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Monday, September 19, 2011

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (retro-review)

If while growing up your trips to the roller rink meant spending all couples' skates in the arcade in the comforting glow of Dig Digg, if you stopped dead in your tracks to watch over someone's shoulder to see a stranger beat the high score at Missile Command or spent more time discussing how to ace a screen of Ms. Pac-Man than talking to the opposite sex - this film is for you.   It is a study of championship, old-school arcade game players and the cut throat world they live in.  That is not a joke.  These guys do not just play games they live them - attending yearly conventions, practicing daily, playing the full size game in their garages in attempts to beat world records while ignoring a family member's begging for their attention.

The tells the tale of a classic rivalry, a David and Goliath story.  The Powerhouse - successful world champ, the biggest name in the sport; Billy Mitchell.   His cocky attitude and evil looks make him a much more natural fit to play the villain than many actors cast in fiction films.  Mitchell was featured in LIFE magazine sporting a mullet and holding the title of undisputed Donkey Kong championship.  25 years later, he still sports the mullet (now it is more of a power mullet), but has a worthy challenger attempting take his thrown.  The Underdog - the unemployed, perpetual loser, father of two and relatively unknown in the professional gaming circuit, Steve Wiebe.  He gained national attention (in the gaming world) with some very impressive Donkey Kong scores.  As he desperately, almost fanatically attempts to become the King of Kong, going as far as having a Donkey Kong arcade game in his garage where he practices day and night, Wiebe becomes the target of Mitchell's cross hairs.   Only one of these men can hold the title Donkey Kong World Champion. 

Although the underdog tale is extremely entertaining, the film misses out on as it only brushes over the colorful cast of characters that make up the competitive video game playing universe.  The supporting players are interesting enough to be featured in their own film, but many are barely have any screen time.  Some insight on the other players, like the guy that is the world champ at Mappy (who the hell plays Mappy?!?) would have really fleshed out this interesting world.  I personally would love to see what a day in the life of the gentleman that walked around the arcade alerting other gamers about the potential Donkey Kong kill screen moment (a kill screen is the moment a game prematurely ends, not because the game is over, but because the old school game did not have enough memory to actually load that many levels.)

To help escalate the on screen rivalry to a new level,  the directors use some great, over-the-top music to accompany the even more over-the-top players; making what could have been just a showdown of geeks, into a cinematic battle of good and evil. 

The film will not gain you much support if your significant other is one of those that thinks gaming is for nerds, kids or social outcast - there are too many of glaring examples that will back the argument.  It is a funny, intriguing exploration of an often ignored realm of the world most adults have never experienced or, for some, forgotten.

8.5 stars out of 10

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