The dispute over who was the first to score 1 million points in the classic Donkey Kong arcade game has captivated gamers for more than a decade.
The battle was even the subject of an award-winning 2007 documentary, “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.”
Earlier this month, after an extensive forensic analysis, the video game adjudicator Twin Galaxies handed off the long-ago title — or the bragging rights at least — to Steve Wiebe, the mild-mannered math teacher familiar to fans of that film.
“It’s a sweet victory now to have it finally recognized,” Wiebe, 49, said.
His rival in the movie, Billy Mitchell, 52, the hot-sauce entrepreneur and former champion known for his thumbs-up poses and patriotic ties, has been cast from the record books and barred for life from being listed on Twin Galaxies leader boards.
Mitchell broke his silence about that judgment this week, speaking out about the decision’s “stupidity” and “lack of due diligence,” and vowing to fight back.
Clearly this is a world where the phrase “it’s only a game” does not apply.
There had been doubts ever since before the documentary. But the inquiry began just last year when a senior member of Twin Galaxies,Jeremy Young, filed a dispute saying that some of Mitchell’s arcade score performances were generated using modified Donkey Kong arcade hardware.
Mitchell’s tapes of the games raised concerns because some were rendered in a way on the monitor that resembled game emulator software, which is forbidden.
The group’s rules require the use of an original circuit board from a Donkey Kong machine of the type once plentiful in video arcades, where people played for a quarter a game. The game itself, released in 1981, is a platformer in which Mario, now Nintendo’s flagship character, maneuvers an industrial landscape to defeat his barrel-throwing adversary, Kong. It is not unusual for serious modern-day competitors to have their own used or refurbished machines.
Twin Galaxies announced April 12 that it had decided to remove all of Mitchell’s scores in addition to barring him from participating in its arcade game leader boards, which list high scores, prompting Guinness World Records to follow suit.
The investigation concluded that two of his record-breaking scores, from 2005 and 2007, were not produced by the direct feed from an original Donkey Kong circuit board. That means Mitchell is no longer officially recognized as the first player to reach 1 million points. That would be Wiebe, for a game he played in 2006.
There had long been skepticism about Mitchell’s scores.
“All three of Billy Mitchell’s Donkey Kong scores of greater than 1 million have been questioned by many people in the community for approximately a decade,” said Dr. Hank Chien, a plastic surgeon in New York who has also earned record-breaking Donkey Kong scores.
“Although the direct accusation is that Billy did not play on original hardware,” he said, “the real accusation is that the games are entirely fabricated.”
For the investigation, Twin Galaxies said it had enlisted at least two independent third parties (one chosen by Mitchell) to examine the games using original hardware. Nobody was able to recreate the rendering on his taped games.
Mitchell insisted he always followed the rules. “This story is way, way more complicated than you could ever imagine,” he said. “They didn’t interview any witnesses. None, not one.”
Mitchell has also released a video statement in which he promised more evidence and notes that Twin Galaxies does not have his original tapes.
“Billy is correct that the tapes we analyzed were copies of the originals,” said Jace Hall, the owner of Twin Galaxies. But, he pointed out, those copies were the same tapes used to substantiate his scores in the first place.
Mitchell said he intended to put the matter to rest by replaying his high score. But that is not likely to matter to Guinness, which relies on Twin Galaxies records.
Arguably, “King of Kong” portrayed Mitchell as a bit of a villain. For the investigation, Twin Galaxies cross-referenced his video with gameplay footage and DVD extras from the movie. Mitchell said the filmmakers were trying to create drama.
“It’s a movie. Movies have fun,” he said. “I can share with you dozens and dozens of things in the movie that are Hollywood’s creativity.”
He said that distorted footage of one of his taped games in the film was altered. “The original tape was completely clean,” he said.
Ed Cunningham, one of the producers of the documentary, told The New York Times, “We did not alter the footage and stand by the accuracy and fairness of the film.”
Guinness World Records also threw out Mitchell’s Pac-Man records for good measure, since they are no longer listed on the Twin Galaxies leader board. That strikes many gamers as unfair, in part because his perfect Pac-Man score was achieved at a live event.
“The punishment is rewriting history,” said Isaiah TriForce Johnson, a Guinness World Record holder in Tetris and Vs. Super Mario Brothers.”If you throw enough mud on the past,” he added, “people will simply omit it.”
Mitchell earned that score in 1999, for the 20th anniversary of Pac-Man at the Tokyo Game Show, where he was declared “Video Game Player of the Century.” Namco, which had developed Pac-Man, had flown him there to meet the game’s creator. A decade earlier, Mitchell was known as the best Donkey Kong player in the world. As a teenager, his score had topped 870,000 in 1982, a year after its release.
The feat was “legendary,” Wiebe said.
With that kind of reputation, Wiebe said, “people just assumed that anything he turned in was legitimate. No one was really looking into how he was capturing it back then.”
All of this is now a footnote in Donkey Kong history.
It has been many years since Mitchell last held a world record in the game — or any other game, for that matter. The current Donkey Kong champion, Robbie Lakeman, scored 1,247,700 points in February.
Mitchell said he no longer plays regularly, choosing instead to advocate classic gaming and focus on manufacturing and marketing for his business, Rickey’s World Famous Sauce.
Wiebe has also taken a step back from the joy stick. His Donkey Kong machine is buried in the garage.
The two men saw each other at the most recent Kong Off tournament about a month ago, during the investigation.
Mitchell was friendly with everyone, Wiebe said. “But there was definitely a sense of tension and awkwardness in the air.”