How about a break from geopolitics. If you’ve never seen the 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, it’s about one man’s attempt to set a new world record on the classic arcade video game Donkey Kong. In the film, Steve Wiebe, a middle-school science teacher, literally comes out of nowhere and sets a new record after spending months practicing the game in his garage. But before Wiebe can claim the title, the previous record-holder, Billy Mitchell, submits an even higher score on videotape. That score is immediately accepted by Twin Galaxies, the group which maintains classic video game records.
Mitchell was such a great villain in the documentary that many have suggested he inspired the character Fireblaster (played by Peter Dinklage) in the Adam Sandler film Pixels. But ever since King of Kong came out (it’s really a great film through the producers took a few liberties) there have been questions about Billy Mitchell’s high scores. Many have noted that Mitchell never sets his best scores live, but only submits tapes. Why is that?
There’s an answer to that question though it requires a little bit of detail about how arcade hardware works. The original arcade hardware found in any Donkey Kong machine builds the elements on the screen in a very specific way, working from both sides inward until all the pieces are in place. It does this very quickly of course, so it’s not perceptible to the naked eye, but if you film the transition between levels and then examine it frame by frame, you’ll see the hardware building up the elements on the screen from the outside in.
There is a modern piece of software which allows you to run hundreds of retro arcade games on a home computer called MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulation). MAME emulation is pretty good but not identical to the original hardware. In MAME, Donkey Kong builds the elements of the screen slightly differently. If you film both the original hardware and MAME and slow them down frame by frame, you can actually tell which game is running on the original hardware and which one is running on the emulator.
In February of this year, someone looked closely at the video of Billy Mitchell’s record-setting games and found that they were created on MAME, not on original hardware. And after weeks of furious discussion about this among people who care about these scores, Twin Galaxies announced it was stripping Mitchell of all his records, not just on Donkey Kong but on every game. And that meant that Steve Wiebe, the protagonist of King of Kong is now recognized as the first person to ever get one million points on the game. In a sense, it changes the end of the movie, albeit belatedly.
While we know for certain that an unmodified original DK arcade PCB did not output the display seen in the videotaped score performances, we cannot definitively conclude that what is on the tapes is MAME…
From a Twin Galaxies viewpoint, the only important thing to know is whether or not the score performances are from an unmodified original DK arcade PCB as per the competitive rules. We now believe that they are not from an original unmodified DK arcade PCB, and so our investigation of the tape content ends with that conclusion and assertion…
With this ruling Twin Galaxies can no longer recognize Billy Mitchell as the 1st million point “Donkey Kong” record holder. According to our findings, Steve Wiebe would be the official 1st million point record holder.
Steve Wiebe spoke to Variety this week about what it meant to finally have his effort recognized and to finally beat Billy Mitchell:
“The more I thought about it from the ‘King of Kong’ days, it all seemed to make sense now,” Wiebe said. “All the things that were happening at the time… like why he didn’t come out and play me, and why he was inciting whose records were going to be authenticated and who’s were going to be dropped. ‘King of Kong’ referenced that that he was a referee and on the board of directors. When that leaked out, it started to make more sense.”
While Wiebe is no longer the reigning king of “Kong” (Robbie Lakeman scored 1,247,700 this past February), he’s now the first player ever to score one million points in “Donkey Kong.”
“I’m not the champ any more, but getting recognition for being the first to a million is a great consolation,” Wiebe said. “That’s what I was really bummed out about 11 years ago.”
Renewed interest in this story and in the 2007 documentary mean that some alternative versions of the story may finally get off the ground. There is already a script for a feature film version of the story and the producers of the original film have also developed a Broadway show based on the storyline.
If you’re interested, this 15-minute clip describes in more detail how Mitchell’s use of MAME was discovered. You can get a taste, even from this, of what a character Billy Mitchell is and why he made such a compelling villain in King of Kong.