If you’re of a certain age, you probably know someone who spends too much time playing video games, idling his days away on the couch, mashing buttons, eyes glued to the field of battle. But few of us know guys like Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell, competitive gamers who strive, more than a little obsessively, to earn the world’s top score.
“The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters,” a new documentary by director Seth Gordon, gives us a surprisingly absorbing glimpse into this tiny subculture, one replete with men who’d rather pass an evening playing classic arcade games such as “Donkey Kong” and “Ms. Pac-Man” than hitting up the local pub. And sometimes their dedication pays off. For the elite, there looms the tantalizing prospect of a world record, so long as it can be validated by Twin Galaxies, a governing body in Hollywood, Fla.
Although “The King of Kong” introduces us to a colorful group of gamers — some of the nerdy know-it-all variety, others cut from the brash, trash-talking mold — it is ultimately concerned with Wiebe, a science teacher with an ultra-competitive streak, and Mitchell, the “Donkey Kong” overlord whose exploits earned him a spot on the cover of Life magazine during his early-’80s heyday.
There’s no mistaking where Gordon’s sympathies lie. Wiebe is a latecomer to the game, a seemingly good-natured family man who decides to take the “Donkey Kong” challenge after losing his job. Before long, he is smashing Mitchell’s records in the comfort of his living room and videotaping his games, intent on usurping Mitchell’s throne.
The only problem? He is an unknown in the gaming community, and soon after his videotape reaches the Twin Galaxies offices, his record is arbitrarily dismissed. The rest of Gordon’s film tracks Wiebe’s quest for recognition, while Mitchell does his best to avoid a showdown. He is depicted as smug and self-important throughout, an almost cartoonish villain in this geeky take on David versus Goliath, but it’s not hard to spot the fear in his eyes when Wiebe challenges him to a face-to-face duel.
If all this sounds silly, it is. Early on, Gordon invites us to snicker at his cast of hardcore gamers, for whom “Donkey Kong” tournaments are as vital as Super Bowls and as divisive as the war on abortion. But once embedded in their strange world, he finds a compelling story to tell, the tale of the endearing underdog pitted against a complacent champion. It makes for engaging entertainment, even if nothing of consequence is on the line except pride.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters ***½
Starring Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, Walter Day, Todd Rogers, Steve Sanders
Directed by Seth Gordon
Running time: 1 hour, 19 minutes