It takes a lot to break a world record. It doesn't matter if the playing field is a baseball diamond, an Olympic stadium or the stack of red girders that leads up to the big ape in "Donkey Kong."
Steve Wiebe is a middle school science teacher from Washington and has the "Donkey Kong" world record: 1,049,100 points. To attain the score, he says it required skill, tenacity, a deep understanding of the speeds of video game barrels and fireballs — and the patience of a wife who no longer wanted her husband to spend his time on the arcade machine in their garage. But some of the world's other top video game players allege it also required him to cheat (see "Ex-'Donkey Kong' Champ Finally Speaks After Getting Bruised By New Doc").
That is the controversy depicted in "The King of Kong," a documentary currently making the rounds at film festivals and slated for wider release August 17. It follows Wiebe, the unassuming video game contender who started breaking record "Donkey Kong" scores in 2002, and Billy Mitchell, who has been a top scorer of various classic arcade games such as "Donkey Kong" and "Ms. Pac-Man" since the early '80s. Throughout the film, Wiebe achieves high scores, only to have them dismissed again and again by an increasingly suspicious community of gamers, many of whom are close to Mitchell.
"To us there was that question: Did he cheat, whether knowingly or unknowingly?" the movie's producer, Ed Cunningham, told MTV News. Cunningham and director Seth Gordon followed Wiebe, Mitchell and a host of other classic gaming aficionados for almost two years, recording nearly 400 hours of footage. And still the question remains open for some serious gamers, and probably will for many moviegoers as well.
If you're a Wiebe fan, you leave "The King of Kong" believing that your man is the real deal. You're convinced that Mitchell and many of his pals at Twin Galaxies — the long-running, "Guinness Book of World Records"-appointed volunteer authority on video game records — did everything they could to prevent Wiebe from claiming a record long held by Mitchell. That is up to and including repeatedly changing the standards of what counts as a "Donkey Kong" record run, running Wiebe around the country to prove his chops, and even snooping around Wiebe's garage when he's not home to examine his "Donkey Kong" machine for evidence of foul play.
If you side with Mitchell, you leave the movie disturbed that Wiebe got motivational support and actual "Donkey Kong" hardware from a man named Roy Shildt, a longtime enemy of Twin Galaxies. You might feel that association taints every Wiebe action and every Wiebe "DK" run that wasn't witnessed by objective authorities. Were Wiebe's "Donkey Kong" circuit boards in his garage actually tweaked to give him an unfair advantage? Was the Mario from his "DK" given the ability to jump just a little higher or run just a little faster from the barrels and fireballs bounding his way?
Reviews from the film's festival showings indicate that most people who have seen the movie seem to be siding with Wiebe. Mitchell — a man with a formerly squeaky-clean reputation in the video game world — is derided as an egomaniac and a bad guy. Variety cites his "extreme paranoia, defensive patriotism and constant mental game-playing." So pervasive are the ill feelings toward him that at a recent event promoting Electronic Arts' upcoming game based on "The Simpsons," one of the show and game's writers, Matt Selman, interrupted his interview with MTV News to share his thoughts on the film (see " 'Simpsons' Video Game Lets You Bounce Homer-Ball, Fly With Super-Bart"). "We want to give a shout-out to Billy Mitchell from 'King of Kong,' " he said. "We know he's not here, but he comes off as such a jerk in that movie."
Mitchell is a confident man. He is secretive about his plans and bold in the gaming achievements he makes public, including a six-hour perfect game of "Pac-Man." He's been featured on MTV and gaming TV shows, always standing strong in a shirt, tie, tight jeans and feet split apart in a power stance. He's not known for saying negative things about other gamers, but he's also always clear to let people know he is a top gamer. This is a typical Mitchell quote from "The King of Kong," his answer to a question about cutting-edge performance: "The people who could get — besides myself — to the end of 'Donkey Kong'? Gee, now that I think of it, I don't think anybody can." Avid gamer and Twin Galaxies community member Dwayne Richard said Mitchell needs to act this way. "How do you make games interesting that are 25 years old?," he said. "How do you do that? You've got to talk some smack."
How does a guy like that turn out to be the villain of the documentary? Among other things, by repeatedly denying Wiebe a chance for the two to play head to head, even when it seems that would settle the score — all of the scores. What the movie doesn't show, though, is that before Cunningham and Gordon started rolling their cameras, Wiebe and Mitchell both did play "Donkey Kong" at the 2004 Classic Gaming Expo in San Jose, California. People on both sides of the issue differ on how the two men scored — not that it would have mattered who did better. Everyone agrees that the "DK" game wasn't played on official hardware.
CGE 2004 was Wiebe's first meeting with Mitchell. "He seemed like a fine guy face to face," Wiebe said. "He wasn't trying to beat me up or anything." Only after seeing a cut of "The King of Kong" last year did Wiebe come to see his competitor in a different light. "I saw the documentary and I definitely see the dichotomy between me and my family and him and his people," he said. "I don't think he's an evil person. I don't necessarily think I'm a saint or anything ... but the way things played out, we kind of fell into those roles."
Wiebe knows that some of the Twin Galaxies people used to consider him a cheater and that some still do. He maintains that his home arcade boards were tested by a vendor — not Roy Shildt — who sold them to him: "He did an analysis and it passed with flying colors." He believes his live performances as seen in "The King of Kong" prove his skills and that his current world record, taped from a machine in his garage, is beyond suspicion. That run has received the blessing of Twin Galaxies' top scorekeeper, Walter Day.
Over the last two years, Mitchell became motivated by those he saw as lining up against him. The Washington gamer said he also had some unlikely motivation from MTV News. Early last year, a story about longtime Twin Galaxies gaming referee Robert Mruczek featured a video clip that showed the ref explaining an extraordinary Billy Mitchell "Donkey Kong" run. (Watch the video here.) The run was shown on videotape and in demonstrating it, Mruczek was giving that specific run — a 1,047,100-point performance — the Twin Galaxies seal of approval. At the time, it put the world title back in Mitchell's camp. "I was pretty bummed out," Wiebe said. "It seemed like I had been trumped."
It was also motivation that put Wiebe back on a windy road that would bring him back the crown. A year prior, Wiebe had been on a quest to break a million points in "Donkey Kong." On one run he lost his last man at 999,500. He pressed on then too.
Some of Mitchell's friends just can't swallow "The King of Kong." Mitchell himself has yet to speak publicly about the film. After an April screening of it in New York, director Gordon said he welcomed Mitchell's take. "I'd love to give him 10 minutes of unedited response on the DVD," he said. "Whatever he has to say: Let's hear it."
On Wednesday, in an MTV News exclusive: Billy Mitchell on the "King of Kong."
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