cliquish people you’ll ever meet.
THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS | Directed by SETH GORDON | Produced by ED CUNNINGHAM | Released by Picturehouse | Nuart