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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.

The first suggestion is that Wiebe travel to a place where the Donkey Kong machine is known and he can play in front of people. That means just one place in the world to classic video game enthusiasts: FunSpot, in Weirs, N.H.

So Wiebe packs his quarters and hops in the car. The next thing you know, he's sitting in front of FunSpot's Donkey Kong machine--known to be one of the world's hardest, according to local legend--and the chase is on.

New film documents race for arcade-game title.

The shots are striking. At first, Wiebe is all alone, well on his way to a world's record, and no one even notices. But as he inches closer--especially as he approaches what is known as the "kill screen," when a player reaches such an advanced point in the game where it simply dies--he is suddenly surrounded.

What becomes clear is that Wiebe, for all his skill, is a total outsider in the classic video game universe, and the institution is not rooting for him. At every step of the way, as his score rises, another enthusiastic player sneaks away and phones Mitchell, informing him of Wiebe's progress.

SPOILER ALERT from editor: If you don't want to know what happens in the movie, please do not read beyond this point.

Eventually, Wiebe gets the kill screen, and his score tops out at 985,600, a new record.

Cheers erupt, and for a moment, it looks as if Wiebe is finally, at long, last, the best at something.

But seemingly moments later, a video tape arrives, everyone gathers around to watch it. On it, Mitchell is seen playing his own game of Donkey Kong. We don't even need to see what happens: his score tops a million, and as everyone cheers the new, new record, we see Wiebe, looking shell-shocked and crying.

And that's where things stand, for nine months.

But one day, Walter Day at Twin Galaxies gets a call from the Guinness Book of World Records, which tells him they want the organization to sanction record holders in a series of classic video games, including Donkey Kong.

So off to Hollywood, Fla.--Mitchell's home town--Wiebe goes, hoping for a shot at breaking the record, and doing so head-to-head with the gamer of the century.

It's a perfect movie moment. First we see Wiebe's wife talking about how she worries what will happen if he doesn't emerge victorious. Then we're treated to the sight of Mitchell, through a barely cracked door and reflected in his bathroom mirror, combing his long hair while Leonard Cohen rasps away at Everybody Knows.

But while Wiebe shows up ready to go for Guinness, Mitchell won't play. We don't find out precisely why, but it's clear that Mitchell can't bear the idea of having to protect his record in front of others, and risk losing.

It's a poor showing.

"I traveled 3,000 miles for my chance to get in Guinness," Wiebe says. "I hope (Mitchell) can at least come 10 miles and put his game on the line."

But he doesn't.

At one point, one of Mitchell's sidekicks, who has been watching Wiebe play, sits down with Mitchell and tells the interviewer that he's impressed with Wiebe, his integrity and his game.

The interviewer then asks Mitchell if he feels the same, and in a sad, defeatist voice that reeks of denial, he responds, "I'm not familiar enough with his situation."

In the end, however, Wiebe is not able to break Mitchell's 1,047,200 record, and Twin Galaxies submits that as its sanctioned score.

It's the story of Wiebe's life, yet again second. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

"But," the final frame of the film tells us, on August 6, 2006, Wiebe .