Kongfrontation

When manipulating Mario goes stratospheric, who's the real Donkey Kong champ?

History means a lot to Billy Mitchell. The 42-year-old gamer from Hollywood has had a long one, beginning back in 1982, when he first set the world record in the arcade game Donkey Kong. Mitchell was a master behind the joystick — manipulating the popular gnome-like action hero Mario as he dodges and hammers Kong's colossal barrels — on the way to the gaming pantheon. He's been crowned the Video Game Player of the Century, was the first to record a perfect game in Pac Man, and once logged more than 47 straight hours playing Centipede.

These days, Billy Mitchell is trying to prevent history from being revised, and, he says, his reputation tarnished by a newly released documentary.

At the moment, though, he's having technical difficulties. "My computer's not the best machine," he says, fumbling through his AOL e-mail interface. A Portland website has just reviewed The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters — a film about Donkey Kong in which Mitchell costars — and he's trying to write a response. He pokes at his keyboard with a single outstretched forefinger, making a steady clacking sound like an antique typewriter, like someone's technically challenged grandfather trying to log onto the Internet for the first time — not the gaming genius he's been perceived as throughout his career.

Billy Mitchell: It's all about family now.
c. stiles
Billy Mitchell: It's all about family now.
Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe share the stage at the Classic Gaming Expo in San Jose.
Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe share the stage at the Classic Gaming Expo in San Jose.

Mitchell clicks on a link, and up pops the review he's responding to. At the bottom of the page, written in all capital letters, are the words: "I HATE BILLY MITCHELL."

It's a harsh review but not an uncommon one. Since The King of Kong debuted this January at the Slamdance Film Festival, Mitchell has heard countless reports of how deceitful and villainous he appears on screen.

The documentary, from Launchpad Productions, directed by Seth Gordon, opened locally last week at Sunrise Cinemas Las Olas Riverfront. Mostly, it follows Steve Wiebe, a middle-school science teacher from Redmond, Washington, who's on his own quixotic mission to become the best Donkey Kong player in the world. It seems like a reasonable goal until Mitchell shows up as the film's mulleted scoundrel, thwarting Wiebe's efforts at every turn. He appears to plot to undermine Wiebe's scores, dodging every chance to play in public, even pitting a sweet old lady against his rival. Audiences hiss at Mitchell's seemingly unprovoked malice as passionately as they cheer for Wiebe's naive resolve.

Mitchell says the image the film creates of him is simply not real. He insists that he never dodged Wiebe or stood in his way.

"I had been ignoring this for months," he says. "I can be called a bad guy — so what? But it really bothers me emotionally to have my friends and family get portrayed in a negative light. I want to do this so people know the truth."

For the record, both Wiebe and Launchpad say the film captures Mitchell authentically.

Mitchell is sitting in his small, aged office at Rickey's Restaurant & Lounge in Hollywood — the family business he's managed since 1985. The room is lined with yellowed papers, bottles of hot sauce that share the restaurant's name, and a series of black-framed pictures featuring sinewy horses with names etched below them. "It's something we used to do," Mitchell says of the time when his family owned racehorses.

So much of what Mitchell does is focused on his family. If he's not in his office, coordinating shipments or answering calls from customers curious about the shelf life of his hot sauce, he's shuttling his two young children around to school and athletics (he has another daughter at Florida State). He doesn't have much time for games, he says — the very things that have formed such an important part of his life. In fact, you won't find any type of game, let alone a classic Donkey Kong cabinet, anywhere in his home. "As each year goes on, videogames take more of a back seat," he admits. "The memories of videogames captivate my past. As far as the future goes, it's almost entirely my family."

For Mitchell, the declining role of gaming in his life is just one of the omissions that would've changed his portrayal in Kong — left out, he believes, to create a history that fits a specific vision: That Billy Mitchell, the megalomaniac gamer, and Steve Wiebe, a dejected family man, were intense rivals.

"The idea that we hate each other is crazy," Mitchell says. "If I operated the way the movie says I do, I'd feel like I always need a shower."

In the film, Mitchell comes across as an oily competitor who avoids any chance to compete against Wiebe. Viewers first see him dodge Wiebe at the Funspot competition in February 2005. Instead of traveling to the event to compete, Mitchell sends 80-year-old Q Bert champ Doris Self to the contest with a videotaped score. We feel Mitchell's icy grip from afar as he plots against Wiebe via telephone. We see Walter Day — founder of Twin Galaxies, an organization that acts as gaming referee — squash Wiebe's aspirations of claiming a record through live play by posting Mitchell's seemingly dubious taped score as the new record on the TG website.

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