If there's a superstar in the world of classic video gaming, it's Billy Mitchell, who first caught the public eye thanks to a 1982 profile on video-game champs in Life magazine. In subsequent years, Mitchell went on to run a successful Florida-based restaurant and hot-sauce business, all while defending his status as the all-time high scoring champ of several games, including Donkey Kong. With his brushed-back hair and halfhearted mullet, Mitchell is an unlikely idol, but he has an alpha-male aura, a Successories vocabulary, and the records to back up his boasts. Most of the classic gaming enthusiasts interviewed in The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters speak of him in hushed tones.
A documentary about the champ and his challenger, King Of Kong begins by establishing Mitchell's near-invincibility, then segues from a boastful monologue about his achievements to an unlikely usurper—modest, introverted science teacher Steve Wiebe, who used a recent stretch of unemployment and a lifetime of obsessive tendencies to sharpen his Donkey Kong skills. When Wiebe sends in a videotape of a record-breaking Donkey Kong run, Mitchell's time at the top appears to be over.
At this point, Seth Gordon's feature directorial debut mostly stops being about video-game obsession and turns into a film about what it takes to make it in America. Long the public face of classic gaming—though hardly a household name—Mitchell is perhaps too friendly with Walter Day, president of Twin Galaxies, an organization formed in the early '80s to promote gaming and record high scores. When Wiebe attempts to claim the championship, he encounters roadblock after roadblock, and learns that even in this seemingly frivolous pursuit, there's the entrenched power structure, and then there's everyone else.
Without neglecting the details of a little-seen subculture, Gordon harnesses his film into the unexpectedly thrilling story of an underdog attempting to buck a system structured at least partly around hushed cell-phone conversations and back-room decisions. The film keeps up a dramatic pace—there's been some online grousing about how the story's finer points are streamlined away—but it never loses sight of the personal stories here, from the seething aggression barely concealed in the way Mitchell says "son of a gun" to the way Wiebe's wife can barely contain her tears when she talks about his following a dream she can't understand, one deadly barrel at a time.