Feature Article

Embattled Donkey Kong Record Holder Billy Mitchell Wants To Clear His Name

There's some monkey business going on here.

Arcade gamer Billy Mitchell is not an easy man to get ahold of, despite the wide, mainstream coverage that he's received this month. Donkey Kong Forum moderator Jeremy Young concluded that Mitchell cheated to attain his famous Donkey Kong scores. Twin Galaxies, which has been recording game scores since 1981 and partners with Guinness World Records, is launching a separate investigation.

In layman's terms, the core allegation is this: Three of Mitchell's scores--1,047,200 (the infamous sent "tape" from the documentary The King of Kong), 1,050,200 (achieved at a mortgage brokers meeting in Florida), and 1,062,800 (achieved at the Boomers arcade close to Mitchell's home) were captured on a PC running MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) rather than a traditional arcade machine. There is a separate leaderboard for MAME scores, and the emulator is more susceptible to cheating, such as splicing together multiple playthroughs.

Young and others in the community rest the brunt of their argument on the way the images load on an arcade versus on MAME. An arcade loads images from side to side. MAME, meanwhile, loads images in large portions. You can see the difference in the images below, which are taken from Young's explanation on the Donkey Kong Forums.

This first one below is from test footage that Young captured of a genuine arcade machine.

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And this second image to right is captured from Mitchell's 1.05M run.

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Aside from a meandering, bizarre interview on the East Side Dave Show, Mitchell has been mum about the scandal, and he has declined opportunities to speak to the press. Mitchell would only speak to GameSpot via a conference call that also included Richie Knucklez, the man who organizes the Donkey Kong community's annual Kong-Off. Knucklez orchestrated the interview; Mitchell did not pick up the phone when I called him directly several times.

Mitchell has always had a penchant for theatrics. It's baked into every element of his presentation, from his retro, long-styled haircut, to his patriotic neckties, to the salesman's thumbs up he gives when posing for pictures. And his gameplay is similarly confident and dramatic. He was the first person to achieve a perfect game of Pac-Man. He was the first person to reach the Donkey Kong "kill screen." And for years, he held the highest recorded Donkey Kong score--until Steve Wiebe came along.

The conflict between the two men competing for the highest Donkey Kong score was immortalized in the aforementioned The King of Kong documentary. Directed by Seth Gordon, it portrayed Wiebe as the outsider and underdog, and Mitchell as the villain, protected by an insular community of old-school gamers.

This new controversy is a continuation of that perception--that Mitchell's scores have been afforded a level of leeway that other gamers' scores would not have been afforded. Mitchell, however, is insistent that his scores are real and were captured on an original arcade machine. He claims that he doesn't even have MAME installed on his computer.

"I'm the least tech savvy guy in the world, so I'd be lost without the kindness of people I've never met before, calling me with information and insight," says Mitchell in his interview with GameSpot. "In some ways, it's a bummer. There's a lot of other fun stuff I would rather be doing [than clearing my name]. But if it's a cross I have to bear for a little while, that's okay."

Mitchell has two primary objectives at the moment. The first is getting original tapes of the scores' direct feeds, which Twin Galaxies should have, according to Mitchell. One, the 1.06M points tape, was recorded by former Twin Galaxies referee Michael Sroka. Mitchell believes there is another tape--one that shows a pullback crowd shot of the entire room--which will prove there was no shady business going on. No one, thus far, has been able to locate this tape, though several people in the community have allegedly heard about it before.

Two of the original tapes--the 1.04M and the 1.05M tapes--were uploaded to YouTube by a man named Dwayne Richard, before they were turned over to Twin Galaxies. Richard appeared in The King of Kong, but he was also involved in the creation of two post-documentaries--the King of Con (2012), which purports that Mitchell received payoffs from the King of Kong filmmakers, and The Perfect Fraudman (2012), which questions Mitchell's claim of having the first perfect Pac-Man game.

Knucklez characterizes Richard as someone with an axe to grind against Mitchell. And he proposes that this bias--and any suspicion of doctored or altered footage--can be eliminated by simply cutting Richard out of the equation. Knucklez reasons that if the critics can watch the original tapes--the ones Richard turned over to Twin Galaxies, rather than Richards' uploads--that would be fairer.

Knucklez recalls an incident from years ago, when Richard asked Knucklez for help in faking MAME footage. He also repeated this anecdote on his Facebook account (which we've lightly edited for grammar and spelling):

"I remember it well. I was in the parking lot of a Walmart when [Richard] called and asked me to participate in a MAME Donkey Kong ruse. In his exact words, 'To put egg on Twin Galaxies' face.' I told him I was not interested."

Knucklez concedes, however, that the original Kong footage could be exactly the same as Richards' upload, or even prove Mitchell guilty. And in the last couple of days, a former Twin Galaxies referee, who Knucklez declined to name, came forward with one of the original tapes.

"He reached out to me and said, 'I still have the original copy. If it'll help Bill in any way, I can send it to you," says Knucklez. "In Dwayne Richards' letter to Twin Galaxies, he listed the people who received the tape, and [this referee's] name is on the list."

Knucklez estimates that the tape should arrive and be in his possession within the next day or two. He believes Mitchell's denial and says he is supporting his friend.

Mitchell claims that the arcade tape footage may also have a technical explanation for looking like MAME. Mitchell says he has spoken with experts, who explained to him how the visual look of the arcade footage could have been altered due to Mitchell's use of a direct feed--one that takes its signal straight off the arcade's board rather than from the monitor.

"I talked to the company that manufactured it, and I asked, 'Why would the right look different from the left?'" says Mitchell. "And he explained it to me--not that I understood. And I said, 'Oh, you've got to explain it to these other guys.' So they're in the process of quickly putting that together. [They said that because I was] obsessed with capturing the screenplay this way, that's why I'm having this mess. Every single time, I recorded it that way."

Billy Mitchell (Left) and Richie Knucklez (Right) Image Credit: Non-Sport Update Magazine
Billy Mitchell (Left) and Richie Knucklez (Right) Image Credit: Non-Sport Update Magazine

Mitchell, who repeatedly states that he is not a tech-savvy person, declines to explain further, deferring to the aforementioned experts.

"If I sit here and try and explain it to you, I'm going to sound like an idiot, and people are going to pick it apart, because I don't know what I'm talking about," says Mitchell. "These answers require presentation and research. It takes two minutes to tell a lie. It takes a lot longer to give a proper response that's acceptable."

Mitchell says the reasons for him getting involved in this latest fracas have less to do with him and more to do with the community.

"This is the first time I've had to answer, because people like Richie, people like Rob [Childs, the tech support present at the Boomers Arcade DK high score run]...and many [other] people are being called liars," says Mitchell. "And if my friends are being kicked between the knees, I have to respond, and I am responsible....There are a lot of good people who have legitimate questions, and that's who we're catering to."

"I have become known as an advocate of competitive games and an ambassador for competitive video games," continues Mitchell. "And for that reason? Yes, this is important to me."

One can see the ongoing drama on Donkey Kong forums, where many posters are going through an existential grieving process over Mitchell's scores. Without Mitchell and these scores, there would be no The King of Kong. And thus, the community, as it currently exists today, would have never developed. Has it all been based on a lie?

Near the end of our conversation, Mitchell's tone turns more emotional.

I have to present what any fair-minded person would look at and go, 'Oh. I see.' I can help the people who want to know exactly what happened and how it happened.

Billy Mitchell

"Rob was there when this happened," reiterates Mitchell about his 1.06M score. "The technician from the arcade was there when this happened. They were the ones who set up everything and set the board. There were Twin Galaxies people there. They set this up. There were cameras set up. There was an event set up. There were crowds. There were people. There was media. So all of those people are in on a big conspiracy? That's just stupid."

"So now," Mitchell concludes, "I have to present what any fair-minded person would look at and go, 'Oh. I see.' I can help the people who want to know exactly what happened and how it happened. And they will--very shortly."

There's an irony to all this. All this hay is being made over records that are not even the world record anymore. Mitchell was long ago surpassed by younger players. The current record holder is Robbie Lakeman, who beat Wes Copeland's 1,218,000 score with a 1,247,700 score on February 2, 2018. This current fight over frames of animation, direct feeds, and circuit boards is being waged entirely on principle. And it might cause an outsider to question whether Mitchell's belief--that people are targeting him--is ego-driven paranoia rather than fact.

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But then you step back, and you realize that if Billy Mitchell was dedicated enough to get a high score (legitimately or illegitimately), it would stand to reason that someone else is dedicated enough to tear it down. Mitchell gets a lot of flak for his outsized persona, and for exerting such charismatic power over his small fiefdom. But are the people criticizing him, who created two anti-Mitchell documentaries in the space of a year, any more down-to-earth? Whether or not Mitchell proves that his scores are valid, there's no doubt that there will be another conspiracy, and another coverup, and another follow-up. Because when things reach this pitch, it's no longer about the scores. It's about something more personal.

There's a common observation that Batman, by existing, has empowered and created his enemies. The presence of a superhero is an implicit challenge, and it leads to the creation of a supervillain. Batman and Joker are symbiotic, in a sense. They are doomed to fight, over and over again, because on some level they thrive off the conflict. Maybe Mitchell is legit; maybe he isn't. Maybe he's a villain, or perhaps, he's created some villains along the way.

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