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.

Different views of the gaming world

I recently watched two series of documentaries on video games, The Video Game Revolution by PBS and Gamer Revolution by CBC. Both covered the current hot topics, like violence, virtual communities and military recruitment. But the viewpoints were quite different.

For instance, I can’t recall anyone mentioning sex in the PBS one in more than a passing mention. Yet the CBC one had a whole big section on it, talking about the sex RPGs out there in the States and how it’s revolutionizing how people are exploring their sexuality.

The biggest most glaring difference, however, was their take on the same story about one gamer called Neverdie in an MMO called Entropia Universe. The PBS story covered how this man, a single father, mortgaged his home, risking his financial future, and implicitly that of his son’s as well, to purchase virtual property in this game. Luckily, the go on, people are renting space in his new property and he’s come out on top, an instant millionaire. Rags to riches, against all odds, risky undertakings. Seemed to imply to me that maybe his wife left him because he was being so wanton with the family money.

Well, CBC told that story and a bit more. They show a heart-breaking shot of the father and the kid sitting at the table eating, this little 4-year-old saying repeatedly “Why did mommy die? Why did mommy die?” Turns out there’s more to the story. The husband adored his wife. They gamed in that virtual world together. He adored his gamer chick so much that he wrote a song about how awesome it was to have a gamer chick and that went on to become a hit song in their virtual universe. Everyone knew he was the artist and she was his muse. They were celebrities! Then one day she dies. And he talks about how hard it was for him to return to that world and break the news to their virtual, but oh so real, friends.

I found it really surprising that PBS skipped that part. They really stuck to the meat and potatoes of the gaming news. Sure they crammed a lot in and had some awesome industry interviews. But they seemed to miss out on the heart of the story. CBC really showed the Canadian-ness of their production, by not covering nearly as much, but going into each story much more in-depth and making the people much more real.

It’s a gaming revolution right now, sure, both agree on that. But I agree with CBC, it’s about more than just 1s and 0s, about more than hotshot industry insiders. It’s about the people playing the games and living out the stories.