In the world of competitive video game playing, Billy Mitchell is the 800 pound gorilla. He was the first person to complete all 256 Pac-Man boards. He held unofficial world high scores in Donkey Kong Jr., Centipede, and Burgertime. His greatest achievement, however, was his world record Donkey Kong score of over 800,000. Set in 1982, the official record stood for over 20 years without any serious threat. And Billy Mitchell liked it that way.
In the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, he's depicted as a man concerned, above all, with his image. Billy Mitchell even looks like a villain. His sleepy blue eyes gaze from under a mane of glossy black hair. His beard is groomed to perfection. A typical outfit is a black dress shirt tucked into black jeans, accented by an American flag necktie. He seems to relish his role as the heavy. The staff of Twin Galaxies, the governing body of gaming high scores, seems fully in awe of him.
Steve Wiebe, when King of Kong begins, doesn't seem to have any idea who Billy Mitchell is. He doesn't seem to care, either. He's shown as a likable, talented guy who's never really been able to put it together. We witness him playing the piano and the drums, see his skillful drawings, and home videos of his once-promising athletic career. His friends and family lower their voices when discussing all the times he's come up short. It's tough to see from the outside, though. Wiebe lives with a wonderful family in a gorgeous house in suburban Washington. But even the house came with a sucker punch: Wiebe lost his job the day he and his wife signed the papers.
Unemployed and aimless, Wiebe sets up a Donkey Kong machine in his garage and gets to work attacking Billy Mitchell's high score. Director Seth Gordon intercuts shots of Steve playing the drums, clips of his old baseball games, and little Jumpman scurrying ever closer up the ladder toward Donkey Kong. The implication is clear: this has all the potential to be another case where Steve Wiebe is almost good enough. Then a funny thing happens.
He breaks the world record.
He doesn't just beat Billy Mitchell's score; he pulverizes it. He races right on through and doesn't stop until he's earned over a million points, some 200,000 higher than the long-standing record. Having finally accomplished something in his life, he sends the tape in to Twin Galaxies to be verified.
The refs won't allow it. They think he used a modified board.
You get the impression that it isn't so much the score that matters to the Twin Galaxies crew -- it's that the challenger isn't one of them. He's an outsider. They can't even pronounce his name right. It's "wee-bee," two syllables, yet even after being corrected most of the refs continue to say the monosyllabic "weeb." It's a passive-aggressive attack that reminded me of the tendency of some right-wing politicians and commentators to refer to the "Democrat party."
Even as Wiebe flies to New Hampshire to break the record in person, the Twin Galaxies refs keep in touch with Billy Mitchell by phone, providing him nearly real-time updates. One of Mitchell's biggest sycophants, a guy named Brian Kuh, seems on the verge of tears as Wiebe closes in on the fabled "kill screen," which would make him the only person besides Mitchell ever to do so on Donkey Kong. Even so, Kuh can't help telling everybody in the arcade to come watch.
Just when you think King of Kong has gone about as far as it can go, the scheming and backstabbing suddenly escalate to an unbelievable degree. The film stops being a quirky look at an American subculture and becomes a baroque good vs. evil story. There's no question that some creative editing makes Billy Mitchell come off like Darth Vader and Steve Wiebe like the second coming of Jesus. We never see Mitchell with his kids, although presumably he has spawned a few. And on Wiebe's rejected Donkey Kong tape, he's interrupted by his crying son who needs his rear end wiped. Does Steve help? No -- he keeps going for the record. That's how you get ahead in this world.