This is an installment for a series on this blog where Joe Brown, Regional Editor for RiverTown Multimedia, and I have a back-and-forth review of a movie. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, I picked “The King of Kong.”
The Movie: “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”
Starring: Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, Mark Alpiger
Director: Seth Gordon
Plot Summary: (From IMDB) Die-hard gamers compete to break world records on classic arcade games.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 97 percent
Froemming: It was time for another shakeup here at the JOE-DOWN. I wanted to tackle a genre we haven’t done before: Documentary.
And I chose one that surrounds a subject Brown and I hold dear to our black, jaded hearts: Video games. I chose “The King of Kong,” a movie about “Donkey Kong” and the two men who vied for the title of No. 1 in the arcade classic that introduced the world to Mario, our favorite Italian stereotype.
This is a documentary that follows a hero’s journey to overcome not just the most difficult (REDACTED) video game I have ever played, but also a man I personally think is an entity of pure evil in the form of a hot sauce magnate who is also probably that guy who always brings up how awesome high school was, when in fact it wasn’t. Look, we have covered Freddy Krueger, Ivan Drago, Immortan Joe and three seasons of “Fuller House” here at the JOE-DOWN, but none of that evil matches the man known as Billy Mitchell.
Now Brown, let me straighten my American flag tie and plot Machiavellian schemes to overthrow any challenger who gets in my way, why don’t give your first thoughts.
Brown: There is only one thing that’ll help us get through this entire review: QUARTERS!
So, yeah, “The King of Kong.” I remember coming across this documentary right out of college. I think it was because a “South Park” episode where U2’s Bono holds the record for the world’s largest… ahem… BM… and they used ideas from “Kong” in said episode.
And that first time I watched it, it was so fascinating to see people obsess over classic games so much that their lives are basically the climax of “The Wizard” every day.
What also stuck with me is what a piece of (REDACTED) Billy Mitchell is portrayed as. Over a score in “Donkey Kong.”
Quick aside: This whole movie is about competitive gaming. And yet, competitive gaming has now hit the mainstream with eSports and unlike these guys, no one cares about high scores. For everyone in this movie, their lives are a lie.
Seeing that this is a documentary and is new ground for us, I’ll let you lead the way here, Froemming.
Froemming: OK, Brown. I’ll kick this off as you flop sweat and tell everyone about the kill screen coming up.
It starts off introducing us to our protagonist and antagonist: Steve Wiebe, a laid-off engineer who has bought a “Donkey Kong” arcade unit to top the No. 1 score at the time, because he is depressed and needs a victory in life. Which brings us to (at the time) record holder — and man you just know had a rat mustache in high school — Billy Mitchell, who in 2006 is still reveling in his glory days of 1982-85, when he was the King of the Video Game World. Where was such a prestigious Zelda-meets-King’s Landing located? Ottumwa, Iowa
Brown: Look, Steve Wiebe may be one of the most likable people I’ve seen, let alone a “character” in a movie. The dude is WAYYYY too hard on himself because he just wants to succeed at something. He’s a guy that can get near the mountain top but never reaches the summit. He’s never a hall of famer; he’s in the hall of very good.
And as someone who has battled depression for a long time, I can absolutely relate to the guy. He virtually is the every man.
And then you deal with people who have made it their life’s work to invest all their time and energy into something that was popular in the ‘80s in
Motley Crue roadies the folks running Twin Galaxies.
This band of folks is led by Walter Day, who thought girls would flock to him thanks to his “Centipede” skills. So, you know, a wishful thinker.
Froemming: Walter Day HAS to be related to Charlie Kelly right? I mean, I see Walter as the King of the Rats at Twin Galaxies. Even with an angry place where he sings his weird songs and meditates before he smashes Dr. Pepper bottles.
Now Walter started this place just as arcade games where blowing up. A time when nerds like me had to go out in public, pump quarters into machines and face-off against children much younger than I who would destroy me in the first round of any “Mortal Kombat” game.
Thank God technology caught up fast so I could enjoy my games while hiding my shame in the privacy of my own home.
Brown: Ehh, I’ve gone to Up-Down in Minneapolis and that place is loaded with old arcade machines. I was pretty stoked to get at top 10 score in “Burger Time.”
Also, fun fact, the McDonald’s in Red Wing, Minnesota has a “Donkey Kong” machine with free play.
Froemming: Considering the average game of “Donkey Kong” lasts less than a minute or two, it’s probably the only way to get people to play it these days.
Now, it is 1982 and Life Magazine is doing a spread on this new fad, what with these kids and their Dan Fogelberg, Zima and “Pac-Man” video games.
Billy Mitchell is there, sporting his rat mustache and what I presume is a vacuum cleaner hickey on his neck. He has the top score in some other game, while Steve Sanders is the big kahuna in “Kong.” Except, he isn’t. You just know this guy who lied about a “Donkey Kong” high score would grow up to be a lawyer.
Mitchell calls him out and they compete, with Billy destroying his competition and thus began a budding, toxic friendship that would last decades.
Brown: Let’s not get it twisted: Every relationship Billy Mitchell has in this movie is toxic. We’re dealing with a bunch of socially awkward man-children. The difference is, Billy has A. charisma, and B. high scores that elevates him to a certain level of celebrity in this niche group.
So yeah, if the band of submissive disciples isn’t enough to give a guy a God complex, he also runs his own chicken wing/hot sauce business and sports the Jesus hair/beard combo.
The best comparison I could make about Billy Mitchell in this movie is that he’s the real-life Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray’s character) from “Kingpin.”
Froemming: His sycophants, like Walter, actually think Billy could one day be on a box of Wheaties. Walter actually says this on camera and I imagine the director had to really suppress the biggest belly laugh of his life at that point.
Brown: Dude, eSports are on the front page of ESPN.com nowadays. Is a Wheaties box that far-fetched?
Froemming: I have never heard of eSports until now, and I really want to make fun of you for knowing about it.
Anyway, back to the mid-aughts, we meet Steve Wiebe, a man like you said is really relatable. We learn that every venture he has taken in life, he has gotten so close to the top, but never quite got there. He got laid off from his engineering job and, like I mentioned above, buys a “Donkey Kong” cabinet and looks up the high score, a challenge he really thinks he can beat.
And we see him marking up his screen, studying the physics and patterns of the game, knowing when and where to jump, what fireballs and barrels are to his advantage, studying everything about this game.
The man put more effort into this game than I did in four years of college.
And so he practices, much to the frustration of his wife but she supports him, because the poor schmuck is down and out.
And one night, as his child demands he wipes his butt as he is recording himself playing, Steve does it. He tops Billy Mitchell’s 874,300 score with his own: 1,006,600.
He is back! Confidence surging through his veins, he submits his score to Twin Galaxies and is suddenly a local hero.
Nothing can go wrong here, can it?
Brown: OK, a central plot line in this movie is breaking the world record in pressure situations. Doing it live. Now, between Steven’s live performances in “Donkey Kong” and initially breaking Billy’s record as his kid is screaming for his dad to wipe his ass… how much more clutch a performer could you be. Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan would give nods of approval.
So, Steve Wiebe has a world-record score. Up until the Twin Galaxies goons decide that they need to pick apart Wiebe’s “Kong” machine for any little thing that would discredit the score. So, Twin Galaxies is the video game world’s Robert Mueller.
Froemming: I got more of a mafia vibe from the Twin Galaxies goons. Showing up at Wiebe’s house and entering his garage without his permission. I can only imagine they were like “Yeah, nice cabinet ya got here. Be a real shame if something were to happen to it.” *snaps joys stick*
The goons do not find anything fishy with Steve’s “Kong” machine, but are troubled by a piece of mail in his garage (seriously, these guys are snooping on private property for their buddy who degrades them and sells hot sauce) from a guy who has been a nemesis to Mitchell for years, Roy Shildt, who had contributed what I believe was a “Kong” board to Steve.
So, through guilt through association, Twin Galaxies refuses Wiebe’s score. It was videotaped too, which also casts doubt, as Mitchell points out it is more legitimate to do it in a live setting. He will end up eating those words a bit in this movie and a decade later, which we will get to in a while.
Brown: Famous last words by Billy Mitchell, and I had the closed caption on to write it down: “The worst thing would be to give somebody the credibility of a score that doesn’t deserve it.”
I will say one thing in Billy’s defense: Roy Shildt seems like the same kind of crazy, only less conniving and more looney. Venturing into some Spider-Man lore, if Billy Mitchell is Kingpin, Roy Shildt is Green Goblin.
Froemming: Spider-Man — is that the one about the young wizard boy?
Brown: No, that’s “Return of the Jedi.”
So in hopes of setting another record, gaining back his credibility and more or less shutting these Twin Galaxy people up, Wiebe flies out to New Hampshire for a tournament. And not only does he set a new world record there, he does it with all these weirdos watching him six inches away.
Seriously, every gameplay scene in an arcade has someone more or less smelling Wiebe’s neck as he’s playing. I understand that none of these people seem to be social butterflies, but man, they have NO respect for personal space. I would have cussed someone out at the very least.
Froemming: OK, a few things here at Funspot:
- Wiebe breaks Mitchell’s score in public, but not his original million-point game he submitted.
- Brian Kuh, one of Mitchell’s followers, is at first thumbing his nose at Wiebe. And once he realizes Steve is the real deal, not only on his way to topping Mitchell’s high score, but also on the verge of a kill screen, actually starts flop sweating more than Nixon debating JFK.
- Mitchell is seen helping a kindly old woman, Doris Self, with getting back her “Q-Bert” title, but also, gives her a mysterious package to deliver “just in case.”
This leads to a perfect storm of Billy Mitchell (REDACTED). Here is a man who is successful in life, but goes out of his way to keep down a high school science teacher from taking his “Donkey Kong” glory of two-plus decades.
Steve tops Billy’s high score, and Walter is so jazzed that he throws the new high score on the Twin Galaxies website.
Then the package is delivered. A videotape of Billy scoring a million points. Though everything about the video is suspicious, and Twin Galaxies refuses to let Wiebe see it because it was a one time viewing.
And Walter decides in 10-minutes the video is legit. And this leads to 2018, where in an age where everything seems upside down, justice is finally served to Billy Mitchell. Turns out, after a complaint about his video submission, Twin Galaxies finally investigated it and guess what? Mitchell allegedly used a Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME), which is a big no-no in this world. He is permanently stripped of his scores from Twin Galaxies and the Guiness Book of World Records and is banned from participating in Twin Galaxies’ competitive leaderboards. And Wiebe is recognized as the first million-point player in “Donkey Kong.”
A truly happy ending indeed. Just took more than a decade.
But back in the mid-aughts, this really was a blow to poor Wiebe.
Brown: The one point where you think “OK, Billy’s cocky but he seems like an OK guy” when he gives an old woman a “Q-Bert” machine. And then the videotape bit… that’s when you go full Sith Lord there.
And yeah, the whole sequence is so screwed up, knowing that this newcomer isn’t getting a fair shake because he’s not in this undesirable clique that suckles at the Billy Mitchell teet that just so happens to be the authority on classic arcade machine high scores.
Must say as well, Brian Kuh, man, he is made to be such a weenie in this movie. You seriously have to give your peer a play-by-play account of a score? You truly have to ask yourself what is more pathetic: Billy’s attempt at having a stranglehold on the “Donkey Kong” record or all these subordinates just going along with everything?
At one point, I remembered that these guys who follow Billy around have wives and I got super bummed. Steve Wiebe is a true-to-life hero just for not going all “Falling Down” on these guys.
Since I brought it up, we need to review “Falling Down.”
Froemming: Again knocked down, Wiebe has another chance to be No. 1 when Twin Galaxies teams up with Guinness for video game scores. There is a competition in Hollywood, Florida (of course Billy Mitchell would live in a place called Hollywood, Florida. Is there anything he isn’t awful about?). Wiebe is reluctant, and I get it. If everytime I succeeded some bearded weirdo in an American flag tie who peddles hot sauce in Florida stomped on my dreams, I’d want to give up too.
Brown: Quick sidebar: How hard did you laugh when Billy revealed that his high score nickname is USA? Because, as he puts it, when he competed against other people from Canada, he “had to keep America on top.”
Froemming: At this point, I’m surprised Trump hasn’t put him on a video game ethics panel.
Talked into it, and having asked Roy Shildt to not be in his corner, Wiebe once again travels thousands of miles to compete, this time thinking he is about to go toe-to-toe with Mitchell.
It is a four-day venture, and while Mitchell’s
whipping boy buddy Steve Sanders is there, Billy is not to be found. In his hometown. With even Walter calling him and saying he should be there.
Mitchell is a coward here. In fact, at no point in this movie do I remember even seeing him play a game at all.
Brown: The reason that was given later was because Billy hadn’t played video games for a year and was out of practice. I would be willing to swallow that if Billy hadn’t said earlier in the movie that a champion has to have the ability to perform any time he’s asked to perform. So, again, the (REDACTED) that spews out of Billy Mitchell’s mouth makes him a bigger villain than Darth Vader and Max Cady from “Cape Fear” combined.
Look, Billy Mitchell could be a great father in real life. Charitable. An upstanding citizen in his community that attends school board meetings and shakes hands with everybody. But good god, fiction could not come up with a bigger jerk. And he has no one to blame but his mouth.
Froemming: There is a moment when Steve is playing “Kong” and Mitchell makes an appearance with his wife. Steve says “hi” and Billy tells his wife they shouldn’t spend too much time around certain people within earshot of Wiebe. He seems like the guy who goes off the rails at the gas station when he forgets a new gas tax went into effect and he has to pay an extra quarter.
So Steve works his butt off, and to his credit, Sanders seems to genuinely like Wiebe, probably because he isn’t blackmailing him emotionally.
Which brings me to perhaps my favorite moment: Sanders and Mitchell are at a restaurant and Sanders says all these nice things about Wiebe and…the look on Billy’s face is almost pure rage. Dude has the thinnest skin of anyone I have seen in a movie.
Brown: I did appreciate how much you saw the Twin Galaxy folks get behind Steve Wiebe just through the man’s tenacity. The dude earned his respect. It probably helped that Billy wasn’t there in person to sway their opinions. There is a point where Wiebe gets a touching letter from Walter (who isn’t a bad guy in this movie, just naive and easily manipulated) who apologizes for the previous hostility.
And I 100 percent agree: The Steve Sanders bit was amazing. You can see the ire raise in Billy Mitchell’s face as I’m sure he’s contemplating whether to douse Sanders’ eyes with the Rickey’s World Famous hot sauce.
Froemming: Unfortunately, at the event Steve doesn’t top Billy but is told by Walter that because of his efforts, he can submit a new score via tape now. Which is something, and I like to imagine Walter is seeing Wiebe as a way to get under Mitchell’s nerves. He seems like a peaceful man with his transcendental meditation and music, but he is sorta a pushover for Mitchell and there is only so much one can take.
And at the end of the film, Wiebe does beat Billy’s score. Granted at the time, I believe someone had already did and was champion, but that’s not the point now. Beating Billy is more important than being No. 1.
Brown: Well, thanks to an emulator, Steve Wiebe can now always claim to be No. 1 over Billy Mitchell. And after you watch this documentary, you don’t feel bad for a second.
Billy, good luck to you, pal. And get some new ties!
And on that note, I think we’ve hit our kill screen here for this week. Let’s get to recommendations.
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?
Froemming: Oh yeah. In fact, once I learned of Mitchell’s recent downfall, I wanted to revisit this movie. Even without the current news, it still stands as a great documentary about one man’s journey to prove himself.
Brown: Of course. This is such a fascinating documentary. The best stories always come from something that’s so mundane. And this one found a way to make an ‘80s arcade cabinet so damn entertaining. Who doesn’t love an underdog story?
Here is what’s coming up for the next Joe-Down: