In the dog-eat-dog world of competitive retro video-gaming, there are no points for second place. That’s the reality underpinning Seth Gordon’s latest documentary, which takes an inside look at this fanatical subculture and the tireless players who duke it out for a chance at scoreboard immortality. But what you might expect to be a rather withering portrayal of game obsessed misfits and social pariahs is actually far from it. Gordon makes no judgement on their perceived lack of cool, instead aiming directly for the heart with a tale of high hopes, perseverance and triumph over adversity.
The film opens on gaming god Billy Mitchell, a swaggering hot sauce mogul who enjoys near-messianic status on ‘the scene’ thanks to achievements that include a stratospherically high score at simian barrel-dodging platform classic, Donkey Kong. His unassailable throne is, however, abruptly toppled by underdog everyman Steve Wiebe, a Washington science teacher who leaps out of obscurity to knock Mitchell off the top spot. Mitchell isn’t one to gracefully accept defeat and what follows is the stuff blockbusters are made of: contested scores, public challenges, shady backers, secret video tapes and a nail-biting finale that will suck you in despite yourself. So compelling is the story that you’ll have to constantly remind yourself you’re watching a documentary. This is Rocky for gameheads - a tale of one man’s struggle to go the distance and beat the odds - and it should come as no surprise that the rights to a dramatic adaptation have already been snapped up.
From the basement of the Wiebe family home to the hallowed gaming halls of Funspot (the grudge match venue of choice for those with something to prove), Gordon marries fly-on-the wall footage with candid interviews to spin out a tale of deceit as Wiebe struggles to have his achievements validated. Aside from the duelling Donkey Kongers, Gordon fleshes out the retro gaming scene further by speaking to (and enjoying the occasional musical number from) a sizeable selection of peripheral characters, standouts of which include 80 year-old Q*Bert guru Doris Self and Mitchell’s delightfully weasly protégé/henchman, Briah Kuh.
If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that Gordon is all too aware of the story’s dramatic strengths. At times it feels like he’s over-emphasising the cinematic narrative to the cost of his documentarian objectivity - especially in his portrayal of Billy Mitchell, whom we suspect may not quite be the sneering, comic-book villain he’s painted as here. That aside, The King Of Kong stands as an experience to savour. Regardless of your feelings about video-games or documentaries in general, this is an engrossing story that plucks at the heartstrings just as hard as it pummels the fire buttons.