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

The Rocket


The Rocket

Hockey ain't no game for sissies!

(2007) True Sports Drama (Palm) Roy Dupuis, Julie Le Breton, Stephen McHattie, Patrice Robitaille, Mike Ricci, Francois Langlois-Vallieres, Randy Thomas, Vincent Lacavalier, Sean Avery, Remy Girard, Pascal Dupuis, Ian Laperriere, Stephane Quintal. Directed by Claude Biname

Every sport has its Babe Ruth; a dominant figure who changes the nature of the game forever. However, once in awhile, a player comes along who not only changes the nature of his sport forever, he changes the world around him as well.

Maurice Richard (Dupuis) is the most dominant ice hockey player in his era. A gifted goal scorer, a rough customer and a talented playmaker, he has led the Montreal Canadiens to the upper echelon of the National Hockey League. His suspension for the remainder of the 1955 season after striking an official caused rioting in Montreal.

And yet he came from humble beginnings. As a teenager (Langlois-Vallieres) he worked in a factory by day and played junior league hockey at night. His exploits on the ice impressed young Lucille Norchet who would eventually become his wife (Le Breton). He also impresses scouts for the hometown Canadiens enough that he is given a tryout for the team which has been mired in a bout of underachievement for years. Their new coach, Dick Irvin (McHattie) wants winners. He doesn’t see any on his squad.

Watching Richard’s tryout, he realizes he has a player whose will to win is like nothing ever seen before in hockey. Although hockey experts caution Irvin against signing the young winger due to the number of injuries he’d suffered in the junior leagues, Irvin takes a chance and signs him. At first, it doesn’t look like a brilliant idea. Richard is inconsistent on the ice and when he breaks a leg during a game, it looks like the Canadiens got a lemon – a fragile player susceptible to injury.

But Richard does come back. Put on a line with Elmer Lach (Ricci) and Hector “Toe” Blake (Thomas), he becomes one of the most prolific scorers in the history of the game. His skills make him a target – the Rangers send out “Killer” Dill (Avery), a noted goon, to take him out of the game permanently but Richard is well able to defend himself.

Part of what makes him a target is his status as a French-Canadian. Back in the post-World War II era of the NHL – indeed, in all of hockey – French-Canadians were second class citizens. They were given separate caged-in seats to watch the game from at the Montreal Forum, and the players were the targets of racial slurs and excessive violence.

Richard’s skills made him one of the first French-speaking hockey players to acquire a mass following. He had a regular column in the Montreal daily newspaper that was a must-read for French-speaking citizens of the city. He criticized Clarence Campbell, commissioner of the NHL, for not administering discipline in the same way when French-Canadian players were involved. His columns were so inflammatory that eventually the Canadiens had to ask him to stop writing them or risk being fined by the league.

Richard is never paid very much, relatively speaking and feels it necessary to work at the same factory he did as a teenager during the summers when hockey is on hiatus. Supporting his family is very important to him and he is worried that if his hockey career comes to an end prematurely he won’t be able to do that. Still, despite the hardships, despite the injuries, even despite the abuse he perseveres to become the greatest hockey player of his time – and arguably ever.

Before Gretzky there was Richard and it’s hard for us Americans to comprehend what he means in the province of Quebec and specifically in Montreal. I suppose it’s very much like Michael Jordan in Chicago or Carl Yastrzemski in Boston but it’s much more than that. It goes beyond that adulation of an athlete – it’s almost a cultural thing. Richard is very much part of the identity of French Canada.

Before this movie was made, there was a four hour miniseries (in 1999 to be exact) about Richard that also starred Dupuis (who bears an uncanny facial resemblance to the Rocket) and much of this movie is taken from that mini-series. Director Biname does an admirable job with a microscopic budget (by Hollywood standards) and while the movie smacks of boosterism a little bit, there seems to have been an effort to make it as factual as possible. However, there are times when the low budget aspect of the movie shows onscreen which is unsettling.

Dupuis is stolid in playing Richard for the third time in his career. Richard was never the most charismatic of men – he preferred to lead quietly. That makes it difficult for Dupuis to truly grab your attention onscreen as he pretty much has to low-key it throughout. The same goes for Le Breton as Lucille; she never really has much to do other than being the faithful, loyal wife.

McHattie gets much more of a plum role as the fiery Coach Irvin. He brings the irascible coach to life, his belief in Richard helping the player achieve what he did. His is the most memorable performance of the movie. There are also a number of former and current NHL stars in the film, some having more prominent roles than others such as current Tampa Bay Lightning star Lacavalier as the Canadiens’ elegant star Jean Beliveau and former San Jose Shark Ricci as Richard’s linemate.

This isn’t the greatest hockey movie ever but it may very well be the most earnest. There is no doubt that Richard revolutionized the game and has left an indelible mark both on the NHL and on Canada; I would have liked to see a little more of the latter, but they do a great job on the former. Most Americans wouldn’t know a slap shot from a wrist shot but this is a movie that offers insight to the Canadian soul, particularly her French speakers.

WHY RENT THIS: As much of a look back at cultural and class inequalities of the era as a full-blown hockey movie. Decent hockey sequences give you an idea of how dominant Richard really was.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poor production values are noticeable in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some hockey violence and quite a bit of blood as a result, a smattering of foul language and yes, there’s smoking which let us remember was common back then. Get over it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was reviewed by Richard himself shortly before his death in order to maintain as much accuracy as possible.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a 22 minute feature on the real Richard and his impact not only on the game of hockey but on Canada and the province of Quebec in particular. It’s a pretty extensive piece with interviews with contemporaries of Richard as well as current NHL players.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Hangover Part II