Donkey Kong (1981)
I’m not destined to be a great Donkey Kong player. In fact I’m probably a bit of a disgrace to the name of Donkey Kong. My first bad high score came when I was playing through Donkey Kong 64 and it became apparent that in order to beat the game, I’d have to beat an arcade perfect Donkey Kong conversion. Not only that, but I’d actually have to beat it twice, with one life each time, and it was harder the second time round. This is where I recorded my second bad high score, and my third, all the way through to my seven hundred and fifth, after which I burst into tears of failure. And I honestly can’t remember any other game ever making me do that.
Still, at least I can always look down on Billy Mitchell. When I heard tell of a full -on, feature-length documentary centred around the Donkey Kong high-score, with pathos, villainy, incredible quotes and championship level nerds included, I simply had to track it down.
Speedrunning, scorerunning (?) and World Record attempts in games have become very popular in recent years, but King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters was a most unexpected slice of the cut-throat life of competitive gaming, way before any Twitch or All Games Done Quick. It was before girls in the middle of knitting asked the speedrunner to stop, or annoying lads were told to be quiet. Released in 2007, King of Kong was a caper 25 years in the making.
Films about rivalries usually need to embellish things in order to tell the story. It’s just a Hollywood procedure, and it’s not too bad so long as history isn’t entirely rewritten or one side doesn’t get vast bias over the other. Rush was an example of this being done right, where a few liberties were only added on to give the rivalry a bit of needle, not that there was any needle in reality.
King of Kong doesn’t even need this treatment. Step in Billy Mitchell, recognisable at once by his admittedly fabulous hair. Presented as the heel of the story, it is his long-standing Donkey Kong record from 1982 that has gamers around the world throwing themselves at his feet. No honestly, all throughout the film, he has multiple hangers-on. Make no mistake about it, Billy is the apex predator of gamingdom here.
The challenger, Steve Wiebe, is a man with more than one hard-luck story behind him. Some people just seem to miss out, and Steve missed out. During a year of unemployment, Steve decides to focus his one-track mind in an attempt to grab the Donkey Kong world record. Never mind the wife and kids, never mind the career for now, it’s Donkey Kong and that’s it. Even when his kid comes in needing his bum wiped, Steve wasn’t going to budge – the record was in sight. I admired his approach. It’s just a pity that the dole didn’t fall under my sway when I tried to do likewise with Perfect Dark for 18 months.
The two agonists of King of Kong could hardly be further apart in their approach, demeanour, even their families. Billy Mitchell is full of his own importance and unfailingly confident. He’s in no doubt about his abilities, and even his parents talk him up as much as possible.
Can you grasp that? If I ever got to be some sort of Donkey Kong bigshot, making mega money off it somehow, my mother would still disparage me on TV interviews and she’d tell the world that I shouldn’t be making myself gunner-eyed playing silly games at my age. Everyone follows in Mitchell’s wake in this picture, including his wife who brings some much needed breasts to the party at all times.
Steve Wiebe meanwhile is the plucky challenger, unfailingly nice, with the typical 2.4 children and a wife who’s supportive and homely in the absolute nicest sense of the word. She probably deserves a medal and bundles of sympathy for putting up with the Donkey Kong dream, especially when Mitchell’s lackeys try to gain access to her home to investigate Steve’s Donkey Kong machine. That’s how serious business it all became.
To the game itself. I can understand millenials not having played this one – it was released way back in 1981, and one wonders if I’ll review an older game than that. Maybe 1 or 3 or 7 for the Magnavox Odyssey, they were good ones. The story of Donkey Kong is an interesting one in how it allowed Nintendo to break into the US market, but the vital takeaway is that this game is where Shigeru Miyamoto made his bow.
And of course, it’s where we got the Mario and Donkey Kong characters from, and they’ve been with us ever since. As it happens, the girl you rescue isn’t Princess Peach but actually Pauline, back with a bang for Super Mario Odyssey. That leads to the all-important question – Peach, or Pauline? It’s a bit like Betty and Veronica, isn’t it? You know Peach will be good for you, and wholesome, but Pauline has that wild look in her eyes and you just know she’s gonna be a whole lot funner.
Apologies, I do that sometimes. Well, Mario Odyssey this game ain’t – there are four levels, considered massive at the time, and you’ll be seeing them over and over again if you fancy that high score. Level one, 25M is the classic sight: the ladders, the red girders and Donkey Kong beating his chest furiously at the top of this mad construction. He rains down barrels on you with gay abandon. If there’s a hammer handy, you can grab it and smash up the barrels, but this is good for pointscoring only. Which is pretty important, as it goes.
Make it to the top and you can visit 50M, the pie factory. Well, I’m sure they’re not actually mass-producing pies in this lethal construction zone, but that’s certainly what they look like. This one’s easy enough so long as you can get to grips with the conveyor belts that ferry the pies to and fro.
This brings you on neatly to 75M, which you might call the end-zone. As Billy Mitchell observes in King of Kong, between a subtle hair flick and a definitely-not-subtle sneer, most average gamers aren’t going to see beyond this level. The health and safety lads would do their nut here because there’s fires, ladders and dangerous springs flying everywhere.
There are certain sound effects in gaming that are chillingly intimidating and the primitive, high-pitched squeal of the Donkey Kong springs bouncing at high-speed across the screen before falling into the abyss below is one of them. You can at least take shortcuts in this stage, but do it at your own risk because despite his jumping chops Mario can’t take a fall any higher than three inches.
100M caps off the rotation of four levels, and it’s probably the easiest in terms of getting to the end. Once you get there you can take savage glee in putting Donkey Kong on his bum. You just jump or walk over these yellow notches, and you’ve done the bugger. You’re never quite confident walking over them, you always think you’ll fall through, but it’s fine.
Now do those four levels, twenty-two separate times and you may get yourself to the hallowed Donkey Kong kill-screen, where the game runs out of memory and you just die automatically. Apart from Evelyn Mitchell’s chest, this was the best part of the film: one of Billy Mitchell’s toadies, this real browbeaten dork called Brian Kuh, is doing his best to throw off Steve Wiebe as he comes close to getting far enough in the game to activate the kill-screen.
Kuh himself had never done it, and was trying to talk himself up as a Donkey Kong kingpin despite featuring even lower on the leaderboard than me. That’s the theme of the whole film really – Steve Wiebe coming a long way to break Billy’s records, and Billy doing everything he can from afar to undermine these attempts, always keeping a step ahead of him, disrespecting him all throughout really.
The clunk factor of the Donkey Kong game is undoubtedly high. It’s to be expected really, given how early and primitive the game was, even with all its ambitions. What’s not funny is that the NES home conversion only featured 3 of the levels. Really? Four whole levels, and they could only manage to cram three onto a NES cart?!
But who wants to play it on the NES anyway? Get yourself to an arcade machine, and by God make sure it’s World Record legal or the piranhas will be on you quickly. Take a seat for a couple of hours, and see if you can mix it up with the pros. But if your brain turns to mush ten minutes into the attempt, don’t feel too bad about it. Sometimes it’s better to just watch the top dogs in action.
21 December 2018