Of course, to appreciate it to the fullest, you have to have spent a good bit of the 80s in front of an arcade machine, but it’s not the geek-core exploitation of nostalgia that I expected it to be. As it starts out, you think you know where it’s going — an hour and a half of “look at the funny videogame geeks!” And there is plenty of that. But as the movie spends more time with these people, the condescension and mockery fades away, and a genuinely compelling story develops.
Story’s the key word here; nobody’s going to accuse The King of Kong of being objective. They might as well superimpose a halo around Steve Wiebe’s head and show Billy Mitchell surrounded in hellfire. But it’s masterfully edited: gleefully manipulative without making you feel like you’re being manipulated. It’s a classic story filtered through 8-bit nostalgia, the plot of every other 80s movie superimposed on an 80s pasttime. You’ve got a comically arrogant champion as your villain and the straight-shooting challenger coming out of nowhere as your hero. And the movie keeps the right tone throughout, letting you laugh at the characters as much as you get caught up in the story.
Now I’m glad I didn’t see it in the theater, because the DVD is the way to go. They add a few updates on the big rivalry, and more importantly, include interviews done for promotion of the movie as well as extended interviews deleted from the final cut. Those give you the sense that the movie’s not entirely mean-spirited or purely manipulative, and remind you that the people involved are passionate about these games, but can still laugh at themselves.
Plus, it’s got a gallery of art from I Am 8-Bit, including a Donkey Kong painting by Steve Purcell. And the DVD has an alternate cover by Scott Campbell of Double Fine. The version I saw was a rental, but I’m going out to buy a copy as soon as possible to support the movie.