Ultimately, when it comes to video games, the people who play them trump any pixel or electronic blip in terms of importance. A few recent examples notwithstanding, any video game is just a looped attract mode until a body bothers to step up and take the controls. It makes sense, then, that The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters focuses more on the two nuts who've devoted large chunks of their life to chasing to all-time top score of the 1981 arcade classic Donkey Kong than the game itself.
That's a good thing.
After all, anyone who's played Donkey Kong knows that the game doesn't waste a lot of time on exposition. Donkey Kong (the inexplicably named titular ape) steals a girl (known to the Japanese as "Lady" and to Americans as "Pauline) and waits atop a construction site for the hero (originally the carpenter "Jumpman," later retconned to be the plumber Mario.) Mario leaps over barrels and rescues Pauline, and then D.K. nabs her again. Much like the attract mode of an unplayed arcade game, the whole ordeal loops again and again. (Though not, as we learn in King of Kong, to infinity. More on that later.)
In a sense, that cycle could represent the trials of Steve Wiebe, who essentially serves as the documentary's hero. Arguably, director Seth Gordon does a fair job letting the real-life events play out without too much interference, and, thus, Wiebe's earnestness shines through during his struggles. Much like the little man hopping over the barrels, he repeatedly strives for a goal, we learn — being an athlete, being a musician, and finally becoming the world champion of Donkey Kong — only to have victory snatched away at the last minute. Ubergamer Billy Mitchell — who at the film's start holds the top score and who, at the time I'm writing this review, has reclaimed it once again — festers with creepiness as the film's antagonist, whose seeming reluctance to spar with Wiebe one-on-one lends him a certain sadness. The film practically begs the viewer to ask why, if Mitchell is truly the greatest player of this bygone video game, he won't prove himself in live competition with Wiebe.
I have to wonder if Mitchell really is the creepfest the film makes him to be. It makes sense to set the story up that way. Selling a documentary about gaming at all, much less about such a gamer niche culture, is tough, but putting an likable face like Wiebe's in the story helps. Like many of the people who are watching this film, Wiebe likes video games but doesn't seem like the retrogaming nerd-insider that virtually all of the other champions do. On that note, it seems plausible that Gordon could have just manipulated story to frame Mitchell as a villain, but I still can't discount the fact that Mitchell compared the controversial rivalry to the abortion issue. Yikes.
For those who don't know Donkey Kong from Q*Bert — and yes, Q*Bert comes up — King of Kong almost works as an anthropological study into a fringe society that puts video game mastery up there with feats of strength and academic excellence. These people are devoted more than most religious people I know. The utter amazement on these people's faces as Wiebe reaches the Donkey Kong kill screen — the glitch that prohibits a player from venturing more than five seconds into the twenty-second screen — makes me simultaneously proud and ashamed to love video games. Fortunately, the film offers a character who seems to share most of the world's bafflement with the game-crazed: Steve's Kristen Wiig-esque wife, who doles out well-intentioned but backhanded compliments as she attempts to understand her husband's obsession with Donkey Kong. (Also, as if to mirror the contrast between Steve and Billy, their respective wives could not be more dissimilar. If Mrs. Wiebe is Betty Hapschatt, then Mrs. Mitchell is Elvira. It's amazing.)
If you're like me, then you respect Donkey Kong for being a game that helped put Nintendo on the map and that gave a certain Italian plumber his break into video game history. It's a tough game, but beautiful in its simplicity. A certain geek endorphin kicked in when I saw those pixels projected onto the silver screen in a scale I haven't seen since The Wizard. It's great to see something that the rest of pop culture barely remembers being brought into the mainstream in such a creative way. And, for me, it was good to know that no matter how deep into geekdom my love for video games may take me, there's always someone geekier, at least as long as the guys from King of Kong are around.
That being said, I want to close with a random pop culture footnote that I find too hilarious to pass up. Mrs. Mitchell amuses me not only by virtue of being Mrs. Wiebe's polar opposite, but also in her resemblance to Pauline, the girl whom Donkey Kong kidnaps. In the 1981, when the game first came out, Pauline looked like this:
However, as time passed, the Princess usurped Pauline's place as Mario's main gal. She looked very similar, being skinny, blonde, Barbie-like and every bit the kind of damsel most men would want to rescue. As a result, Nintendo gave Pauline a makeover so people could tell the two characters apart.
Finally, in the most recent Donkey Kong game — one released for the Nintendo DS last year — Pauline looked like this:
Everything, it seems, is not so easy for Pauline. And if Mrs. Mitchell were to be translated into video game form, the above woman would be her: the hair, the make-up, the very un-Nintendo-like giant boobs. Whether this was the result of careful selection on Billy Mitchell's part or mere coincidence, I find the resemblance eerie. And hilarious.