The Story Of Billy Mitchell: The Disgraced Donkey Kong Champion

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On July 3rd, 1999, at a Funspot arcade in New Hampshire, video game history was made; for the first time ever, a perfect score was achieved in the classic arcade game Pac-Man. This feat is not simple; one has to complete 255 levels while eating every single dot, fruit, power pellet, and enemy without losing a single life. With Pac-Man being released in 1980, that means it took 19 years for someone to complete a perfect game, and as of 2019, only seven other players have been able to replicate this.

For most players, this would be a crowning achievement. For Billy Mitchell, it was a bullet point on a resume full of arcade accomplishments. Mitchell is easily one of the best arcade game players to have ever done it, and he held a legend-like status for decades which resulted in many interviews and documentaries about his career.

Billy Mitchell is arguably the greatest arcade game player of all-time.

Little did he know that one of those featured appearances would spark an investigation that would lead to him getting banned from competing ever again, as well as turning him into a disgraced laughingstock of the gaming community.

Who Is Billy Mitchell?

Billy Mitchell is the greatest person that Billy Mitchell knows.

Is a question that Billy Mitchell will have already answered before you could ask. Born in 1965 in Springfield, Massachusetts, he moved to South Florida where he grew up and got involved with video games. 

He first achieved fame in 1982, when he set the high score for Donkey Kong at 886,900 points. He then went on to achieve record scores in games such as Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong Jr., BurgerTime, and Centipede. The Pac-Man perfect score game in 1999 solidified Mitchell as one of the greatest video game players of all-time. At the 1999 Tokyo Game Show, Mitchell was proclaimed the “Video Game Player of the Century” and Namco presented him with an award for his perfect game of Pac-Man.

Donkey Kong was just one of many games that Billy Mitchell excelled at.

But part of what makes Billy Mitchell a household name versus other arcade players is not only that he’s good; he knows he’s good. Watch any interview or documentary featuring Mitchell and you’ll see someone who is confident and arrogant. He emphasizes the importance of playing in public. He wears ties that showcase his American patriotism. His brash, cocky personality inspired the Eddie Plant character in the 2015 Adam Sandler movie Pixels, as well as the character of Garrett Bobby Ferguson in Regular Show (ironically, Mitchell would file a lawsuit due to the character’s portrayal as a cheater.)

Billy Mitchell was definitely one of the first instances of a successful, famous video game player, and of how someone could build an image off their prowess in competitive gaming. As it turns out, his thirst in the spotlight would ultimately be his downfall.

A Record Broken

Steve Wiebe posed a major threat to Billy Mitchell’s Donkey Kong scores; and this rivalry would ultimately bring Mitchell down.

Most people will have heard about Billy Mitchell through the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which tells the story of another Donkey Kong player, Steve Wiebe, as he tries to break Mitchell’s record. Wiebe faces issues with Twin Galaxies, the organization that keeps track of the arcade scores to determine who holds world records, as well as a slippery Mitchell who refuses to play against Wiebe multiple times in public.

A focal point of the documentary is that Wiebe submits a tape of him getting a score of 1,006,600 points; the first ever game with over one million. Mitchell and Twin Galaxies investigate Wiebe’s Donkey Kong cabinet and determine that it may have been tampered with, and the score isn’t recognized. However, Mitchell would then go on to submit a low quality VHS tape of him getting a score of 1,047,200 points, which Twin Galaxies accepted as the new record. This score would also go on to be represented in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Billy Mitchell’s tape was accepted as the first Donkey Kong game with over a million points scored, whereas Steve Wiebe’s was rejected.

While Wiebe would go on to break Mitchell’s new record, the whole debacle left many with questions about the legitimacy of both Mitchell’s records, and Twins Galaxies as an organization. But it would take another 11 years before these questions were truthfully answered.

Cheaters Never Prosper

On August 28th, 2017, a dispute thread was created on the Twin Galaxies website to challenge the legitimacy of Billy Mitchell’s scores. The initial posting points to a video in which Mitchell supposedly set a new high score of 1.06M points in Donkey Kong, and then immediately swaps the circuit board for a Donkey Kong Jr. board to set a new record in that game on July 24th, 2010. The swap is presented here:

To the untrained eye, this probably seems like nothing. Aside from the shady quality, it’s just two guys swapping out some circuit boards, right? Well, a little extra knowledge on the subject paints this video with a much different brush.

For starters, the way Mitchell and referee Todd Rogers go about this swap almost seems…performative. They seem very insistent, in an almost comical way, on reminding us that they are swapping out a Donkey Kong board for a Donkey Kong Jr. board. It gives off the feeling of a typical snake oil salesman; will those pills really help you lose your gut and gain a 10-inch cock in just two weeks?

Is that really a Donkey Kong Jr. board being put in the cabinet?

Of course, body language alone can’t make a case, as seen in the replies to the initial dispute thread on Twin Galaxies. Sure, their actions in the video raise questions, but one would need answers to those questions before any punitive measures could be taken. As is often the case, the answer is right in front of you, as long as you know what to look for.

(Huge credit goes to Apollo Legend’s video breaking down the multiple red flags about Mitchell’s scores.)

I’m no expert, but these boards look mighty similar for what is two different games. (Credit: Apollo Legend, YouTube.)

In the video, the board that is being removed and the board that replaces it are actually the same circuit board; a Donkey Kong Jr. board. With the shady lighting and most people’s lack of even surface level knowledge of circuit boards, it’s easy to fake the swap. But it’s quite clearly the same board being removed and replaced in the video.

But what really brought the scores into question were the tapes of the gameplay itself. The audio was muted, which is unusual if you really wanted to prove the authenticity of having achieved the score in public at an arcade. And this red flag got some people digging, where they found the truly damning evidence.

Mitchell’s Reputation Gets MAME’d

MAME; a great thing to have if you’re a casual player, but a life-ruiner for world record chasers.

Perhaps the most devastating part of Mitchell’s scores is the discovery that the tapes he submitted were of Donkey Kong being played on MAME, despite his insistence that he had never played on MAME and that the record was achieved in-person on an arcade cabinet. So what is MAME? MAME is an emulator that plays old arcade games, and emulators aren’t inherently bad; there are some games in speedrunning categories that allow the use of emulators. Where problems can arise is the usage of save states and tool-assisted superplay (commonly known as TAS.)

Save states allow you to return to any specific point where you hit save at the click of a button. Can’t make that jump in Super Mario Bros.? Have a save state right before it so that you can instantly try again rather than having to begin the whole level over. The other benefit of emulators is the use of TAS, which essentially allows a player to break the game down frame by frame, and decide which button inputs are used on each individual frame. The result is gameplay that is far beyond the ability of human beings. An example of TAS would be something like this:

Man, imagine if THIS is what Super Smash Bros. Brawl was like?

So what do these assets have to do with Billy Mitchell’s Donkey Kong scores? Well, as Apollo Legend points out in his video, there are a few ways to point out if someone is playing on an arcade cabinet versus if someone is using a MAME emulator, the primary way being the loading screen. For the arcade version, the game loads from the outside going in, almost like a curtain closing, whereas the emulator loads the game in chunks. Apollo Legend compares the two loading screens against Mitchell’s submitted tape, and the verdict is looking much more clear.

It’s all in the loading screen.

Guilty And Gone

The muted audio. The shady board swap. The usage of MAME. Billy Mitchell’s tapes all had the signs of being faked. Save states would allow Mitchell to redo certain areas if he screwed up a particular run, or he could just piece together footage from multiple runs where it fit to create one complete game. And then, he would mute the audio so that any splicing or inconsistencies would be drowned out, leaving it to the experienced naked eye to spot any faults in the footage.

But things might’ve been redeemable for Mitchell if he had just admitted to playing on MAME rather than insisting he had done it with an arcade cabinet. On April 12th, 2018, Twin Galaxies’ decided to remove all of Mitchell’s scores and ban him for life from any further submissions, as lying about the platform being used is against the rules due to the volatility of emulators.. Add on the edited submission tape as well as the shady swap footage, and the result is the King of Kong not only being dethroned, but kicked out of the entire kingdom.

What’s Next?

The irony of getting angry at being portrayed as a cheater, only to be exposed as one.

Cheaters rightfully get harshly punished and vilified by the public, as they compromise the integrity of competition, but that doesn’t mean that the players themselves go away, or in the case of Billy Mitchell, that their influence disappears. 

Mitchell is still one of the greatest players to ever front an arcade cabinet, and still has many adoring fans, despite his tarnished reputation. He also continues to play at a high level, with several videos on his Twitch channel showcasing his skills in various arcade games (including multiple one million point games in Donkey Kong.) The sad truth is that obviously Mitchell had the talent to get these scores without resorting to doctoring footage and using emulators. But his pride and unwillingness to take a backseat to anyone else led him down a dangerous road that has sullied his reputation and left his career with an asterisk.

Steve Wiebe got the last laugh, and is now the first officially recognized player to score over a million points in Donkey Kong.

After the investigation that led to Mitchell’s ban, Steve Wiebe was recognized as the first player ever to reach a million points in Donkey Kong. Mitchell continues to work as the owner of the Rickey’s World Famous Restaurant chain, as well as showing off his arcade skills as a casual player. 

Billy Mitchell is the tragic tale of a champion who was willing to do anything to stay on top, even bending the rules, only to have it blow up in his face. In the video game community, where records mean nothing unless they are rightfully earned, it’s game over for cheaters; no matter how good or valuable they may be.