In this weirdly compelling 2007 documentary directed by Seth Gordon, enter the weirdly competitive world of Donkey Kong.
The legendary arcade game from Nintendo boasts quite the challenge for skilled players, with many aiming for the world record. And it gets intense!
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Businessman and restaurant owner Billy Mitchell is, in the gaming community, thought of a as one of the best competitive gamers in history.
His Donkey Kong scores are well documented by Walter Day’s company Twin Galaxies. It was established to track high scores across classic arcade games.
Released in 1981, Nintendo’s classic was created by industry legend Shigeru Miyamoto. This was the first appearance of Mario, incidentally, although he’s called Jumpman in this outing.
As arcade games go, you insert a coin and take it on. Obviously, developers didn’t want to make it too easy. But it also had to be good to swallow up as many quarters as possible.
The addictive quality – returning again and again. Donkey Kong was such a game – it was a sensation.
But for most people it’ll remain a nostalgic callback to a certain era of the industry. For others, it’s a bloody lifestyle!
Competitive gaming has been around since the 1980s, if not earlier. And these days it’s big business, particularly thinks to Fortnite and various racing games etc. Some kid just won $3 million as part of a competition for the former.
But a lot of competitive game, such as speedrunning, has nothing to do with money. It’s all about respect.
And for a game as difficult and strangely mathematical as Donkey Kong, if you bag the high score then you’re a legend. That was Mitchell’s status.
What The King of Kong documents is the arrival, out of the blue, of newcomer Steve Wiebe.
In the early 2000s after a spell of unemployment, the engineer bought an arcade unit to take on the world record.
What follows is an intense battle for the high score, with the down-on-his-luck Wiebe acting as the underdog to take down the industry legend.
If you’re thinking this is just about playing video games, you can see how exact it is in the above strategic clip. To go for a world record on any game, retro or otherwise, demands an enormous amount of skill.
Donkey Kong is extremely difficult and requires exact concentration and pixel perfect precision. You really need a specific type of mind to go for the high score.
And Wiebe bagged the world record in 2004. Job done? Far from it, as in the world of nerds no one saw him the play the game in public.
What he doesn’t know is Mitchell had a furious rivalry with Roy Shildt, with the former applying to Twin Galaxies to the latter’s scores taken down.
It then turns out Wiebe’s circuit boards for his Donkey Kong unit were supplied by Shildt. As a result, Twin Galaxies refuses to acknowledge his score.
To prove himself, he travels out to the video arcade Funspot in New Hampshire and aims to smash the world record with Twin Galaxies present.
This he duly achieves. Where it gets more controversial in the world of nerds is Mitchell soon after supplies low-quality VHS footage of himself claiming a new world record.
Twin Galaxies goes against its rules in accepting this footage, hailing him as the new world record holder.
Thankfully, Wiebe’s politeness and integrity pay off. The organisation allow him to submit another attempt via VHS in which he smashes the world record again with a score of 1,049,100.
Now, this may all seem ridiculous to non-gamers in particular, but we feel this conniving, scheming, corruption, and backstabbing is all what makes us human.
The documentary, in its celebration of geekdom and nerds, finds an absurd sense of humanity. Over what is a daft video game, several people compete for a world record. Mitchell to, seemingly, validate the persona he’s built for himself and to satisfy his ego.
Wiebe, something of a persistent “failure” in life (it turns out he’s a great drummer who didn’t pursue his opportunities – as well as a highly intelligent engineer), is doing it to prove a point. To gain some sort of success.
And it’s weirdly riveting viewing. We can highly recommend it if you want an insight into the often peculiar world of competitive gaming.
Grown adults pushing for high scores with apes and blokes called Jumpman.
The Mitchell Scandal
But there is an addendum to all of this, as in 2018 accusations of cheating came out against Mitchell.
In April 2018, Twin Galaxies stated a confirmation of Mitchell’s use of a modified Donkey Kong board.
His scores are now off the forum, and the Guinness Book of World Records removed them too, with Mitchell banned from competing again on the former.
In April 2018, he gave the above response to the accusations. Boo! Hiss!
And then in August 2018, live on Twitch, he recorded a score of 1,047,500 to prove his skill set.
Now this is hardly a Stop at Nothing: Lance Armstrong level of cheating offence. The seven times Tour de France champion was lucky to escape jail with what he did.
But gamers do take all of this very seriously. And if he wants to clear his name, he’ll have to thump in some mighty impressive scores. He does, at least, appear to have some level of humour about it.
— Billy Mitchell (@BillyPacman) July 29, 2019
Recently, Mitchell deliberately matched one of his previous high scores from Donkey Kong to show it was indeed him.
And last month he live streamed his efforts on Pac-Man, where he set another incredible high score. You go, girl! Sorry… boy.
Despite some fanfare about its uniqueness back in 2007, The King of Kong has since become something of an obscure cult classic.
Back then competitive gaming and the retro scene were still pretty surprising for non-gamers to learn about. Now, with YouTube and plenty more column inches, many more people are in the know about esports etc.
Seth Gordon’s film is still a strangely touching and dramatic documentary. You can watch it all in the clip above, with the knowledge of what has since unfolded.
And to wrap this all up, a note on the current world record. High scores tumble all the time in competitive gaming, but it’s often the gamers who laid the groundwork years ago who paved the way for new talent.
As of 2019, Steve Wiebe is a two-time world champion on Donkey Kong.
But the current world record is 1,247,700 by Robbie Lakema. Wiebe is ranked the world’s 12th in the high scores list.