Set in the insular world of competitive classic-video gaming, Seth Gordon's documentary about the epic struggle between Donkey Kong champions sounds so geeky as to verge on the pathetic. But like AIR GUITAR NATION (2006), the stranger-than-fiction cast of characters is fascinating, and their high-stakes machinations are nothing short of mind-boggling.
And what characters! The reigning champion is slick, arrogant Florida hot-sauce magnate Billy Mitchell, who started setting world records at the dawn of the video-game era and has the classic-gaming world in his pocket. The challenger is genial sad-sack Steve Wiebe, who retreated into Donkey Kong after losing his job the day he and his long-suffering wife closed on their Seattle house. Iowa-based Walter Day, an aspiring folksinger and self-appointed referee for the video-game world, established the Twin Galaxies High Score Board. Robert Mruczek is Day's senior arbiter of high scores. The weaselly Brian Kuh is Mitchell's protege. Wiebe's sometime mentor, Roy "Mr. Awesome" Schildt, is a noisy huckster whose bitter gaming-world feuds helped undermine Wiebe's credibility. Octogenarian Doris Self hopes to set a Q*Bert record. You couldn't make them up, any more than you could script the off-camera wail of Wiebe's small son asking Daddy to wipe his behind as Wiebe is on the verge of setting his record, which was captured on the videotape Wiebe sent Twin Galaxies to authenticate his score.
Gordon lays out the necessary background: why the simple-looking Donkey Kong is considered an elite game, how elite players gain an edge (memorization and pattern recognition), where the alliances within the gaming world lie, and how you silence all questions about your score's legitimacy — by playing your opponent live in a Twin Galaxies-sanctioned arcade like New Hampshire's Fun Spot, something Wiebe spends much of the film trying to persuade Mitchell to do. The rest is sheer personality, and it's just about impossible not to root for the laid-back Wiebe when the black-clad Mitchell insists on strutting around like some high-school dweeb's idea of the Prince of Darkness. Even allowing for the power of creative editing, he's the best villain Hollywood never invented. To top it all off, Gordon never loses sight of the larger issue: the American obsession with winning, the pursuit of being the best — at something, anything — no matter what falls by the wayside. A fictional version is already in the works, but it's hard to imagine how it could top the facts.
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