In addition to being a video game nerd, I’m also a little bit of a movie buff. So with a number of interesting documentary films on arcade video games having been released in the past ten years or so, I’ve done my best to catch a lot of them. So let’s pop some corn and tear open a packet of Twizzlers, round a bunch of them up and check ’em out, shall we? MOVIE SIIIIIIIIGN!
All of these films are either available on DVD, Blu-ray, or various streaming services; please search them all out and purchase/rent them legitimately. Enjoy!
King of Kong
Let’s start here, since everybody kinda knows this one and the story has only gotten more interesting since the movie came out. King of Kong is the story of two Donkey Kong players, high school teacher Steve Weibe and internationally-recognized videogame champion Billy Mitchell, and how Steve is an unassuming, upstanding underdog and Billy’s a big egotistical jerkface. Well, there’s a lot more to the story than that, but that seems to be the thing most people take away from this movie, and it’s definitely made in a way that amplifies that. On the surface, KoK is a compelling duel for Donkey Kong dominance which is highly entertaining and watchable, made all the more interesting by the events that occurred in the world of competitive Donkey-Konging since this film came out: both players’ high scores have since been toppled by other players, and of course, Mitchell’s record high scores have since been erased from both Twin Galaxies and Guinness after he was found not exactly playing by the rules. For its time, KoK is a well-made movie that helped kick-start the classic-gaming-high-scoring-struggle documentary sub-sub-sub-genre. But is it the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade
This is an interesting companion piece to King of Kong, because it focuses on some of the same personalities who are referenced in KoK and their history. Chasing Ghosts is about the gamers at Twin Galaxies who were photographed by Life magazine as the video game champions of the world in 1982, and where they are now. More focused on the people and the games than KoK‘s dramatic story arc, the movie is an interesting watch on its own, and an introduction to some of the names you may not know if you weren’t there in the old days.
High Score and
Man vs Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler
I’m putting these two together because they’re very similar movies, and both worth a watch. High Score follows Bill Carlton and his mission to become the world champion at Atari’s famous Missile Command, while Man vs Snake is about an old-school gamer named Tim McVey (not to be confused with Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber) and his quest to reclaim his former glory as the high score holder on semi-obscure arcade relic Nibbler. High Score is a fairly straightforward affair, wherein Bill battles not only the game but his Missile Command machine itself, which is prone to malfunction. Man vs Snake is a bit more complex, as McVey was thought to have achieved the first billion-point game of Nibbler back in the old days, but was contested by a gamer from Italy who had actually achieved a better score around the same time. Added to the mix is an old rival of McVey’s, Dwayne Richard (he’ll pop up again later), who was also gunning for the record, and of course ol’ Walter Day and Billy Mitchell are involved too. So McVey, now in his 40s, obtains a Nibbler machine, and goes for the gold one more — well, actually, several more times. Both films deal with the grueling circumstances of marathon classic gaming: the ambition, the inspiration, the physical and mental strain, the exhaustion, the crushing defeats, the victories. In terms of entertainment value, I would put Man vs Snake a little ahead of High Score, but both are worth watching.
The Lost Arcade
Full disclosure: I was a Kickstarter backer of this film. And I am extremely proud to have supported it and patiently waited years for its completion, because the movie came out just amazingly. Far removed from the cast of ’80s high scorers involved in the other documentaries here, The Lost Arcade is a chronicle of the closing of Chinatown Fair arcade in New York City, and how it affected its regular customers and those who took care of it. You can read my full review of it at the post I made when it came out, but the short version is that it’s an emotional film that really shows the humanity of gamers and how important video games can be to a community. Please, get your hands on a copy of The Lost Arcade any way you can. It’s beautiful.
100 Yen: The Japanese Arcade Experience
A fairly straightforward, yet informative look at Japanese arcades, starting with the Space Invaders phenomenon that resulted in Invader Houses (arcades full of nothing but Space Invaders machines) and the infamous 100 yen coin shortage, and covering the various popular genres that have dominated Japanese game centers, such as shmups, fighting games, and rhythm games. Lots of great footage of arcades both well-known (HEY, Taito Station, Sega) and lesser-known but possibly better (Mikado, Game Inn Ebisen), and interviews with well-known top Japanese gamers such as Daigo Umehara and CLOVER-TAC make it a worthwhile insight into what some may consider gaming nirvana.
King of Arcades
The story of classic gamer, machine restorer, arcade owner, Kong Off organizer, and all-around good guy Richie Knucklez and the highs and lows of his arcade business. Once again, all the usual suspects show up — Walter Day, Billy Mitchell, Steve Sanders, Steve Weibe, Tim McVey — showing what a small world this scene seems to be. But it also features some legendary figures of video game history, such as Ralph Baer, Nolan Bushnell, and Eugene Jarvis. What makes King of Arcades (and really, Richie Knucklez himself) a breath of fresh air, is its positivity. Unlike some of the films in this roundup, it’s not full of snark, attitude, cynicism, or overblown confrontation. Instead, it’s about the love of gaming, bringing people together, making friends and making memories. Even the more negative parts of the story are dealt with in a way that emphasizes making the right calls in life. Well-made and fun to watch, the “special edition” DVD has a ton of bonus features, including a feature-length update on Richie since the documentary was made, uncut interviews, and more.
King of Con
Featuring pretty much EVERYONE found in several of these documentaries — not only King of Kong, but also Chasing Ghosts and Man vs. Snake — let’s talk about this dark horse that throws a real wrench into the KoK story. King of Con, by the aforementioned Dwayne Richard, is a very unpolished and homemade, yet ambitious and incendiary documentary that can be found for free on YouTube, and takes an alternate, sobering look at the people and events that were (or should have been) involved with not only King of Kong, but also the quest for the perfect Pac-Man game. Is this the real truth? Are there important players we should know about who have been excluded from the widely-known videogame lore? Was King of Kong a complete fabrication? Did someone achieve a perfect Pac-Man game over a decade before Billy Mitchell? Despite its amateur production values, this may actually be the most intriguing documentary on this list. I recommend you watch King of Con after you see the others and decide for yourself!
Bang the Machine
Finally, I’ll end this roundup with a documentary that I was very excited to see in the early 2000s, and then suddenly went silent. Bang the Machine was a documentary on the Street Fighter tournament scene, with the hotshots of the day such as Alex Valle and John Choi. It looked to be pretty intense, as was the scene in those days. As the story goes, it was originally intended to be presented in a TV series format; however, production was stunted when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 destroyed the offices of JabStrongFierce Productions right in the World Trade Center. Aside from lost work, another huge hurdle was the use of licensed music (the remaining footage had dialog mixed down with the music, making it impossible to separate and replace the music), which at this point would carry a hefty licensing fee. The footage that was left was assembled into a feature film format and screened at the SXSW festival in 2002 and occasionally at some EVO tournaments, but has never been officially released in any format. It’s unfortunate, because it looked quite excellent. Clips of Bang the Machine, as well as an Attack of the Show interview with its director and producer explaining the film and its troubled path to completion, can be found on YouTube, and sadly, that may be all we’re ever going to see of it. Let’s hope not.