The King of Kong Dethroned

Competitive gaming may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, but its history extends back as far as the dawn of the home console. Though the market is now dominated by eSports and tournaments, in the 1980s being the best gamer on the planet meant having the highest score, and there was only one group dedicated to tracking national records of arcade achievements: Twin Galaxies. The organization was highlighted in the 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters as it chronicled the back-and-forth rivalry of gaming legends Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe in their attempts to be the best Donkey Kong player in the world. In a recent dramatic turn of events, Mitchell, considered the greatest arcade gamer of all time, has had the legitimacy of his highest scores called into question.

Senior Twin Galaxies member Jeremy Young alleges how Mitchell’s three highest scores, the 1,047,200 King of Kong “tape”, the 1,050,200 Mortgage Brokers score, and the 1,062,800 Boomers score, were earned using the arcade emulator MAME, as opposed to a printed circuit board version typical of arcade cabinets. Although Twin Galaxies has supported scores achieved in MAME, Mitchell previously claimed to capture the recordings of his games through a direct feed. In a lengthy forum post on the Twin Galaxies website, Young goes on to compare Mitchell’s footage to MAME and direct feed captures, as well as outlining the technical differences between the hardware. Essentially, MAME generates the image by taking pieces of the level from memory and putting it together for the player, while a traditional arcade cabinet generates it by scanning across the screen in a left-to-right/bottom-to-top manner. As Young puts it, “A simple analogy would be this: Real DK hardware generates the image in the same way you would open or close vertical window blinds…from side to side. Older versions of MAME (pre-0.122) generate the image in the same way you would put together a puzzle…piece by piece.” Though the technical descriptions may be a tad challenging to understand, I recommend reading Young’s forum post, as it provides a rare insight into the intricacies of gaming hardware.

The evidence presented by Young took form in a series of GIFS comparing the transition screens between levels. Below, you can take a look at some of the different footage captured using MAME, Mitchell’s own submitted footage, and a direct feed capture verified by Twin Galaxies, all showcasing the animation frames when starting the game’s first level, 25m. The difference between the footage is subtle but it’s there.

MAME 0.117 Footage
Mitchell’s Mortgage Brokers Footage
Direct Feed Footage

The title of Donkey Kong champion has changed many times over the years, with a new high score of 1,247,700 being achieved just a few days ago by competitive gamer Robbie Lakeman. Mitchell’s scores have since been removed from the rankings, dropping him from the top 20 to 47, based on his last publicly validated score of 933,900. This coincided with the disqualification of another record holder’s score, as Dragster world record holder Todd Rogers was removed from the rankings after his scores were determined to be impossible to achieve and fraudulent. Rogers, in a bizarre coincidence, was the person who personally verified Mitchell’s three removed scores.

Drama seems to swirl around the world of competitive gaming. Controversy can be found not just between teams vying for a championship or players working at a high score, but even in the hardware itself and the veracity of the competition. Competition is meant as a way to better oneself, to sharpen iron against iron, to showcase one’s abilities, and to discover who is truly the best at any given time. Mitchell was once a competitor like that, the King of Kong, but if Young’s accusations are true, he has lost his way as a contestant. It’s a shame to see any sort of competition populated by cheaters, but it hurts doubly so to see it in the realm of gaming. Long may this new, good king reign.

[Credit to Jeremy Young, Chris Gleed, and Twin Galaxies for the GIFs]

Written by Lee Feldman

Lee is a writer, game designer, and graduate student from Los Angeles, California. As a gamer, he is primarily inspired by fascinating worlds with deep stories, rich characters, and sharp gameplay, with a love of games both old and new. When he isn't collecting rare NES cartridges, he can be found obsessing over mixed martial arts.

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