Florida lawyer/video game scapegoater Jack Thompson has it all wrong. His crusade to keep games out of the hands of the impressionable youth/future mass murderers of America ignores the fact that most gamers are over 30. And he need look no further than his own back yard to find one of the vilest cretins ever to place hand on joystick: Billy Mitchell, an arrogant Floridian hot-sauce magnate. Bearded, with a mullet straight out of 1982, Mitchell is worshipped by the passionate misfits within the small, strange culture of “classic arcade gaming,” where he’s held a number of world records, one of which he set back in 1982: a score of 874,300 on the arcade machine that introduced Nintendo’s iconic mascot, Mario. The game? Donkey Kong.
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Mitchell is living the American Dream (dig his flag-print ties), swaggering around with his trophy wife, confident that his past glories will never be eclipsed. And, really, who has time to master the intricacies of an absurdist retro game where the player takes on the role of a plump Italian plumber ascending endless screens of iron girders and ladders and dodging deadly rolling barrels in a fruitless attempt to save a damsel caught in the clutches of a chest-thumping monkey?
Enter Steve Wiebe, lifelong loser from Redmond, Washington. Skilled in many fields (science, sports, music), he’s failed at pretty much all of them, but he’s a likable failure. The one thing he has accomplished is building a family. Nevertheless, on the day in 2003 when he signed his mortgage, he was laid off from his job at Boeing. Unemployed, he took to playing the vintage Donkey Kong arcade cabinet housed in his garage. Through an Internet search, he discovered Twin Galaxies, the “official scorekeeper for the world of video games since the early 1980s,” run by Iowa farmer Walter Day, the organization’s folk-singing head referee. With nothing better to do, Wiebe spent the next few months obsessively unlocking Donkey Kong’s difficult gameplay strategies, convinced he could surpass Mitchell’s score. He was right.
Given its humble subject, filmmaker Seth Gordon’s chronicle (Gordon was cinematographer on last year’s candid Dixie Chicks documentary, Shut Up & Sing) proves unexpectedly involving and improbably rousing. You need not know video games to be delighted when, with a camera trained on the game’s screen, his face reflected on the glass, you see Wiebe’s horrified expression as his young son wanders in off-camera, screaming, “Dad! Wipe my butt!”, just as he realizes that his current play session could be the record breaker. It’s a tense moment, incredibly funny and stranger than fiction.
Things get stranger. Twin Galaxies refuses to validate Wiebe’s 1,000,600 score, questioning the integrity of his machine because its main circuit board was supplied by “Mr. Awesome,” Mitchell’s bitter rival Roy Shildt, former world record holder of Missile Command. It’s worth mentioning that Mitchell is an associate referee of Twin Galaxies. And so it goes.
Gordon’s presentation of Mitchell’s Machiavellian maneuvering (complete with secret videotapes being delivered by little old ladies) versus Wiebe’s weepy setbacks seems too good to be true, trumped up for audiences hungry for “reality.” Day has recently defended Mitchell against what he considers to be this film’s demonization of one of Twin Galaxies’ brightest stars. Still, even Day is won over by the underdog, ultimately acknowledging Wiebe’s achievement. Now he just needs to say the guy’s name right.