Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Donkey Kong Anomaly: Anatomy of a Mini-Revival

In 2007, classic arcade gaming was brought to the center stage in a film called The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.  If you're reading this post, I'm going to go out on a limb and assume you're already up to speed on what the film is about, so there is no need to provide a synopsis here. 

Several years after its release, The King of Kong stands as somewhat of a cult-classic in retro-gaming circles, even though it is all but openly acknowledged that the film is more of a loose, fictionalized account of events than it is a bona fide documentary.  It's no secret that creative editing was employed and scenarios were outright fabricated in order to craft a screen-friendly story arc.

It could be argued that the most glaring fabrication is the very premise of the film itself.  It holds that a weird-looking braggart named Billy Mitchell was the official Donkey Kong world champion with a score of 874,300 points, which he supposedly achieved in 1982 at the tender age of 17.  By all accounts this score actually happened, but so did several other scores that were omitted from the movie for the sake of dramatic expediency.      

Billy Mitchell: hot sauce mogul and arcade legend
Onscreen, Mitchell is characterized as part train wreck and part legend; his utterances make you think he's completely nuts, yet his gaming skills are portrayed as untouchable, and he serves as de facto ringleader to a clan of sycophantic arcade weirdos who have never so much as touched a boob in their lives (not consensually, anyway).

I've no doubt that Mitchell is idolized by undersexed middle-aged men who peg their self-worth to their high score on Dig Dug, but the part about his Donkey Kong record remaining intact for over two solid decades is simply not true.   

This guy's license plate says "LADYKLLR".
The official Twin Galaxies Donkey Kong world record actually changed hands in the year 2000 to a fellow named Tim Sczerby, who squeaked past Mitchell's 1982 mark with a score of 879,200.  Not to be outdone, Mitchell later surpassed Sczerby with a score of 933,900, which he achieved live at a Milwaukee gaming convention in May 2004. 

Both of these scores were officially acknowledged by Twin Galaxies, both of them occurred before The King of Kong, and both of them are ignored in the film's narrative. 

To muddy the waters even further, Steve Wiebe himself submitted no fewer than four videotaped scores in 2003-2004, all of which, if taken at face value, would have been new world records.  Much to the chagrin of Wiebe, forensic scrutiny of these submissions uncovered various procedural missteps, including Wiebe's use of a so-called "double Donkey Kong" machine that plays both Donkey Kong Jr. and Donkey Kong.  A judgment was reached by Twin Galaxies officials to reject the scores, but word of Wiebe's exploits had already hit the streets, and there is evidence that the rejection ruling might not have been made abundantly clear to the community. 

The rejection of these scores is painted as somewhat of a scandal in the movie, with the unmistakable message being that Wiebe was unfairly thwarted at every turn by Twin Galaxies politics and corrupt officials keen to keep Billy Mitchell on top.  While it's no secret that the classic arcade gaming scene is somewhat of a cliquey good-old-boys club in which top-performing newcomers are greeted with standoffish reluctance, I'd stop short of calling shenanigans on the decision to reject the scores.  After all, nobody had any way of knowing if this Wiebe guy was a man of integrity, and besides that, rules are rules. 

Regardless, one thing is obvious: the official world record that existed during the timeframe depicted in The King of Kong was not Mitchell's mythical 1982 score as claimed in the movie. 

Liberal usage of creative license notwithstanding, The King of Kong is still a compelling work by any standard, deftly squeezing entertainment value from the time-honored paradigm of humble underdog protagonist versus detestable villain.  Any child of the 80's who cheered when the vile bully Johnny received his comeuppance at the hands of Daniel-san in the original Karate Kid knows exactly what I'm talking about. 

It would be an understatement to say that The King of Kong has kicked up some dust since its release, not only in the realm of competitive classic arcade gaming, but retro gaming in general.  Through my participation in the online community over the last few years, I've lost count of the number of times I've encountered somebody citing The King of Kong as the impetus behind their current interest in old video games—be it a nostalgic rediscovery of an old passion, or a new fascination altogether. 

Looking at Donkey Kong specifically, the official scoreboard has exploded, with nearly the top 20 (!!) scores being achieved in the time since the release of the film.  As of this writing, there have been two live "Kong Off" tournaments, and there is a third in the works.  At these events, groups of the world's top players gather at real arcades over a weekend to compete side by side on rows of painstakingly restored Kong machines.  Not surprisingly, Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell are greeted with somewhat of a red carpet welcome at these events, even though they're slowly but surely getting crowded out of the top ranks by finely-tuned, MAME-trained Kong-bots who are hungry for a piece of whatever extant glory remains to be won in the world of Donkey Kong.  

Billy Mitchell at a Kong Off event

The fight for the throne can't go on forever, though, as the game has a killscreen, and therefore a theoretical score cap.  Opinions vary slightly on what should be considered the maximum humanly obtainable Donkey Kong score, but the general consensus is that we're almost there, inching ever closer with each incremental improvement. 

Just as we tend to discard a peanut butter jar the moment it becomes impractical to scrape the last remaining traces of good stuff from its inner walls, the day is fast approaching when the jar of remaining points to be found in Donkey Kong will be deemed effectively empty.  When that happens, gamers will hang up their Jumpman hats en masse, and the sun will set once and for all on a final champion who will fade into obscurity along with the culture that spawned him. 

This leads us to a pertinent philosophical question: can the phenomenon be repeated?  Will some other old game follow in the footsteps of Donkey Kong and go on to foster some modicum of classic arcade enthusiasm in the general populace, beyond the boundaries of disparate cliques and back alley internet forums?

I hope I'm wrong, but unfortunately, I don't see it happening.       

First of all, there's the movie factor.  The role played by The King of Kong in spurring the arcade mini-revival simply cannot be overstated, and it's doubtful that it can be repeated.  Not only is the film entertaining, but it was released at just the right time to tap into the vast wells of pent-up nostalgia that had been quietly brewing within the children of the arcade generation, whether they realized it or not.  It provided a glimpse of long-lost childhood bliss; a world devoid of mortgages, jobs, divorces, and responsibilities.  For a fleeting moment, the adjudication of arcade scores seemed so much more important than the economy or politics.  It was a welcome escape, and many sought to prolong the high by loading up their iPods with power ballads and dropping their quarters into arcade machines for the first time in decades.

We can't give all of the credit to the movie, though.  A great classic game was needed to provide an arena for the heated competition, and it's hard to fathom a classic game better suited to this task than Donkey Kong.  Lest you think that's a lofty claim, here are the reasons I believe it to be true:

  • The game provides variety by means of four different screens, each of which has its own strategies, tricks, challenges, and pitfalls.  Many games from the classic era are single-screen affairs, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the variety helps.  
  • The game is pseudo-random, meaning success comes down to skill rather than memorization of patterns, as in Pac-Man (for example)
  • The game is limited in duration by the killscreen, meaning that record attempts can be made in a few hours, rather than days like in Q*Bert and Nibbler.  This also makes the game better suited for head-to-head events like the Kong Off. 
  • Some might disagree on this point, but I feel the game is well balanced with respect to difficulty, in that practice is rewarded with gradual score improvements.  This makes the game inviting to a wide range of participants.
  • I don't care about this point personally, but there's no denying that the game has some serious name recognition working in its favour.  Mario is the most recognizable video game mascot of all time, and Donkey Kong is where he got his start.  This fact helps with the visibility of the game and increases the number of people who are likely to pay attention.            

Realistically, we probably won't see something like the Donkey Kong anomaly ever again.  There have been other video game documentaries made, and other world records fought over, but none have managed to make a splash comparable to what we saw with Donkey Kong. 

Classic arcade gaming is a niche hobby today, and it will only become more and more obscure as time goes on.  But you know what?  So long as I have a means of playing the games I want to play, I'm perfectly fine with that. 

I'm just glad that I managed to touch my first boob before I became a weirdo. 

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