As someone who makes part of his living writing about videogames, I’d previously heard of retro gaming, and I had some vague knowledge of Twin Galaxies, the organization (and now-defunct arcade) that tracks high scores. And as someone who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, I have fond memories of Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, Donkey Kong, and many of the other games featured in this movie.
I had no idea, however, of the sordid politicking that surrounds this videogame niche. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since any time you get enough people together, personality clashes take hold and pretty soon someone is ranting about how they were wronged by those in charge. And this film has plenty of that.
In 1982, Billy Mitchell set a world record for the high score in Donkey Kong, a feat that stood until a newcomer named Steve Wiebe racked up more points in 2005. However, Wiebe’s achievement was disallowed by the powers that be at Twin Galaxies, after a couple referees examined the circuit board in his Donkey Kong arcade machine and decided it was fishy. The fact that Wiebe obtained it from Twin Galaxies’ arch nemesis, Roy Schildt, didn’t help either. (Schildt, who calls himself “Mr. Awesome,” seems determined to go to his grave angry over a Missile Command high score that was disallowed by Twin Galaxies in the 1980s.)
Wiebe wouldn’t go away, however, and vowed to beat Mitchell’s record in person. With the grudging support of his wife, Wiebe traveled cross-country to do so at an official tournament, but Mitchell, true to his narcissistic self, sent along a videotape of an even higher score, thus denying Wiebe again. Thus we have the makings of an ongoing clash between these two players, with Mitchell refusing to play against Wiebe in person and even going so far as to blow off his challenger when Wiebe shows up at the restaurant owned by Mitchell’s parents and managed by him.
Surrounding this drama is a constellation of retro gaming aficionados, some of whom likely haven’t kissed a girl in many years, if ever. Some unique characters emerge, however: Walter Day, proprietor of Twin Galaxies and a guy whose entrepreneurial drive has helped keep competitive retro gaming going; Mitchell disciple Brian Kuh, who gives his friend a play-by-play rundown over the phone while Wiebe is trying to break the high score; Steve Sanders, a lifelong friend of Mitchell’s who eventually warms to Wiebe, at the risk of his friend’s wrath; Doris Self, an elderly woman who goes for the Q*bert high score and delivers that infamous videotape at Mitchell’s behest; and Robert Mruczek, who tirelessly reviews videotaped high scores submitted for posting on the Twin Galaxies web site but eventually burned out and quit.
Director Seth Gordon and producer Ed Cunningham had no idea what story would emerge when they began looking into the world of competitive retro gaming, as they explain in the commentary on this DVD, but serendipity led them to the Wiebe-Mitchell clash. Mitchell is reportedly unhappy with his portrayal in the film, but the cameras caught enough of his Machiavellian scheming that you can’t help but see him as the villain, especially when he walks right by Wiebe and won’t even talk to him, as if this is a high school rivalry. And Wiebe, who teaches junior high science and has three kids, comes off as the good guy by virtue of the fact that he’s ended up second-best in so many areas of his life, and now his latest quest is being stymied by a clique that seems to fear outsiders. Despite that, he never plays any passive-aggressive games and never shows any ill will toward anyone, an attitude that eventually wins over others, despite Mitchell’s manipulation.
Gordon and Cunningham are joined by associate producers J. Clay Tweel and Luis Lopez on the first of two commentary tracks on this DVD. Unlike many group commentaries, the quartet mostly stays on track, imparting plenty of interesting anecdotes about the making of the film. If you find yourself wondering why certain things happen the way they do in the documentary, most of your questions are answered here.
Of lesser interest is the other commentary track, which features IGN editor Chris Carle and i am 8-bit founder Jon Gibson. They mostly goof on the people in the movie, saying a lot of the things you probably thought too while watching it. At one point, they even run down the warning signs of narcissism, explaining how they fit Mitchell’s personality as shown in the film. Yeah, I’m not surprised by any of that, guys. It’s not a terrible track, but it’s something you can easily save until the very end.
This DVD also includes “The Saga Continues,” which spends two minutes catching us up on what’s happened since the movie came out, along with about 90 minutes of bonus footage, including extended interviews with the principal characters, clips from Q&A sessions held at various film festivals (Wiebe attended, but Mitchell didn’t), Wiebe’s Donkey Kong strategies, and even a side-by-side comparison of the Wiebe and Mitchell gameplay styles, with commentary from Carle and Gibson, who don’t stray from the main focus this time.
Finally, we have the two-minute “A Really, Really Brief History of Donkey Kong,” a glossary of arcade terms, and video clips of art and music inspired by 1980s videogames, as assembled by i am 8-bit. The “King of Kong” trailer is also included, along with trailers for other New Line films.
You might think that a movie about a Donkey Kong rivalry would be the equivalent of watching paint dry, but, like all great documentaries, it’s the characters who make this one work, even if you have zero interest in the niche they occupy. Gordon and Cunningham stumbled across a great story that was worth telling, and this DVD will take you through everything you might want to know about it. I’m not surprised that a feature film based on “The King of Kong” is in the works.