Steve Wiebe is the underdog protagonist of the cult documentary The King of Kong (2007), which chronicles his quest to capture the Donkey Kong world record from his eccentric and scheming rival, Billy Mitchell. In part one of our interview, Andrew Myers asked Wiebe to reflect on his participation in the film. Now, in the second half of the interview, Wiebe recalls how his life was affected in the aftermath of the film and talks about what makes classic arcade gaming so compelling. This interview was conducted by phone in January 2012.
“The Kong Off“ by 3henchmen (via YouTube)
Andrew Myers: In the years since the film came out, how has your life been affected from your participation in the film? I assume a lot of people that you know have seen the film. Do you feel that the people in your social relationships see you any differently after being in this movie? Or what other consequences has it had on your life?
Steve Wiebe: I think my friends still see me for who I am. They kind of joke around and call me “Hey King” and stuff. So it’s kind of funny. I’ll get recognized in public here and there. There’s definitely people who have been influenced or touched by the film that have reached out and emailed, and sent letters and things. I’ve been able to go to events, people will call me or email me and ask me to appear at an event that they have. So I definitely see that it has impacted a lot of people. I have great times meeting different people and experiencing that.
It’s enjoyable. It’s not something overbearing where every day I’m being hounded. It’s definitely at a level where I’m comfortable. I don’t have a problem with the exposure it’s given me. I enjoy it. I have fun with it and try to interact with the fans of the movie as much as possible, signing and sending back cards and gaming memorabilia. There’s a lot of Facebook stuff that I can’t keep up with. I try to but it became so much. I was on Facebook for hours a day. I only go on it every once in a while now. But I enjoy people who are fans of the movie. I try to interact with them and show my appreciation as much as possible.
AM: How else has participating in the film influenced your life? For example, I saw that you recorded an album, and read that you’ve had some guest spots on TV shows.
SW: Yea, those appearances I’ve had a few of. A couple movies with Seth Gordon, who directed The King of Kong. He’s an up and coming director now, he’s got a lot of jobs. He’s pretty busy directing Hollywood films now. So that totally broke his career, King of Kong. He wanted to keep ties to what got him there, so he’s had me appear in a couple of things of his. The first one was Four Christmases. In any of his movies or TV shows I had appearances in, that’s the most time I’ve had on the camera, which was about 45 seconds total. I was down in L.A. for a whole month. That was the first time. It was a great experience. I met all the actors, who were very kind to me. It wasn’t like I was an outsider coming into their craft. They had open arms and fully embraced me being there.
The second thing I had was a show that Seth Gordon was part creator in, called Breaking In. I think it got picked up for the season. I don’t know when it will start. It had Christian Slater in it and he was really cool. He had seen The King of Kong and knew about it. He was great to talk to, he and a couple actors from that TV show. I was down there for a day and a half.
Another thing I did recently was Horrible Bosses, which was really a small part at the beginning of the movie. If you don’t pay attention in the first two minutes you would miss me being there. I sit at the front desk of a company and Jason Bateman comes running in, and he’s late so he just flashes by my desk—I’m there for maybe a second and a half and I’m gone. I say something in the movie, I say, “You better hurry, Nick.” I don’t know if it’s my voice. I overdubbed my voice on it, and I don’t know if the audio didn’t work with the video or something. People told me it wasn’t my voice. They recognized that it wasn’t my voice. I’ll have to go listen back to it to see if it is mine or not. Those were the three things I did.
When I was doing Four Christmases, Craig Ferguson invited me to his show. He was a great interviewer, we had fun on the show. He was respectful. We both made fun of it a little bit, but he wasn’t making it a laughingstock. He was just having fun with the story. Those experiences from The King of Kong have been great, something you never expect from trying to get a world record on a video game. I never thought it would amount to what happened. Basically it was a fluke, once in a lifetime. I don’t know if it will ever happen again for a video game. I think that’s been taken home. I don’t think anyone could reproduce how all the stars aligned.
AM: Are you still going after the record now?
SW: I’m currently second, so I don’t have the record. I do occasionally play in the garage. If I’m going for a record it’s very time consuming so I don’t do it unless I have a chunk of time, and that usually happens in the summer. I didn’t do it last summer because the previous summer I spent too much time there to get the record back. So it’s changed hands, the record. There’s a new person who has the record now, who saw The King of Kong and was inspired to play Donkey Kong, and he got the record. Then Billy beat him, and I beat Billy, which was two summers ago. Then about a year ago Hank Chien beat my score. But I definitely plan on making a run of it. I don’t know when. Probably during the summer, when I have the time. Being a teacher, it’s nice to have that break, so I can probably devote some time maybe this summer in going for it. And then there’s always these events that I go to. There’s a Kong-Off where all the top players get together. Last March we had it in New Jersey at an arcade. I came in second, which wasn’t the world record. Hank Chien beat me at the very last hour, his last game beat my score. It wasn’t world record pace. It’s hard to get one that’s world record pace in a tournament. I don’t know if it will ever happen during a tournament. Most likely it will have to happen at my house when I’m recording. So, that’s probably this summer, I’ll give it a run.
AM: Well, that’s exciting. Ever since the film first came out, I check Twin Galaxies once in a while to check in on how everything’s been going. So it will be interesting to follow up.
SW: Yes, I’ll definitely give it another run. I just haven’t had a lot of time to do it. Definitely during the school year I don’t have time.
AM: Do you play any modern video games?
SW: Nothing like the first-person shooter games. I see them and appreciate the people who are into them. I just don’t have any inspiration to play. I’ve played Mario Kart games on the Wii or the GameCube, so that’s about the extent that I’ve played the modern games. But no Halo or those Gears of War games. I don’t have any of those games that I play. I’m pretty much just a classic gamer, and not even a full range of classic games. There’s only a couple of games that I really take seriously: Donkey Kong Jr. and Donkey Kong.
AM: What is it that you find so compelling about classic arcade games? Is it the games themselves or the competition surrounding them or is it something else?
SW: I didn’t even know there was competition before I was playing them. I think I was playing them after they had gone out of phase. In the ‘90s I had my own machine and I was just playing because I loved the concept of the game. I wasn’t really thinking there was a global competition for the record. I basically just played because I enjoyed playing it. The competition makes it something—it gets your adrenaline flowing when you’re playing. Before competition, if you were playing for a high score, you don’t even get tense or anything, you’re just causally playing it. With the competition it definitely adds up, your blood pressure, and makes it more tense and more competitive. Because I’m competitive I can enjoy the competitive nature, but that’s definitely another layer of the game. But essentially it started out as loving the game.
AM: That’s interesting. How did you learn Donkey Kong so well? Did you analyze it outside of the game or was it just becoming very familiar with the game by playing it a lot?
SW: Basically, it was two-fold. By playing it I’m not picking up the patterns. By the repetition of playing it hours and hours, I just started recognizing things in the game. And most people had recognized them too by the time I was getting really good at it. Then even today I’ll still find things that are helpful, because we’re trying to get to that optimal score. There’s a theoretical score—there’s no perfect game in Donkey Kong, since the game is never the same every time, [whereas] in Pac-Man you have the same number of dots, the fruit is always the same. So we’re still learning even years after we’ve been playing since we found out the kill screen, we’ve had to actually look deeper into how we find points because we have a limited number of boards. So I actually enjoy that aspect of the game, trying to research and study the game to a deeper level to find out how do I get more points. I think most of the tips and studies for “point pressing” have been found. I’m hoping there’s still some unknown feature I can tap into and get points that way, without anyone else knowing that secret. I can’t seem to find anything on it. Nothing that’s going to break through the rest of the scores, that’s going to jump you however-many-points ahead that you’ll need another field. It’s fun. There’s still things we can learn today. Sometimes I’ll look at old footage to see if I can pick anything else up.
AM: So do you have notebooks full of tallies and calculations and strategies and things like that? Or is it mainly just stored in your head?
SW: It’s just stored in my head. It’s second nature, most of the stuff. I just know from repetition. Meanwhile, the nuances—if I find something I might have to go back, like with Donkey Kong Jr., if there’s a pattern. If I don’t play for long I miss a little nuance in the pattern, I might have to go back and look at it myself. But most of it just comes back without even thinking about. No notes, just remember it by muscle memory and knowledge.
AM: Last question. What is it that you find so compelling about the gameplay experience of these classic arcade games?
SW: It’s just simple, nostalgic, kind of the first of the video games when they broke out. The arcade was a big thing in our life. I don’t know what I would equate that to nowadays with the young people. It was a total movement that was brand new to society, and it was great to be a kid growing up in that era. So the nostalgia is part of that, and even though they’re old games there were still some great game designers that were coming up with concepts that were basically—the palette was open. There were no past games. It was like a brand new field to play on. If you think of music today, all music is a derivative of previous music, whether it’s produced differently, whether it’s country twang on something that, without the country twang, would sound like a regular pop song. Video gamers had nothing previous to go on. They were just coming up with thoughts and ideas that were fresh and new. Eventually there were games that were similar to previous games that were copied. The early games that they were coming out with were totally brand new, and the games were solid, the concepts were solid. They were simple. They had limited memory. They didn’t have all these buttons like you have on the Xbox. Basically Defender was the most complex, control-wise, which I didn’t play much. I kind of liked the one-controller games. All the things, being part of that era. The games still hold up today, in my opinion—solid game design. All of those are the reasons I still enjoy playing it.
Special thanks to Steve Wiebe for participating in this interview.
Andrew Myers is a doctoral student at the University of Southern California. He recently received his M.A. in Cinema and Media Studies from UCLA. He also serves as the post-processing editor for the Media History Digital Library. His diverse research interests include media industries and production culture, archival film and television history, new media (especially video games), and documentary.