"We started off on this march pretty much at the same time. Glad you could be here."
- Dean Saglio to Ross Benziger, October 4th, 2013
Within a single week of one another, the two pioneers of extreme Donkey Kong point-pressing have at last plucked the fruit that has been growing and ripening for over five years with two history-making scores.
On Thursday, September 26th, live at the Kencade in Hillsboro, Oregon, Ross Benziger scored 1,136,500 on a Donkey Kong arcade machine, a performance that not only more than qualifies him to be in the main lineup at this year's Kong Off 3, but came just short of beating Hank Chien's reigning world record.
Only one week later, in the early morning hours of October 4th, Dean Saglio forever shut the door on Donkey Kong on the MAME platform, rolling the score to "1.2" for the first (and very probably last) time.
Two huge milestones, made all the more satisfying by their close proximity: while both players ultimately faced the game on their own, in an important sense, it's a journey that the two of them made together.
The King of Kong Generation
Saglio, an on-again/off-again gamer, and Benziger, a highly-ranked veteran of first-person shooters, first met on the Twin Galaxies forums in early 2008, just months after the DVD release of The King of Kong.
It was there and in JustinTV streaming sessions that they, along with a few other early "KoK boomers" like Ben Falls, Dave McCrary, Scott Kessler, and Hank Chien, took to the MAME arcade emulator to find out just how good these superstars Mitchell and Wiebe really were, and to test the upper limits of Donkey Kong scoring potential.
Benziger soon claimed the MAME record with 917,600 in September of 2008.
Saglio beat that score eight months later, with the first-ever million-point MAME performance.
The next month, Benziger made an ill-fated attempt to reclaim his title, which ended with a cruel and painful stroke of bad luck.
The stream of the final moments of Benziger's infamous reclamation attempt in June 2009 (with rival Saglio cheering him on via TeamSpeak)
His ambition would be frozen in time. Benziger all-but disappeared from serious play, now busy working toward a degree in environmental engineering.
Saglio, meanwhile, pushed the top MAME score past Billy Mitchell's arcade machine world record, then continued to go upward and onward into uncharted territory. It was during this period that the Twin Galaxies forum—that pressure-cooker of strategy, tactics, and motivation—also produced a new record holder in Hank Chien, who grabbed hold of the "official" (and much more widely-publicized) arcade machine title.
Now beaten soundly on both MAME and the arcade machine, Billy and Steve passed into history. The new generation had arrived.
Four years went by.
"VonDummpenstein" Takes the Ultimate #2
"I have not played DK seriously on any platform in a very long time... In the past, after one of the miserable, stressful, and sleep-deprived weeks that have come with going back to school, I did not run home to get doughnut-holed by Kong."
- Ross Benziger, March 4th, 2013
In mid-2013, Benziger completed his coursework, earned his degree, and with a clean plate, returned at last to the Donkey Kong arena to complete his long-unfinished business.
It didn't take much time for Benziger to get back into shape. After a few months of streamed MAME runs, interspersed with arcade machine Kong Off 3 qualification attempts from the Kencade, September's game finally came together.
In one enormous swoop, Benziger finally requited his 993,900 self-described "EPIC FAIL!!" from 2009, qualified for the Kong Off 3, and catapulted directly over the heads of nearly 20 top-tier Donkey Kong players, shooting instantly from his botched almost-million to the top of the pack.
It was a game that the community knew would come eventually, and had been waiting for years to see.
Benziger's long-languishing personal best was acknowledged by all as being far from an accurate reflection of his true ability, and a collective celebration arose when this performance finally placed him where he belonged among the absolute cream of the Donkey Kong crop... and just in time to be among the main lineup at the Kong Off 3.
"I qualified," Benziger said after the game. "Now I can play how I want to play, and see just how deep I can go."
The fact that Benziger had just missed the record didn't seem to rattle him at all: "What's the score? I haven't even been paying attention. I just knew 1.14 would do it, but clearly I'm a dick-hair short."
"I Did Everything I Could"
Saglio's 1,206,800 performance one week later came abruptly, only one month after he arrived near the final threshold with a 1,186,700 score and claimed to be "looking forward to at least a small break."
But with Kong on the ropes, and Saglio still razor-sharp and full of confidence from months of intense grinding, his "small break" was indeed that. He returned almost immediately to deliver the final blow.
The game was, of course, an inevitability that we were all expecting, since Saglio had plunged in deep, and at the right pace, on several prior occasions. We just weren't expecting it so soon.
The consensus is that this score effectively closes the door on Donkey Kong, for the top contenders and for Saglio himself.
"I'm at the point now where I could play all out and not break my score," Saglio said during his comments at the end of the stream. "I don't know what to do about going for a higher score now. This is pretty much as high as I feel like I could reasonably get... I did pretty much everything I could in this game."
Saglio describes a score between 1,230,000 to 1,240,000 as "technically reachable", but feels that he is "pretty close to what I feel like I'm able to do."
He is, in other words, satisfied. As are we.
That magical shift from "1" to "2" in the hundred-thousand column has been achieved. The rest is just overflow. And (assuming there is no major discovery coming about a game that has been analyzed down to the last byte), there is no 1.3.
It is difficult to imagine a situation in which Saglio (or anyone else) will have the incentive to put in the time and energy to beat this score, or even to duplicate it. And as Saglio moves on to other gaming pursuits, he will, inevitably, fall out of shape. Without a good reason to return to his A-game, he likely never will. The motivation to achieve what he has achieved was born out of a set of unique contexts and circumstances which can never be reproduced.
Kong's Last Stand
All that remains now is to bring this 30-year war full circle by matching Saglio's score (or getting as close as possible), on the original arcade hardware.
With his short-term business (Kong Off 3 qualification) out of the way, Benziger is now wide open to make an attempt on Chien's 1,138,600 arcade machine record, and he plans to do just that.
"I took it real easy towards the back half of that game," Benziger said during the stream of his recent second-place score, "so I feel like 1.15, without doing much of anything different, is definitely within my grasp on the arcade machine. It's not like Hank doesn't plan on upping [his record] soon anyway, so game on!"
But will Saglio's 1.2 MAME score be beaten on a machine with arcade-style controls? Can it? And who is willing?
At the moment, while all of the currently-active top players are gunning to push up their personal bests, there is not one whose ambitions extend all the way to the limit.
Chien has stated that 1.17 is about the extent of his interest. Benziger is no longer planning to work for 1.2 now that Saglio has already achieved it. Jeff Willms has mostly moved on from Donkey Kong, as have Billy and Steve. Vincent Lemay, who considers the highest score (whether machine or MAME), as the true record, said: "There's no point of getting the 'world record' on DK anymore. Even if I did 1.17m on arcade, Dean is still the King of Kong. And I won't beat his score."
The arcade record will be beaten, whether by Chien, Benziger, Saglio or another player. That much is certain, and the community would like nothing more than for the hammer to fall live and in person at the Kong Off 3.
But Dean's 1.2 is something else; a singular event in the history of competitive video gaming that will likely never be matched.
Billy Mitchell's 874,300 Donkey Kong world record stood for nearly 20 years mostly because very few players had the inclination to go after it, nor the benefits of modern technology and information. Saglio's 1.2, on the other hand, will stand because it is nearly invincible.
In this "post 1.2" world, and as the top of the all-time scoreboard gets ever-more diluted of meaningful differences, Donkey Kong play is likely to shift away from being about attaining the highest score and towards tournament-style competitions. The community has come to learn, over the last year, that these are probably more fun anyway. With such a random and difficult game, a limited timeframe, and everyone starting at zero, anything can happen.
Saglio ultimately emerged as the winner of the race to max out Donkey Kong. Perhaps in some alternate universe, where real life hadn't gotten in the way, it would have been Benziger.
But then, in this strange hobby where there's always a happily blurry line between competing with one another and competing with the machine, it may not have been so much a "race" as a collaboration toward a common goal. Dean's victory is Ross's too. Benziger, in any case, seems to have the right idea:
"At the end of the day, a world record on a video game doesn't mean anything, but the friends you've made along the way, they matter a great deal."