Instant Queue Diaries- Episode Three: King of Kong
The year is 1987, and I am nine years old hanging out in a game room while on a family vacation in Virginia. A crowd starts to gather around this 14-year-old kid wearing a fedora in front of the Gauntlet machine. I watch in amazement as he beats level after level in Gauntlet on his original quarter. It’s like magic watching him play, he’s an instant hero to everyone in the game room and you can feel the electricity in the air. He finally lost his last life after what seems like hours, getting to a higher level than any of us could have dreamed. I’m watching the back of his fedora as he walks away, a hero to all of the kids in the game room tonight.
Twenty years later, and the documentary “The King of Kong – A Fistful of Quarters” brings back a flood of memories. Most notably, how the ’80s brought us so many characters. Even today, musicians, Hollywood actors, professional wrestlers, or anyone in entertainment is a character, and is thus painted as such in the media. But in the ’80s, they were much more than characters; they were caricatures, with trademark clothes or looks and larger-than-life personas. Billy Mitchell, Steve Wiebe, and all of the other record-breaking video game players in “The King of Kong” immediately strike you as characters. We watch Wiebe, a school teacher who has tried unsuccessfully to rise above average in every forum from professional baseball to musician, now attempting to beat the highest score achieved in Donkey Kong by Mitchell. He rolls an old-school Donkey Kong full blown arcade system into his garage, while his kids look on (and scream for attention) as their dad plays a game long outdated, yet impossibly hard even to the gamers of today.
In the meantime, Mitchell is still riding high off of his 1982 top score in Donkey Kong that no one has ever managed to exceed. He is more than a character, because Walter Day, founder of Twin Galaxies – the world’s exclusive video game record keeping website, has promoted Mitchell to legend status. It is amazing how something seemingly minuscule in terms of accomplishments, could actually be the defining moment in someone’s whole life, but video games are more than just games, they are challenges to be defeated.
The song “You’re the Best Around” starts playing (a-la Karate Kid) and Wiebe gets to work at the legendary arcade in New Hampshire- Funspot, trying to earn his title in person because the tough judges of Twin Galaxies won’t validate his score from a videotape. It seems that the evil workings of Mitchell are behind the dismissal of Steve’s high score in Donkey Kong, he won’t let the greatest achievement of his life slip away that easily.
Through all of the trials and trips to Funspot, Wiebe perseveres and conquers his fears and the ultimate classic arcade game, Donkey Kong. There were lots of laughs and cheers throughout the film, as the people in this classic video game world take things very seriously. I stayed glued to the computer while watching this Netflix instant flick, it took me back to the days where heroes could be made playing simple games.
Oh, and I also learned what a kill screen is.
“King of Kong” is the type of documentary that stirs up so much emotion that it’s almost hard to sit through. Throughout the documentary, you’ll want to reach into the television screen and give Wiebe the confidence that he needs to get past Mitchell and his cronies. That’s because some of the events that transpire in the film defy logic and that will frustrate you as much as they plague Wiebe and his family, thus connecting him to you for life. Bad guys aren’t supposed to have everything while the good guys suffer and that’ll make you love the irresistible Wiebe even more.
This proves how gripping the documentary actually is, because truth be told, humans aren’t from Vulcan and logic isn’t something that we do well, especially when our hearts our involved. From start to finish, Wiebe proves how huge his really is.
Heart is exactly what this work has too, with plenty to spare. Wiebe is such an endearing character that he can make you laugh, cry and sigh, all by being himself. On the other hand, Billy Mitchell, who looks like he was cloned from a 1991 sperm sample of the late Chris Benoit, armed with his wife and her fake boobs and his gang of idiots, is the devil incarnate and someone you’d love to punch in the face if you had the chance.
Stuck in a battle that looks like it will never reach an end, this work is a simple spin on the old “good vs. evil” formula and has more energy than any other documentary released over the past decade.
Even if you hate video games, it’s worth a watch, as it’s human and touching and a testament to the human spirit.
If you don’t like documentaries that, then maybe you should find another planet to live on. Maybe Vulcan.
-Patrick Hickey Jr.
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