King of Kong Movie Review by Honorabili
“A modern day video game version of the story David and Goliath.”
This movie is about people who strive to be the world champions at the games they love the most. In this case we are talking about classic arcade games such as Donkey Kong, Pacman, Ms. Pacman, Galaga, and Defender.
Throughout most of the movie, we see this build up of rivalry between Steve Wiebe, the underdog, and Billy Mitchell, the top champion for many arcade games. Billy Mitchell comes off as an arrogant person but after having seen this movie many times I do see the point behind some of his speeches. For example, he says that you will know in World War I aviation who the Red Baron is because he was the top ace fighter pilot but you probably won’t know the name of the other aviators because they weren’t number one.
The movie has many famous arcade top players and influential people such as:
Steve Sanders, Billy’s friend and the author of Master’s Guide to Donkey Kong
Walter Day, top referee for video game world records and founder of Twin Galaxies
Brian Kuh, a Donkey Kong expert, was the number 2 DK player for years
Robert Mruczek, head referee at Twin Galaxies
Greg Bond, the MAPPY world champion
Roy “Mr. Awesome” Shildt, the Missile Command champion and a controversial player
Mark Alpiger, Crystal Castles (foot category) champion
The movie touches on what it takes to be a champion. Not only that but it explains that these old arcade games require a level of dedication and reaction that is no longer found typically in modern video games. Getting higher and higher scores in these classics is a real achievement that requires true skill building and mastery.
King of Kong shows world class competitive gaming since its roots in the 80s. It shows that people lie about their achievements and that when that lie won’t protect you when it’s time to compete against a real champion that does get a real high score at an official competition. In this case I’m referring to the competition between Billy Mitchell and Steve Sanders, where Billy Mitchell humbled Steve.
The competition shown reminds me a lot of the kind of drama and competition behind world class chess games. Bobby Fischer and some others always come to mind.
We see Billy Mitchell succeed in his gaming, personal, and business life. He owns a chain of restaurants and sells Rickey’s, a very successful hot sauce as well. In 1999, he played a perfect game of Pacman reaching the kill screen, the point where the game crashes because it runs out of memory. He even says that he feels as though all this good fortune happens to him there’s probably some poor bastard out there with the reverse fortune.
The movie presents us with Steve Wiebe who at the time got inspired to go for the Donkey Kong world record, was unemployed, and looking for something to do with his life. His family and friends talk about him saying that he was never the best at anything but he always tried and failed. He played sports and music and drew but they say he never did anything successful with those talents. Steve Wiebe is a good guy that’s a teacher and a family man. He’s the average Joe.
The experts talk about Donkey Kong and picture it as pretty much the most brutal arcade game ever. Billy Mitchell himself says that the typical Donkey Kong game lasts less than a minute.
We are presented with Twin Galaxies, the international score keeper organization for video games for the world. They were created by Walter Day and started out as him going around to different video arcades and eventually opening up his own arcade. Twin Galaxies has grown into the official record keeper for video games according to the Guiness World Book of Records. In the movie, we see the meticulous review process that these gaming world record referees go through. They must analyze every second of every footage submitted either through VHS or DVD usually, unless it’s a record that is taking place live at a tournament.
The conflict in the movie starts when Steve Wiebe beats Billy’s high score for Donkey Kong and the Twin Galaxy people discredit the achievement by going to Steve’s house when he wasn’t there and inspecting the insides of Steve’s DK arcade console. Since Roy “Mr. Awesome” Shildt had sent Steve the motherboard for his DK machine, they said it was not authentic and disqualified the high scores. There’s bad blood between Mr. Awesome and Twin Galaxies with Mr. Awesome saying that they approved a bunch of scores which weren’t valid and TG saying that Mr. Awesome is a liar.
Since Steve’s high score was discredited, he decided to travel to Funspot, one of the top classic arcade tournament locations in the world, where Twin Galaxies would see him perform live. Steve calls Billy to challenge him to go to Funspot to compete live against him.
Now although the movie paints Billy to be an arrogant villain, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Sure, he might be arrogant but that doesn’t mean he’s evil. We see him donate a Q*bert machine to Doris Self, an old lady that wants to enter the tournament. I don’t agree with all of Billy’s actions through the film but if you follow up on what happened with Steve and Billy after the film, the story gets much more interesting.
When Steve goes to compete and Funspot, he’s met with people that treat him well like Walter Day but also he’s met with people that are spies and asskissers to Billy like Brian Kuh, the former 2nd place record holder for Donkey Kong. Kuh even hangs out behind Steve, watching him play, which adds stress to Steve as he tries to attempt a live world record on the machine. Billy doesn’t go to the tournament but he has Doris Self deliver a video tape with a new high score that Billy shot for “fun” to further try to discredit Steve’s attempt. Doris even says that Billy is a pretty devious person as towards his strategies of attacking his competitors. Steve actually beats Billy’s score live at the event and even triggers the kill screen for the game, which crashes the game. It was the first time ever that the kill screen was triggered at Funspot. As the machine was going to reach the kill screen everybody at Funspot was standing in awe around Steve Wiebe as he earned the high score and the achievement. However, Billy submitted a video taped game with a higher score, around a million points, undermining Steve’s attempt. “Not even Helen of Troy had that much attention,” Billy says regarding people watching the video of his achievement. I thought it was an underhanded thing for him to do, sending in a video rather than show up in person to compete against Steve like a real warrior. When Steve wants to see the tape, they refused to show it to him which was a dickish move from Brian Kuh.
What’s kind of fucked up for me, according to what the movie shows, is that although they discredited Steve’s original video tape after they spent much time dissecting it, they pretty much immediately accept Billy’s tape as a legitimate submissions although he sent in a copy of a tape and it wasn’t really a good copy. The copy had VHS lines and the tape skips during some moments, something that according to what Robert Mruczek says earlier, is not allowed for a video submission. You see Steve’s face full of pride for getting the high score and the next day his face is filled with disappointment as Billy even from Florida steals his moment remotely from the comfort of his home. This part of the movie ends with a heartbroken Steve Wieve crying as his attempt and achievement is undermined yet again.
The movie shows Walter Day playing his guitar and that was kind of neat to see him at his home doing an everyday normal thing. He’s been running Twin Galaxies for a long time and although he should be retired from it he continues to do it for the benefit of his friends and colleagues.
9 months later, Steve starts to train to compete live again because Twin Galaxies let him know that the Guiness Book of World Records will hold a new tournament. It’s funny to hear one of Steve’s kids quote Billy Mitchell, “Work is for people who can’t play video games.” The way the movie is made obviously favors Steve and it’s kind of one sided in that way, with Steve calling and leaving Billy messages (since Billy doesn’t pick up from what the movie showed) but I thought Billy could have done a better job trying to defend his honor. I felt like Steve had everybody against him, even his family from the things they said to him like his girl saying that some people ruin their lives to break records.
So Steve Wiebe goes down to Hollywood, FL for the tournament, which is Billy’s hometown and expects to compete against him but Billy never does. Steve Sanders, which is one of Billy’s close friends even goes to the competition and he’s enough of a good sport and decent that he introduces himself to Steve Wiebe and his family. I thought that was a noble thing for him to do. He was even talking to him and praising him and his efforts and this is a guy that wrote a world famous strategy guide on the game. What’s kind of disappointing is that Steve Wiebe isn’t as well off as Billy yet Billy won’t compete against him even in his hometown. That seemed like a really cowardly thing for him to do. Wiebe even goes to Billy’s restaurant but Billy refused to talk or see him.
Billy does eventually show up to the tournament but he walks in and ignores Wiebe. Steve Wiebe says hello to him and Billy passes by and says “There’s certain people I don’t want to spend too much time with” which is kind of like a slap to the face. I wished he would have been a better sport and although yeah you can say the movie favors Wiebe’s view, even this should have been obvious to Billy that he was making a mistake reacting like that, especially when he knew he was being filmed. Billy says that if you don’t compete when the pressure is on that you’re not good enough but he refused to do that during this movie. He painted himself as a hypocrite by saying that and then not following his own words.
I was particularly proud of Walter Day and Steve Sanders for the way they treated Steve Wiebe and recognized his struggle and true merit. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Sanders is sitting next to Billy and Sanders says he believes Wiebe is trying to do the right thing and then Billy says that he’s not familiar enough with the situation and they’re just sitting there with Sanders looking like “are you seriously going to be like that?” Walter Day apologized to Steve Wiebe for the way that Twin Galaxies had treated him and they made peace finally.
Although the film is now outdated because the rivalry continued, you can always check up on the Steve Wiebe vs Billy Mitchell rivalry at Twin Galaxies.
To view the latest scoreboard for Donkey Kong, click here. When I wrote this article Steve Wiebe was the current world record holder for Donkey Kong. You can view the high scores for Donkey Kong Jr. here.
Overall, the movie I thought was shot with good taste and it was put together in an exciting way that keeps you glued to the screen. Even people I know that don’t care too much for video games thought it was an amazing movie and were glad to have seen it.
I recommend anyone who has an interest in video games to watch the movie.
You can visit Steve Wiebe’s website here.
You can read up more on Billy Mitchell at his wikipedia page here.
In conclusion, Steve Wiebe’s struggle is an inspirational story to all of us.