Cinemadojo: The King of Kong A Fistful of Quarters Review

Steve Wiebe provides what could be a timeless classic for gamers everywhere who have struggled for that one extra point.

By Matthew Tidman. Posted 11/22/2010 12:01 4 Comments     ShareThis
The Final Grade
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
Quirky characters, interesting look into the world of classic gaming, fantastic editing
Poison Mushroom for...
One-sided portrayal of "antagonist," "Mr. Awesome's" Playgirl shoot photos

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters Artwork

There are fewer more classic stories than that found in the original arcade game. Mario, our hero, is a carpenter who one day gets his girlfriend kidnapped by an enormous ape and must fight against all the odds to save her. He climbs ever higher in his quest to rescue her, and yet, just as it seems he will finally succeed, the ape plays one more mean trick and escapes with the distressed damsel in his grasp, leaving Mario to decide whether he will continue or if it is too much. Has Mario’s antagonist finally broken his spirit?

But why do I point this out when I’m reviewing the 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters? While Donkey Kong is a major part of the movie, only a cursory knowledge of the game is required in order to understand it. I bring it up because in many ways the struggle of Steve Wiebe mirrors that of Mario’s quest.

The movie is a look at the competitive classic gaming scene. While it may not be as mainstream as a midnight Call of Duty tournament, thousands of gamers compete every day to eke that one extra point out of Centipede or to play that perfect game of Pac-Man and achieve everlasting fame. Instead of taking a wide angle lens to the entire world of classic gaming, though, the filmmakers instead focus on two people, Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe– a born winner and a born loser. This approach essentially takes what could have been a very dry feature and gives the viewer a way to relate to the action.

The film focuses on the struggle of Steve Wiebe to claim the high score for Donkey Kong, a score that Billy Mitchell had held for years. He does claim the high score and sends in a tape proving so to Twin Galaxies, the Mecca of classic gaming. Then the drama begins. Twin Galaxies decides to inspect the arcade board, which wouldn’t be a huge problem except for the fact that Billy Mitchell is one of the judges for Twin Galaxies. While he is not at all a part of the inspection team, it is implied that the level of scrutiny is increased because it is his score that is being overturned. And in fact, Steve Wiebe’s score is refused because a minute amount of a “foreign substance” is found on the arcade board, but more importantly because the board was furnished by Roy Schildt, a man who had fought with Twin Galaxies in the past about his score in Missile Command.

This begins the back and forth between Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell. Wiebe’s goal has been moved one step higher, and to prove that it was his skill that had won the day and not a mall-programmed board, he takes his game to the next level at the Fun Spot arcade, sight of a yearly classic gaming convention refereed by Twin Galaxies. Wiebe plays his heart out and gets to the kill screen for possibly the first time ever at Fun Spot, a great feat as many who have played on the cabinet feel that it is “cursed.” Wiebe claims the high score, and yet Mitchell already has him one-upped. While Mitchell does not choose to attend Fun Spot, he sends a copy of a tape showing himself to be the first person to ever break a million points on Donkey Kong. Even though the tape is slightly suspect thanks to a dubbing problem, Twin Galaxies accepts it with no questions asked, and Wiebe, who moments before had been the best Donkey Kong player in the world, is dropped to second place again.

Wiebe doesn’t give up the fight at this point, but to continue on would spoil the film’s climax. And like many of life’s stories, the saga doesn’t end when the film does. Even today, three years after the film’s release, the Donkey Kong high score is still in contention, being battled back and forth between Wiebe and Mitchell.

The film both excels and suffers in its characterization. All of the people interviewed for the film have strong personalities that seem to jump off the screen, but it’s sometimes easy to forget that these are people and not just stereotypes of specific kinds of gamers. The person who suffers the most is, in fact, Billy Mitchell, who is painted to be a complete jerk. The film seems to have a need for Mitchell to be a bad guy when he’s really just a competitive player of an arcade game. While it’s up to the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions from the film, be aware it has to serve its story in order to make it as enjoyable as it is.

The film’s other major strong point is its editing. The sheer number of interviews interspersed with footage of gamers playing various classic games is handled masterfully. Viewers may not notice this aspect while watching the film, but essentially that is the point.

I highly recommend watching The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. While not perfect, it’s an excellent documentary that will leave you both informed and entertained once it’s over.

4 Responses to “Cinemadojo: The King of Kong A Fistful of Quarters Review”

  • 186 points
    Aaron Roberts says...

    Yeah, it’s a fun watch. The filmmakers say that they actually made Billy Mitchell out to be less of a tool than he actually seemed during filming, but I ended up kind of liking him, to be honest.

  • 690 points
    KisakiProject says...

    Yeah I read that too. I heard he’s fairly nice in certain circumstances. Like around fans. I know he ha a close relationship with Namco and worked on pac-man xbox live editions.

    • 702 points
      Matthew Tidman says...

      He really comes off as a jerk through the whole movie, but Steve Sanders, the guy Billy once showed up at Donkey Kong, goes on and on in the included DVD extras about how Billy was mis-portrayed. I don’t know, though. The filmmakers have said one thing and others will say other things. I guess it’s unfair to say the film mis-portrayed Billy Mitchell when I don’t know him personally.

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