When it comes to games from the golden age of arcades, Nibbler’s small beer compared to the big-hitters of the 70s and 80s – games like Space Invaders, Pac-Man or Donkey Kong.
Nibbler involves guiding a hungry snake around a maze, gobbling up food and avoiding the increasingly lengthy serpent’s own tail. Remember Snake, that game Nokia used to put on its mobile phones? It’s that with bells on.
Videogame champion Billy Mitchell – with his furtive eyes and mane of fascinating hair – appears to think that Nibbler’s hideous, and the game remains largely obscure to all but a dedicated group of classic gamers. What sets Nibbler apart from its 80s peers is the vast scores that can be racked up – a particularly skillful player can get scores in the high millions.
An arcade wizard like Tim McVey can get a score in the low billions – a feat which takes a punishing 40 hours to achieve. Feature-length documentary Man Vs Snake is about McVey and a couple of other gamers who possess the stamina, fleet fingers and psychological fortitude to tussle with an arcade machine for almost two days straight.
McVey first made his world record of 1,000,042,270 in 1983 when he was still a teenager. Can he break his own record now he’s in his 40s, and with another pretender to the crown – wild-eyed bad-boy of retro gaming, Dwayne Richard – attempting the same challenge?
Competing over classic games has proved a rich subject for other documentaries, and in this decidedly niche genre, 2007’s King Of Kong is arguably the high watermark. The story of quiet family man Steve Weibe’s attempt to wrest the Donkey Kong high score from Billy Mitchell, there cast as the preening villain of the piece, it remains a hugely entertaining story to this day – even if some of its factual accuracy has been called into question by its participants.
King Of Kong worked not just because of its nostalgia for the 8-bit era, but because of its endearingly odd characters, and some of those reappear here. Most notable among them is Walter Day, the Twin Galaxies arcade owner who set up his own global high score table over 30 years ago. The self-styled referee and mentor of the classic gaming scene, Day’s an endearing character, and it’s interesting how he becomes such a prominent figure in both Man Vs Snake and King Of Kong; his mixture of easy-going self-promotion and zen positivity set him apart from the laser-focused gamers tapping away at their arcade machines.
This is just as well, since Nibbler isn’t a particularly exciting game to watch, and certainly doesn’t appear to be as nuanced in terms of strategy as Donkey Kong. Directors Tim Kinzy and Andy Seklir do, however, reveal some amusing insights into the tricks of the seasoned marathoned gamer. How do you find time to go to the loo if you’re playing a game for almost two days straight? The answer, Man Vs Snake teaches us, is that you store up a huge stock of lives (about 90 or 100 should do the trick), then leave the game to run itself for a few minutes. Sure, you’ll lose a few lives, but you’re at least afforded a few precious moments to relieve yourself or dip your aching elbow in a bucket of ice.
It’s nuggets like this – plus some charming animated sequences – that keep Man Vs Snake going, since the sense of rivalry between the gamers isn’t always particularly pronounced; unlike King Of Kong, where there seemed to be plenty of antipathy to go round, everyone in Man Vs Snake appears to thoroughly like each other. Even Billy Mitchell seems less scary here than he did back in 2007 – well, most of the time.
While Man Vs Snake looks a little modest when compared to that earlier coin-op documentary, it’s nevertheless a warm, diverting film about tenacity,endurance and the revitailsing power of macaroni cheese. Retrogaming fans will likely eat it up as readily as Nibbler’s relentlessly hungry snake.
Man Vs Snake: The Long And Twisted Tale Of Nibbler was playing at Glasgow Film Festival.