The sooner this absorbing, yet heavily slanted, documentary makes it the UK, the better. What starts as a bit of an oddball look into the world of competitive videogaming soon switches focus to a pair of characters, whose differing determination to own the world record score on Donkey Kong is the thing that really unites them.
When the documentary starts, the record holder is Billy Mitchell, a long-haired bar owner whose passion for classic videogames is matched by his reluctance, it seems, to play them in public. Steve Wiebe, meanwhile, is obsessive about breaking the record. His wife and children watch as he sits at a machine, practicing away, and it’s Wiebe who attends the live events in an attempt to emerge victorious.
What could have easily turned into a deathly dull feature though really comes through as a welcome surprise. Much of the first half of The King of Kong is spent setting up the characters, and the competitive world of classic videogaming high scores. The adjudicator of the legitimacy of said scores is an organisation called Twin Galaxies, long overseen by Walter Day, who comes across throughout The King Of Kong as an honourable and likeable man. There’s no obvious attempt to spin a perception of him, and as one of the main people in the piece, that’s important.
The same, however, can’t be said about Mitchell and Wiebe. As The King of Kong progresses, you soon appreciate that the film’s creators aren’t particularly keen on the former, and warm far more to the latter. Which is a shame, as Mitchell is perhaps the most interesting of the two. In spite of a contrived-feeling moment where he goes out of his way to help a senior citizen indulge her Q*Bert fixation, he comes across as smug and not particularly likeable, and it’s implied that his videotaped scores lack legitimacy. It doesn’t help that time is spent with his sycophantic and downright irritating supporter Brian Hau, for whom this documentary does no favours whatsoever.
Steve Wiebe soon becomes positioned as the ‘hero’ of the piece, the likeable contender who is willing to go where he needs to go to prove himself. The ending in particular of The King of Kong throws objectivity out of the window, and this is a real pity, because Wiebe arguably has as much of a three dimensional story to tell as Mitchell. Most tellingly, and this is a thread that’s never properly explored, he has an in-car conversation with this daughter about trying to get into the Guinness Book of Records, only for her to retort “Some people ruin their lives to be in there” – perhaps the most appropriate line of the film.
Given the bias in The King of Kong, it’s all but impossible to take it as a straight documentary, and that’s a shame. But it’s still a four star film, for unearthing this fascinating duel between two everyday men of the street. Running to a lean hour and a quarter, you can’t help but get involved in the story. The problem is that you end up rooting for one side over the other, yet you can’t lose the nagging sensation that there’s far more to this story than we’re being told.
The extra features do pick up on this a little; there’s A Saga Continues segment, that picks up the tale since the film was released, and there’s a pair of commentary tracks too, although neither of the main two participants in front of the camera are included, which is a slight disappointment. Both tracks are very much still worth a spin. Fortunately, the interviews that follow bridge some of the gaps, and there are some interesting Q&As to check out as well.
In all, a quality extra features count is certainly a contributory factor in the DVD’s success, but it’s the main feature that deserves to be seen. As we said at the top, a fascinating, if flawed, documentary.