An epic battle for gaming glory

Special to The Times

When director Seth Gordon and producer Ed Cunningham set out to make a documentary about the world of classic arcade gaming, they had no idea they would stumble upon -- or possibly create -- one of the greatest summer movie villains ever.

That "villain" turned out to be video game legend Billy Mitchell. Having nabbed high scores on a variety of games, including Centipede and Donkey Kong, Mitchell has enjoyed the limelight since 1982, when Life magazine crowned him one of "the best gamers in the world." So it's no wonder that when Seattle-based junior high school teacher Steve Wiebe decided to try to beat Mitchell's record Donkey Kong score, Mitchell appeared to do everything in his power to keep him from winning . . . even if it meant pulling some insider strings.

The intriguing good-versus-evil struggle toward a new world record -- playing better on-screen at times than most big-budget Hollywood rivalries -- is the focus of Gordon's "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," which opens Friday.

As a child, Gordon had spent many memorable family vacations at New Hampshire's Funspot -- now the largest video game arcade in the world, so a film about arcade gaming was a natural. Often the site of sanctioned competitions (and the setting of much of the film), the Funspot was a draw for Gordon, because he knew that whatever direction the documentary took, he'd get to go there for work, 15 years after loving it as a kid. Says Gordon, "That's honestly all I needed to know."

When filming began, Gordon had only Wiebe on board. Having recently lost his job at Boeing, and not yet settled on working as a teacher, Wiebe had time on his hands. So while his wife supported the family, he dived headlong into his quest to break Mitchell's record. But while Wiebe was "a very down-to-earth guy," says Gordon, "he's not the best subject for a documentary."

For the film to work, Wiebe would need to face down the legend whose 1982 Donkey Kong record of 874,300 he was trying to beat. In the world of arcade games, "all roads lead to Billy," says Gordon. "He's the expert, so we had to go visit him."

"You have to go kiss the ring," says Cunningham. "It's very much like going to see the don."

And while the charismatic Mitchell, the entrepreneur behind Rickey's Hot Sauce, agreed to be involved with the documentary, he never agreed to be cast as Dr. Evil to Wiebe's Austin Powers. But the minute the videotape of Wiebe reaching a score of 1,006,600 arrived at the offices of Twin Galaxies (the official organization responsible for approving any video game world record), it ended up that way.

"I was the guy coming in on his turf, trying to take over," says Wiebe. "I think that got his competitive spirits fired up. He was doing things that no one ever saw him do before. [It] just appeared to be 'evil.' "

The trouble began just as Wiebe's summer-long attempt to beat the record was achieved. Unfortunately for Wiebe, Mitchell was on the Twin Galaxies board of directors and friends with most of the officers, including its president, Walter Day. Wiebe was concerned Mitchell would have an unfair say in whether his record-breaking score was accepted. "He was someone who had weight in the organization," Wiebe says. "I figured I was dead in the water."

It was just the beginning of Wiebe's battle to get his high score legitimized. Throughout the film, Wiebe's ever-more-desperate attempts to succeed are quashed, seemingly by Mitchell's influence. First, his videotaped record-breaking score is thrown out because the arcade's components were donated by a foe of Mitchell and Twin Galaxies, with the implication that the score might have been inflated by a rigged board. Then, after Wiebe re-creates his score in front of Twin Galaxies staff, a tape is delivered showing Mitchell's latest, even higher Donkey Kong score of 1,047,200.

The depressed Wiebe, who comes across as life's punching bag, bends over backward at each turn of events only to be overshadowed by Mitchell's far-reaching reputation. "To gamers, he is their idol," Wiebe says. "When Billy talks, they listen. But that doesn't mean he can do anything he wants."

More powerful at "talking points" than a political aide, Mitchell never mentions his opponent's name in the film or acknowledges any of the competition the filmmakers are focusing on. "I've never dealt with anybody who literally makes every rule," Cunningham says. "I've never been around someone like that."

Mitchell now refuses to talk in public about the film, including being MIA at a recent promotional stop at the pop culture convention Comic-Con. In fact, he refuses even to see the movie. "We felt like this master gamer was now playing with us," Gordon says. "He had mastered all the games, so now he was going to focus on the journalists."

Concerned about the portrayal of his Twin Galaxies friends, Mitchell says he doesn't mind being cast as the villain. "I don't have a problem being in a movie or being a bad guy. I don't have a problem with being laughed at," he says by phone from his home in Hollywood, Fla., where he lives with his family. "I have a problem when they take hardworking people who have served the industry for more than 20 years and show them to be incompetent . . . and they call it real. That's not real. That's bad ethics."

Mitchell says he won't see the movie because he feels wronged by the filmmakers. "I opened them up to my family, to friends, to people in the industry who look at me and think I have good judgment," he says. "I subjected them to a situation that turned out to be less than ethical. Emotionally, I really have a difficult time with that."

Mitchell says the filmmakers' inability to capture a full-fledged competitive rivalry made them edit in a way that was unflattering to him and that audiences are accepting without question. "If you see it on a screen, if you see it in print, if it's edited the right way," he says, "it must be true. And that's the most weak-minded thought there is."

"Does [the film] show the true Billy?" asks Cunningham. "We don't know. Because even we never had access to the real Billy." Still, Gordon says Mitchell got off easy. "If our goal was to paint him in a bad light," he says, "there was a bunch of stuff we could have used that we avoided for the simple reason that it was just too much."

For his part, Wiebe says, "Everyone has positives and negatives. It just so happens that during this stretch of time going for this record, the negative outshone the positive for Billy."

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