Before the personal computer made it into our homes, we had to go arcades to experience the highest level of contemporary design. Entire cabinets were built as monuments to singular gaming experiences. Suddenly, an inherently isolationist hobby became a celebratory group activity. We wandered wonderstruck into a land of neon lights and blazing attract screens. Every machine beckoned for our quarters. It was videogames at their best: a symbol of communal, electronic optimism. Innovation exploded as we witnessed the formal legitimization of our hobby. At home, games were one thing. We played them, sometimes with friends, and they were contained experiences. At the arcades, their ultimate potential as interactive gathering spaces was unlocked. Life would never be better than those moments spent at the arcades with friends, the warm glow of machines proudly lit up with our high scores. We went and played and left a piece of ourselves there. The arcade was the peak of videogames. And we can never go back to how it was.
But, some never left. Kim “Kanonarm” Köbke lived at the arcade ever since. It’s his community. At the Bip Bip Bar in Copenhagen, Demark, Kim endlessly plays away at the Gyruss (1983) cabinet. Designed by Yoshiki Okamoto, Gyruss is a tube-shooter that combines the illusion of flying toward the screen of Tempest (1981) with the space-shmuping popularized by Space Invaders (1978) and Galaga (1981). Gyruss is one of those moments of inspired iteration where multiple concepts come together to make the perfect game. It’s Konami’s second best shmup depending on who you ask, and Okamoto’s best design, before he went on to produce other games you might have heard of with Capcom, like Street Fighter II (1991) and Resident Evil (1996). In short, he had a hand in popularizing the shmup, the fighter, and the survival horror game. He’s an important forefather in gaming and Gyruss is the most important game of his own design.
Harrowing endlessly down a cylindrical starfield, Kim could play Gyruss forever. And that’s just what he intended to do. One hundred hours on a single credit. That was his original goal. Bolstered by an amazing group of supportive friends, Kim set out to break the world record for playing an arcade game for the longest stretch of consecutive time. The way Gyruss is designed, it only allows fifteen minutes away from the game in a single day. The other thing to know about Gyruss is that it requires rapid and constant tapping to keep firing lasers, so it’s that very constant repetition that earned Kim his namesake. It would be a long and strenuous ride. So Kim stretched out a mattress on the ground, grabbed a seat, and went live on the internet. This would be his one shot at glory.
Kim and company idolized Billy Mitchell of Donkey Kong (1981) record fame. They sat around a table and called Billy. They were all hyper-fixated on one moment in Billy’s gameplay. He didn’t go for one move that would’ve amassed him a large amount of points. They didn’t ask for a motivational speech. Or interview Billy about himself or why he plays games. They wanted to know, as record chasers, just why he missed that one move. “Because I’m Billy Mitchell,” he told them, to a round of applause. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007) is the one other piece of videogame documentary ephemera you need to be aware of, when considering Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest. It informs both the style and structure of the piece. Clips are used and it serves as direct inspiration for cataloguing the journey. The difference in that documentary, is that there is a human battle. An analogue to an entire history of sports films, where it could be humorously constructed around a competition. In Arcade Quest, the only battle is between man and machine. What you also need to know about Billy Mitchell is that he was outed as a cheater, having engineered his game to operate differently (perhaps explaining that one questionable move) and Kim and his friends are immensely displeased and have turned their back on him. The other difference between the documentaries is that Kim is authentic and the real deal. This is an actual journey for greatness, if not only one man’s personal fulfillment, then the wish fulfillment of everyone who has ever chased a high score.
What does it mean to film someone playing a videogame in 2021? It has to mean something different than it did in 2007. Now, everyone records their gameplay. Then, it was a niche proposition for Let’s Play hobbyists. The King of Kong arrived at the same time as burgeoning interest of online videogame coverage. My introduction to Let’s Plays was one about Jurassic Park Trespasser (1998), which may very well be the best documentary about a videogame, if we can stretch the definitions of those terms. So what use does a documentary shaped around one man playing a videogame really serve anymore? We have unfettered access to livestream of any popular game running any time of day. Kim’s attempts, even, have already been live streamed on Twitch and are on the internet for posterity. It’s rarer, perhaps, to see a group of great friends interfacing with an arcade in a naturalistic way. But perhaps the only possible utility, and in this case, that’s debatable, are the personalities of the documentary subjects.
It’s debatable whether it’s a draw in this case because Kim is a man of so few words. He does not speak so much as he thinks and then conceptualizes his thoughts visually. Because he is the best Gyruss player in the world, or perhaps simply the one with the greatest endurance, he is still the central heartbeat of his friend group. The best moments of Arcade Quest, undoubtably, are when documentarian Mads Hedegaard is stonewalled by the group and has to fill in the gaps himself. Kim stares into space. He proceeds to not say anything. He eats a banana. Then, Mads, in a moment of genius: “It started like many things start. A quiet thought while eating a banana.” Gold.
What’s most intriguing about the group are either their extracurricular interests or their lack of them. Two of the friends stand out in particular. One performs at poetry slams. He is not comfortable on stage but is an effective writer, combining his mental health challenges with the only wins he has in life, those he has in videogames. His poems can shift from the sense of lost isolation to finding direction in life through the Konami code — sometimes you have to look up, up, down, down, left, right, left, and right again, for the answers. Another friend has extrapolated the music of Bach into precise mathematical formulas. Often, I wish the documentary were about him, not just for his propensity for saying fascinating things about musical formation, but also for his continuous devastating losses at Bubble Bobble (1986), a puzzle game which sharply correlates to his fast ability to break everything down into maths. That’s perhaps even more interesting than Kim’s only dialogue being with the Gyruss machine. There’s a creepy metaphor in the doc about how his communication with the machine is akin to the connection of two lovers, but I don’t buy that.
Our time spent with a videogame documentary about someone playing well or for a long time is also proportionate to the results. The results are good. Kim fails the one test, which I don’t mind saying, since it’s all online, and succeeds at another, which is also online, if you want to really spoil yourself. But it’s better to watch it here. It’s better to understand the communion of this chosen family than to simply watch the gameplay. The ultimate result, perhaps the only possible result, is a reflection of what it means to play games together. How, as our site’s videogame podcast (Daydreamcast) eloquently puts it, “the old games are the good games.” Because really, the old times with friends are the good times. And Arcade Quest feels like going back. Going back into time with bad haircuts and better videogames. Where a mindful thought while eating a banana is enough to create a documentary about playing a game. There is one last moment I want to highlight. Before Kim sets out on his record attempt, he pays tribute to a fallen friend of his circle. He’s just recently died. And it strikes us there: sometimes, videogames are the most important memories we have of each other. They can mean so much more than the action of endlessly circling in space. Sometimes games are just the time we spend with each other. That’s what has been lost and what we can stand to regain from Arcade Quest.