About two thirds of the way through The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, a young girl makes the best observation in the whole movie by saying “A lot of people sort of mess up their lives to get into the Guinness Book of Records.”
PG-13 for a brief sexual reference
Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe were two individuals who did not mess up their lives to beat the world record of Donkey Kong, the classic video arcade game from the early 80s (for those of you raised on the Playstation), but their drive to be the best at their pastime strongly influenced their pursuit of happiness.
Mitchell is portrayed as a video game prodigy who was considered the best at Centipede and was part of a Life magazine photo shoot featuring gamedom’s best and brightest. He scored 874,300 at Donkey Kong, a very difficult game to play where slightest bad timing leads to certain death. Such a score was seen as an accomplishment no one could top.
His success led him to become “the Gamer of the Century.” He now runs a thriving restaurant business in South Florida. Mitchell exudes a quiet confidence and is treated like a rock star among other gamers.
Meanwhile, Wiebe is a laid-off Boeing employee who sets up a Donkey Kong console in his garage to relieve his joblessness. His excellent game play leads him to videotape a game in which he surpasses Mitchell’s score (despite a hilarious predicament of his son during the game). He submits the tape of his achievement to Twin Galaxies, an online organization who keeps track of individual high scores of classic games. His evidence is rejected because his equipment is not 100 percent “legit.”
A determined Wiebe attends a tournament in New Hampshire where his reputation as a solid challenger grows, right up to his reaching the infamous “Kill Screen,” the point of an arcade game where the memory of a game is maxed out and the player dies for no reason. The game ends with Wiebe exceeding 900,000.
However, the moment is deflated by the sudden appearance of a videotape provided by one Mr. Mitchell displaying a score of over one million. It is like getting a four of a kind in a poker hard only to realize that someone else has a straight flush.
Wiebe’s response? Yeah it stinks, but there is another game out there and another chance to top that record.
King of Kong depicts the Mitchell-Wiebe rivalry as one that defies convention because the two do not send vicious phone messages taunting each other or trying to prove their manhood. Mitchell goes about his business as a man who has already proven everything while still quietly keeping tabs on this potential usurper. He is like Tiger Woods in that he competes when he feels like it but not because he has too.
Wiebe is a devoted family man with a very understanding wife who realizes that being a Donkey Kong champion will not bring home the bacon but could give her husband the right amount of confidence to lead a better life. Indeed, it led to him becoming a junior high science teacher. He is the one most of us will relate to; the guy we want to win because he is such a neat dude.
The two become virtual cult heroes of the gaming community, which is populated with characters who devote way too much of their lives watching people’s games to verify their scores. Sometimes we see too many of these people and when the movie deviates from Mitchell and Wiebe, it get s a little hard to keep track of what goes on in the gaming world. There is a little too much time spent on Walter Day, the head “official” of Twin Galaxies; he is interesting enough, but the movie relies too much on his point of view to help explain the competition.
Anyone who has played Donkey Kong can relate to just how hard it is. A typical game lasts less than one minute. So scoring one million points is something 99.99 percent of us cannot do, and being the best at something — anything — no matter how trivial it might seem, can still make champions of us.
The movie’s ending might seem anticlimactic to some, but it fits the story extremely well. In the world of competitive gaming, there is always someone better, but that should not stop you form achieving your goals. And nothing will help you accomplish them more than determination.
And for those still interested, Mitchell holds the record over Wiebe by 1,100 points as of this writing.