The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a documentary that primarily follows the story of Steve Wiebe, a laid-off family man who sees the world record in Donkey Kong and decides that he can beat it with the arcade machine sitting in his garage. The world record is owned by Billy Mitchell, a hot sauce magnate who has spent the past 20+ years enjoying the fame and fortune (in a relative sense) of being an arcade game playing-legend.
The film begins with an introduction to world of competitive arcade game playing, which had its seeds in a 1982 LIFE magazine article that gathered the top players the county over. Out of that meeting came a group of devoted game players and minor celebrities in the game world. Eventually, one of the alumni of the event establishes himself and his arcade (Twin Galaxies) as the foremost expert on arcade game world records.
Flash forward 25-odd years. A total outsider, Wiebe, challenges the world record by sending a video tape to Twin Galaxies to claim the title of top Donkey Kong score away from Billy Mitchell. The management of Twin Galaxies (who happen to be good friends with Mitchell) send people to Wiebe’s home to verify his machine, who determine that there is a problem with Wiebe’s machine. At first, it looks like the Twin Galaxies is far from impartial, but then it’s revealed that the machine does have a piece replaced by a fairly shady character with a past with Twin Galaxies and Billy Mitchell. Layers of history to the competitive game playing world are peeled away as the documentary goes on.
The rest of the documentary follow Wiebe’s attempt to take the title, and the back and forth between the two of them. Wiebe attends some major tournaments in person, and goes up against Mitchell’s proteges. I don’t want to spoil anything, but Mitchell has a few plays of his own that are sure to surprise.
The film, especially near the end, is packed with twists and turns and plenty of drama. The way things play out are almost unreal. The various personalities in the competitive arcade world are engaging. Many of them are of a type that those of us who attend gaming conventions will recognize, but the movie is almost never condescending. The skill, dedication, and planning that goes into being a high scoring player are illustrated well and help to elevate the nobility of the pursuit.
The music is very appropriate- nothing you really haven’t heard before, but this was a movie that needed to have “The Eye of the Tiger” play at one point, and it does. Infographics provide visual interest beyond the standard documentary hand-cam fare, and are reused at several points during the movie to great effect.
The DVD has the director’s commentary and deleted scenes you’d expect, plus a few extras. The post-movie epilogue throws in even more twists and turns. A short animated extra explains how Donkey Kong came to be (including a tiny animated Shiggy Miyamoto.) It also includes some works from the i am 8 bit gallery related to Donkey Kong.
In short, I watched the movie because it was about a subject I was interested in (video games.) By the end, I was watching because the story and characters were so engrossing. This is a movie that I would not only recommend to my video game playing friends who grew up in arcades, I’d recommend it to almost anyone. A completely captivating and well-made documentary from start to finish, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters gets my highest recommendation. You may not get the answers to all your question by the end: Is Twin Galaxies just a big good old boys club? Was the tape tampered with? Did Mr. Awesome get the girl? But you’ll love the girder-climbing, barrel-dodging ride nonetheless.
Check out the official movie website for more details and to watch the trailer.