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A Modern Version of David Vs. Goliath: ‘The King of Kong, a Fistful of Quarters’ Retrospective (Minor Spoilers)
Original Film Poster
Who will be victorious
A while back I saw a film on ESPN of all places that featured a gaming competition. I loved the film so much that I had to buy myself a copy on DVD. The film is the critically acclaimed 2007 documentary The King of Kong, a Fistful of Quarters, directed by Seth Gordon.
The plot is very simple, it’s about two guys competing for the high score in the arcade videogame Donkey Kong.
Now with a plot so basic, the film also follows the struggles each combatant has to face and overcome. We are first introduced to Billy Mitchell, who back in the early 80s was the top guy. He set various records in different games, most noticeably Pacman and Donkey Kong. While many have attempted to overtake his records he stays consistent in holding the top spots. In current times, Billy is a family man who runs a business that manufactures hot sauce. Throughout the film Billy is portrayed as antagonistic and mostly works behind the scenes.
The other protagonist is Steve Wiebe, who’s also a family man and a school teacher. Steve is the underdog, the one we sympathize with and root for. It’s shown that throughout his life Steve has attempted to do big things but has always fallen short. He attempts to gain the world record in Donkey Kong but the authorities at Twin Galaxies don’t accept the score, mostly because of Wiebe’s connection to Roy Shildt.
Twin Galaxies is an official record keeper of high scores for arcade games. It was founded in the early 80s by Walter Day. In current times Twin Galaxies is funded by Billy, with Walter serving as referee. Roy claims to have the world record in the arcade game Missile Command, but Twin Galaxies never recognized this so Roy and Billy have butted heads on the matter ever since. Roy was apparently the one who supplied Steve with the circuit board for his Donkey Kong arcade cabinet. Once Twin Galaxies found out about Steve’s connection to Roy they immediately sent two referees to investigate Steve’s arcade cabinet and suspected a conspiracy. To help counter this, Steve was offered the opportunity to gain the high score in a public setting to cement his title.
Steve accepts the opportunity and travels to Funspot in Laconia, New Hampshire. He meets another antagonist, Brian Kuh, who’s a disciple of Billy’s. Despite Weibe obtaining a huge score in front of a large crowd, Billy sent in an alleged tape of him obtaining an even higher score, which nullified Steve’s, which shattered his dream.
Several months later, Steve participates in a Guinness World Records competition for a Donkey Kong high score challenge. It’s there that he meets Steve Sanders. Sanders is a former rival turned friend of Billy’s. While initially portrayed as antagonistic, after Sanders meets Steve and finds that Steve isn’t the same person as Roy, Sanders befriends him and drifts toward his side.
The heart-stopping moment in the film comes when Steve is practicing one evening and Billy appears with his wife. Not only is it the first time we see both combatants in the same shot, but they are seen next to one another. As Steve attempts to greet Billy, Billy simply walks by saying that there are some people who he doesn’t want to spend too much time around. This scene pretty much cements Billy’s snobbish nature.
Ultimately Steve doesn’t win the record, however his hard work and efforts are recognized by Twin Galaxies. The film ends on a somber note with Steve just shy of reaching the high score…that is until the end credits. Slowly do they reveal that Steve eventually does achieve the high score and sets a new world record.
The structure and pacing of the film is excellent. It’s obvious that the filmmakers spent years on the documentary. They were actually looking at other games and people to cover but they ultimately stuck with Billy and Steve’s story. It was also unique how the two main characters were portrayed. Normally they would both be seen as protagonist, here it’s clear that one’s the hero and the other’s the villain.
Quite a variation of songs appear in the film. There are classical pieces such as Flight of the Bumblebee and Ride of the Valkyries, but there’s also Eye of the Tiger by Survivor and Everybody Knows by Leonard Cohen.
Overall this film lives up to its critically acclaimed status. The King of Kong, a Fistful of Quarters is an amazing documentary that shows just how much time it took to make. The real-life events unfold just like a fictional movie, a hero has a goal, faces tons of challenges, when all seems lost they pull through and achieve their goal. It has funny moments in it, lots of information, and makes you invested in the characters. It’s a fantastic film that should be viewed.
Original Film Trailer
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