You never really get to rescue the princess.

dkstrategy.jpg“I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs. I play video games, which I think is a far superior addiction to any of those other ones.”

If I had seen the documentary The King of Kong when it came out this past summer, it definitely would have gone on my best of 2007 list. Critic-wise I am behind the times, but I still don’t think anyone I know has told me that they’ve seen it, which must be remedied immediately. This is a great, great film.

Billy Mitchell is a hero among the community of retro arcade gamers. As the film begins, he has held the record high score in the original game of Donkey Kong since 1982. Though he holds other gaming records, has a successful business that has nothing to do with video games, and has a family, it is this particular achievement that seems to define him to others, and perhaps to himself. Donkey Kong is the most difficult and most iconic of the classic arcade games, no one has ever come close to beating him, and these guys really, really love video games, so that means a lot.

Then along comes Steve Wiebe. Not a part of this close-knit community, not even a gamer, really, just a guy who had a lot of time on his hands when he was laid off from Boeing and decided to try to get the high score on Donkey Kong, just to see if he could. The movie artfully traces how this at first minor goal becomes an obsession, and the triumphs and setbacks Steve experiences are much more enthralling than one would imagine they could be. We are talking about watching a guy stare at a screen, after all.

But watching this movie was like watching a really tense sporting event, where you almost can’t even look during the most crucial moments of competition. Oh, when the barrels and fireballs start flying! (I am not sure if I’ve ever even seen a fireball level in Donkey Kong before.) The agony that comes with that sound that means you have lost a life! The torture of coming up short time after time, two hour game after two hour game. The look in the eyes of another person documented in the film, Brian Kuh, as he watches players who are better than he’ll ever be able to make himself be, is crushing. The fact that both Billy and Steve have decided to make the symbolic 1,000,000 points the goal (the point counter would roll back to zero) only adds to the strange beauty of what goes on.

Now, I know that some of the people documented in the film have disputed the way certain events are depicted, and I’m sure that through the editing process the filmmakers deliberately highlighted the affable good guy vs. cunning bad guy theme. To say too much about what Billy had up his sleeve as Steve sought his record would take away from the enjoyment of the film, but they clearly chose to emphasize the devious side of his nature. None of that really matters in the end, because we come to understand why this achievement is so important to both of these men, and no matter who you are rooting for, it seems tragic that only one can be at the top of the scoreboard at any time. It says a lot about American life, this desire to be the undisputed best at something. And so few of us can have that in the end.


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Other projects:

Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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