Even if you haven’t been inside an arcade in a decade (or two), you might walk out of The King of Kong — an absurdly gripping new documentary chronicling the battle between the world’s top two Donkey Kong players — looking for one.
In 2003, perpetual underdog Steve Wiebe, now 38, was laid off from Boeing. In his downtime, he discovered not just that he was good at the arcade game, but that he was good enough to give legendary gamer Billy Mitchell, who’d held the top score for two decades, a run for his quarters. Playing on his own machine in his garage each night (one game at his level can last two hours and 15 minutes), Wiebe finally shattered Mitchell’s record with a score over 1,000,000…but for reasons revealed in the movie, Twin Galaxies — the authority on player rankings — refused to acknowledge it. The King of Kong follows Wiebe’s two-year quest to prove he’s got game, and cocky hot-sauce-maker Mitchell’s struggle to hold on to his title. Should there be any doubt that this story is an epic, New Line has plans to make it into a feature (Wiebe could see Greg Kinnear, Nathan Fillion, Mark Hamill, or Ralph Macchio playing him).
EW.com caught up with Wiebe last Wednesday, a day after he’d gotten to the ”kill screen” in a warm-up game at Dave and Buster’s in Times Square. His score of 946,500 was still on the machine in New York, but he was already back in Seattle, where the previous night’s chants of ”Wiebe! Wiebe!” had been replaced by his two kids’ ”Daddy! Daddy!” With Wiebe focusing more on family these days than Kong, it’s a good time to learn what it takes to become a World Record-holding gamer. So we asked him.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: At Dave and Buster’s, you had people all around you while you were playing. How do you develop that kind of focus?
STEVE WIEBE: I’m a teacher. When I’m in the science room and there’s lab stations set up, I’m getting bombarded with requests from students. So I guess I’m kinda used to tending to a lot of different things at once. And then my son, of course, you see him yelling at me in the movie. He’s helped me learn a different level of concentration. [Laughs]
Yes, that’s my favorite moment. You’re approaching the record, you’ve got a camera videotaping the game, and your son, Derek, starts screaming, ”Wipe my butt!.. Stop playing Donkey Kong!” He’s 7 years old now. Does he realize that he’ll be forever remembered for yelling, ”Wipe my butt”?
[Laughs] Yeah, I don’t know how he’ll feel about that when he’s going through the teenage years and dating. That might be tough on him.
[Hearing a ”Daddy!”] Is that Derek yelling at you right now?
Yeah, we’re in the middle of a game of chess. I was teaching him, so he’s wants me to get back to it. But don’t rush the interview. [To Derek] We’re gonna be off in a little bit, okay? [To EW] And I’m gonna take him to see Harry Potter later as a treat.
So let’s cut to the chase for Derek’s sake: How do we become you?
I think it just takes a passion for whatever you’re doing. If you’re trying to do something just ’cause you’re trying to get your name in the record book, and don’t love what you’re doin’, it’s gonna be difficult and not a very fun experience. So you love what you’re doin’. You dedicate the hours. And you have patience. For Donkey Kong, it takes a lot of knowledge of the game and hand-eye coordination.
How do we work on hand-eye coordination?
Playing the drums is a good workout for that. But it just comes from playing the game.
How do we analyze the game?
Back when arcades were popular, you’d be talking with your friends and share knowledge that way. But just through experience playing the game, you recognize patterns. I’d film the games, so sometimes I would even look at the game film. [Laughs] Kinda like in the NFL when the players watch the game film to study their opponent. I would review the tapes and try to find anything that could help me.
NEXT PAGE: ”If you’re married and have a family and they can be supportive, work out some time frame that’s suitable so you’re not neglecting the family.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Donkey Kong is considered one of, if not THE, hardest arcade game. Is there a game whose record we might find easier to break?
I think Pac-Man. To get a perfect Pac-Man score takes an above-average gamer, but there’s patterns that you can get books on. Or, at least back in the day, I remember reading books that gave me the patterns. You’re maneuvering the Pac-Man character through the maze, so if you have a pattern, that will help you play for a pretty long time. And it’s just a single joystick, there’s no buttons or anything, so it’s pretty simple.
How do we decide which game is right for us?
I think some people have more of an inclination toward the shooter-type games. The Asteroids, Space Invaders, or Defender. I think you just experiment. If you don’t have any experience, then try ’em all. Some you’ll find come easier to you than others. And some you’ll just like the concepts better. I kinda liked the idea of Donkey Kong or Pac-Man, where you’re maneuvering something and avoiding obstacles.
The world of gaming is seriously competitive. As evidenced by when you were playing in that one arcade in the movie, and a guy kept calling Billy to give him reports. How do you deal with that — having people who clearly don’t want you to succeed so in your face?
I didn’t realize he was on the phone, because he’d go somewhere else in the building. I did realize he was trying to disrupt my rhythm because he would want to jump in and play a game every time I’d finished one. So I just kinda looked at thwarting his efforts as another challenge. I knew he was going head-to-head with me in his own way. So I just thought, I’m gonna put up a really high score and really discourage him. And eventually he stopped playing.
Finally, what sacrifices should people be prepared to make?
Be prepared to invest time and energy. If you’re married and have a family and they can be supportive, work out some time frame that’s suitable so you’re not neglecting the family. [To his daughter, Jillian] Jillian, no, we’re not.
Are you gonna be late for the movie?
No, we’re not. They don’t even know what time the movie’s at. [To Jillian] Jillian, the movie’s at 3:30. [To EW] They’re just freakin’. We have plenty of time, don’t worry. But yeah, I think most families can agree on just a little bit of time every day. Like in my case, my wife said 10 o’clock or when the kids are in bed. [Kids arguing] First day back from New York, and they’re fighting. [Laughs] We’re all ready for school to start, I think.
For more on our favorite old-school arcade games, click here.