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August 13, 2007

A Man, A Plan, An Ape

King of Kong's Astoria premiere more fun than a barrel of you-know-whats

King of Queens: Donkey Kong master and King of Kong subject Steve Wiebe tears it up following Sunday's screening in Astoria (Photos: Annaliese Griffin)

Steve Wiebe plays Donkey Kong really, really well. In fact, he holds the Guinness Book of World Records high score for the classic '80s arcade game, so you might say he's the best Donkey Kong player in the world -- for now. Competitive arcade gaming is a small and cutthroat world, and you can't easily rise as far as Wiebe has without becoming someone's nemesis.

Last night Wiebe was on hand at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria to discuss his world record at the New York premiere of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. The documentary follows Wiebe as he tries to claim the Donkey Kong title, inadvertently sparking an intractable rivalry with former champ Billy Mitchell. The latter player set the Donkey Kong record in 1982, when he also held the record for Centipede. Still well known in the hardcore arcade-geek community, he's fashioned himself into a quasi-celebrity. As director Seth Gordon put it during the post-screening discussion with Wiebe, his wife Nicole and producer Ed Cunningham, "All roads, in this world, lead to Billy Mitchell."

Wiebe turned to Donkey Kong as an outlet for his frustration after he lost his job at Boeing. He videotaped himself while playing so that he could submit a record-breaking game to Twin Galaxies, the reigning authority in arcade record-keeping. When Wiebe submitted a tape of a million-point game, he bested Mitchell's record of around 850,000 points, took the title and became a local celebrity. But then Twin Galaxies employees came to his home, inspected his machine and declared his win illegal. Possibly doctored video tapes, nerd nepotism, a legendary arcade called the FunSpot and an individual who refers to himself as Mr. Awesome all come into play at this point, and the Steve-versus-Billy battle takes on a genuine Sharks-and-Jets quality, but with less dancing.

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Cunningham met Steve in Seattle shortly after he'd been stripped of the title. The producer was finishing the editing on another project and knew immediately that King of Kong would be his next film. "I went home to Seth and I was like, 'Uh, dude, you gotta hear about this world, about these people." While plenty of docs enter strange subcultures, a lot of them tend to either revel in the weirdness of it all with no real narrative drive or linger unkindly on their unconventional subjects. King of Kong avoids both traps by focusing on Wiebe's attempt to capture the world record in "live play," at an arcade or gaming event in front of other players, and on Mitchell's resistance to Wiebe's arrival on his scene.

The two men couldn't be more different, and as cinematic archetypes they may as well be lifted from a spaghetti Western. In his polar fleece, sneakers and jeans or cargo shorts, Wiebe personifies the laid-back Pacific Northwest. He's quick to laugh -- especially at himself -- and teaches middle-school science. Mitchell favors black pants paired with a black button-down shirt and an American flag-themed tie. His shoulder-length hair is feathered and blow-dried and his facial hair suggests that he might drive a van with a wolf airbrushed on the side (he doesn't).

When Gordon first interviewed Mitchell he noticed immediately that "The Gamer of the Century," as Mitchell has been called, wasn't keen on discussing the new guy in town. "The name he would not mention was Steve Wiebe," said Gordon. "He wouldn't say Steve's name, he avoided it in the way he phrased his sentences and the way he told everything. And I just thought that was very interesting. Why would you try to erase your rival from history?"

Wiebe and King of Kong director Seth Gordon answer questions at Museum of the Moving Image

Despite capturing Mitchell's particular brand of hubris and his role as puppet-master in the gaming world, Gordon's admiration for all of the film's high-level players is strong. "I encourage anybody to go upstairs and take a shot at that Donkey Kong up there," Gordon said, referring to the games set up for the post-screening reception. "I bet you don't last a minute. I bet you don't make it past the first board. It is staggeringly difficult. And to have the kind of focus to get to the 117th board two-and-a-half hours in, you can't step away from the machine. And to get to something that no one knew existed -- the kill screen -- on your own, that requires a level-pattern recognition, focus, genius drive -- everything that most humans simply don't have."

Gordon's description seemed apt when we migrated upstairs to the reception; players would slink away from the complimentary games barely minutes after their turns began.

When Wiebe sat down a crowd formed behind him, tiptoeing and peering to see him in action, even though we had just spent nearly 90 minutes watching do just that on the screen. It may sound ridiculous, but it's mesmerizing to watch someone do something they're really, really good at -- even when it involves a barrel-flinging ape. Wiebe settled onto his stool in a relaxed, forward hunch and started playing, oblivious to the crowd, the photographers jockeying for position and even to the beer someone had set down on a table next to the game for him. He seemed content -- like he knew he'd be there awhile.

King of Kong opens around the city on Friday. For the trailer and theaters visit www.billyvssteve.com.

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