REVIEW: King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

I wrote this review for a gaming website. Since they seem to have stopped running reviews on the site and now that the editor I was working with has left, I’m going post this review on my own blog, damnit.

Competitive gaming: pathetic or hilarious? King of Kong lets you decide

Ten minutes into this documentary about the quest for the top score in Donkey Kong, I really wasn’t sure what to make of it. Ten minutes after I finished watching it, I still wasn’t sure if I liked it or not. It actually took a few hours of digesting it and thinking about it that I decided in the end that, yes, I did enjoy it. While the quality of the film was decent and the story was interesting, I think I mostly enjoyed it because it made me think about whether or not I liked what I had seen.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a 90-minute documentary about two people battling it out for a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the top score in the arcade version of Miyamoto’s insanely difficult first game, Donkey Kong. And just like any documentary that delves into the inner-workings of a particularly fervent subculture (such as Trekkies) you feel dumbfounded and just a bit embarrassed by the extreme displays of passion from the people involved. This is their world, it’s what they’ve built their entire sense of self around. It’s pretty incredible the way that they talk about these high scores along with the investments they’ve made to achieve them. However, in a way, it’s also kind of sad. While that aspect is downplayed for the sake of an upbeat story, the filmmakers do touch on it when they include a line from a player’s young daughter who, talking about the Guinness Book of World Records, says, “Some people sort of ruin their lives to be in there.”

That’s exactly why I felt torn about enjoying the movie. On the one hand, you have this well-crafted story about the meek and lovable underdog facing off against the egotistical, and just plain rude, blowhard of a champion. On the other hand, you’ve got these grown men acting like they’re single-minded teenagers, obsessed with beating each other in a video game. I mean, after all, it is just a game. If this was just a movie, I could have sat back and enjoyed the tense drama that was unfolding between the characters on the screen and laugh it off as being campy. But since this is in fact a documentary, the intense emotional drama that these real, living people are going through comes across as a somewhat embarrassing.

Maybe other people who play games professionally, or those who are intensely into any kind of competition lifestyle, can really relate to these people and their trials and tribulations. But I’m an outsider looking in, as I’d guess most moviegoers would be, so my experience was that I felt sorry for the people in the film. I felt bad for the villain, because I’m sure editing didn’t help his cocky portrayal. I felt genuinely bad for the underdog, who was so sincere and sensitive, sitting under the film crew’s lights, tears streaming down his face. I felt apologetic that this competition for the top score that they take so very seriously is something that’s kind of a joke to me.

As I said though, after thinking about it for a few hours, I came to the conclusion that I did enjoy the movie. I feel that maybe the filmmakers went a bit over-the-top with the characterizations of the people involved, but perhaps that’s just the way those people are in real life and that alone fascinates me! They did a great job at using the interviews and archival footage to build up the story to a satisfying conclusion. The fact that I had to think about whether or not I enjoyed it really tells me that they did a great job putting everything together, taking the players seriously but at the same time touching on the absurdity of it all.

Of course, being real life, the story doesn’t end when the film does. The DVD has a few updates on what happened between the theatrical and DVD release along with links to sites where you can follow the continuing saga of The King of Kong.

All of that being said, my favorite parts of the DVD actually had nothing to do with the documentary itself. They have some pretty neat extras on it including a really really short animated history of the Donkey Kong game along with about half an hour of 8-bit music and Donkey Kong inspired artwork from I Am 8-bit. I find myself eager to watch it again just to hear the two sets of commentary tracks that accompany the DVD version. Maybe that will help me understand the intention of the film and why I feel so torn about it.

All in all, The King of Kong gives you a unique look into the lifestyle of competitive gaming that you probably never knew existed. While being respectful to its subjects, the filmmakers still manage to point out the absurdity of the whole situation, mostly because they take it so seriously. Go along for the ride and decide for yourself if it’s serious or a mockery.