“What’s Nibbler? God, I’m sick of that question!” - Tim McVey
Yet it is one that must be answered to understand Man Vs. Snake! Nibbler is an arcade game released in 1982 that featured gameplay similar to the old cell phone game Snake. In Nibbler you play a snake who has to travel around a maze collecting dots, and each time you eat one it grows in size. If you collide with a wall or with the snake itself you lose. Its biggest claim to fame was that it included a nine-digit high score counter, which effectively let gamers score one billion points by rolling over to zero, the first game in history to do so. The only problem with that task is one of time - if you’re good at Nibbler you can play for hours and hours on one quarter.
There’s also the fact that it’s just not a very good game. They had an arcade machine at Fantastic Fest this year and while the promise of a $100 gift card for a high score kept people playing nonstop, it’s doubtful anyone would have been playing otherwise. If anyone beat the all-time high score they would have earned a free VIP badge to next year’s fest but, of course, it’s a near-impossible task.
Tim McVey (no, not the bomber) did the impossible when he was only 16 years old, achieving history's first billion point game in an epic 36-hour battle. After achieving it he walked home and slept for two days straight, and likely thought that his story with the game was done.
It wasn’t. He wasn’t ready for the popularity it caused him - the mayor of Ottumwa gave him a key to the city, and the game developer shipped him an arcade machine of Nibbler for his home. His town declared January 28 "Tim McVey Day," a fitting civic day in the self-proclaimed Video Game Capital of the World. And then, the score was soon broken by one Enrico Zanetti in Italy, although the score was never officially verified. Decades later McVey would be dragged back into competition with Dwayne Richard, an eccentric Canadian who had the second-highest score at the time. This documentary features their battle at a convention and the many, many attempts to hit that high score soon after.
Man Vs Snake feels very much like a sequel to King of Kong, especially since it involves many of the same key players. Walter Day of Twin Galaxies (the arcade-turned-record-keeper-database) is once again involved with this absurd high score business, and shows up wearing his referee outfit all over the place, getting more personally involved than an official scorekeeper perhaps should be. Billy Mitchell, the villain of King of Kong, shows up as a much more supportive figure here, though no less narcissistic.
It also features a lot of the same story beats. You’ve got the good guy with a boring job trying to prove he’s exceptional in some way, the gamer accused of cheating for a high score, the same chipper animation and music style. You even have the moment when you research the game after the movie and find out that the triumphant high score at the end no longer stands… (sorry.)
King of Kong’s brilliance was in making it a David Vs Goliath battle, where you were all but forced to take the side of the “good guy.” Here there’s no such hero to root for, although they attempt to make a villain out of Richard for a bit.
The film is perhaps held back by its very subject matter. Barring the fact that no one remembers the game (the filmmakers handed out buttons that said “What the fuck is Nibbler?” at the premiere) it faces the problem that the high score for Nibbler is less skill-based and more of a marathon. Donkey Kong is a brutally hard game that requires precision timing to get to a measurable end goal. Nibbler requires stamina and that you not lose your mind while playing for nearly two days, because there is simply no end to it. A good player can get dozens of extra lives with no real struggle, and they can take bathroom breaks by just running off and letting their lives slowly dwindle. Many of the times McVey attempts another billion points and fails it’s just because he gives up and walks away, his body exhausted past reason. It’s just not as cinematically interesting to watch a long-haul game like this.
Still, Man Vs. Snake is an entertaining ride, and it’s always fun to see people so wrapped up in seemingly trivial goals as this. It’s another glimpse into a world you didn’t know existed, where otherwise ridiculous feats appear superhuman, and mortals become Gods… at least for a couple of days.