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King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Arcade games are hardly child's play in Seth Gordon's entertaining documentary.

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Daddy Kong: Steve Wiebe plays hard while his son looks on.
  • Daddy Kong: Steve Wiebe plays hard while his son looks on.

In some respects, the material in Seth Gordon's documentary about the small but fervent milieu of competitive players of 1980s-era arcade videogames is what you'd expect. The gamers are dweebish men -- bitten by the arcade bug in youth but now nearing middle-age -- who are prone to both obsession and compulsion, and who remain perplexed that others don't find a high score on Centipede to be a worthy mating call. Yet Gordon's deceptively low-key film, King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, reveals much more about a group too often dismissed as loners and losers.

Far from being solitary, the players have wives, kids, supportive family members and the easy embrace of fellow gamers, many of whom are organized in Twin Galaxies -- a governing board organized in the early 1980s to document and validate scoring. Because this pursuit is about winning, baby! You can beat the machine -- a high enough score will cause these vintage machines overload and deliver the coveted "death screen" -- or other gamers, by topping a world-record high score.

It all seems simple enough when Steve Wiebe, an unassuming junior high school teacher, logs a new high score on Donkey Kong in his garage, beating the long-held record by the arcade world's de facto celebrity gamer, Billy Mitchell. Wiebe's game -- captured on videotape and sent to Twin Galaxies for verification -- is disputed, and Gordon lucks into a surprisingly compelling battle that plays out over the next year.

In that time, Wiebe tries in vain to: establish his high score; break the record live during public play; schedule a head-to-head with the elusive Mitchell; and simply earn the respect of the tight-knit Twin Galaxies gamers. It sounds silly, but for Wiebe, a perennially also-ran cursed with tremendous drive, being crowned king of Kong comes to dominate his sense of self-worth. Equally fascinating is his opponent, the charismatic but cagy Mitchell (now a successful purveyor of hot sauce) who clings to his world record as fiercely as Wiebe pursues it.

Driving both men is a mixture of playground ethics and adult ambition, topped with a peculiar intelligence that transforms climbing a cartoon ladder into the mastering of complex mathematical strategies. Likewise, Gordon has turned a cartoonish concept -- who is the world's best Donkey Kong player? -- into an entertaining snapshot of the complexities of human nature, especially those that surface in the raw arena of competition.

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