To prepare for Arcade Spirits, I’ve watched a LOT of documentaries. I wanted to know the past and present of the arcade scene, inside and out… high score competitions, operating an arcade, collecting games, the hardware, everything. The community’s been only too happy to provide movies covering these subjects… but I’ve found a lot of them lacking. Here’s my summary thoughts on, well, everything I’ve watched.
King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. (Available on Netflix DVD.) This movie helped kickstart a lot of modern interest in old arcade games, featuring a high score showdown between Good Guy Steve and Bad Guy Billy. It’s cunningly edited, with great flow of scenes and excellent clarity. …and it sits on a throne of lies. While I praise the quality of the filmmaking it’s VERY clear in hindsight that the filmmakers manipulated the facts to tell the story they wanted to tell, rearranging events to make sure Billy Mitchell looked like a conniving douchebag who constantly undermined his underdog rival. While it’s a good movie for getting a feel for the modern arcade scene in general, be very skeptical when watching. Rating: C+.
Chasing Ghosts – Beyond the Arcade. (Available on Amazon Video.) Follows the lives of a group of high score chasers, from the original Twin Galaxies arcade. Does a great job linking past to present, showing the triumphs and the sorrows of how their lives have changed in that time. It’s got great flow, great music, and is an excellently told story overall. What I like is that it doesn’t pass judgment on its subjects, being heartfelt while realistic, showing the good and the bad. This is probably the best documentary I’ve seen on the subject. Rating: A+.
Man vs. Snake. (Available on Netflix.) A lighthearted but very focused look at one gamer’s attempt to retake his high score on a fairly obscure arcade game, thirty years later. It’s a more focused version of Chasing Ghosts, with one gamer and one game in the spotlight, and that focus gives it amazing clarity. It also goes into the controversies that occur when scores are disputed in a way that’s fair more fair than King of Kong, not painting anyone as an obvious villain, but more victims of decaying technology and bad luck. I’ve drawn on this movie heavily for Percy’s story in Arcade Spirits. Rating: A.
Free to Play. (Available on YouTube.) Not about arcades, specifically, but a good general overview of what goes into a major e-sports tournament and the sorts of people who take part in the competition. It does a good job making sure the audience understands the triumphs and falls without needing to know everything about the game, and depicts the world of high-level play like no other film I’ve seen. I’m tapping this film quite a bit for QueenBee’s story. It does play like a promotional piece for DOTA 2, and isn’t entirely relevant to arcade research, but still decent. Rating: B+.
The Space Invaders: In Search Of Lost Time. (Available on Amazon Video.) I had high hopes for this one, but it ended up not being what I wanted. It’s barely about the history at all, instead focusing on modern day arcade collectors, painting them as creepy hoarders more than anything else. Organization is loose, wobbling from topic to topic, with a few very awkward moments (a few minutes talking about girls in gaming, various shaky theories about the arcade crash). Aside from a lot of great photography of home arcades and acknowledging that time is running out for the decaying hardware, doesn’t offer much. Rating: D.
Ecstasy of Order. (Available on Amazon Video.) The Tetris Masters. A console game documentary about the top players of NES 8-bit Tetris, exploring their lives and their relationship with the game, culminating in a tournament showdown to determine who the best player is. (Although the actual tournament is pretty deck-stacked, as many of the documentary subjects got auto-byes into the final round.) It’s pretty good for what it is and makes a good supplement to Man vs. Snake in terms of examining scorechasing, particularly about optimization tricks and the mystique around legendary players. Rating: B+.
Special When Lit – A Pinball Documentary. (Available on Amazon Video.) Exactly what it says on the tin, it’s a rundown of pinball’s history, culture, and fans. It can be a bit cruel to the fans, depicting them as weirdos, but otherwise is a very solid grounding in pinball. I’d say more but honestly it’s been a year since I saw this and just remember it being “okay”. Rating: B-.
Funspot – The World’s Largest Video Game Arcade. (Available on YouTube.) A promotional piece, but aside from a meandering waxing-nostalgia third act, provides an interesting look into the natural growth of a 1950s amusement center into a modern-day arcade museum. It’s a fascinating history, and one I’m drawing from for the backstory of Francine in Arcade Spirits. Rating: B.
100 Yen: The Japanese Arcade Experience. (Available on Amazon Video.) A fan-created documentary, but slick and modern, flashy and attractive. Plenty of great interviews, good structure and flow. It’s interesting to see a nation where arcades never really died — but have evolved into something very different from the classic American ideal of a retro arcade. With plenty of footage inside actual arcades it’s a visual treat and quite informative. Rating: A.
Aaand here’s some movies I have yet to watch but are on my pull list, which are relevant to the history, culture, or to the era in general.
Sooo, yeah. I’m takin’ this seriously and doing my homework.