In the early 1980s, there was no such thing as PlayStation. If you wanted to play the coolest new video games, you pinched quarters from Mom’s purse and went to the arcade. Back then, being an ace at video games didn’t mean you were a shut-in with hygiene problems. Back then, being a video game wizard would get you chicks.
In this time of game gods, there was no one more godlike than Billy Mitchell. In 1982 — at the age of 17 — Billy Mitchell held the high score in “Centipede” and “Donkey Kong.”
At 34, he scored the first-ever perfect game in “Pac-Man.” And in 2006, MTV named him one of the top 10 most influential video game players of all time.
Enter Steve Wiebe, a laid-off engineer from Redmond, Wash. Bummed out and looking for “something positive,” as he puts it, he found Mitchell’s “Donkey Kong” score online, and figured he could beat it. After all, he’d played a ton in college, where he says he beat Mitchell’s score.
But this time, Wiebe wasn’t fooling around at the frat house. This time, more was at stake. So in 2003, Wiebe got a stand-up “Donkey Kong” machine, installed it in his garage, and set to work.
“I had more time on my hands than the average person,” says the married father of two. “I was good at ‘Donkey Kong,’ and thought it was something that would give me a boost.”
Wiebe’s efforts to topple Mitchell’s high score — and his struggle to be recognized by his video-gaming peers — is chronicled in the new film “The King of Kong,” which is set to release on August 17.
When director Seth Gordon met Wiebe in 2005, he’d been planning to make a documentary about classic video game competitions — a quirky world that he says was interesting in his own right.
The soft-spoken and mild-mannered Wiebe is the protagonist of “The King of Kong.” But Billy Mitchell, without question, is the star.
Mitchell, now 42 and a hot sauce mogul in Hollywood, Fla., doesn’t fit the stereotype of an ace video gamer. He‘s cocky, charming — and sports a glossy shoulder-length hairdo that would make Shaun Cassidy envious. In the film, Mitchell is portrayed as arrogant, devious and Machiavellian — the Don Corleone of the classic gaming world.
The film has more twists than a bag of pretzels, but the salient plot points are thus: Wiebe started playing “Donkey Kong” like a madman — the audience is treated to a funny/sad scene of him ignoring his kid’s anguished cries to “Stop playing ‘Donkey Kooooooong!’” But if you’ve seen any sports films, you know the drill: Sometimes our hero has to put his family second to achieve video-game glory.
In July 2005, Wiebe reached the Holy Grail of “Donkey Kong” — the mythical “kill screen,” where the machine just runs out of memory — and a world record high score. He videotaped his achievement and submitted it to Twin Galaxies, the governing body of competitive video gaming, to be verified.
Verification proved elusive. Wiebe’s “kill screen” accomplishment — and his credibility — were sullied due to his association with Roy Schildt, a “Missile Command” maven who calls himself “Mr. Awesome.”
Turns out, “Mr. Awesome” and Mitchell have a rancorous history that goes back 20 years. Mitchell is tight with the Twin Galaxies guys. And Steve Wiebe? He was an outsider with a now-suspect reputation.
To prove himself, Wiebe traveled cross-country to Funspot, an entertainment mecca in Weirs, N.H., for the International Classic Game Tournament. He says he hoped to meet Mitchell face-to-face for a little “Kong” throw-down. Mitchell wasn’t there in the flesh, but the film depicts him in a shadowy living room receiving blow-by-blow details of Wiebe’s gameplay over the phone.
Wiebe once again gets to the “kill screen” at Funspot — but triumph is brief. The late Doris Self, a legendary “Q*bert” player, had brought with her a videotape of Mitchell eclipsing Wiebe’s score. Mitchell’s rep is gold with the Twin Galaxies gang. His score is the new record.
No, this isn’t an Oliver Stone film. And Mitchell says the portrayal of him as the puppetmaster of the Wiebe-crushing conspiracy is hogwash — or, as he puts it, “bull-sugar.” (Mitchell doesn’t curse.) He says he has no problem with competition — or his high score being trumped.
To wit, he points out that his high score from 1982 was actually toppled in 2000 by Tim Szerby — although that score was never verified. Mitchell says he called to congratulate Szerby on his achievement, and that for several years, he was too busy with his family to try and trump it.
“I have my priorities straight,” he says. “And my priority is to be behind my children — not behind the joystick.”
Mitchell hasn’t seen the film, but he says he knows plenty about what’s in it. And he says filmmakers Gordon and producer Ed Cunningham had an ending in mind before they even started filming “The King of Kong.” Mitchell charges the filmmakers with omitting footage that would have painted a more accurate picture.
“I don’t have a problem with being a villain,” says Mitchell. “I have a problem when they criminalize others and they show good people to be corrupt or dishonest or incompetent and they show it to be the truth.”
Gordon and Cunningham say they stand by the film as an accurate representation of what they witnessed: One hyper-competitive guy trying to one-up another hyper-competitive guy for the world record in “Donkey Kong.”
“The story was so bizarre and twisting in real life, we didn’t have to fake it,” says Cunningham.
Wiebe tried one more time to clear his name, traveling to Mitchell’s turf to attempt to break the world record for the Guinness Book. The scene that plays out is classic middle-school pathos: Mitchell shows up at the makeshift arcade. Steve is seated at the “Donkey Kong machine.” The two don’t make eye contact — although it’s clear they’re surreptitiously checking each other out. And then, alpha dog that he is, Mitchell just strides past Wiebe like he’s not even there. Takes you right back to seventh-grade gym class.
It’s not a good weekend for Wiebe, as it turns out. While his wife and kids look on (and on…and on…) he misses the world record and returns home, denied yet again.
“At that point, it wasn’t even about ‘Donkey Kong’ anymore — I was just trying to get equal treatment,” he says.
There’s much more to the story, but you’ll have to see it for yourself to learn the ending — if you can call it that. After all, records are made to be broken — and there’s nothing like a good rivalry to stoke those competitive fires.
“I think it’s sort of wonderful that Billy and Steve are the best in the world at something — and they hate each other,” says Gordon. “They’re like Salieri and Mozart on ‘Donkey Kong.’”
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