On first glance, King of Kong appears to be about as niche a film as you can get. Who, apart from some serious nerds, would want to watch two blokes battle it out to see who can get the best score on video game Donkey Kong?
Straight away, some of you might be thinking “why would I want to watch a film about a load of blokes standing around playing games?” And if that’s all King of Kong was, you’d be right. Thankfully, there’s more to it than that. Video games might be the arena in which this battle is played out, but at its heart, it’s a human interest story about two men locked in a fierce rivalry.
Flying the flag for Nintendo’s classic game are Billy Mitchell (current record holder) and Steve Wiebe, the plucky challenger. As portrayed in this documentary, they are chalk and cheese. Billy is a self-promoting, manipulative egoist. He is a WINNER. He is clearly cast as the film’s villain, given plenty of rope with which to hang himself and does an effortless job of making himself the man you love to hate.
Steve Wiebe, on the other hand is a normal, everyday guy; he’s had plenty of setbacks in his life, but keeps fighting. A decent family man, teacher and all-round nice guy. In other words, he is a LOSER.
It’s this battle between these two seemingly very different characters that grips you. They may be fighting over something which (to most people) is inconsequential, but the documentary makes it into compelling stuff. Wiebe is such a nice guy that each time he sits down at his machine, you are willing him to break the record and every time he fails (whatever the reason), you share his disappointment). Every time Mitchell appears on screen, you want to boo and hiss him like a pantomime villain.
Director Seth Gordon does a great job of building up this story, creating a tale of friendship, manipulation, dirty tricks, skulduggery and downright unfair behaviour that will have you screaming at the screen as poor old Steve faces setback after setback. Who would ever have thought that the world of video gaming could be so compelling? Of course, that’s the point: it’s not about video gaming – it’s about human behaviour and so is of interest to anyone, even you’ve never picked up a joystick in your life.
As with any documentary, it’s debateable how much the on-screen events reflect reality, and how much is down to careful editing. It’s here that the film shoots itself in the foot somewhat. Challenged by some people (including Wiebe and Mitchell themselves), Gordon has since admitted that there are some inaccuracies, misrepresentations and omissions from the final film. In particular it’s alleged that, far from despising each other (the impression the film gives) Wiebe and Mitchell are actually on reasonably amicable terms and respect each other’s gaming achievements. For the average viewer, it’s almost impossible to separate the fact from fiction and once you know this, you do begin to question the film’s integrity.
Some people may also be a little lost as to what Donkey Kong actually is (other than a video game), since the documentary simply assumes you are familiar with it. Whilst it’s not essential to know what the game involves, it probably would help you to appreciate the skill level of the players a little more if you knew what they were trying to do and how difficult it is. There is a DVD extra which gives you a (very) potted history of the game, but this would have been better integrated into the main film.
If you like games, you’ll enjoy King of Kong on many levels; if you don’t like games you’ll still find a fun, heart-warming and fascinating human interest story about the battle between two men and one 80s arcade game.