Seth Gordon’s 2007 debut documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, now available on DVD, follows Steve Wiebe’s struggle to be recognised as the world Donkey Kong highest score holder. It’s a fascinating insight to men’s self-perception and self-worth — how they will cheat to stay on top, and the corrupt bureaucracy that lets them. If fictional, these “professional” video-gamers would be criticised as stock characters; it is a case of the truth being stranger than fiction.

The film was met with overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics. Robert Wilonsky of the Village Voice, for example called the film a “miniature masterpiece” and “[his] favourite movie of the year”. Sydney Morning Herald reviewer Paul Byrnes said: “It’s a superb documentary about human weakness, as well as the desire to strive and win.”

Steve Wiebe has got so close to being great at many things: he missed out on pitching in the baseball state championship through injury; he’s a gifted drummer and pianist but doesn’t care to perform; and he had just been laid off as a Boeing engineer (the day after they signed the papers for the house, according to his wife). To escape this latest failure, he buys a retro Donkey Kong arcade machine.

After reading of Billy Mitchell’s world record, Wiebe obsesses over Donkey Kong. He masters the game, and smashes the world’s highest score. Wiebe submits a tape of the feat to Twin Galaxies (the organisation set up by pushover Walter Day that keeps track of arcade games high scores) and, for a few weeks, the local press heralds him as the world record holder.

But Mitchell, the long-haired, moustached self-confessed “sauce king” and “champion”, won’t give up the title he held for more than 20 years easily. He considers his arcade scores his greatest achievements in life (next to his family, he rather hesitantly adds). He sends his minion to investigate Wiebe’s machine and finds its circuit board was bought by Roy Shildt, a self-styled fitness guru, Missile Command high score claimant and Mitchell’s nemesis. The staff of Twin Galaxies suspects Shildt might have rigged Wiebe’s board, so refuse to recognise the score.

Nine months later, Wiebe learns the Guinness Book of World Records wants to publish several of Twin Galaxies’ records, including Mitchell’s (latest, questionable) score. Wiebe again travels across the country to compete in an “official” tournament. His family’s exasperation is captured in this exchange with his daughter, Jillian:

Jillian: “I never knew that the Guinness World Record Book was so … I never knew it was so important.”
Steve: “I guess a lot of people are … yeah, a lot of people read that book.”
Jillian: “Some people sort of ruin their lives to be in there.”

Like Jillian, you don’t need to value video games or world records to enjoy every one of King of Kong’s 79 minutes. These men certainly do, and the way it almost consumes them makes for compelling viewing.

The details: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is available on DVD.