Saturday, June 14, 2008

Thoughts on "The King of Kong"

After months of trying, I was finally able to cat The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters on G4 last night. For those who haven't had a chance to see it, the movie is a great telling of the competition between Donkey Kong champ Billy Mitchell and unknown challenger Steve Wiebe. Wiebe, who plays religiously on the machine in his garage, manages to significantly beat Mitchell's two decade-old high score. He sends the tape in to Twin Galaxies, the official score keeper of video games, and has his score rejected because it was videotaped and not submitted in public. Twin Galaxies then goes on to accept a tape of Mitchell's after Wiebe beats his score in person at the New Hampshire arcade Funstop.

Although Twin Galaxies apologizes later on for its treatment of Wiebe and allows him to submit tapes in the future, the bias towards Mitchell is apparent from the get-go. While two referees are dispatched to Wiebe's Seattle home and proceed to dismantle his machine to see if the board had been tampered with (all while Wiebe isn't even home, mind you), no one questions Mitchell's taped run, which suffers from a mysterious flickering on the left side of the screen, conveniently covering his score just long enough for it to change.

Now that I've seen the movie, two things stand out to me. First off, Billy Mitchell comes off as an arrogant ass. He has amazing skill (he retook the Donkey Kong high score from Weibe a year after the movie was filmed and still holds it) and is undoubtedly the best professional gamer in history. However, Mitchell's skill is almost overshadowed by his attitude, and no matter how often he pleads his case in the movie - and it's a lot - you just don't want to take his side. Is this the real Billy Mitchell, or has he been unfairly portrayed? Other interviews with him that I've seen seem to point to the former.

Here's the best example. Numerous times during the film, Mitchell is interviewed and explains how the only way to prove someone is the best at a game is by playing in person. He makes several mentions about how only those who play in public can prove their skill and rightfully take their spot at the top of the mountain. On various occasions, Mitchell makes his position known, saying things like "To me, most important is to travel to a sanctioned location, like Funspot, that makes it official; if tomorrow Tiger Woods golfs a 59, big deal. If he does it at Augusta, that's where it counts."

The problem is that Mitchell is given three different chances to play against Wiebe head-to-head during the movie but always declines. When Wiebe defeats his score at Funstop, Mitchell already has a tape with a higher score en route to Twin Galaxies, which accepts it without question. For someone who is so sure of himself and thinks so little of Wiebe, he seemed awfully eager to keep from playing him head-on. Why not compete and shut everyone up once and for all? Mitchell eventually does put his money where his mouth is, but it's an entire year after the events in King of Kong, and while in public, it receives nowhere near the amount of buzz the movie did. Decidedly low key for someone who loves the spotlight as much as Mitchell does.

Second, I'm not entirely confident that Twin Galaxies was being fair here. Founder Walter Day has disputed the movie's portrayal of the situation, and he claims that Mitchell and Wiebe were on much friendlier terms than the film suggests. He also argues that he was never as biased against Wiebe as he's made out to be. Whether or not this is true, the fact that Day accepted Mitchell's video tape after disqualifying Wiebe's is controversial, to say the least. The board that Wiebe used to beat Mitchell's 1982 Donkey Kong score was provided by Roy Shildt, a longtime nemesis of Mitchell's, but it was never conclusively proven in the movie that it had been tampered with. You'd expect Twin Galaxies to at least treat Mitchell's low quality and questionable video tape with the same scrutiny as it had Wiebe's. It's only fair. I won't condemn Day and his organization, as he obviously tries to make amends with Wiebe during the film. I do think, though, that an organization that considers itself to be "official" shouldn't play favorites or consider anyone to be a "golden boy."

Overall, King of Kong is a great look into the world of professional video gaming, and anyone who is a fan of the industry should see it. The sense of competition between Mitchell and Wiebe is awesome, and now I have an almost instinctive urge to migrate to New Hampshire and play at Funspot. It's the place to go for this type of competition, and having now seen the movie, I can't help but wonder how many other neat little places like this there are around the country.

Personally, I love things like King of Kong, especially when they deal with the Golden Age of gaming and all those great titles from the early '80s. This movie is a treat for all retro gaming fans and should be in their DVD collections.

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