Video Review: The King of Kong – A Fistful of Quarters

I had long heard about this documentary (The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters) and its look nto the world of competitive video gaming (yes, there is a world of competitive video gaming). But it’s not something my wife would ever be interested in, so it lived just outside of my spectrum as a video that I might someday rent. The upcoming summer camp around gaming gave me the opportunity and the excuse to buy the documentary, which centers around a competition to get the highest score on the classic Donkey Kong arcade game, and I was able to watch it while my wife is out of town. My two older sons plunked down on the couch with me, too, and it was interesting to listen to their comments.

Their main reaction:  What kind of adult spend their time on a Donkey Kong machine in their garage, trying to earn a top score on an old arcade game? Dork!

I tried to explain that everyone has certain obsessions, and for these people, it is playing the game that catapulted video games into the public consciousness in the early days. Donkey Kong was a game changer, if you will excuse the corner turn of words, in that suddenly, a game was very challenging and also had a story (Mario has to rescue the princess, who has been taken captive each level by that maniacal gorilla). And it was the game where Mario got his start, which later led to the Mario Brothers franchise, and I reminded them we have a Super Mario Brothers game on our Wii.

I also gave them some stats about who plays video games, and how the demographics show that most gamers are in their upper 20s or 30s. Their reaction? That’s because games today are cool, and not lame. I told them that 20 years from now, our games will look lame, too, so it is all historic perspective. That quieted them down for a bit.

Still, the movie is a fascinating look at an insular world where passion and focus and even good-versus-bad is on full display as a nice guy from Washington (Steve) tries to dethrone the reining champion (Jimmy), a pompous jerk who may or may not have cheated when he realized his top score was under attack (the boys and I were pretty clear that the dude had cheated, and it was at that moment of realization that the three of us were fully invested in the documentary, which shows the power of protagonist/antagonist even in documentaries — we suddenly had someone to cheer for and someone to jeer at). And in the end, just like any movie worth its salt, the good guy finally wins. Eventually.

What I found fascinating was the pure passion for video games. Sure, my sons called them “nerds” and the movie both pokes fun at the crowds of people descending on video game arcades for championship weekends even as it celebrates the way they emerge as dedicated to their craft, as much as sports athletes do. I mean, just think of someone who spends hours each day putting a ball through a hoop. Again and again. That’s pretty idiotic on the surface, right? So how is that different than pushing a joystick around?

I recommend The King of Kong for an entertaining and probing look at players in the aging video game world, back when arcades were community gathering spaces for gamers (unlike today, when we are shut up in our homes or immersed in online gaming communities). It is a powerful documentary about people, and the lengths they will go to become recognized for a single achievement and then, the things they will do to remain in the spotlight for fear of fading glory.

Peace (in the Kong),

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