There has been no shortage of video game documentaries over the past several years, especially those that cover the early days of the video arcade. Ever since 2007's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters became a modest cult classic, it seems that anyone who has ever touched a vintage video arcade game has wanted to dive into the wake left behind by the Billy Mitchell versus Steve Wiebe documentary film.
The latest is the King of Arcades by director Sean Tiedeman. The film was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign in late 2012, raising over $47,000. The final product was recently released on DVD and has been screened at a handful of retro video gaming events such as California Extreme.
Like many of the post-King of Kong documentaries, several of the niche crowd of world record arcade game champions appear within. Those weary of any more footage of Billy Mitchell in all of his former-Bee-Gees-lead-singer-turned-shameless-hot-sauce-peddler glory may wish to avert their eyes during moments of the film. However, the brief appearances by arcade champs are more than balanced out by appearances from some of the truly historical contributors to video game history, including pioneers Ralph Baer and Nolan Bushnell, all-time game designer Eugene Jarvis and more.
While Kong stars Mitchell, Wiebe and Walter Day do yet again appear, the focal point of the King of Arcades is mostly on Richie Knucklez, a wiseguy former punk rocker turned video arcade owner. After achieving a level of popularity within the vintage video arcade world, Knucklez is having to close down his New Jersey location to focus for a while on family affairs. The film goes back to Knucklez's roots and speaks to his inspiration for leaving a job he hated at a young age in order to chase his dreams and live his life to the fullest. For much of the film, cameras follow Knucklez around to look at raids of old arcade warehouses and looks into some rare vintage coin-ops, later returning to the point in time where his arcade closes down and some of the events that follow.
The looks into video game history are well done and sometimes charming. The charismatic Eugene Jarvis, responsible for arcade classics ranging from 1980s mega-smash Defender to maddening arcade driver Cruis'n USA literally leaps off the camera while a look into Baer's workshop is incredibly fascinating. Looks at rarities such as Bally Midway's Omega Race cockpit machine and Bally Sente's Stompin', which inspired the later hit Dance Dance Revolution, are brief but welcome history lessons for both the die-hard retro arcade game fan and the younger generations that otherwise may never have learned of such obscure pieces of video game history.
However, the film seems to struggle to fully tell the story the packaging claims to tell. The case claims that "an arcade will close, a hero will rise" but how and what that means is never really told within the film. At points, the movie cannot seem to decide if it is a piece about arcade video game history or a look into the adventures of Richie Knucklez. Why the arcade closed only to re-open later at a new location is never fully established, and while the film implies that the reasons for it all are personal ones, it leaves the audience to guess.
The film also seems to operate under the assumption that the viewer is already familiar with Knucklez and the scene that surrounds him. While it does go back into his beginnings and some of the buzz that surrounded his events and arcade, it never fully establishes who he is and why the viewer should care. Loyalists to the Richie Knucklez brand, therefore, will enjoy the film for providing a look into his adventures but the casual viewer unfamiliar with him may have a difficult time connecting with him. The time that could have been used to further establish his identity as was done with the main characters in the King of Kong was instead used to provide a recall of the early heyday of the video arcade in a manner almost identical to Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade. Likewise, it seems to assume that the viewer already knows all about the identities and backstories of several of the vintage arcade game high score champions without managing to explain who they are to those unfamiliar with that scene or the previous arcade game documentary films.
The King of Arcades ends rather suddenly, with a new arcade location now open and a look at a rare artifact of competitive gaming history followed by a short montage and a remake of hit 1982 single Pac-Man Fever performed by Knucklez himself. For what it's worth, the music video is incredibly entertaining and ends the film on a high note after leaving the viewer hanging.
Overall, the King of Arcades provides an experience that should please the die-hard arcade video game enthusiast who will find the visits with industry icons and looks into detailed arcade game restoration fascinating. Those who are already fans of Knucklez and his work should also enjoy the film. The casual audience, however, may feel nonplussed by the seemingly incomplete story, wondering both why the arcade fell and where the hero rose.
King of Arcades is not rated. More on the film can be seen on it's official website at www.TheKingOfArcades.com.