The video game craze has remained fairly consistent over the last few years, but back in the ’80s, things were very different. Home consoles were primitive at best, and more kids were into the arcade-style games that would eat up their quarters as fast as they could earn them delivering newspapers. (Yes, this is bitterness from personal experience.) Playing video games was just as competitive back then and with the “hi scores” (sic) readily available on each individual game, it wasn’t long before there were people going for national and world records on all of the popular games.
Seth Gordon’s new documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, a favorite at this year’s Slamdance and the Tribeca Film Festival, chronicles this mania via the heated battle between two very different men trying to set and retain a world record for the arcade classic, Donkey Kong.
For over twenty years, video game guru Billy Mitchell held the record on a number of games, and in 1982, he set a high score of 874,300 on Donkey Kong, a record which stuck for over 20 years until in 2003, when Steve Wiebe, an unemployed 37-year-old family man from Washington State, decided to try to break that record. When he succeeded, he sent a videotape of that higher score to Twin Galaxies, the official video game scorekeepers run by Walter Day, but they had no idea who he was or why they should believe it. This decision kicked off a huge controversy that had Wiebe flying across the country to defend his record in person at the New Hampshire arcade mecca, Fun Spot, and in Mitchell’s own territory in Florida. Mitchell remained elusive and cagey about the new contender, though his presence was felt whenever Wiebe played publicly.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to see Wiebe in action at an accompanying party for the film’s New York premiere held at the Times Square super-arcade Dave & Buster’s. When we arrived, Steve Wiebe had already been playing a warm-up game to try to break his current record (which appears in the just-released Guinness Book of World Records), and we were told by the movie’s producer Ed Cunningham that Steve was just a few minutes away from reaching the game’s kill screen. Essentially, this is the 22nd board of the Donkey Kong game in which the game ends and Mario suddenly dies, and it would only be the fourth time on record that this kill screen had been achieved in public. (Wiebe reached the kill screen at his first Fun Spot appearance that was captured in the movie.) We watched as Wiebe set a new high score on that particular machine of 946,500 and sure enough, Mario mysteriously keeled over five seconds after the level began.
After watching that rare and exciting event, we had a chance to sit down with Gordon to talk to him about the movie. “I started following Steve around the time that the guys (from Twin Galaxies) came to his garage to inspect his machine, so that was in spring ’05,” he told us when asked when and how he got involved in the wacky world of arcade game records. “A friend of a friend of Ed, the producer, knew Steve Wiebe and his story and told it to Ed. I didn’t know Steve and I didn’t know anybody involved in this world, but I did know Fun Spot, which is my favorite place on earth. I’m from Chicago, but my family reunions were in New Hampshire, so I would go to the arcade ’cause as a kid I would get burned at the beach, so they put me in the arcade. It was this mythical place because they give you tokens for report cards and I’d just think all year about it. That became the reason to get interested in this.”
“I didn’t know that we were going to do it on Kong,” he continued, “Wiebe’s such a nice guy that he’s not a good subject for a film. Too vanilla, you know? We thought maybe we’d do another record. We were focusing on Pac Man and Ms. Pac Man and some of the others, so we had to go talk to Billy. Billy told us that Kong was his most important record, but he wouldn’t say Steve Wiebe’s name and that became really interesting to us. We thought that was very conspicuous and that became a reason for us to focus on Kong. It became about Billy because of his behavior, and he’s the one who made us focus on Kong because he’s so interesting, and because he’s so different from Steve and that became a comparison of personalities really.”
At one point in the film, Wiebe travels cross-country to Fun Spot to face Billy Mitchell in person but when the record-holder pulls a no-show, Gordon found a clever way to be in two places at once. “We found a cameraman in Miami that I haven’t even met who was sent down to Billy’s house and we asked him to keep the film running, just shoot it. We didn’t think anything about that footage. We didn’t even look at it, and then when we were getting through post, we had been through all the other tapes and the assistant editor remembered all the conversations he witnessed on the other cameras, and he knew that we had both sides of the same conversation, so we cut them together.”
One of the key things that makes King of Kong so entertaining are the eccentric characters that take part in the world surrounding this feud. “It was all about Fun Spot,” Gordon said when asked how he found them. “That’s where we met everybody really, and Fun Spot was just terrific. I enjoyed being there and the people were so interesting and eccentric and one of a kind, and I’m a pretty big geek, because Fun Spot’s my favorite place on earth really. I think I have a love and respect for the pursuit. Honestly, I had no idea how serious the real competitors are. I knew that people who were serious hobbyists went to Fun Spot, but I didn’t do a lot of research online until I heard a little about Wiebe and a little about some of the others. Then I thought that this is a great thing because it’s about records. It’s about making history.”
Some people have questioned whether Gordon’s doc is fair to Billy Mitchell, who comes across as the arrogant baddie of the movie, but Gordon defended his film’s apparent bias. “Honestly, we just showed what he did, and we let the actions speak for themselves. To this day, I don’t think he’s bad. I think he’s almost a little curt, because he needs to be perfect and he makes compromises and sacrifices in his life to be that perfect guy, and I think it’s tough. There’s a lot of pressure that he puts on himself, and I don’t really have an opinion on that, good or bad, but I do think that’s the cause.”
We asked Gordon whether Mitchell or anyone from Twin Galaxies had seen the movie and had anything to say about how they were depicted. “(Billy’s) commented, but he hasn’t seen it,” he replied. “He’s heard about it, and he’s read reviews, and he doesn’t like what he’s read. The Twin Galaxies referees, some of them have come out to some screenings. Walter Day has seen it and he loves the movie, but I think he finds it very hard to watch, because it’s a very painful controversy for him and it’s hard for him to relive that.”
Ironically, the only time Mitchell has played in public since Wiebe’s emergence as the Donkey Kong champion, at least that Gordon was aware, was at an ’80s theme party for a mortgage brokers’ convention. A Twin Galaxies official was present just in case.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, and if you’re into video games, either retro or current, you might be interested in knowing there are far more competitive people out there than yourself.