Who would have thought a documentary about people sitting down and playing old school arcade games could be so riveting? The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007, dir. Seth Gordon) is a quirky and interesting documentary about a passionate rivalry between two Donkey Kong enthusiasts, who are battling it out to claim the highest score ever on the original game. As the film points out in the beginning, gaming is quite natural to human beings – older people who might be critical of video games still play cards or checkers, for example. This competitive spirit is something everyone experiences, but in different settings. Everyone can understand the feeling of wanting to best something or someone. It just so happens that the competitive gaming circuit attracts some pretty strange and watchable people.
What this film does well is not only exploring the world and history of old arcade games, but also exploring the fanaticism that people can have with these games, illustrating it through a couple of key players. However, the big rivalry between two Donkey Kong devotees is front and centre. We have Billy Mitchell, the clearly constructed villain of the story, whose hilarious arrogance comes from a lifetime of dominating the arcade game field since the 80s. At times the film can be criticised for being so heavy-handed in its portrayal of Mitchell as the clear villain, but apparently in real life he’s actually way worse. But you can almost forgive him, because of the ironic humour he provides. In contrast with Mitchell, we have the lovable family man Steve Wiebe, who started out playing the game for fun after losing his job, and ended up being one of the best. Wiebe is the hero figure of the story, and we follow his journey to beat Mitchell’s high score, and watch him navigate this strange world and its assortment of extremely passionate people – who at times test the limits of the law to get their way.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters makes some really great creative choices in telling its story. Firstly, there is a simply amazing soundtrack of 80s hits and 8-bit tunes that sound straight out of an arcade game. The film’s conflict relies heavily on high scores of games, which could be so tedious if continuously narrated. The film utilises a line graph that overlays the action of the film at key conflict moments, where the line graph indicates a Donkey Kong score in action, rising above other high scores. Not only did this allow for easier interpretation of the conflict, it assisted to build the conflict as well, as seeing the scores reaching one another was surprisingly exciting and caused me to wonder whether certain characters might prevail.
This film is filled with some of the most quotable dialogue from any documentary I’ve seen. Whilst the storytelling can resort to a typical Rocky-esque competition narrative, you can’t help but barrack for Steve Wiebe as he attempts to beat the best. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is ultimately an entertaining film about passion and determination, and the lengths people will go to reach their goals. I think everyone can relate to this at some point in their lives, even if they’re not a hardcore gamer.
Watch the trailer here.
Watch this film at Amazon!