Of all the video game documentaries out there, this one has probably become the most famous. It creates an underdog story of Steve Wiebe– the man who wants to prove he holds the record for the highest Donkey Kong score ever, versus Billy Mitchell – the reigning champion of Pac-Man and a contender for the very same score.
Mitchell is part of the video game establishment – one of the elites, one of the crowd. He’s been a part of that world where video game champions reign for a very long time. Wiebe on the other hand is an outsider, driven by a singular passion for Donkey Kong.
Where as in another doc – Chasing Ghosts, we saw some of the intrigue and in-fighting that happens within the world of video game champions, it’s brought into sharp focus here. Steve Wiebe is in some ways, ostracized in the community, there is a genuine desire it seems for Mitchell to clinch the championship – a desire that is juxtaposed against the skepticism of Weibe’s own skill. It’s hard to say how much of this rivalry was true and how much was the result of judicious editing – the point of a documentary is to craft a story using interviews and documented footage. In many interviews it seems to me that the rivalry is been overstated, but there is definitely a sort of exclusionary feel from what we see with Weibe. We also see how certain game champions are frowned upon and look at with suspicion All in all the filmmakers have managed to create a riveting story here and one that will absolutely take you beyond just nostalgia. It’s a film that actually makesyou fall in love with video games all over again.
As we look to the different video game documentaries, there’s been elements that are prevalent in each one. Chasing Ghosts reminds us of our love of video games, but it’s King of Kong that really makes us fall in love with the old system. The Tetris Masters brings us back in the competition and reminds us how hard it is to become a master. The King of Arcades reminds us that the communal arcades experience is an important one.
This is The story of Richie Knuckles.
Richie’s focus and intent is in bringing the arcade experience back by building one of his own. What’s really striking about Richie in these stories is how much he loves the games themselves – the time that he spends tracking down old arcade cabinets and rebuilding them. The amount of time that he spends loving the genre, and obsessing over the idea of the video games. There is a desperate attempt to recapture something that we really have lost in this age of online multiplayer. It’s omething about that communal experience, that commonality, that gathering place where we come to play but also come to be… Come to hang out. It’s an important thing. It’s an important place, it’s the mystique that rolls around these games in this era – I totally get it. That’s what makes this film so compelling – we get it, we share that same passion for these games, for this place, for this thing. Now, perhaps Richie Knuckles takes this to an extreme, but that’s really the purpose of film – that others live a life that we can experience vicariously through them. The ending is bittersweet, and in many ways we are just wondering if it’s really worth it… But one look at Richie knuckles face and you could see – yes it absolutely is. Of all the video game documentaries out there, this is absolutely one of my favourites. It’s right up there on par with the King of Kong in terms of sheer relatability and passion. This is another absolute must have if you love the genre and you love all video games.
Today’s cinematic atrocity is Arcade! It’s a Full Moon classic starring little Ralphie from a Christmas Story and Q from Star Trek : the next generation. It also features a VERY young Seth Green and is pretty worth watching just for that.
I’ve had to defend the special effects in the past though – if you look there on that old VHS box, you’ll notice it exclaims “virtual reality special Effects”! They may be pushing the definition of virtual reality – they might be pushing the definition of special effects for that matter… Zacherly used to refer to certain SFX as special DEFECTS, and that’s far more appropriate here. There is a lot of primitive CG splashed up against a blue screen – and what’s really frightening is the original set of special effects were even more primitive, to the point where Charles Band put the movie on hold until they could find somebody who could do you something little better.
The original version of the CG villain had no moving parts – he was a far more blocky solid character, where as the finished product as a bit more personality and movement to it. You can get a glimpse of what it would’ve looked like at the beginning of the video zone featurette’s at the end of every full moon videotape. Those graphics have a lot more in common with Tron – not a bad movie, but back in 1993 that look was quite seriously behind the times. You can see huge differences between the two pictures below – the very static face of Arcade, a mask really with no movement except shadows from the flickering lights behind the mask, transport that looked more like light cycles than liquid metal terminators, and a title font that would look extremely cool in a children’s cartoon but not in an r-rated horror movie. It’s stuff that would pass on VR Troopers or in an 80’s movie, but not in ’93, not after T2 had redefined CG forever (or at least until The Matrix arrived seven years later)
I’ve seen some of those original,and I can see why they decided to redo the effects. Not just the models, we also go from grids and gradients to textured backgrounds with clouds and atmosphere. Electrical effects and far more detail. The original effects were simpler. They took less time to create (one or two moving pieces and slap a bitmap on it for color) and would take FAR less time to render. The finished effects have multiple textures applied, with great detail, are made up of far more polygons and include more lighting effects. The difference in both build time and render time must have increased by months.
Despite the computer generated FX even worse than those in the Lawmower Man, I’m a fan of this film. The CG does not age well, but it’s not meant to – and you can forgive it because of that.
The story is practically paint by numbers. New game put out, someone developed AI. AI turns evil. The girl who can’t play video games is the one who has to save the day.
Despite that, it has the sense of fun and adventure that Full Moon Films typically have. I really love watching this, and another big selling point here is the cast. These are all kids (at the time anyhow), and you can tell they are all having a genuinely good time with each other. watching the behind the scenes feature in particular REALLY brings this out.
Can I talk a little about the actual video arcade they feature in this movie? Because seriously, this place is awesome. A little basement hole-in-the-wall with black lights and glowing stickers all over? A nice mix of old games and new, man I would have loved this place and spent every dollar I ever made if I’d had one of these joints in the 90’s. The only arcades around here were at the Mall and the Bowling Alley. This however, this feels real. It feels like a teenage hangout and it made me want to be there. It’s little details like this that I’m talking about, this is the stuff that makes a mediocre film come alive and entertain.
Truth is, this is a FUN movie. You forget about the low budget, Even though the effects make you feel like you crawled in to your Packard Bell micro tower to play DOOM you don’t care. This isn’t T2 or the Lawnmower man. You didn’t pick this up to stare at the pretty SFX. Sure you can see that plot twist coming a mile away, but you’ll find yourself rooting for it anyhow.
You’ll see it on the shelf at the Record Exchange or Flea market sometimes. It’s sure to be on Full Moon Streaming. Seriously, give this one a try some lazy Sunday afternooon. It’s got to be better than watching the Browns lose.
The Tetris Masters is an interesting film. There is a universality to Tetris – even more so then games like Pac man and Mario Bros. It seems like everybody’s played Tetris at one point to another, it’s as ubiquitous at Solitaire. I skipped the whole 8-bit age, I never owned an NES, but I still played Tetris – it was the demo game on every GameBoy display at every toy store, Department store and electronics store in Ohio. Walking over to the GameBoy display and going a couple rounds of Tetris was always a great way to kill some time by your mother shopped in other parts of the store. I got okay, I never got great. I remember sitting on the floor at my friend Mike’s house, while his brother Jeff was showing me the trick to sliding in one of those pieces at the very last moment. Yeah, Tetris is pervasive in our society.
Still, it seems like a strange subject for a film – unlike other video games, it lacks a story. There are no characters, yet there is a community of Tetris players, as engaged and devoted else there is to any other video game out there. This is really what the movie really focuses on.
Unlike the King of Kong , there is a broader focus here – half a dozen main characters are really being followed through in this story. But even more so is the looming competition. The tournament was present in King Kong, but it was the McGuffin – where as in Ecstasy of Order, the tournament is almost character itself, and most definitely a driving force as well as the background. It is always present.
What’s really interesting in the Tetris Masters, is these little break-ins that they throw out once a while, describing the technical aspects of Tetris play and illustrating them for all to see. It’s always done on a classic NES – that’s considered the definitive version of the game, and obviously you need some sort of a control for uniformity. I found it surprising that the NS was the choice, for me the gameboy always felt like the definitive version, but then again perhaps that’s just because that’s the one I always saw everywhere – admit it, it’s a port and not the sort of far more colourful game that the NES version is.
The film brings us back to the old Nintendo World Championships as well, bringing in the ultimate winner. It’s an interesting twist – because you’re familiar with this idea from films like the Wizard, but to see the actual thing… It’s an almost bizarre time capsule for me.
Ecstasy of order is one of the better docs out there and I recommend getting out to see this one. You will come away with a greater appreciation for Tetris and spent some time in that wonderful retro gaming era.
While the King of Kong maybe the video game documentary with the most notoriety, Chasing Ghosts hosts is probably the best baseline. It covers of a variety of different gamers from the golden age of video games and kind of tries to the center itself around that the fateful day when Life magazine photographed the top gamers in the world to help illustrate lifestyle in the eighties. You probably know Billy, the Pac-Man champion from the King of Kong. He served as the villain in that film, although villain might be too strong of a term. He’s really just a bit of a jerk – with an ego the size of Texas. I don’t know much of this is a character or a persona that he just kind of put on for publicities sake, but it was certainly in full effect during this film. He is perhaps a bit more likeable here than in King of Kong, but the jerkiness still seeps through in every one of his interviews. We’re introduced to a number of people who held records in the 80s, but the most important, in the most interesting is Walter Day – the man who is kind of considered the official scorekeeper and curator of the world record holders. Day is a fascinating character who will inevitably show up in any video game documentaries – He’s kind of like Stan Lee to the video game world.
The film is a love letter to the heyday of the Arcade, and speakes to the era all of us old retro gamers so love. It’s interesting to see where these video gaming superstars have found themselves – some have had successful careers, some have a tragic lives – there is no uniformity to it, there’s nothing in common here except for love of gaming. This is one of those documentaries that will remind you of those days, it will remind you of how much you used to love the arcades… But it doesn’t quite have the heart to make you fall back in love with those classic video games…(No, not this film – but we’ll get to some others down the road that do).
Chasing Ghosts is a high recommend – seriously, just go and buy this one already. If you’re a fan of documentaries, Or if you’re a fan of video games, this film is an absolute must watch and must have, documenting what has become an important part of our modern pop culture history.