Dethroning the king of 'Donkey Kong'

New documentary looks at the dramatic quest to grab the highest score in one of the all-time great video games. Photos: Duel to the 'Kong' finish

In 1982, a teenager named Billy Mitchell showed up at a Life magazine photo shoot of the world's best video game players, walked into an arcade and set a world record score for Donkey Kong that destroyed what anybody else had been able to do up to that point.

He scored 874,300 points, orders of magnitude higher than anyone else's best, and that was it. The Donkey Kong standard had been set. And like Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941, it seemed like a record that might never be broken.

At the beginning of director Seth Gordon and producer Ed Cunningham's brisk-paced new documentary The King of Kong, we meet Mitchell, years later, in 2006, all grown up, but still looking a bit adolescent with his long hair and youthful air.

And no wonder. Mitchell is said to be the "gamer of the century." In addition to his Donkey Kong record, he also held the best scores in Centipede, Donkey Kong, Jr. and a couple of others. Even 24 years later, he was still milking the notoriety.

Given the renewed interest in retro games, it's not surprising that a film looking at Donkey Kong (which recently ranked third most popular '80s game in an informal poll of CNET News.com readers) would come out now. Xbox Live has released several classics, and nearly everywhere you look these days, it's Frogger this, or that.

Over the years, Mitchell has clearly developed a philosophy about his avocation, one time-tested through countless hours and quarters.

"There will always be the argument that video games are meant to be played for fun," Mitchell says at the beginning of the film, which opens in theaters on August 17. "Believe me, some of it's a lot of fun. Video games are meant to be played at home, on a couch, relaxing amongst friends, and they are, and that's fun. But competitive gaming, when you want to attach your name to a world record, when you want your name written into history, you have to pay the price."

Steve Wiebe knows exactly what Mitchell is talking about.

Wiebe is a teacher who lives in Redmond, Wash., in the shadow of Microsoft's headquarters. He's the son of a Boeing lifer who expected to forge his own career working for the aerospace giant.

He had been proficient at sports, playing baseball and basketball, and he'd been a drummer. But he'd never quite been the best at anything. In the film, we meet his family members, including his parents, wife and brother, and all talk about how coming in second is sort of Wiebe's life story, and how it defines him, to his detriment.

But Wiebe has another passion: Donkey Kong. And he's very good at it. So good, in fact, that he decides to take a shot at Mitchell's world-record high score.

The film treats almost unemotionally this initial attempt to knock Mitchell from his throne.

Sure, we see Walter Day, founder of the video game high-score certification organization , opining on the likelihood of Mitchell ever being topped: "No one," Day says, "will ever be able to beat (Mitchell's) world record."

But Wiebe does just that.

We're treated to scenes from the video that Wiebe had shot of his record-breaking attempt as he played at his Donkey Kong machine in his basement.

He's made it to more than 600,000 points without even losing a man when suddenly his young son screams at him to stop playing and come help him in the bathroom.

But he doesn't stop. And in the end, he nets a final score of 1,006,600 points, shattering Mitchell's record.

If that was the end of the story, it would be a touching, yet somewhat anticlimactic end, and the new record would carry only a little of the import that some might think it would.

But this is Steve Wiebe, the man who has always been thrown unexpected curveballs. So nothing is quite so simple.

It turns out that he had associated with one Roy Shildt, the record holder in Missile Command, who for some time had been engaged in a battle with Mitchell over who really had that game's high score.

We find out that Shildt and Mitchell have basically become mortal enemies, with threats thrown back and forth, and a general animosity that has seeped into the upper echelons of Twin Galaxies, where Mitchell is revered as classic video gaming's ambassador and his supremacy is unquestioned.

But prior to his world record attempt, Wiebe's Donkey Kong machine had died, and Shildt had given him a new control board. And when Twin Galaxies investigators showed up to check out the machine, they found hastily explained abnormalities with it that led them to invalidate Wiebe's score.

Thus begins the main part of the film: Wiebe's attempt to prove he's for real.

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