Thursday, 6 May 2021

CANNON ARM AND THE ARCADE QUEST - CPH:DOX 2021 review

Following in the footsteps of the almighty retro arcade doc King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Mads Hedegaard's Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest charts another plucky contender hoping to make gaming history by playing his favourite arcade game for 100 hours straight. Hoping to achieve the feat is the brilliantly named Kim "Kanonarm" K√∂bke - a nickname he's had since he first starting playing games in Danish diners in the 1980s - a mulleted Danish grandfather who loves listening to Iron Maiden and playing the classic arcade game Gyruss among his friends at Copenhagen's Bip Bip Bar. An outer space-set shooter that sees you manoeuvre a space craft around the screen as you blast away patterns of stars, Kim once set a Gyruss record by playing for 49 hours on one coin, but with the help of his friends his new goal is to beat that record in honour of Thomas, a friend they lost to suicide.

Attempting this record is not without its health risks, and although Kim is in decent shape for a man his age, people have died attempting similar endurance records. And so his team of supporters have tailored a complicated score tracking system to help in his efforts and make sure the game - much like the famed Donkey Kong kill screen - doesn't crap out on him and bring his record attempt to a halt. Starting off with 5 lives and only ever showing a maximum of 5 on screen, he can technically accrue around 250 extra before the game errors, so he must keep track of how many he wins so he doesn't hit the top limit. Conversely, he can allow the game to play on without him so he can grab some much needed sleep for ten minutes or so, but someone must count the lost lives to make sure he doesn't lose them all. All Kim has to do is concentrate on his scoring, keep his eyes open, and hastily run to the garden whenever he needs to take a leak.

The comparisons to King of Kong are unavoidable with its use of flash graphics and retro 8-bit sounds, but Mads Hedegaard's film doesn't shy away from acknowledging the existence of the former, going as far as featuring a couple of the big names from that film and the world of arcade gaming, Walter Day from official scorekeepers Twin Galaxies, and the self-proclaimed "greatest arcade machine player" Billy Mitchell, who talks to Kim and his friends via telephone ahead of their record attempt, and before a cheating scandal sees him fall from grace in the eyes of his fans. Prior viewing of King of Kong isn't necessary to enjoy Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest's own underdog story, with Hedegaard going some way to show why the quiet, unassuming Kim is such an unlikely but perfect subject for a documentary in the way that his mind works when he's paying the game. If you do know your arcade gamers, needless to say that Kim is definitely more of a Steve Wiebe than a Billy Mitchell, and gains more of our support for it. As for Kim's team, they're a similarly unique group of gamers, thankfully a lot more vocal and outgoing than Kim, who double as experts in the fields of music theory, physics and poetry.

The documentary spends its first hour detailing the prep and training needed for the record attempt, before switching into its final act as Kim settles down in front of the Gyruss machine and gives us the kind of one man against the odds battle not seen since the finale of Rocky. It could be easy to dismiss the film and his record attempt as frivolous, but as we hear the game play on and Kim's cache of lives fall away as he attempts to rest his brain for a few precious minutes, it's one of the tensest moments in cinema I can recall. Not wanting to reveal the result of his record attempt, what I will say is that for anyone who's ever experienced one of these life-engulfing obsessions that seem completely alien to most other people, there's so much to relate to in Kim and his friends and their collective efforts to have a lasting impact in the world they call their own.

A gloriously fun journey into this outsider lifestyle anchored by a loveable group of misfits you can't help but root for, Cannon Arm and The Arcade Quest is undoubtedly the best snapshot of this subculture since King of Kong and a truly captivating underdog story. A strong recommend.

Verdict

4/5

Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest is now showing as part of this year's CPH:DOX festival. Tickets for its cinema screenings can be purchased here.

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