4 Stars Movies

Kill Screen: Seth Gordon’s The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

First, full disclosure: I work for the movie company that distributed The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. My miniscule role in marketing the film was limited to designing the official movie website, and I am under no obligation or prohibition to write this review (which happens to be positive, anyway). Any opinions expressed here are mine alone. I mostly avoid writing about movies released by my employer. I’m making a rare exception in this case because The King of Kong has been out of theaters for some time, and my personal opinion on this blog is certainly not going to have any impact on its revenue. Having just seen it again, I have a few thoughts I would like to record here.

I would hate to be an English teacher, at any level, for one reason: the countless “it’s a metaphor for life” papers I would have to grade. Probably one of the biggest cliches of kids’ essays is to pull out that refrain, e.g. “the light at the end of the dock in The Great Gatsby in a metaphor for life.” After grading a few dozen of those I just might want to start throwing things and switch to another career, like, say for example, web design.

Billy Mitchell in The King of Kong
Billy Mitchell with the ladies of Namco

That said, I’m about to commit that very grievous essay sin: if anything is a metaphor for life, it’s Donkey Kong. Let’s look at the evidence:

  • Donkey Kong is an intensely difficult game.
  • The game’s god/creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, did not supply it with a predefined ending.
  • The number of levels is undeclared at the outset.
  • Anyone with a quarter can play.
  • Most players die very quickly.
  • A very select few thrive and have their names entered into history.
  • How you play, not just how long you live, determines your score. In other words, you can reach the exact same point in the same level as somebody else but have a higher score.
  • Even the best of the best players cannot “win” the game; everyone will eventually drop dead without warning and through no gameplay fault of their own. This point has become known as the game’s “kill screen.”

That list of bullet points just about covers it; Donkey Kong is so clearly a metaphor for the human experience that the film thankfully doesn’t even bother to explicitly state its themes. Kids, let that be a lesson for all your future school essays.

Steve Wiebe in The King of Kong
The King of Kong (2007) Documentary Directed by Seth Gordon Shown: Steve Wiebe

The King of Kong is a very rousing film that works best to an audience; if possible, watch it with friends. From what I can gather, viewers respond to two basic things: the frankly weird subculture of professional video gaming, and the more universal story of the underdog vs. an entrenched power network. A suspicion is gaining traction that the story is too perfect, the hero Steve Wieve too all-american, and the villain Billy Mitchell too evil. The movie’s official message board (no longer online) features heated discussions including actual figures featured in the film, and documentarian Jason Scott has gone so far as to publish a passionate teardown of filmmakers’ ethics.

Personally, I wish the film had been more clear on a few points:

  • As you can read on the above links, Billy Mitchell’s well-timed taped submission may have seemed fishy but turned out to be genuine.
  • Most viewers (including myself) all ask the same question: how long does it take to play one of these “perfect” games? The movie finally discloses the answer incidentally near the end, as if the filmmakers weren’t deliberately withholding the information, but rather didn’t realize it was something viewers needed to know.

All in all, the subculture featured in the film is a truly unique bunch of people, and a great find by the filmmakers. Some of them may deserve a little mockery, but my favorite moment in the film goes to a Robert Mruczek, who describes how professional sports records are broken once in a lifetime, but he sees gaming records broken every day. And how exciting is that?

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