‘King of Kong’ recalls the glory age of really boring video games

Island Packet– When video games were first invented 400 years ago, things were, to say the least, a little different. There were no epic-feeling sports games populated by disquietingly lifelike-looking athletes (the “Madden” franchise), no sprawling quests that took sunshine-free weeks and a swimming pool’s worth of Mountain Dew and beef jerky to complete (“Final Fantasy”) and no obsession in senseless violence without repercussions (“Grand Theft Auto,” “Dance Dance Revolution”).

No, back in what I rather devastatingly refer to as “my day,” we entertained ourselves far differently, when we weren’t milking the pigs at 4 a.m. and standing on street corners hawking the Extra edition in song. Why, I vividly remember my grandparents purchasing the game of Pong, the first home video console, which cost them $43,000, was the size of my high school and was tremendous fun to play for precisely 35 seconds, after which it was stupid. My home also boasted a fully functional Atari 2600, which boasted both “Breakout” AND “Super Breakout” and resulted in many nights that found my brother and I engaged in brutal, combative contests of “Sky Diver.” This was a game in which you controlled a parachute guy whom you had to skillfully prevent from crashing into the ground, except that it was way, way more fun let the parachute guy hurtle directly INTO the ground, because it resulted in the Atari 2600’s best approximation of a squishing sound effect. Seriously, if you’re 8, that NEVER, EVER GETS OLD. I’m sort of snickering now thinking about it, honestly.

I bring this up because of a new film called “King of Kong,” a documentary that tracks the two grown men regarded as the planet’s current reigning players of “Donkey Kong.” (Needless to say, these guys barely can go outside without paparazzi just driving them nuts.)

If you are under the age that might remember playing “Donkey Kong” in an arcade or on the Atari, you’re probably not reading this column if “High School Musical 2” is on. “Kong” arrived in the early 1980s, right alongside “Pac-Man,” “Q-Bert” and “Zaxxon,” which I bring up under protest because “Zaxxon” was stupid, because to fly your spaceship down you had to pull up, and some of us just couldn’t get a handle on such complexity no matter how much we were made fun of by our friends at Showbiz Pizza.

Anyway, as befitting a cultural icon in the immediate post-“Star Wars” age of consumption-crazed marketing, there was a “Kong” cereal, “Kong” cartoon, “Kong” toys, “Kong” flamethrowers and “Kong” comforter-and-sheet sets, always a good early indicator of someone whose parents will probably want to keep the basement open for after college. (This all despite the fact that hilariously, “Donkey Kong” starred exactly zero donkeys; the game’s evil namesake was a murderous gorilla, although his visage in the Atari game was such that my brother took to calling him “Fudge Brownie Kong,” which would be a cool game too).

Anyway, the film “King of Kong” tracks these two men, Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, who evidently are the yin and yang of “Kong.” One set a record in 1982, the other broke it, and these two developments set off a steaming, chaotic chain reaction of events that continues to this day. Oh sure, it seems silly and petty to most of us, but it probably makes for an entertaining movie, even if I’m reasonably sure that neither of those chumps could hold a candle to me at “Sky Diver.”

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About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official BruceSpringsteen.net, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

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