Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler

The battle for arcade video game billions is an animated one.

The battle for arcade video game billions is an animated one.

(2015) Documentary (Playland) Tim McVey, Dwayne Richard, Tom Asaki, Walter Day, Enrico Zanetti, Joshua Berman, Rick Fothergill, Mark Hoff, Joshua Berman, Mary Richard, Glen Thomas, Gene Lewin, Rick Carter, John Jaugilas, Patrick O’Malley, Todd Whitsel, Brendan Becker, Mike Currence, Billy Mitchell, Richie Knucklez, Tina McVey, Sylvia Zanetti Eryn Rea, Tiana Whitley. Directed by Tim Kinzy and Andrew Seklir

Florida Film Festival 2016

There are those who through luck, determination or what have you manage to accomplish something impressive early on in their lives. That is truly awesome – but then what is left for the rest of your life?

Tim McVey was just an ordinary Iowa teen in Ottumwa back in 1983. Ottumwa’s claim to fame was at the time the Twin Galaxies arcade, one of the most prestigious in the world. In the vast number of arcade games that Twin Galaxies had to offer was an obscure game called Nibbler. Based roughly on the early computer game Snake, Nibbler basically was about navigating a snake through a maze, consuming jewels as you go along. With each jewel the snake consumes, it gets bigger. The trick is to consume all the jewels in the maze without running the snake into itself.

Nibbler’s claim to fame was that it was the first arcade game to flip over at a billion points, allowing gamers to score hitherto unachievable scores. However, getting to a billion was no joke; it would take roughly two days of continuous game play to do it. Part of the strategy is to build up enough extra lives to allow bathroom breaks and refreshment breaks, but the longer the gamer goes without sleep the slower the reflexes become, the foggier the mind becomes and the harder it is overall to maintain the pace that got them close to the mark.

No other gamer in no other game had achieved a billion points – but Tim McVey did it in 1983 at the age of 17. Even competitive gamers, a sport which was just in its embryonic stage at the time, hadn’t done it, largely because Nibbler wasn’t all that popular a game. So when an unassuming Iowa kid did what no other gamer in history had done, it was a big deal. McVey got the key to the city, a Tim McVey day in Ottumwa and a Nibbler arcade game to bring home of his very own.

Years went by. McVey moved on and got married, getting a job as a machinist for a farm machinery manufacturer. It seemed very much like his biggest claim to fame was behind him. Then came the news that Enrico Zanetti, an Italian gamer, claimed to have broken McVey’s all time high score eight months after McVey had established it. While the feat hadn’t been confirmed, to McVey’s mind his single biggest accomplishment in life had been challenged. He had to go back to Nibbler and take it on again, and not just break the billion but set a new high score that would stand for all time.

As it turned out, McVey wasn’t the only one after that high mark. Dwayne Richard, a Canadian gamer, had the same intention. Richard, something of a bad boy, became McVey’s friendly competition. While the two had mutual respect, both McVey and Richard were hardcore competitors who both wanted the ultimate title for themselves. A grudge match was set for MAGfest in Alexandria, Virginia. But the story wouldn’t end there.

While the eight bit graphics that make up the opening sequence and the animations that serve as flashbacks throughout the movie have their charm, it’s the story of McVey that is the heart and soul of this movie. He is a genuinely sweet guy who you root for instinctively from the get-go. Even Richard, who is ostensibly the antagonist here, isn’t really a bad guy; while he is all bravado and bluster, there is enough decency about him that means he gets to keep his Canadian citizenship. I mean, I understand that being an arsehole can get your Canadian citizenship revoked.

Unlike a lot of modern documentaries which seem to be about cramming as many interviews in as they can, this is more centered around footage that the filmmakers shot during McVey’s quest to regain his record, even though he technically still held it. McVey was forced to confront the reality that he was no longer a teen and the stamina to stand and work a joystick for thirty plus hours was simply not as easy to come by anymore. There is a tendency to dismiss gamers as couch potatoes with overdeveloped thumb muscles, but for this kind of gaming, there is a certain amount of physical stamina needed to put up with the demands necessary. Who knew that gaming required that kind of endurance, particularly when there’s no pause button.

There’s plenty to like here; many critics (and viewers no doubt) have compared it to Seth Gordon’s seminal videogame documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. I’m not sure it’s at quite that level of entertainment but Gordon’s opus has the advantage of having been first, but also of having a much more familiar game for most viewers. Although McVey grouses that people continually look at him weird when he mentions the name of the game, there is the reality that not many arcades carried it even back in the day. Mine certainly didn’t. To my knowledge, I’ve never played it whereas most gamers who are old enough to drink can say they’ve played some version of Donkey Kong.

The movie does go on for a little longer than I would have liked; the whole MAGfest sequence could easily have been summed up in a thirty second animation for example and was somewhat anti-climactic. Still, the movie does make you leave the final credits with a good feeling and not many movies can truly say that. Generally, any movie in which the underdog does something nobody else has ever done is going to be a welcome addition to my viewing list.

REASONS TO GO: Nice wry tone throughout. Graphics and animation both suit subject matter well.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: MAGfest stands for Music and Gaming Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Donald Cried

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