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.
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Great documentary but it seems like the editing was a little too manipulative to make a bad guy and a good guy out of it.
I thought so too until I read the Wikipedia page and learned that they had to insert more ‘morally good’ moments for Billy Mitchell to make him look like less of a demon, so maybe he is just naturally the bad guy in this case. Though the portrayal of Steve Wiebe seemed definitely geared towards the ‘good guy’ archetype!
Love this movie!! NICE!!
Now I do too! Can’t believe I hadn’t seen it earlier.
One of my favourite movies ever! It’s hard to believe these are real people!
I know, the level of dedication is almost superhuman! I couldn’t stare at those blinding graphics for three hours if I was paid for it.
As an ex gaming addict I can understand the obsession. The difference is that I’m not competitive at all
Looks cool I want to see this!
You definitely should, it’s a fun one!
I loved this film – great review!
Thank you! 🙂
Really liked this movie. Did seem some creative influence reading up about it though.
Yeah, I agree, it did seem to be quite purposefully constructed to be a good versus evil film. Plus apparently there were some shenanigans with the scores (as per Wikipedia) that ultimately ended up giving them a bit more drama in the film. Still very enjoyable however!
A great documentary. Had all of the workings of a Rocky-like movie, but instead of a boxing ring, it’s just a rusty, old arcade that only fifty+ year-olds go into. Good review.
Thanks! 🙂 Totally agreed. Who woulda thunk it?
Sounds very interesting! At first I thought you were reviewing yet another remake of King Kong, ha. Glad that wasn’t the case 🙂
Haha! Unfortunately not. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of the King Kong films! Serious gap in my film cred right there.
I’ve only seen the one with Naomi Watts, so I’m hardly one to talk! (It was pretty awful, btw)
This is a great doco, one of the best for sure!
Definitely! The payoff at the end is too good. Love his daughter dropping truth bombs about the Guinness Book of Records too. So many good moments!
This sounds very interesting, I do want to check it out. I just interviewed a couple of guys who made a documentary about a paintball match and they discussed this film as an inspiration of theirs.
That paintball doc sounds awesome! Particularly if they were drawing inspiration from this one. You conducted an awesome interview! 🙂
Oh well thank you! That’s very good to hear!
Sounds really cool Anna, I like small-time documentaries like this. Not a gamer myself, but the subject matter intrigues nonetheless. I think I’m mainly curious to see how much of an ass this Billy Mitchell guy is. 🙂
Oh, he’s a total ass. But I reckon everyone can empathise with him at some point in their lives because he’s all about succeeding at what he loves doing. If anything, this is a really interesting doco on that type of behaviour!
Great review! Thanks for sharing, otherwise I would’ve not found out about this little gem. This documentary was so compelling, I was as transfixed as the Donkey Kong players. What a strange, fascinating look into the lives and nature of competitive gamers. I love how it ended up not just being about Donkey Kong, but how each player was invested in the game for his own unique sense of self-worth. It says a lot about human nature through a tiny, niche subculture I never knew existed.
Thanks so much, and thanks for your comment! 🙂 It really is a great film with a unique insight into this subculture. I agree – rather than just being about the games, it also ventured into the realm of each individual’s personal psychology and sense of self, to great effect.