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The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Don’t Get Chumpatized

In the early 80s there was one videogame that stole the hearts (and quarters) of ardent gamers across the country. Successfully conquering this game required catlike reflexes, impeccable timing, and some obsessive compulsive tendencies rivaled only by "Rainman". The name of the game alone inspires fear: Donkey Kong.

For over two decades (since 1982), one man held the world record high score of 874,300. This man is the first celebrity of videogaming, Billy Mitchell. But, records were made to be broken and in 2003, an unlikely contender threatened Billy’s long held record. This contender (or ‘pretender’ as Mitchell would likely characterize him) was recently laid off Steve Wiebe. Thus begins the saga of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

Seeking solace, Wiebe threw himself into playing Donkey Kong with a vengeance. In short order, Wiebe discovered he had a gift for agitating the digital simian and racking up some ridiculously high scores. Clearly driven by his professional frustrations (and obsessive compulsive tendencies), Steve did the impossible, the unthinkable, the unfathomable in racking up 1,000,000 points playing Donkey Kong!

Thus, begins the hysterical, moving, and entertaining rivalry between the original videogame superstar (and egomaniac), Billy Mitchell and the affable family man, Steve Wiebe in The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Even if you’re not terribly familiar with the subculture of hardcore gaming, you can’t help finding yourself wrapped up in this grudge match between two men who haven’t quite managed to find success in too many other areas of their lives.

Director Seth Gordon does an excellent job in setting up these two fierce videogame combatants. Billy Mitchell is considered videogaming royalty and is the farthest thing from humble and gracious. Mitchell oozes a self-deluded narcissism that is hard to comprehend, but always humorous. As a viewer, you can’t help wanting to see this guy take a few on the chin.

In stark contrast is the humble Wiebe, who has always seemingly been the ‘runner up’ in every facet of his life. This clearly haunts him and also serves as a catalyst for his Donkey Kong quest. Wiebe is kind, loving, and sensitive. As much as you want to see Mitchell take a fall, you desperately want to see Wiebe exorcise his demons and FINALLY come out on top.

Along the way, Gordon sheds light on the fascinating subculture of hardcore gaming. The men (well…there is one token woman who is a wiz at Q-Bert) who populate this world are without a doubt some of the most eclectic and entertaining characters brought to the silver screen in quite some time. It’s easy to dismiss these hardcore gamers as ‘dorks’ who simply never grew up. Admittedly, more than a few of these guys are just a bit socially awkward.

But, if you’ve ever played Donkey Kong (or Centipede, Pacman, etc.), you know just how challenging it is to get past a single level, let alone 20, let alone score 1,000,000 points! While the talents of these hardcore gamers may be largely overlooked by the mainstream, these men have a gift and it’s hard not to admire what they achieve despite the seemingly trivial nature of it all.

What you’re left with in The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is one of the best documentaries (and films) of the year. The film entertains, enlightens, and even manages to inspire with its examination of a seemingly absurd videogame rivalry that at the end of the day is less about videogames and more about what drives and haunts us.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars