Sweep the leg, Billy
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is about what happened to die-hard video-game nerds 25 years and 25,000 Donkey Kong games removed from 1982. It’s heartbreaking, agonizing and riotous, kind of like The Karate Kid for video gamers (but without chicks—duh—or Pat Morita).
The documentary follows Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe’s battle for the top Donkey Kong arcade score of all time. Mitchell’s the reigning champ since ’82 and poster boy of Twin Galaxies, an organization that tracks video-game world records. Wiebe’s a family man/closet Donkey Kong virtuoso who recently began spending hours in the garage polishing his game. When Wiebe beats Mitchell’s 20-year-old record score, sends a video to Twin Galaxies but has the feat rejected by TG officials, he embarks on a classic hero’s journey: Donkey Kong is his calling, Mitchell and Co. his tribulation.
King of Kong’s best moments are of inimitable nerd-culture insight. One character’s unbridled enthusiasm to witness a “Donkey Kong kill screen,” Nintendo’s lunar-eclipse, is great; and Mitchell’s no-show at his own restaurant (“Rickey’s World Famous Restaurant”) during a South Florida tournament is the ultimate Last Supper betrayal. The use of Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best” is the perfect ’80s-homage anthem.
What’s remarkable about King of Kong is how religiously it adheres to the monomyth archetypes, especially for a documentary. It’s cliché to say, but you couldn’t write an antagonist like Mitchell: trophy wife, know-it-all arrogance, stars-and-stripes neckwear, styled coif, nerd sidekicks, a hot-sauce entrepreneur. You almost want him to be an ass just to see him get his just desserts come finale. Conversely, Wiebe has a Skywalker-like innocence, twice flying across the country to video-game tournaments in hopes of playing Mitchell one-on-one. He fails—but his resilience earns him initiation into the exclusive TG family. The more he gets put down, the more you want him to bust out a “Crane Kick” and win.