If anyone ever tells you that there has never been a good video game movie, that person has never heard of the incredibly engrossing Donkey Kong documentary The King of Kong.
Despite the all-conquering power of the video game industry, gamers often say that they're still waiting for the first-ever slightly competent movie based on their favourite hobby.
Sure, the first Mortal Kombat film wasn’t bad but aside from that aberration, filmgoers have been ‘treated’ to the likes of Street Fighter: The Movie, Doom starring The Rock and worst of all, that horrific Super Mario Bros effort from the 1990s.
As it turns out, the best video game movie is actually a documentary, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Chronicling the lives of the world’s two best Donkey Kong arcade machine players, the film could have easily fallen into the trappings of mocking its protagonists, yet instead it becomes a gripping parable on the nature of obsession and rivalry.
The film’s ‘hero’ – if there is one – is Steve Wiebe, first shown as a laid-off Boeing engineer getting by as a science teacher. With his ideal family life and amiable persona, Wiebe appears to be a regular happy-go-lucky guy. As it transpires, however, he has always come close to greatness but fallen short.
Wiebe was a star baseball pitcher, but became injured. He's a fantastic drummer too, but has no interest in performing live. Yet, when he decides to pick up a Donkey Kong arcade machine to play as a pastime, he discovers that he's incredibly talented at leaping over digitised barrels.
So good, in fact that no sooner does he see that the all-time world for the game's high-score stands at 874,300 and held by a certain Billy Mitchell since 1982, he trumps the long-held score and achieves 1,006,600 points.
Ah, Billy Mitchell. Any narrative, whether fictional or based on real events, needs an antagonist and from the off, Mitchell comes across as exactly the kind of deluded megalomaniac we need to help us will on plucky Wiebe even more. Spouting bravado nonsense while wearing a Star-Spangled Banner tie, Mitchell is the polar opposite of Wiebe.
This is Billy Mitchell. You will hate him.
What follows is a scathing indictment of Mitchell’s reaction to seeing a then 25-year-old record having been emphatically trounced by a newcomer. Every step of the way, Mitchell and his cronies at Twin Galaxies (who supposedly independently assess record attempts but are clearly in awe of the bearded one) attempt to block Wiebe’s progress or devalue his efforts at every step.
Like any engrossing documentary, The King of Kong takes us into a world we’ve never seen before – the obsessive experts at coin-op competitive gaming – and it’s a world that the viewer and Wiebe appear shut out of. The poor science teacher becomes obsessed with the world too, but only because he can’t figure out why his undeniable prowess at Donkey Kong is being thwarted at every turn.
The best aspect of the film is that the real-life war between Wiebe and Mitchell appears to have no end and doesn’t end at the The King of Kong’s credits.
In fact, since the movie was shot, the record at the film’s conclusion has been broken four times, including by one player, 37-year-old plastic surgeon Hank Chien, who doesn’t even feature in the running time of the film. If ever a sequel is needed, someone should give Mr Chien a call.
For more cult films, check out the Jameson Cult Film Club.