The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters Review

If you want to see where competitive gaming started, The King of Kong will illustrate its humble beginnings eloquently.

For the longest time, people turned to video games to compete against each other. The King of Kong shows some of the players who dedicated their lives to see their names attached to some of their favorite arcade games, primarily Donkey Kong. These are the stories of those people who spent hours on end recognizing patterns and studying mechanics with the sole purpose of maximizing their scores and reaching world records. Competitive gaming might be one of the biggest parts of the video game industry nowadays, but if you want to see where it all started, The King of Kong will illustrate its humble beginnings eloquently.

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Competitive gaming started in the arcades and led to such perfection that ended up with Billy Mitchell playing a flawless game of Pac-Man. To many, world records like these will transcend the people behind them and that’s why they are so important. The King of Kong tells the story od some of those people and the documentary does a terrific job of humanizes those scores. What’s better, the film explains each of the games and what makes them so challenging to play.

Most of the film deals with the constant back and forth between Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, the two best Donkey Kong players in the world as they try to set a new world record. Their personalities couldn’t be more different and that’s what makes the movie so enchanting. Mitchell is a successful business owner who seems egotistical and arrogant, but that’s what made it such a successful player. Wiebe, on the other hand, is a likable family man who works as a high-school science teacher and he came out of nowhere with the intention of setting a new world record on Donkey Kong.

To most of us, Donkey Kong was all about controlling an Italian plumber to defeat the Gorilla and rescue the damsel in distress and then repeat the entire process all over again in a new level, but to professional competitive game players, the coin-operated machine was more than that. At first sight, The King of Kong seems like a documentary about the people who set arcade game world records, but instead, it’s about determination, realizing your full potential, finding and exploiting the thing you love the most and following a demanding work ethic.

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There’s also a segment on the people who organize world record competitions and what their job involves. Referee Walter Day, for instance, has to watch dozens of hours of video tapes that the players interested in the tournaments send and look for fraudulent behavior, as well as manage his website Twin Galaxies. Referees have to recognize that the players didn’t use modified cabinets, cheat codes or other illegitimate means of completing the games.

Like any other competition, playing games is all about doing something that most people can’t. In this case that’s represented in the form of a high score in a video game, but as most people know, that’s possible thanks to a set of personal skills, not to mention understanding the wrinkles and caveats of each game (such as Donkey Kong’s infamous Kill Screen or Pac-Man’s 256 level.) It’s great to see how difficult it was for these players not only to set, but also to maintain their world records. Most of the times, someone would break a world record, but someone would come along and surpass it in a matter of weeks.

Like some of the best documentaries out there, The King of Kong is deceivingly complex. At first sight, this may seem like a documentary about competing in video games, but instead, you’ll see how demanding and competitive our culture can be. A lot has changed since The King of Kong came out, but in a garage out there, someone is spending hours and hours just to set a world record in their favorite game and that’s heartwarming.