5 Fascinating Documentaries on Arcade Games and the People Who Play Them

Movies Lists Arcade Games
5 Fascinating Documentaries on Arcade Games and the People Who Play Them

For those of us whose formative years included the early 1980s, the arcade represents a unique space to escape the various qualms and concerns of adolescence. The sounds, the lights and, of course, the games were an early, yet public taste of the transportive powers of videogame immersion. It also involved a large amount of change. With the no-longer-that-nascent esports scene growing, there is plenty that’s familiar to those of us who whiled away hours and rolls of quarters at the mall arcade. Whether you’re interesting in reliving a long-vanished vibe or just curious to see where those bursts of nostalgia you see in a parent come from, here are five great documentaries on arcade games.

1. Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade (2007)


Released around the same time as King of Kong—pretty much the standard bearer for this very particular niche of documentary—Lincoln Ruchti’s Chasing Ghosts chronicles the efforts of Walter Day to establish himself as the official keeper of high scores for arcade games in the early 1980s. To that end, and supported by various games makers, Day brought together joystick jockies from throughout the United States and recorded their scores in games such as Joust, Donkey Kong, Tempest, Pac-Man and more in his Twin Galaxies International Scoreboard. The group of mostly teens were featured in a Life magazine spread, competed in a nationally televised 1982 Video Games World Championships and toured the country. Revisiting many of the players in 2005, Chasing Ghosts goes beyond just providing a glimpse into that brief window when arcades and the games in them ruled parts of the world, aspects of the film can’t help but resonate and invite comparison with the modern world of Twitch streams, speed runs and competitive league play. The ambition of Day and the arcade masters looks very familiar by that light—they were all just a few decades ahead of their time in terms of opportunities. —Michael Burgin

2. King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2008)


In Seth Gordon’s feature directorial debut, newcomer Steve Wiebe challenges longtime world-champion Donkey Kong player Billy Mitchell for the highest score in the game’s history. After it becomes obvious that Wiebe may threaten to depose the competitive gaming world’s longtime hero, countless roadblocks are thrown in his path by both Mitchell’s fans and the gaming institution itself. As Wiebe becomes increasingly embroiled in this subculture, he ends up learning firsthand about the disturbing lengths people will go to in order to be the best at something, regardless of how silly that something may be. A humanistic comedy in the vein of early Errol Morris, the film’s contest is every bit as exciting as any sports film, while also shedding light on how obsessions can combine with corrupt power structures to drive otherwise normal people to ridiculous ends. —Sean Gandert

3. Man vs Snake (2016)


Like a companion piece to The King of Kong, Man vs Snake patiently tells the story of one mild-mannered man on a relentless quest to utterly dominate one specific classic arcade game. In this case, that means Nibbler, the original “Snake” (whattup, old school Nokia cell phone users) in that the whole point is to grow your snake as much as possible without running into your own ever-lengthening torso. This time, the seemingly insurmountable feat is to reach 1 billion points on Nibbler, accomplishable only through a multi-day “marathon” session, a record first set by a fella named Tim McVey (it is quickly noted that he is not that McVeigh) in 1984. When, 25 years later, Tim learns that an Italian teen named Enrico Zanetti apparently beat his record decades before, he decides to claim back the title, though he is now much older and markedly out of shape. With help from “bad boy” gamer Dwayne Richard and classic gaming stalwarts Walter Day and Billy Mitchell—who people may recognize from King of Kong as the obsessive owner of Twin Galaxies and ersatz villain, respectively—Tim begins to question everything he is, everything he’s ever done, as he tries to regain old glory. With pomp and flair, Man vs Snake does more than make watching a guy play videogames exciting, it makes one seriously consider—I shit you not—what immortality really means. —Dom Sinacola

4. Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters (2011)


Adam Cornelius’ 2011 film follows what can be considered the “classic” template of gaming documentaries, both electronic and board—the filmmaker introduces the viewer to the game (its history, its rules) and then to a group of people about to compete in a world championship for that game. The Ecstasy of Order adds a few small wrinkles—there’s some mystery about the whereabouts, condition of one of the featured players—but otherwise, the film hits the expected beats. Of course, that template is a template for a reason, and fans of Tetris will find much to enjoy in the film’s account of the different personalities involved in the 2010 Classic Tetris World Championship. —Michael Burgin

5. The Lost Arcade (2015)


While most of the films on this list focus on a certain game, and a small group of players who love it, The Lost Arcade looks back at the arcade itself, and a specific arcade, at that. The Chinatown Fair arcade was one of New York City’s last video arcades, and in the 1990s provided both opportunity and refuge for players of fighting games such as Street Fighter 2 and The King of Fighters. Kurt Vincent’s film features interviews with many of the professional players who got their start at the arcade, and captures better than others of its ilk how arcades fostered bonds and provided solace in ways your home videogame system never can. —Michael Burgin

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