In the early ’80s, when I used to play Donkey Kong more or less every day (on a good round, I could get to level 6 or 7), I would never have guessed that this happy acid trip of a videogame, with its tumbling barrels and walking flames and elevator pulleys, not to mention a little man named Mario, would one day be widely thought of as the single most challenging joystick diversion ever created. The wired-up videogame addicts who populate The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, a funny and madly arresting new documentary, are all too aware of the game’s awesome difficulty. Demanding a perfection of timing so relentless it’s almost treacherous, Donkey Kong is a kind of virtual decathlon of hand-eye coordination. To break a top score, as much as setting a new record in the 100-meter dash, is to redefine the limits of human ability.
In The King of Kong, we meet a pair of rival Donkey Kong geniuses. There is Billy Mitchell, a Florida restaurant owner with a mulletish helmet of hair, a wardrobe of patriotic neckties, and a disarmingly cagey and articulate way of declaring his singular status in the gaming world. In 1982, Billy, then 17, set the world Donkey Kong record of 874,300, and he has been dining out on it ever since. His challenger, Steve Wiebe, is a more genial type, a Seattle family man who, in 2003, lost his job at Boeing and took to playing Donkey Kong in his basement. He wound up breaking a million — but the score was challenged by Billy, who sent spies into Steve’s home to try and prove that his machine had been monkeyed with.
And that’s just one chapter of a face-off that becomes a ruthless high drama of skill, ego, celebrity, and geek passion. The King of Kong sets us up to root for Steve, who’s the underdog and a far nicer guy. It’s Billy the prima donna, though, who lends the movie its mystique. Neurotically invested in the myth of his virtuosity, he’s too arrogant — and nervous — to show up and defend his title (at one point, he sends a videotape of a record-breaking session instead). Yet that makes him the Bobby Fischer of Donkey Kong, a man who understands that once you’ve played the game like a god, refusing to play along is what becomes a legend most. A