Ed Cunningham and Seth Gordon shot more than 300 hours of film to make the documentary. The film was dedicated to the memory of Doris Self, who appeared in the film but died before its release.
In 1980s Ottumwa, Iowa, Walter Day founds Twin Galaxies, an organization formed to keep track of high scores achieved on arcade games. The organization rises to national prominence after it and several high-scoring players are featured in a Life Magazine spread. One of those players is Billy Mitchell, who, having achieved the highest ever recorded scores on Donkey Kong and Centipede in the 1980s, remains a video game legend in 2005. Mitchell, a restaurateur by trade, maintains a strong relationship with both Day and Twin Galaxies, which has now become a global organization. Mitchell is portrayed as unabashedly cocky and fond of self-promotion, proclaiming himself the "Sauce King" of Florida for his successful line of homemade hot sauces. Next to his family, Mitchell considers his arcade scores to be his greatest life achievements.
On the other side of the country, in Redmond, Washington, Boeing engineer Steve Wiebe has recently been laid off. His friends and his wife, Nicole, describe him as an unfortunate figure who always comes up short due to his obsessive compulsive disorder, despite being proficient at music, sports, art, and mathematics. He was a star baseball pitcher but was injured and unable to pitch in the state championship; he is a gifted drummer but will only play music at home. Preparing to get back into the workforce, Wiebe begins going to night school to get a master's degree and obtains a Donkey Kong machine to play in his garage to relax in between studying. After reading about Mitchell's world record of 874,300 on the internet, Wiebe focuses on mastering Donkey Kong. Using his knowledge of mathematics to identify certain patterns and timing intervals in the game, Wiebe successfully achieves a score of 1,006,600 points. Wiebe submits a tape to Twin Galaxies, which propels him to becoming a local celebrity and news topic as the new world record holder for a few weeks.
Mitchell sends his self-styled protege, retired banker turned pro-gamer Brian Kuh, to investigate Wiebe's machine. Kuh learns that the machine's circuit board was provided by Roy Shildt, a self-proclaimed fitness guru and pickup artist who claims to hold the high score for Missile Command. Unbeknownst to Wiebe, Shildt and Mitchell have been nemeses for years ever since Mitchell caused Shildt's high score to be brought under scrutiny, preventing him from receiving official recognition from Twin Galaxies. Since then, Shildt has been looking for a way to exact clandestine revenge on Mitchell. Based on Wiebe's association with Shildt, the staff of Twin Galaxies suspects that Wiebe's board might have been tampered with and that he may have achieved his score dishonestly.
In order to prove his gaming skills, Wiebe travels to Funspot Arcade in Laconia, New Hampshire, to perform a high score live for Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day and other high-ranking members of Twin Galaxies, hoping to confront Mitchell and play head-to-head. Although Mitchell does not attend, he sends Kuh to observe Wiebe's play. Just prior to the kill screen, Kuh gathers a large crowd to witness Wiebe's achievement. Wiebe reaches the kill screen and also achieves a new world record. Contrary to his own assertion that scores achieved in public carry more validity than videotaped scores, Mitchell immediately sends a low-quality VHS to Funspot, depicting himself achieving a higher score of 1,047,200 points. Despite Wiebe's protests that his own first score was disqualified for being submitted via unsupervised videotape, Twin Galaxies accepts Mitchell's score over Wiebe's and proclaims that Mitchell's new score makes Mitchell the record holder once again.
Nine months later, Wiebe learns that Guinness World Records wants to publish several of Twin Galaxies' records — including Mitchell's latest score. Wiebe and his family travel to Hollywood, Florida, near Mitchell's home, to challenge him in a public competition, but Mitchell refuses to accept the challenge, and Wiebe fails to surpass a million points. Nevertheless, Day, on behalf of Twin Galaxies, finally acknowledges Wiebe's integrity and credibility and apologizes for how Wiebe was treated. Day presents Wiebe with a special award and welcomes him to continue submitting scores to Twin Galaxies.
In a coda to the film, Wiebe achieves the world record of 1,049,100 in his garage.Steve Wiebe, the challenger
Billy Mitchell, described in the film as "the world's best gamer"
Walter Day, the founder of Twin Galaxies
Robert Mruczek, the chief referee of Twin Galaxies
Brian Kuh, friend of Billy Mitchell and Donkey Kong player
Steve Sanders, friend of Billy Mitchell and Donkey Kong player
Dwayne Richard, classic gaming World Champion
Roy Shildt (aka "Mr. Awesome"), Billy Mitchell's "nemesis"
Greg Bond, Mappy champion
Doris Self, previous holder of the Q*bert record and title of oldest game champion
The film was met with critical acclaim. Metacritic gives the film an average score of 83 out of 100, based on 23 reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 97% based on 99 reviews.
Robert Wilonsky of the Village Voice called the film a "miniature masterpiece" and in August 2007 said it was "[his] favorite movie of the year" up to that point. Pete Vonder Haar of Film Threat gave the film 5 stars and said "It’s not just one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Period." Keith Phipps of The Onion AV Club gave the film an "A-" and said at one point it "turns into a film about what it takes to make it in America." Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film 3 out of 4 stars, wondering "Who would have guessed that a documentary about gamers obsessed with scoring a world record at Donkey Kong would not only be roaringly funny but serve as a metaphor for the decline of Western civilization?" Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times similarly gave the film 3 stars and called it "a documentary that is beyond strange."
Among critics who gave the film negative reviews, Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post said "Is there anything more tiresome than watching people play video games?" and "The competition is so vicious because the stakes are so low." Stephen Garrett of Time Out New York called it "moderately entertaining and ultimately kind of pathetic" and said that the early-1980s arcade subculture is explored in greater depth in the documentary Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade.
Film critic Richard Roeper stated that the film "deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary" in 2007 on At The Movies. The North Texas Film Critics Association named it Best Documentary for 2007. The Boston Society of Film Critics named it the runner-up for Best Documentary Feature of 2007. The film was nominated for Best Documentary Feature of 2007 by the Broadcast Film Critics Association. The film was also nominated for Best Documentary Feature by the Chicago Film Critics Association, but lost to Sicko.
The film appeared on several critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2007.4th - Dennis Harvey, Variety (tied with Gone Baby Gone)
5th - Empire
6th - Noel Murray, The A.V. Club
7th - Mike Russell, The Oregonian
10th - Peter Hartlaub, San Francisco Chronicle
On July 13, 2007, in celebration of the film's release and the 25th anniversary of Mitchell's first record-setting performance, Mitchell again played and retook the Donkey Kong record with a score of 1,050,200. Inspired to attempt the record because of the movie, a new King of Kong was crowned on February 26, 2010, when Queens, New York-based plastic surgeon Hank Chien surpassed Mitchell's high score by scoring 1,061,700.
On August 7, 2010, Twin Galaxies once again certified Billy Mitchell as the record holder with 1,062,800 points. This coincided with the first induction ceremony for the International Video Game Hall of Fame. Mitchell set the new record playing at the Boomers-Grand Prix Arcade in Dania, Florida where he played for two hours and forty two minutes before quitting once he topped Chien's score. When asked why he quit early, Mitchell said, "Some say I'm being cocky. Some say I'm being lazy. I say, I'm being Billy Mitchell." He also once again set the record in Donkey Kong, Jr but on September 9, 2010, he again lost the title, this time to Mark L. Kiehl.
Steve Wiebe once again regained the world record in September 2010, with a score of 1,064,500. This score was broken by Hank Chien in January 2011, with a score of 1,068,000. Chien beat his own record a month later with a score of 1,090,400 and then again in May 2012 with a score of 1,110,100 in a non-killscreen game.
Chien again topped his own score on July 25, 2012, with the new score being set at 1,127,700.
On September 6, 2014, Robbie Lakeman achieved a score of 1,141,800
On September 18, 2015, Robbie Lakeman scored 1,172,100, eclipsing the 1,170,500 that Wes Copeland scored six hours earlier at the Donkey Kong Online Open 2015.
On January 4, 2016, Wes Copeland struck back with a score of 1,190,000.
On April 11, 2016, Robbie Lakeman scored 1,190,200, beating Wes Copeland's record by 200 points. Copeland announced he would "grind like nothing ever before seen on the face of this earth", and reclaimed the world record a week later on April 19, 2016 with a score of 1,195,100.
On May 5, 2016, Wes Copeland livestreamed a score of 1,218,000. The significance of this score is that Copeland was able to make it to the final barrel board on his first man, making it a "perfect game". This surpassed his original goal of 1,200,000 by a large margin. Afterwards, Copeland announced his retirement from competition.