The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is 2007 American documentary feature which focuses on the vastly popular 1981 arcade classic Donkey Kong. The film was directed by Seth Gordon and follows the story of Steve Wiebe and his attempt to beat the world high score for the game, which at the time of filming is held by Billy Mitchell
The film begins in the 1980’s, where we are introduced to Walter Day, an authority in video game scorekeeping, who during that year founded Twin Galaxies, an organization which specializes in video game scorekeeping. The organization then rises to prominence and several of its high scoring players are featured in the media as a result, one of whom is Billy Mitchell who achieved the highest recorded scores on Donkey Kong during the 1980’s and due to this remains a video game legend as of this writing. Billy Mitchell is introduced as a successful business entrepreneur who owns several restaurants and even has a hot sauce line named after himself, as well as being a legend of arcade gaming.
On the other hand, however, we have Steve Wiebe, a man who has been, at the time of filming, laid off from his job, and is described by some of his closest friends and family, including his wife, Nicole, as an unfortunate individual who at every turn has come up short due to his lingering OCD, even though he is proficient in many different areas such as; music, sports, art, and mathematics. We are given a little more insight into the life of Wiebe, being told that he was once a successful pitcher in baseball, but due to an injury sustained, he had to call it quits and since then has worked to joining the workforce once again, even going to night school to obtain his master’s degree, and it is here we find out that he comes into the ownership of a Donkey Kong machine as a pass time for in-between studying
After some research on Donkey Kong, Wiebe discovers Mitchell’s world record and begins to work towards beating this record by using his knowledge of mathematics to uncover specific pattern and timing intervals within the game, to which he eventually achieves a score of 1,006,600 points, beating Mitchell’s record score. He then submits his tape to Twin Galaxies and becomes a local news story as the new world record high score holder. However, Mitchell being suspicious of Wiebe, sends over his protégé Brian Kuh, who after some inspection discovers that the circuit board of the machine that Wiebe has been using was provided by Roy Shildt, who for years has been nemesis to Mitchell due to Mitchell’s having Shildt’s high score being brought under inspection, which in turn prevented his record receiving official recognition by Twin Galaxies and based on Wiebe’s association with Shildt, the staff at Twin Galaxies being to suspect that Wiebe’s circuit board may have been tampered with and he achieved high record score through dishonesty.
Not accepting this, Steve Wiebe then travels to the Funspot Arcade of New Hampshire to perform a live high score for Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day and other high-ranking members of Twin Galaxies as to prove his achievement was not a fluke. Wiebe also hopes of confronting Billy Mitchell face-to-face and play a head-to-head game of Donkey Kong, however, Mitchell does not make an appearance, instead choosing to again send his protégé Brian Kuh, who observes Wiebe’s play and gathers a large crowd who witness Wiebe reach the kill screen and eventually make another record high score, beating the record made by Billy Mitchell, again. However, Mitchell sends a tape through to Twin Galaxies which depicts himself making a record high score of 1,047,200 points, however, despite protests from Wiebe himself that his original record high score wasn’t accepted due to the tape being un-supervised, Twin galaxies decide to acknowledge Mitchells score, in turn make him the record holder once again.
Nine months after the drama at the Funspot Arcade, Wiebe learns that Guinness World Records are publishing several of Twin Galaxies record, including the latest score which was made by Mitchell. Wiebe and his family then decide to travel to Hollywood near Mitchells residence and challenge him to a public competition to put to rest who the all-time high scorer truly is, however, Mitchell refuses and Wiebe fails to surpass a million points. However, on behalf of Twin Galaxies, Day finally acknowledges Wiebe’s achievements and gives an apology regarding how he was treated and presents him with a special award and welcomes him to submit more high scores in the future.
It is then revealed in the climax of the film that Wiebe, in his garage, achieved a high score of 1,049,100, therefore beating Billy Mitchell’s high score and becoming the record holder.
King of Kong, as I will call it, is a very interesting feature, touching on a subject which may not be of interest to the entire public, however, those involved make it work by creating this sense of good versus bad within the narrative through the subjects Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, Wiebe being the good and Mitchell being the bad, which is further conveyed through the actions of Mitchell such as when he begins to contradict himself by stating that record scores should be recorded live as opposed to sending in an unsupervised tape, to which he then submits an unsupervised tape and his continuous sending of his protégé to observe Wiebe rather than do this himself. It is little things like this which turn the audience towards Steve Wiebe and begin to root for him throughout.
Technical wise, the feature is of a professional standard, however, there are some things I would like to point out. The camera work for a star, although good, isn’t the best I have seen from a documentary, this can be seen throughout the film in many sequences, such as; interviews, which are shot in places where there are numerous background distractions and noise, as opposed to a staged setting, there is, however, more instances of questionable camera work throughout with the cutaways appearing very shaky, giving off a very amateur hand-held vibe which should not be apparent in a production such as King of Kong.
The sound design is very good and maintains its strength throughout the feature and very much overpowers the camera work in quality. The sound is, of course, apparent in all sequences including; interviews, cutaways, voiceover and even animation. The sound used in the animation, which I will eventually be discussing, is very well done, using actual arcade sounds through its arcade-inspired animations.
As previously mentioned, the feature makes very good use of its animation sequences seen at specific parts of the film. These animations depict ongoing arcade games being played through the screen and use very good sound design as to create a very creative piece.
In conclusion to my review I will clearly state that The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a very well made documentary film, featuring all the things required to make a feature good, such as; good visuals, good sound design, and strong narrative, however, with several parts of the film feeling staged or scripted, this takes away from the realism of the story, however, nonetheless, the documentary is one I would advise anyone, interested in gaming or not, to watch.