November 1st, 2012 - In the years since the King of Kong, as a new champion has emerged and the water rises slowly but steadily around Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell's second and third place scores, a question has emerged: with so many great Donkey Kong players out there now playing in (or even beyond) their league, were Billy and Steve ever really that good? Or was this an illusory perception created by the two being "alone on the field?"
I've encountered disparaging remarks about the abilities of both players—how Billy and Steve are "no big deal" by today's standards; and even the insinuation that the game has "passed them by."
I burn a little whenever I see it.
Let's get one thing straight: just because it's no longer difficult to find Donkey Kong players who can score a million points, and kill-screeners are becoming downright ho-hum, reaching either of those milestones was a very different proposition in the context that Mitchell and Wiebe reached them.
In 2012, it takes as much learning and physiological training as it ever did to acquire the skill to push Donkey Kong to its limits.
However, you no longer need to possess the ability to figure out how to push those limits.
Having to experiment, to creatively explore, to develop new techniques, is a large and critical part of what it means to be good at something, one that has been removed from the toolbox of skills necessary to compete at Donkey Kong.
In other words, today's aspiring million-point player will have to learn many things, but they won't have to discover anything at all.
Would-be champions can avail themselves of a wealth of resources to get good at the game and to learn everything that is known about it. There are guides to read, communities of excellent players to commisserate with, and not a day goes by where an elite player doesn't stream his gameplay on twitch.tv, which you can study in detail (and even ask them about in the chat).
It's a far cry from the pre-King of Kong days, when less was known about the game, and when that knowledge was shrouded in secrecy.
This untamed wilderness is the environment in which Mitchell and Wiebe honed their skills... on their own and without help.
When Mitchell set his iconic 874,300 world record in 1982 (at, I would add, the astonishing age of 17), and when Wiebe first reached the kill screen in the 1990s, nobody else had ever been where they were. Unlike today's players, who can set a goal of "getting a kill screen", they didn't know there was a kill screen! They just played until they bumped into it.
And even from there they kept pushing.
As Roy Shildt asserted in The King of Kong: "Steve Wiebe is the one who unlocked the secrets to Donkey Kong to figure out how to get a million points."
Wiebe was indeed. Mitchell may or may not have already gotten there privately (Shildt asserts—probably incorrectly—that Mitchell was only able to get a million after studying Wiebe's tapes), but we can say definitively that Wiebe independently achieved the score and was a pioneer in developing the point-pressing techniques necessary to do so.
Nowadays there are no secrets. The know-how is there for the taking. And there isn't a single high-level player post-King of Kong who can claim to be where he is without at least some help from the information-saturated environment of today.
If They Can Do It...
"I have an extremely hard time accepting that a score of over 1,000,000 is possible on a stock, unaltered, set of Donkey Kong ROMs... based on my experience and calculations, there's not enough points to take advantage of.... no matter how good you are."
- Former Donkey Kong champion Tim Sczerby, 2007
On a psychological level, it's much harder to do something that you aren't certain is possible. Especially when others are telling you that it isn't. Wiebe triumphed over that skepticism when he broke seven figures in 2004, an achievement considered so incredible at the time that other gamers refused (for at least three years, evidently) to believe that it had been done legitimately.
The converse is also true, and equally important: it becomes easier to do something when you know that it can be done, and as more people match the achievement, easier still.
The momentum of inductees into the "million-point club" is accelerating. I am convinced that this isn't just because there's more interest in Donkey Kong, and more help out there, but because the more people that roll the score, the weaker the mental barrier around it becomes.
When only two people had done it, you might have believed that it was because not many had the inherent capacity to do so.
Nowadays, with more than a dozen players boasting a million-plus (and the number on pace to double in 2013), getting there is not merely less intimidating, it has almost become expected: "well, if all of those guys can do it, why can't I?"
And so, today's million-point aspirant has a psychological advantage that Mitchell and Wiebe did not—the mind is subconsciously affected by what is considered possible, and every new seven-figure score increases the expectation of possibility.
MAME: The Performance-Enhancing Drug
According to Mitchell and Wiebe, both play on the Donkey Kong arcade machine exclusively. No hacks, no emulators. That alone attests to their skills and their ability to learn.
MAME, if exploited to its full potential, is so powerful that to use it for Donkey Kong training almost feels unfair.
Among other things, MAME offers the player the ability to pause the game, slow it down, skip levels, use invincibility cheats, to save and restart from any point, even to examine the original program code as it runs.
Obviously the player can't employ any of these advantages in a game recorded for Twin Galaxies submission. MAME submissions are strict—no cheats, no level-skips, not even pauses. But as a learning tool, MAME is obscenely potent.
With MAME, the mysteries of obstacle behavior, timing, positioning, and more can be unravelled totally. Point-pressing and skill-building can be broken down into a series of easy, infinitely-repeatable, rapid-fire drills.
For example, the learning curve for getting past the third elevator screen—which could be measured in weeks on a machine—can with MAME be reduced to a single afternoon. Hank Chien openly admits that this is exactly what he did, replaying a save-state over and over until he had it down.
One of the reasons Dean Saglio was able to amass so much Donkey Kong skill is that he took full advantage of the MAME environment to get into the game's every nook and cranny.
In fact, I would go as far as to say that while Saglio might have beaten the current arcade world record in an alternate universe where emulators never existed, neither he nor anyone else would have ever pushed the machine score as far as he's pushed it in MAME.
I believe that the easy precision of a PC was key in "opening the door" to the development of the pixel-specific, nanosecond-perfect gameplay that Saglio created.
The arcade machine offers none of MAME's special features, and handicaps the player in terms of screen display and controls.
An old-fashioned, angled CRT, loose, clunky joystick, and delay-prone button are simply no match for a razor-sharp LCD and the responsive, fingertip-sensitive directness of a keyboard. Both Saglio and Jeff Willms are rather vocal about their preferences for the latter. (Willms livestreamed a recent joystick practice session entitled "Mastering Crappy Donkey Kong Controls.")
Saglio and Willms' preference isn't just because they're used to Donkey Kong on a PC. MAME formed the very foundation of their play, and didn't only allow them to play better, it allowed them to learn better.
Saglio is, of course, an innovator as well, and the brilliance with which he took advantage of MAME is impressive in itself, but to simply say that he is "better than Billy and Steve" is unfair. We're comparing an orange to two apples. Mitchell and Wiebe never came at the game with tools as sharp as Saglio's.
It's easier to discover things in an environment where experimentation is simple (MAME) than one where experimentation is tedious (the arcade machine).
It also makes the fruits of tedious experimentation—the kind that Billy and Steve had to do—more hard-won.
MAME transforms, magnifies, and massively accelerates the learning process. It's an advantage that all of today's players have, and that Mitchell and Wiebe either lacked (before MAME's release in 1997) or eschewed (thereafter).
The Game Has Changed
It's not nearly as hard to attain elite Donkey Kong skill now as it was even five years ago, let alone thirty.
That might sound odd, since Donkey Kong is the exact same game in 2012 that it was in 1981, but today's contenders are on an easier playing field. They have access to knowledge, community, confidence, and technology that players of the 80s and 90s couldn't have imagined.
A big score, quite simply, demands less than it used to.
So the next time somebody crows about how Billy and Steve were never all they were cracked up to be, or how their scores are "weak nowadays," they would do well to remember something: we may all be climbing the same mountain that Mitchell and Wiebe did, but we're doing it using stairs that they—the original Kings of Kong—carved into it.