Living as we do in the age of Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, with their cutting edge graphics and movie-scale production values, it's easy to forget that the gaming landscape was once a much simpler place, where fancy 3D graphics were unheard of, where the arcade cabinet was king, and where Donkey Kong ruled the world.
Today, games like Donkey Kong, Pac Man and Space Invaders have almost faded from living memory, consigned to legend and that misty, almost forgotten decade known as the Eighties. But for small groups of hardcore gamers scattered around the world, these old classics are still very much alive. The King of Kong is a window into this strange sub-culture, the people who make it tick, and the competitive personalities who push themselves to win the title of the World's Greatest Donkey Kong Player.
In the early Eighties, a talented young gamer named Billy Mitchell set the world record for the highest ever score on Donkey Kong. Since then, he's used his minor celebrity status to build up an impressive business empire and a self-inflated public persona. It's been more than twenty years since he set the record, and no other gamer has come close to beating it. Until now.
Enter Steve Weibe; a soft-spoken school teacher, family man and retro gamer who spends hours of his day in his garage, playing on his old arcade cabinet, and gradually improving his scores until he's in a position to challenge Mitchell. The King of Kong follows these two men as they strive to outdo each other, and be recognised as the best player of all time.
It sounds ludicrous, and frankly, it is, but don't let that put you off this truly excellent documentary. There's something infinitely enjoyable about watching grown men cry over a computer game that's a quarter of a century old, and fight bitterly over a title that's essentially meaningless. The documentary makers know this, and yet by embracing the pettiness of the whole thing, they're able to both amuse and educate.
In many ways, it's a classic David vs Goliath story, with the cocky and arrogant Mitchell using various underhand ploys to get one over on Weibe, even exerting his influence in the retro-gaming community to have a potentially winning score invalidated. Weibe, the straight-shooting everyman, battles to reach the top and gain the recognition he'd always wanted, gradually winning people over.
Aside from providing a good overview of the retro-gaming scene, it's also a fascinating insight into the men who devote themselves so completely to something, determined to be the best in the entire world. The fact that their chosen battleground is a long-defunct arcade game doesn't really matter - what matters is the clash of personalities, the determination, the egos, the will to succeed and the fear of losing. These men are greatly skilled at what they do, but also flawed and human.
It would be easy for the film to demonize Mitchell, the flamboyant and self-assured champion who appears to be coasting on former glories. But strangely, it never does. With his entire public image founded on having the highest score of all time, he's a man with everything to lose and nothing to gain by openly competing. Weibe by contrast is the ultimate underdog. Talented but misunderstood, treated as an outsider by the gaming establishment, he has never quite lived up to his potential.
Overall then, I'd thoroughly recommend The King of Kong. For games enthusiasts who were too young to experience it first-hand, it provides an excellent history of the Golden Age of videogames, and for everyone else, it's a comprehensive and insightful look at the people who devote their lives to the perfection of their art.