Anyone who intends to enter the fray of competitive Donkey Kong—whether as a player or a spectator—will get a lot more out of it once they understand the concept of pace.
Defined most simply, pace is an estimate of the player's final score upon reaching the kill screen.
A complete game of Donkey Kong is made up of 117 individual screens, divided into 22 levels, with each screen being one of four possible screen-types:
Pace is a function of how many points the player is extracting from each screen, which will vary depending on how efficiently and aggressively the player completes them.
The Units of Pace
The "base units" of pace are the start score and the average score per level thereafter.
The start score is the total score at the end of Level 4. In each of Donkey Kong's first four levels (which, together, comprise the first 14 screens), the timer and difficulty adjustments are unique to each screen, and the screen-types are dished out haphazardly, like this:
This was a psychological ploy, an adjustment to the original Japanese version (which simply cycled the screens in the straightforward 1-2-3-4 order from Level 1 on) when the release team at Nintendo of America got their hands on the game: keep the player guessing, and the quarters flowing, by switching up the screen order until bringing the player to a point in the game—the third elevator screen—that was sure to stop them in their tracks.
Beginning at Level 5, the game reaches a plateau in its internal difficulty setting, which controls factors such as the number of points available on the bonus timer, the speed and quantity of obstacles, and the character of "wild" barrels. It remains at that plateau all the way through Level 21.
In theory, therefore, Level 5 plays the same as Level 8, which plays the same as Level 18, which plays the same as Level 21.
In practice, however, one level might be more difficult or less difficult than the previous level. That's because the behavior of obstacles is controlled by a random number generator with a mind of its own. Anything can happen at any time.
This underlying randomness is the secret to Donkey Kong's depth and mystery, and why it requires so much skill to play—you never get the same screen, the same level, or the same game, twice.
Anyone who would disparage Donkey Kong players as a bunch of pattern-regurgitating automatons doesn't know what they're talking about: patterns can be developed and employed to some extent, but every moment is random.
The only constant is the laws governing that randomness, which normalize starting at Level 5.
More importantly (with regard to calculating pace), every level from 5 through 21 presents the identical screen pattern in a repeating cycle:
The idea here, in terms of Nintendo of America's machinations, was to kill any player who managed to get past the elevators on Level 4 with an avalanche of barrels, which was believed to be the deadliest of the screen types.
Once past the L=1-L=4 start, the player will face a total of 51 barrel screens, and 17 each of the other types.
Upon reaching the first screen of Level 22 (#117—the kill screen), the game code runs into an accidental programming oversight (similar in nature to the Y2K bug) that kills the player before he can complete the screen. There is no way around it; the game ends here.
Since the game becomes uniform at Level 5, if a player approaches each screen-type in a consistent manner, his score per level will tend to be roughly similar.
The benefit here is that we can use a player's per-level average to describe not only how he is doing, but as a predictive means of extrapolating what his final score will be upon reaching the kill screen.
Because Levels 1 through 4 are inconsistent with the rest of the game, there is no predictive value in dealing with them individually, which is why we lump them all together as a single start score.
The start is like the "opening" in a chess game—nothing major has happened, the players have merely put their pieces into position for the middle game.
The Pace Equation
Calculating pace is simple—add the player's total start score to 17 times the average number of points earned in each level thereafter.
(It's not as hard as it sounds.)
Here it is expressed as a mathematical formula:
(Start Score) + (Avg. Per Level Past L4) x 17 = Pace
Example: You are watching (or playing) a game that breaks down as follows:
Start (L1-L4): 100,000
L5: 45,000 (145,000 total)
L6: 44,000 (187,000 total)
L7: 43,000 (230,000 total)
By plugging these numbers into our formula, we determine that the player is moving through the game at a pace of 850K. That is to say, if his play remains consistent, he will reach the kill screen with approximately 850,000 points:
100,000 + 45,000 + 44,000 + 43,000 ÷ 3 x 17 = 850,000
If the player loses one or more lives before completing a screen, but then goes on to complete it on a susequent life, only the points earned on the successful run are counted (otherwise that screen's score, and thus the average, would be artificially inflated). The player should earn at least a few thousand points for each death, with the ideal being to reach the final barrel screen of Level 21 (#115) with one or more spare men to sacrifice by racking up an extra 10-14,000 points before the timer expires. This is known as a "cash-in."
Donkey Kong master Jeff Willms (whose brainpower we're all a little bit afraid of) has created a program called "Pauline" which works alongside MAME and uses screen-scraping and optical recognition algorithms to automatically detect the current score and screen number to calculate the player's pace.
Here is an example of a game-in-progress, one of mine in fact, proceeding at a million-point clip:
(Of course, this pace will correct itself quickly—not even Dean himself can maintain an 8,700-point average on rivets.)
Survival Pace vs. Point-Pressing
Most beginning players will move through the game at what we might call survival pace—a defensive, reactive style that prioritizes safety over score. (Experts refer to this style, often disparagingly, as "running boards," though I personally find it more enjoyable.)
A survival player's per-screen averages might break down like this:
Start = 100,000
|Per Level||8,500 (x3)||7,000||5,000||6,600||44,100|
100,000 + 44,100(17) = 849,700
Because the player will eventually hit the brick wall of the kill screen (assuming that he survives to that point), he cannot possibly achieve a score higher than 850,000 or so unless he increases his scoring pace.
This is where point-pressing comes in, and indeed why point pressing is necessary at all!
If it weren't for the kill screen, competitive Donkey Kong would be a whole different ball game, and (in the estimation of many players) a less interesting one. You could simply play on and on until you lost all your men, taking minimal risk.
The point-presser's task is to set a kill-screen goal score, determine the necessary per-level average that will produce that score, and then play through the game at that pace.
A million-point game, for example, might look like this:
Start = 115,000
|Per Level||10,500 (x3)||7,500||6,000||7,000||52,000|
115,000 + 52,000(17) = 999,000
As you can see, the big jump in score between survival and million-point pace is on the barrel screens, while the other screen-types only moved up modestly. Going into the specifics of how points are earned on each screen would be an article of its own, but suffice it to say that the barrel screens are where most of the points are hidden, and where most of the risk must be engaged.
In the interest of making all of this somewhat easier to understand, I have broken the per-level averages upon which pace is calculated into 8 separate tiers of point-pressing intensity.
And since everybody likes a graph, I made one:
While some might nitpick my cutoff-points (and my silly tier-names), If nothing else, referring to this chart should help you to better understand, appreciate, and follow along with a Donkey Kong game in progress, and to get an idea of the final score a player might expect.
Higher Pace = More Risk
Recently Hank Chien, knowing that I was working on an article about pace, told me about how he often hears people say "I got 300,000 and I wasn't even point pressing."
This is like saying that you got five miles into a marathon and you were only walking.
You get points in Donkey Kong by jumping, dodging, or smashing things, and then adding those points to whatever is left on the bonus timer upon clearing the screen.
Therefore, improving one's per-screen averages, and thus, one's pace, is a matter of jumping, dodging, or smashing more things, while maximizing the bonus timer.
The salient fact here is that everything you're jumping, dodging, or smashing will kill you if you touch it!
It should make intuitive sense, then, that anything you do to get more points also increases your chances of dying.
In other words, the more points you try to squeeze out of the game, the harder it is to get through the game.
In fact, your average per-game final score will be higher when you don't point press. That's because you're making it easier to clear more screens and absorb more bonus timers, avoiding the bad luck and difficulty that come with point-pressing... but in runs that have no shot whatsoever at ending up at the kill screen with a seven-figure score.
That style is fine, maybe even better, for any player who isn't yet good enough to reach a basic kill screen (or who, like me, just enjoys walking through the game for its own sake), but if you want to play among the elite, you have to hustle.
Compounding the challenge is that point-pressing is also time-consuming, placing an even greater requirement on mental and physical endurance than the player is already undertaking by assuming the higher degree of risk that it demands.
A basic 850,000-point pace kill screen game (which, let's be clear, is not at all "basic" until you've amassed enough skill to do it) takes a little over an hour and a half to complete.
Dean Saglio's 1.2 million-point pace MAME world record was almost twice as long—a brutal, three-hour long test of stamina and concentration.
So when you point-press to increase your scoring pace, you don't just make the game harder. You also make it longer.
A Score Is Just a Score
It's one thing to juggle four tennis balls; quite another to juggle six flaming machetes.
Consider two adjacent Donkey Kong machines, with this on one monitor:
And this on the other:
The scores are identical, but there's a major difference here. If I've made sense so far, you should understand what that difference is.
The player in game 1 has "gone deeper," but he's just getting by, while the player in game 2 is on a phenomenal, world record-breaking pace.
A score, by itself, leaves a lot unsaid. Pair it with the level, however, and we can say exactly how ambitious a game was, and get a much better idea of the skill level of the player.
Closer To Perfection
A player who just wants to reach the kill screen doesn't need to think about pace at all. His 825-875,000 points will take care of themselves as an automatic consequence of survival.
The player going for a million, however, doesn't have this luxury. He has to spend another (cumulative) hour on the barrel screens, keep a constant eye on his bonus timers, find ways of making up for lost points, and take chance after chance that he'd rather not.
At 1.1 million, in the realm of the world record, a player can't afford to leave even one point unclaimed on the way to the kill screen. Every single screen is a fight for inches, requiring uncompromising aggression, and even imagination. When targeting a score like that, a player will be forced to ditch and restart countless games, in fact most of his games, since so many will, through no fault of his own, lapse into insurmountable "pace deficits."
Consider how eking out (or missing out on) just 200 points per barrel screen, a mere 600 per level, will add up to over 11,000 points over the course of a game.
The gaps between all four of Hank Chien's most recent world records (1,090,400, 1,110,100, 1,127,700, and 1,138,600) are in that range.
11,000 points is also about the difference between Steve Wiebe's 2nd place score and Mark Kiehl's 4th place score.
In the elite tier of Donkey Kong play, finding that elusive 600 points per level matters. In fact, that's what the whole fight ultimately comes down to: exploiting the small things, and magnifying them through repetition as the game cycles through the levels.
A marathon is 26 miles, whether you're jogging casually or running at top speed.
Needless to say, the person who gets to the finish line first will have trained, pushed, and suffered to a much greater degree than the one who comes in last, and will have found an edge somewhere, even a tiny one, over the second-place finisher. It will have been hard work for all three, but pace is what made the winner a champion.