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So what is the allure of Donkey Kong?

February 25, 2012
By Cindy Votruba , Marshall Independent

It was Christmas of 1982 when my brother and I got an Atari 2600 for Christmas. At age 6, my brother wasn't too adept at video games. And at age 10, I wasn't too much either. The only game I?really somewhat excelled at was Pitfall. I got through the 20 minutes time period unscathed once or twice. I?thought I did decent for someone who really didn't play a whole heckuva lot. Other games I?liked that we had were bowling (the only way I?ever got a perfect score in the sport), pinball and the Olympics. Nothing like listening to a tinny rendition of the Olympics theme song to kick off your Atari version of the Summer Games.

This past weekend Ross brought out a DVD?he bought from the Movie Gallery's going-out-of-business sale. He said it was called "A Fistful of Quarters." At first, I didn't know what it was about - the title didn't help me (and admittedly, I?thought it was a Western).?Then he said it was about competition video game playing. And that it was kind of a documentary. OK, I?think I?can be down with that.

What the movie boiled down to was a not-so-friendly rivalry between a couple of guys - Steve Wiebe of Washington State and Billy Mitchell of Florida in the game Donkey Kong. According to the movie, Mitchell had achieved the high score in Donkey Kong back in the 1980s - 874,300. In 2005, Wiebe decides to try and break the record. So he basically holed himself in his garage playing a full-sized arcade game of Donkey Kong. He gets a score of 1,006,600 and sends the score into Twin Galaxies, an organization that keeps track of high scores achieved on arcade games. But then Mitchell strikes back. He sends Brian Kuh, a video gamer, who, get this, retired at age 30 to play video games professionally, to look at Wiebe's Donkey Kong machine. It is discovered that the circuit board to the arcade game was supplied by Roy Shildt, one of Mitchell's nemeses when Mitchell had Shildt's high score in the video game Missile Command brought under fire. Those at Twin Galaxies figured Shildt had possibly tampered with Wiebe's circuit board to get some sort of revenge on Mitchell (ah, the nasty world of competitive video game playing).

Wiebe decides to prove himself live at the Funspot Arcade by getting a high score in front of Twin Galaxies' founder Walter Day and others. Wiebe hopes to be able to play Mitchell as he issued a live challenge. Mitchell, who reminds me of a longer haired Adam Goldberg, doesn't show up, but sends Kuh (who for some reason worships Mitchell) to watch. Wiebe scores 985,000 points in front of witnesses. But apparently Mitchell had a trick up his sleeve. He had an 80-year-old woman, who was gunning for the Q-bert (remember that game?) record hand off a VHS tape to Day that shows him attaining (I had a feeling before it was revealed) more than 1 million points on the game. The tape was of pathetic quality and seemed pretty sketchy. But those geeks at Twin Galaxies accepted the tape as gospel and Mitchell was still the record holder, leaving a poor, hapless Wiebe to go back home.

Then the business of the Guinness Book of World Records entered the mix. Wiebe learned that Guinness wanted to publish some of the high scores Twin Galleries has tallied. So he travels to Mitchell's hometown to challenge Mitchell to a public game. Again. Of course, Mitchell doesn't show up. And Wiebe unfortunately doesn't get a million points. Mitchell just came off as condescending, creepy and obnoxious (but of course movies, even documentaries) need a villain. And Wiebe was portrayed as the honest good guy.

In looking up more about what has happened since the movie was released in 2008, I learned that neither Wiebe or Mitchell hold the high score as of February 2011. It did bounce around a bit between Mitchell and Wiebe and a couple of new contenders -?Mark Kiehl and Hank Chien (what is it with these names that contain ie?). Chien has the high score of 1,090,400.

Overall, I?actually got a kick out of the movie. It wasn't long - just 80 minutes, but it was fascinating to learn about the competitive video game playing culture. And a bit sad too that grown men were acting this way over a mere video game. Thinking back to the days when I?played the Atari and the joysticks worked, I?thought playing for 20 minutes was long enough. I couldn't fathom playing for 2-1/2 hours. Hello carpal tunnel.



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