We’ve seen all of these movies before, right? The prodigy coming out of nowhere to become the champion. The hometown hero challenged by the foreign invader. The scandal that threatens an empire. The old gunslinger hitching on the holsters one more time to show he’s the best shot in the land. Incredibly, Man vs. Snake is all of these movies in one.
Tim McVey (no, not that one), was just a teenager in 1984 when he became the first video game player in the world to score a billion points on Nibbler. If you’ve never heard of Nibbler, you’re not alone. I’m a bit younger than Tim McVey, but in 1984, I lived on my Atari and thought the arcade was the coolest place in the world, and I’ve never heard of Nibbler either.
For McVey and the other players challenging the all-time points records in various games, the centre of the universe is the Twin Galaxies arcade in Ottumwa, Iowa. Owner Walter Day is a natural born promoter with a flare for creating not just marketing events, but full media savvy spectacles. In terms of promotional skill, he’s like the Don King of the video game world, but with a lot more brains and heart. He’s a business owner, but he cares about the players, and with his arcade and an industry newsletter he creates, he helps build and foster the culture of video gaming in its formative early days.
To catch up all these years later with that awkward teenage champion and see the man he’s grown into, it’s impossible not to reflect on your own growth. What would it be like if your claim to fame was something you did when you were a kid 30 years ago? For McVey and the other gamers featured, there is a sorry-not-sorry quality to their achievements. They’re simultaneously sheepish and proud of these accomplishments.
McVey’s record was challenged by an Italian gamer not long after it was set, and the documentary actually goes to Italy and tracks that guy down all these years later. There’s some question as to whether that new record is legitimate. And then a new challenger emerges – Dwayne Richard, a cocky Canadian determined to be the undisputed Nibbler world champion.
Walter Day, sensing an opportunity, organizes a big, public head-to-head showdown between McVey and Richard. The documentary expertly moves between the past and the present, giving us all the history we need so that by the time the story builds to this climax, the context is clear, and we understand why this record is so important to the people in this culture.
It’s easy to compare this movie to the classic documentary King of Kong, both because it’s about video game champions, and because Billy Mitchell makes several appearances in this one. But I think a better comparison might be Whiplash. That was my favourite movie of 2014, not because I know anything at all about jazz drumming, but because it’s about the passionate quest to be excellent at all costs. Tim McVey and Dwayne Richard have the same kind of passion, and it’s fascinating how relatable that is, even when the quest is in a video game most of us have never heard of.
Man vs. Snake is well worth a few of your quarters.
|Title||Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler|
|Director||Tim Kinzy, Andrew Seklir|
|Starring||Tim McVey, Dwayne Richard|