I’m watching 365 documentaries and writing about each one in 2014. Tweet your suggestions to @documentarysite, or send an e-mail to email@example.com. Read more.
Note: This post may contain spoilers.
An established reputation. A sympathetic underdog. A record — and fame — on the line. A public duel at the arcade. Who will reach the high score and the kill screen in the classic Donkey Kong arcade game?
Such is the drama that fuels Seth Gordon’s 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. At stake is Billy Mitchell’s 1982 Donkey Kong record high score and the fame it brings.
As it turns out, authenticating record high scores on classic arcade games is no small undertaking. Established and operated by Walter Day, Twin Galaxies tracks and validates the high scores on the classic arcade games through watching hours of videotaped game play and through checking the machines. The referees take their unpaid jobs very seriously. The years of score-checking earn Twin Galaxies with authority from the Guinness Book of World Records to authenticate world records as well.
Mitchell’s record remained uncontented until Steve Wiebe comes along. Gordon’s documentary paints Wiebe as a sympathetic hero, one who possesses many talents and tries to succeed but remains down on his luck.
Wiebe undergoes several hurdles throughout the documentary to reach his high score and to receive validation for it, though roadblocks appear along the way. He sends in his recording, and Twin Galaxies sends two authenticators to his home to double check the machine, which negates his score.
The better way to establish a record is on a public machine. In effort to recoup his loss, Wiebe travels to Funspot in New Hampshire and earns a record-high score and a kill-screen that beats Mitchell’s 1982 record. But his glory lasts only a short while, as Mitchell sends along a videotape that shows him reaching an even higher score, which replaces Wiebe’s short-lived record.
The public challenge then moves to Florida, near Mitchell’s hometown. Wiebe and his family come from Seattle, as do the authenticators from Twin Galaxies. A new drama unfolds: Will the champion ever face his challenger in game play? After several days of Mitchell dodging the event, he arrives with his wife on his arm. He works the room, but he never sits down to play. Wiebe, on the other hand, plays multiple games during his stay there, though he also spends time with his family. Despite the unmet public challenge, Wiebe eventually achieves his glory in breaking the record score in Donkey Kong.
Almost everyone I know has a favorite documentary that they just enjoy watching, and The King of Kong is one of the most frequently mentioned ones. Gordon’s focus on the underdog, use of the competition structure for excitement, and respect for the arcade game culture make King of Kong an entertaining watch.