The excellent The King of Kong: A Handful of Quarters exposed the rest of the world to the strange subculture of classic high score video game competitions in 2007. Now the ensuing quest for ever higher and higher Donkey Kong scores seems to be coming to an end, it’s the perfect time for a new documentary focused on an even weirder sub-niche: players who spend days “marathoning” classic arcade games for high scores. In other words, it’s the perfect time for it Male vs. Snake: The long and twisted story of Nibbler.
Man vs snake (currently available for download and in an extremely limited theatrical run) features a number of amusingly candid quotes along the lines of “What the fuck is nibblerYou’d be forgiven for thinking the same thing; the mix from the 1982 release Pac man and snake gameplay didn’t impact the arcade market at the time, nor was it a big seller for jukebox manufacturer Rock-Ola. But the game caught the attention of Tim McVey, who became the first person to ever confirm that he scored 1 billion points each video game in early 1984, making himself a nibbler arcade cabinet in the process.
McVey’s feat was only possible because nibbler is part of a particular subset of classic arcade games suitable for marathons. Because the game continues to grant extra lives at regular intervals (and because the game’s speed and endlessly repetitive mazes stop getting harder early on), the only thing limiting a skilled player’s score is their ability to wake up. and stay focused on the machine. hours at a time. While one Donkey Kong high score run takes only three or four hours to complete, get a top score nibbler can easily take 40 hours or more of mind-numbing replay (apart from occasional breaks where the player trades a few extra lives for a few moments of rest).
Man vs snake begins by describing McVey’s teenage quest for that fabled billion points at Twin Galaxies, a local arcade in Ottumwa, Iowa that also happens to be the headquarters for the Twin Galaxies International Video Game High Score lists. It’s an entertaining introduction, told through interviews with the participants and charmingly animated interludes that trigger their memories. King of Kong fans will recognize it Kong competitor Billy Mitchell and Twin Galaxies Chief Referee Walter Day, both of whom play colorful and key roles in the saga.
From McVey’s salad days as a minor 1980s video game celebrity (and still probably the only gamer to declare an official burger day in his honor), the film quickly shifts to the present day and a 40-year-old McVey’s attempts to his faded glory. As the film follows McVey and interviews him about his efforts to hit 1 billion points again, it opens up to the much wider and stranger world of nibbler marathon running that has evolved over the decades.
Soon we meet Enrico Zanetti, an athletic Italian who beat McVey’s score just months after his 1984 performance, according to local media. Questions about the validity of that score (which was not initially recognized under Twin Galaxies’ strict rules) and the international nonsense surrounding it initially seem like a promising plot thread for the film. However, neither McVey nor Zanetti seem willing to fully engage in the potential controversy, making Zanetti’s story little more than a meandering side story to the main story.
The movie really takes off once we meet Dwayne Richards, a manic, sloppy arcade repairman and nibbler competitor who fills the same “bad boy” antagonist role as Mitchell King of Kong. McVey and Richards’ ongoing battle to improve on the billion dollar scores of the 1980s eventually leads to a live, side-by-side battle for nibbler supremacy at the 2009 MAGFest classic gaming convention. I won’t give away the outcome of that contest (or its aftermath), but I will say that transport issues, fatigue, machine malfunctions, and even the possibility of ROM chip hacking are all a play a role in the surprisingly gripping outcome of the battle.
Through it all, Tina, McVey’s wife, is an inspiring fountain of support, assisting Tim on his quixotic quest for another billion points. While Tina doesn’t seem to fully understand what pushes Tim on his quest, she certainly supports him and is willing to go through a lot to support his efforts to get high scores. The couple’s obvious love provides a strong, human connection point to a story that otherwise tends to get bogged down in technicalities.
For a movie about multiple 30+ hour marathons of a guy sitting at an arcade machine, Man vs Snake is incredibly fast, generally trimmed down to show only the most dramatic moments without being locked into any one area for too long. Yet the film also does a good job of capturing the mind-numbing boredom of playing the same incredible base game for days on end, as well as the mental and physical strain of staying perfectly focused on a task for that long. There are a few moments where the film descends into an unpleasant, hyper-self-conscious cheesiness, but these lows can probably be forgiven when you factor in the basic ridiculousness of the film’s subject matter.
While McVey’s aging, overweight body doesn’t seem like a likely vessel for an athleticism story, his struggle ends up being as gripping as any good story of an athlete fighting to reclaim the success of his youth. By the time you get to the climactic marathon session that anchors the film’s final third, it’s nearly impossible not to sympathize with McVey’s quest or feel fully invested in the final outcome (don’t look it up if you don’t already know).
Man vs Snake proves you don’t need a game as popular as Donkey Kong or a personality as endearing as Billy Mitchell to anchor a story about the endlessly fascinating subculture of scoring. There’s a compelling human drama to be found even in the story of a man spending days behind a slot machine that you’ve probably never heard of, and Man vs snake knows how to find it.