April 20, 2007 4:28 PM |
['Cinema Pixeldiso' is a semi-regular column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that takes a look at movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games, with a focus on the obscure and the misunderstood. This week’s selection is another documentary that chronicles a world record attempt, but this time we get to take a look at the most famous video game record holder of them all.]
Last time we examined the story of a man vs. machine - Bill Carlton vs. Missile Command. This time we have Steve Wiebe vs. King Kong, but the true heart of the story is man vs. man, Steve Wiebe vs. Billy Mitchell. And who's Billy Mitchell? Why, he's "gamer of the century" of course.
The King Of Kong
Cinema Pixeldiso's previous entry, on 'High Score', and this latest one, on 'The King of Kong', might seem identical, since both tell the same tale, of one man's mission to be immortalized as the greatest player of a particular classic video game. Both even feature a normal, everyday kind of person on such an absurd quest. But that's where the similarities end.
Whereas in the case of Bill Carlton's journey, the key difference is the person he was also going after, the man who held the high score that Bill was determined to shatter. In High Score's case it's Victor Ali, a nice, mild-mannered man who felt that his achievement, which attained during his youth, was something that he was proud of, but it hardly defined or dictated his life. It was ultimately some silly little thing, and High Score did a great job illustrating that hardcore gamers are usually normal folks that have a quirky obsession, and that's about it.
The King of Kong, on the other hand, goes the opposite route, by showing how much ego, absurdity, and insanity can come into play as a record holder for video game playing. How? By taking a close look at a man whose entire persona, even existence, is built around the fact that he plays video games very, very well.
The Superstar And His Entourage
Billy Mitchell is indeed one of the first superstars of the competitive video game playing world. Back in 1982, during the golden age of the arcade, Mitchell came into prominence by being the first to beat many popular machines, all at the age of 17. Around this time, Twin Galaxies, the world's first organization dedicated to collecting and verifying high scores, discovered Billy along with other expert players, and over the course of the years, Mitchell would become the unofficial figurehead of their entire universe.
His achievements, along with his prowess and even personality would help to form a cult of sorts; in many minds, at least those who believe having the high score in Pac Man is a god-like act, Mitchell is in fact a god to them. And one gets the sense that Mitchell drinks his own Kool Aid as well; early on the film, Mitchell is quite proud of his records and abilities, since they are simply the result of his underlying philosophies in life, that is to always be number one, and to take the enemy down like a fierce hunter.
Aside from high scores, it's gotten him recognition and fame (as silly as it sounds, his high scores has gotten him trips across the globe, appearances on television shows, and countless awards and photo opportunities.... there's even folk songs written about the man) - even letting him continue a successful family hot sauce franchise.
One interesting figure in Billy's universe is Steve Sanders, who first met Mitchell back when LIFE magazine gathered all the hot players at the time for a photo-shoot. Sanders' claim to fame was having the highest score to Donkey Kong, which Mitchell sensed was b.s., and it actually was. So Sanders was challenged to a head-to-head match and thoroughly trounced. But from that rather embarrassing and humbling moment, seeds were planted.
Sanders attributed Mitchell as the source of inspiration, what drove him to be a better person in life, and that Mitchell is the reason why he's a successful business person himself, and the two have remained close friends ever since. Another intriguing personality is the founder of Twin Galaxies, Walter Day, a rather frail looking, and obviously friendly sort of fellow, who plays folks guitar and practices transcendental meditation, and a man who takes great enjoyment and pride in cataloging the great achievements in electronic competition. He's the absolute authority, the final judgment. He can also make, or break, video game gods.
Walter is more or less a one-man operation, though he does have operatives, such as Robert Mruczek, the senior referee for Twin Galaxies, who was actually the "authoritative voice" in High Score. At one point we get to check out his apartment, which has stacks upon stacks upon stacks of video tapes that people had sent in of their record attempts, all of which has to be watched and verified by Mruczek, who describes the process with a "its a dirty job, but someone's got to do it" attitude.
We meet others too from this bizarre world, all of whom are a contrast to the friendly, relatable, and more importantly, approachable folks in High Score. Many of the folks in King of Kong are quite simply misfits of some sort (to put it nicely) that have found solace and meaning in life via the act of achieving greatness in a video game, and again, Billy Mitchell is their father-figure. Even early on he comes off as someone who's quite full of himself, but at least he seems like a nice enough guy. For the most part if feels like an act, which is further reinforced by the way he presents himself; at well above six feet, and rather lanky, he's got a mullet, a rather cartoon-ish beard, and is always seen sporting a very patriotic necktie.
Back to Donkey Kong, Mitchell nabbed the title of greatest Kong player back in the day, and its been his record ever since, as well as one that he's quite proud of, due to the fact that it's "... by far the hardest game." So being the King of Kong was something to be happy with, though there's not much stress or worry involved since it seemed so unattainable for others. That is until...
The Born Loser
Enter Steve Wiebe. Wiebe is that one person that everyone knows, the guy who always has so much potential, but just never manages to achieve true greatness. Wiebe's talents are varied, ranging from music to sports, and he's had chances to shine, but he's always come up short when the time was finally his. The dude just has bad luck, like when he signed for his first house, which was also the day he found out he was getting laid off. So with time on his hands, Wiebe discovered that he was good at Donkey Kong, and after checking out the highest score on record via the Twin Galaxies online database, he decided to go for it.
Thanks to a combination of having seemingly excellent hand-eye-coordination and OCD (which folks around him thought was autism), Wiebe played hard, as well as studied hard. Which was how, before any player before him, Wiebe discovered the true secret behind playing the game, a means to control the action onscreen. So one day, with a machine in his garage, and a camcorder on the screen, Wiebe decided to beat the record, and he succeeded (even when one of his children begged him to stop playing to help change his diaper due to an accident he just had).
And instantly, Wiebe becomes a superstar, with local news clamoring to talk to the man that broke a long-standing record. Granted one, that no one really knew or cared about, but that didn't matter, especially to Wiebe. At last he was a somebody. Wiebe had bested Mitchell. And that's when his troubles began.
Not too long afterwards, two mysterious men showed up to Wiebe's house while he was gone, and while his wife asked them to leave and come back, they simply brushed her aside and went on with their mission. The two men, who were from Twin Galaxies, went about and stripped Wiebe's Donkey Kong machine, to verify the hardware, to make sure if wasn't tampered with to give Wiebe any sort of edge. They would find one tiny little technical detail that did cast doubt, so the score was stricken from the record and Mitchell was given the title once more.
One primary reason for the doubt in the first place is that the board was supplied by Roy Shildt, a long-time nemesis of Mitchell and his gang. He achieved numerous high scores that Twin Galaxies refuses to acknowledge (there really wasn't any mention of him in High Score). Like Mitchell, Shildt is a cartoon character, having created a persona, called "Mr. Awesome", one that's reminiscent of an 80's WWF wrestler. The documentary even shows some footage of one film that Shildt created himself, "The Awesome Guide To Girls." Mitchell also accused Shildt of threatening his life, which he denies, so there is legitimate heat between the two.
Anyhow, Shildt saw in Wiebe someone who could take down the man he hated the most, and since Wiebe needed the hardware, the relationship was beneficial, but unfortunately a primary impetus for doubt in his achievement. Though the official reason that was given was that to truly break the record, the score has to be done live, in person, something that Mitchell always championed, the idea of performing under pressure.
Once again, Wiebe was a loser. But Shildt refused to allow Wiebe to be "chumpatized" and encouraged him to prove himself in front of all the doubters, at the holy grounds of classic gaming, Funspot at Weir's Beach in New Hampshire, which is American's largest arcade, and where many high score records had taken place, including Mitchell's famous record for Pac Man. So Wiebe headed east...
Into The Lion's Den
It's only when Wiebe arrives at Funspot, and into enemy territory, do we finally realize the entire scope of how ridiculous the little world that Mitchell and his cohorts have created for themselves. Unacknowledged and unwelcome by the faithful, Wiebe simply comes up to the place's Donkey Kong machine and starts to play. At this point we are introduced to Brian Kuh, a rather mousy character who was anointed by Mitchell as his "prodigy".
Much like Mitchell, there's the cockiness, but at least Mitchell has some degree of bizarre charm, whereas Kuh is just plain annoying, and he obviously has zero faith in Wiebe's abilities. Which is why he's beside himself as he witnesses Wiebe's skills firsthand, which he then reports to Mitchell via telephone, who at that moment is still down south in his native Florida, with Doris Self, the world's oldest competitive gamer, who was about to leave for Funspot herself, to cement her crown as champion Q Bert player. Also at this point do we finally see Mitchell's calm, cool demeanor begin to break down, and we see concern, even fear. As Self boards her plane, Mitchell hands her a special package to deliver, a grand surprise of sorts.
Another highlight of the movie is when Wiebe is approaching the end of his game, the "kill screen" as it is called (which is when the game simply cannot go any further and player's character is dies instantly), we see Kuh run around the arcade to tell anyone and everyone that "Someone's gonna hit the kill screen in Donkey Kong!" like a total dork. But Wiebe finally hits it; his score bests Mitchell's, and with not just eyes on-hand, but plenty of breathing down his neck. Victory is finally his... at least for a few minutes.
Not too long after, Mitchell's package arrives on the scene, and its a videotape, of Mitchell nabbing a higher score than Wiebe had just a few moments ago achieved in person. Again, Mitchell had stolen Wiebe's thunder, but worst off, in the same manner in which he was criticized for. Making matters worse is how the tape appeared to be tampered with, yet Walter Day still allowed it to be officially acknowledged.
Seemingly totally crushed, Wiebe goes back to his home state of Washington with little fanfare or regard...
"Some People Ruin Their Lives To Be There"
A few months later, Wiebe gets a phone-call. He discovers that the Guinness Book of World Records have decided to enlist Twin Galaxies as their official arm to tabulate and authenticate video game high score to be added to their books. Furthermore, a brand new competition is taking place to re-verfiy records, and its taken place in Florida, practically in Mitchell's backyard. Wiebe decides to give it yet another shot, and this time, even if he comes up short, he's determined to face the so-called King of Kong.
What follows is a cat and mouse game, one that proves that politics is everywhere, even as something as benign and innocuous as having a high video game score. What takes place, much like the entire film, is truly fascinating stuff - which we're obviously not going to spoil here. Like the very best documentaries out there, the reason why The King of Kong so amazing is that you hardly believe what you are seeing is real, but it is. Steve Wiebe is not unlike High Score's protagonist or hero, Bill Carlton, but in this instance, Wiebe is far more identifiable, since all of us have had sand kicked in our faces by a Billy Mitchell type, an overly proud and arrogant figure, one that is flat out despicable and who you wish would just come tumbling down.
King of Kong is, to a large degree, utterly frustrating, because we witness the jerk come up on top time and time again, but that's what also makes this movie so intense and effective. Like all good stories, we see people grow and change; false faces fade away and true natures become apparent, and how the people in both camps react is also compelling. Of note is Wiebe's wife, who just wants to see the man she loves be the best in just one thing in his life, as well as Steve Sanders, who also has to tow the line between friendship and reality.
Aside from the story, which again is one that is relatable to anyone, regardless of any interest in electronic games, the editing is superb, with effective use of on-screen graphics, as well as smart usage of music.
The King of Kong is quite simply the finest documentary on the subject of video games this reviewer has ever seen. It is to video games as what Beyond the Mat was to professional wrestling and Spellbound was to spelling bees. We give it the highest recommendation possible.
For those of you in New York City, you can catch The King of Kong starting next week in the Tribeca Film Festival. Otherwise, you can catch it later this summer when it is released nationwide by Picturehouse on August 17th - GSW previously covered some of this info with added links, for the interested.
[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]
Categories: Column: Cinema Pixeldiso