The King Of Kong

The King Of Kong

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

As Douglas Adams so wryly observed back in 1979, Earth's "ape-descended life-forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea". Imagine, then, all you who were born post 1975, what we made of arcade games such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. Simple but utterly addictive ("far superior" to drugs, suggests one of the contributors to this documentary) and - in the case of Donkey Kong - ridiculously difficult. For those unfamiliar with the game (Martians?) - it was the debut of Nintendo's Italian plumber Mario, who had to scale ladders, dodge barrels, flames and springs in order to rescue Fay Wray from the dastardly Kong. Hardly anyone makes it past the third screen, so high scores are particularly hard to come by.

In 1982, Life Magazine gathered together the world's (for which, read, America's) greatest gamers for a photoshoot. Centipede world record holder Billy Mitchell, then 17, was among them and - before their very eyes - he was dubbed "gamer of the century" after scoring 874,300 points on Kong.

Copy picture

The record and the moniker stuck and Billy - who has the look of a sort of Wild West Sheriff, with long flowing locks and short-cropped beard - went on to help develop codes of conduct for game and establish the governing body - Twin Galaxies, run by the scarily bearded Walter Day.

Just over two decades later, in 2003, 35-year-old family guy Steve Wiebe is laid off from his job. As a way of passing the time, he starts playing Donkey Kong on a machine in his garage and - after happening across Mitchell's record online - decides that maybe he might be the one to break it. But when he does - and catches the whole episode on video tape - it seems scores will have to be settled in more ways than one. Records may be made to be broken... but not on Mitchell's watch.

Wiebe is the chalk to Mitchell's cheese. Self-effacing to the point of blending into the backdrop, despite being gifted at music, technology and, of course, Donkey Kong, Wiebe has taken the habit of being a perennial runner-up to heart. Mitchell, on the other hand, clearly views himself as something of a gaming god - the Donkey Kong geek squad refer to his "glamour" as though blessings may rain down as a result.

So, when the Guinness Book Of World Records gets in touch with a view to adding a Donkey Kong King to their listings, the heat is on. Wiebe begins to travel the length and breadth of the US in a bid to persuade Mitchell to go head-to-head with him, while Mitchell's ideas of grandeur seem to grow inexorably.

It's clear that director Seth Gordon is rooting for Wiebe - but it is not just a trick of the editing that means, within 30 minutes of the political machinations of Kong beginning, you will be too, as he finds he doesn't just have to win at the game, but to mentally win over all of Mitchell's acolytes. While physical cloaks and daggers may not be used, the gamesmanship - or lack of it - is pushed to the edge by Mitchell as, all the while, Wiebe struggles doggedly on.

Because the Twin Galaxies crowd take everything so seriously, this film is filled with moments of supreme absurdity and impromptu oddities, such as referee and transendental guru Day "treating" us to a spot of singing or Wiebe's little lad urging his dad to "wipe my butt" midway through his world record attempt.

With the kind of story arc that many fiction writers dream of and a real sense of a 'goodie' and 'baddie' you can root for and against, this quirky documentary is well worth a watch. Don't worry too much about catching it at the cinema, though, it loses nothing on a small screen and is out on Revolver DVD on June 16. A feature film version is also purported to be in the pipeline - the story is so wacky people will doubtless think they made it up.

Reviewed on: 08 Jun 2008
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Arcade gamers battle it out to be top dog at Donkey Kong.
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Director: Seth Gordon

Starring: Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, Walter Day, Mark Alpiger, Greg Bond, Craig Glenday, Brian Kuh, Robert Mruczek, Todd Rogers, Steve Sanders, Doris Self

Year: 2007

Runtime: 79 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

Festivals:

Tribeca 2007

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