The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a documentary about classic gaming competition, finding the dedication to be the best, overcoming unfair obstacles, and, mushy and cliched as it sounds, realizing that you don’t have to win to be a winner. All that in an 80 minute movie about this little guy that jumps over barrels and chases a big, pixelated ape? Sounds hard to believe, but it’s a charming true story that I think will appeal to anybody – not just gamers. So whether you wear gamer shirts or not, you will definitely love this amazing movie and at the same time, learn something from it.
After being laid off from his job at Boeing, Steve Wiebe finds solace in his old passion – playing Donkey Kong, arcade-style. When he comes across the record score, thought unbeatable, set in the 80s by Billy Mitchell, uber-gamer extraordinaire, he sets out on a quest to top it and cement his name in the history books. What follows is an unbelievably engrossing and poignant tale of fierce competition, treacherous backstabbing, and uplifting achievements as a bunch of middle-aged male nerds (and one dear 80 year-old Q*Bert mistress) do whatever it takes to get to the top of their hobby.
Even though the movie, in the end, is about much more than gaming, it also does a great job of telling the history of competitive arcade gaming, although it stays firmly in the camp of classic coin guzzlers (Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Galaga, etc.) and doesn’t touch the modern world of LAN fests and Smash Bros. tournaments with a 10-foot pole. I confess I had no idea this brand of gaming competition was still alive and well, but the movie convinced me of that, and cleverly depicted its transition from the early 80s heyday (the footage from that era is priceless) into its resurgence with the dawn of the Internet (see www.twingalaxies.com). The inhabitants of this community, such as World Game Referee Walter Day, “Mr. Awesome” Roy Schildt, and Billy Mitchell prodigee (some would say suck-up) Brian Kuh, are all intriguing and often humorous characters, and you want to know what makes them tick. And there’s more to them than gaming – Walter strums guitar on his Iowa farm, Steve is now a science teacher, talented musician, and devoted family man, and Billy is a hot sauce mogul with a possible Jesus complex.
But they are all fierce competitors, and the ensuing continent-spanning conflict shows that, unlike myself and many other gamers, they take their desire to be the champ very seriously, perhaps to a fault. The movie effectively shows that, no matter what the organization, those on the outside seeking entry into the Promised Land will always have to overcome barriers set by the entrenched powers-that-be. To what extend one should fight, and knowing what you should and shouldn’t sacrifice for greatness, is the crux of the movie. It’s just a well-executed, humorous tale that, without preaching at all, tells a lesson with applications from the workplace to politics.
The DVD includes some nice extras, such as footage from film festivals, more classic reels from the 80s, extended interviews, and a side-by-side comparison of the strategies used by Billy and Steve to achieve their records. This is just a great movie; I highly recommend anyone – whether gamer or not – to check it out. Then go play some DK.