Directors: Tim Kinzy/Andrew Seklir
Stars: Tim McVey, Duane Richard, Tom Asaki
Fantastic Fest has a long history of programming the weird and unusual when it comes to the films selected for the annual event and every year they add a couple of documentaries that are similarly themed with whatever mind-blowing cinema they have up their sleeves. To tie into this year’s Fantastic Arcade, Fantastic Fest ran Man vs Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler, the story of Tim McVey (NOT the mad bomber) who in 1984 became the first person to score a billion points on a real obscure game called Nibbler. The game consists of a snake moving around a puzzle board eating pellets and as each pellet is consumed, the snake grows larger; if you touch any part of yourself you die. Needless to say, it was a difficult game and it was quite an accomplishment to get a billion points, a statistic that no other arcade game in history has offered. Now, 25 years after setting the World Record, Tim McVey’s journey begins to break the record once again and Man vs Snake chronicles his attempts.
Man vs Snake begins with an exploration of the Twin Galaxies Arcade, familiar to most people from the 2007 documentary The King of Kong as they were not only the first arcade to post National High Scores, which no one was doing at the time as there was no real competitive gaming, but were also the first Arcade to put forward the notion of Marathoning games to achieve the highest score possible. Gamers from around the world began staying up horrendous hours in attempts to flip scoreboards or get kill screens (where the game just randomly breaks down). Of course, King of Kong bad guy and founder of Twin Galaxies, Walter Day, and his fellow bad guy Billy Mitchell, World Video Game Champion, are interviewed and it seems they learned from their portrayal in the Donkey Kong documentary as both seem to come off as far more supportive and slightly less ego-centric as they did in King of Kong. They also include interviews with the guys who originally programmed Nibbler in an effort to give you a complete history of the game as most people don’t know what Nibbler is. There is a considerable amount of time devoted to the dangers and pitfalls of game marathoning to help illustrate that the people who do this and are good at it are comparable to real athletes in the amount of training and preparation they go through to be able to spend 40 hours at a sitting playing the same game on one quarter.
The story really begins in 1983, when Tom Asaki, a World Ranked Video Game player found himself at Twin Galaxies attempting the first billion point score on Nibbler. Tim McVey, a local Ottumwa, Iowa native, walked in and wondered why so many people were watching this guy play. When informed of the record, McVey said, “it doesn’t matter what his score is, I’ll just wipe it out.” Thus began McVey’s quest to be the first to a billion (for the record, Asaki scored 838 million in that attempt). In January 1984, less than a year later, McVey became the first person to make the billion point mark on Nibbler. After his victory, he slept for 38 hours to recover. When he awoke, he was the recipient of a civic day in his honor, the key to Ottumwa and a Nibbler machine of his very own which he later sold for almost nothing to fuel his arcade obsession.
Flash forward to September 1984 when an Italian kid named Enrico Zanetti beat McVey’s score on a machine in Italy. Twin Galaxies, arbiter of World Record scores, refused to accept Zanetti’s record due to improper documentation. This was enough to set the seed gnawing in McVey’s gut. He officially had the record but there was the knowledge that Zanetti did indeed top his score. It took McVey 25 years to live with this information but it ate at him enough that he knew, at age 40, he had to make another go of it. McVey’s life turned out much differently than he expected; he worked in a machine shop with people who didn’t understand him or his passion. Until this documentary, he admitted to never really talking about his record and stated that his co-workers couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to make a documentary about him. It wasn’t until Duane Richards, an arcade addict and Gamer of the Year for 1986, decided he’s try his hand at the Nibbler record that McVey was brought back into the fold as Richards was smart enough to suggest a head-to-head attempt in the beginning of 2009 in an effort to beat Zanetti’s score. McVey began training like a madman and the attempt was held to much fanfare. Despite the Nibbler machines not arriving as scheduled, replacements were found and the attempt went ahead as planned though not without a hitch or two, like Richards’ machine freezing 24 hours in and McVey’s inability to keep his reflexes up and both players failed.
The story does not end there as later in 2009 Duane Richards broke both McVey and Zanetti’s high score, though not without more controversy. It seems the board Richards was playing had a microprocessor go bad and overclock his machine so it performed faster than it should. In a rare display of sportsmanship, Richards withdraws his High Score from contention but this does not stop McVey’s quest to continue to push forward and reclaim his top spot in Arcade history. After several failed attempts, McVey finally puts the Nibbler obsession aside…. until September of 2011 when another pro named Rick Carter beats the top score and that pushed McVey to make another attempt during his Christmas break to once and for all reclaim his place atop the billion point mountain.
Man vs Snake is ultimately a movie about change. How Tim McVey went from a teenage game prodigy to a 40 year old guy working in a machine shop with a dream to do something more for himself, even if it doesn’t mean anything to anyone else. He mentions that after his Easter 2009 attempt that his dad passed away. He wasn’t close to his dad but he vividly remembered going to the racetrack with his dad and marveling at the drivers and racing, so much so that he had always dreamed of racing stock cars. At one point during his reflections, he comes to the conclusion that he could still do that, even at age 40, because you should never give up on what you want out of life and that’s the attitude that helped him move forward in his quest for the Nibbler record for the second time. Walter Day and Billy Mitchell, the two major antagonists from The King of Kong also recognize the changes in McVey over the years they knew him and were sure, no matter if it took him ten attempts or one hundred, he would eventually come out on top, not only in his efforts to reclaim his record but in whatever he wanted to do in life because he had the drive and the passion to be a success. This type of honest reflection is rare in video game documentaries but Man vs Snake is very clever how it wraps the very human story of not only Tim McVey but his competitors Tom Asaki, Duane Richards and Enrico Zanetti around the hard information and linear narrative of the quest to top the billion point Nibbler score. It’s hard to separate from The King of Kong as both approaches end up becoming more about Tim McVey and Steve Weibe as they do about exploring the history of the video game or the high score quest and both are truly heartwarming films that really have you rooting for the principals involved. Tim McVey makes the comment that he wants validation for Nibbler because he’s tired of people not knowing what he’s talking about but the story here is more about the validation for himself because he knows deep down he was working in a machine shop instead of pushing to be a race car driver like he had always dreamed and I would say, after viewing this documentary, that Tim McVey has more than validated both the game and himself.
Man vs Snake is truly a wonderful documentary not only about the Arcade game Nibbler or competitive gaming but about how people change over time but never have to lose sight of their dreams no matter where life takes them. Tim McVey is a very sympathetic protagonist and his supporting cast of competitors and foils are also worthy of respect, unlike the derision one feels for some people at the end of The King of Kong. By the end of the film, you not only want McVey to succeed for himself but for his family and all those other people because they supported him and cared about his desire and ability to do the impossible for a second time. Man vs Snake should be added to your Must View list because it delivers not only an engaging look at a subject but because it celebrates the people behind the efforts to be the best at their chosen subject. Though it’s been overstated in this review, it would make a great double-header with The King of Kong and stands alongside it as an exemplary documentary that delivers more than its title would suggest.