The King of Kong is a documentary about an intense video game high-score rivalry between the two best Donkey Kong players in the World. It’s a mundane topic on paper and although video games are growing as a spectator sport and its not unusual for Starcraft players in South Korea to play infront of a television audience in the millions, King of Kong is about the American high-score scene for Eighties arcade games. When the best in the country gather at an arcade called Funspot for the most competitive event of the year, the attendance could generously be described as being in the dozens.
The King of Kong is positioned as a battle between Billy Mitchell, an arrogant and wealthy businessman, who currently holds the world record and Steve Wiebe, a lovable loser who is a high school science teacher. This framework suits the film well as it gives you someone to emotionally invest in and cheer for.
Steve isn’t really as much of a loser as the film suggests. He holds a job, has a family and has friends. Billy on the other hand is a complete nutjob and is clearly the star of the documentary despite a large segment of the film focusing on his absence from the Funspot tournament.
It may be selective editing, but Seth Gordon’s portrayal of Billy Mitchell makes him out to be the real life personification of Ben Stiller’s character in Dodgeball. He is mesmerising on the screen with his suit and mullet, his garish American-flag tie and his strange cult following. In particular, he has one follower, Brian Kuh, who tried to submit a fake score in Donkey Kong, only to be found out by Billy. Kuh then turns into a Billy Mitchell disciple and he follows him around in a bizarre relationship where his fan worship makes him give off a creepy Wyrmtongue vibe.
The King of Kong is a great documentary on its own merits but I was able to relate to the film’s niche topic in a way that most would not. Donkey Kong does nothing for me but Pac-Man is my arcade poison of choice. Although some time had passed since I played the original 1982 arcade game, I recently became hooked again on the redesigned version of the game released on Xbox Live. Even worse, I got into a high-score competition with a rival in America. When we started, our scores were around the 100,000 mark and we were ranked around 5,000th in the world. After continually besting each others scores and improving ourselves, we were both scoring over 300,000 and ranking amongst the top 400 in the world. Finally, I spent one night playing Pac-man: Championship Edition for five hours straight and scored a new highscore of 307,000.
The next day, my rival scored 324,000. Thats when I threw in the towel and I haven’t played the damn thing since.
Back to Kong. I won’t spoil whether Steve manages to beat Billy’s score at the film but it doesn’t really matter. I think the closure of the film is caught on film in a scene with Steve Wiebe. He is made out to be a nice guy who finishes last and a bit of a pushover throughout most of the film. This is symbolised by the fact that he constantly has his name mispronounced and lets it go. In one of the closing scenes of the film, Steve finally grows a pair and corrects video game referee Walter Day on the pronunciation of his surname. At that point, the journey is complete. The greatness of that scene is possibly only matched by the one where the Wiebe family is driving to the Funspot arcade challenge and Wiebe’s daughter observes:
“Some people ruin their lives trying to get a world record.”