Forever Kings

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.

Blazing Trails

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, 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.


Phil Tudose said...

great stuff!

Anonymous said...

Also, don't forget these players back in the arcade days were limited by machine availability, either by location or by the game being played by others, by the hours of arcade operation and by amount of quarters in their pockets.

Anonymous said...

Awesome I read it twice. I hope billy crushes them into submission!

Chrispy said...

Anonymous 1, that is absolutely true. One thing I was going to write about in this article (before I decided that it was getting too long) is that Billy actually had an advantage himself back in the day: he had full, free access to the arcade machines in his father's restaurant, and (as a teenager) all the time in the world to practice on them! Not to diminish Billy or his skills, but as described in the book Outliers: The Story of Success you can generally find, for anyone who dominates in a competitive field, a set of hidden advantages that helped them to get there. Combine free credits and lots of time with Billy's natural talents/inclinations and the competition never had a chance!

Anonymous said...

thank you for another geeat story and you thaugth about it all, you'r doing a geat job keep it you.

only 14 days to Kong Off! woop woop!! can't wait

Anonymous said...

I had no idea that many MAME cheats existed now.

Anonymous said...

Remember Billy dumped his game off a level early. Which could have been a 1.1+ game

Hank Chien said...

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." -Isaac Newton

Anonymous said...

Billy Mitchell always has a plan....

JNugent said...

Thoughtful and well written, Chris.

Anonymous said...

Both Wiebe and Mitchell are among the greats...they are like 2 explorers who similarly found a way across North America linking a trail between the Antlantic and Pacific. They did it first, it's always easier to get somewhere when you know it can be done. Remember, the designers of old retro arcade machines created them to generate revenue in quarters. The games were made difficult and to not last long. I don't think anyone thought a human could ever reach the end of Donkey Kong, for look at how many people have even with Mame on everyone's's brutally hard!


Anonymous said...

I teach a computer science class at a high school and show King of Kong every year making retro gaming an addictive challenge for tons of students. Still, the highest score ever achieved over mame in my lab has been 120,000...and this was about 4 years ago. Today, I've only had a couple of students break 60,000...and they'll sit there for days at lunch practising...most students are lucky to break 30,000 points. The game is wonderfully brutal.



Anonymous said...

Billy Mitchell cheats and used MAME for his "million point" Donkey Kong submission. He couldn't face the music when challenged simply because he lied and cheated his way to so many other high scores due to his Pac Man fame, that no one questioned him. He is pathetic and it sucks anyone recognizes him as anything besides the loser that he is

Tensor said...

Amazing read! Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I found this through the movie King of Kong. This is sad really... No one gets healthy and yet there is also cheating at being unhealthy. Such an unbelievable sub-culture

Anonymous said...

thank god young Asian kids have taken this cult over

Anonymous said...

Billy mitchell. what a turd...

Anonymous said...

Billy mitchill is what comes out of my ass after eating hot sause.A bag damn smell that lingers where it was once great.

simone said...

the "evolving context" it's the same for almost every other sport in the world, that's why it's important and cool to remember and study history sometimes :)

Anonymous said...

billy Mitchell still king

Anonymous said...

Such great observations about MAME and emulators in general , so i like to equate the training done on MAME & emu's as basically performance enhancing drugs , maybe on the mild side but nevertheless to be able to train on the most intense and challenging parts of games over & over without having to get to that point is such a huge advantage , to put it another way if i could practice again & again all levels and aspects of Ghosts & Goblins i could master it far faster , but this against the spirit of the game, no other game or sport is this possible ,Magnus Carlsen cannot play the most difficult moves in a game over & over to get it just right , play the game as it is intended to be played ,

Anonymous said...

kudos,praise and honour.

Great article - it REALLY got me thinking, as did some of the comments.

I was never a good player & 1 of the MAIN reasons was that if I had trouble with a particular level, lets say #13, I'd have to start from level 01 each & every single time I lost my lives in order to get back to level 13 & get more practice.

Its not the same when you can play level 13 over & over again exclusively, without having to start from "square 01".

Thanks again for a GREAT article [& comments]. This one of those "aha / oh yeah!" moments.

mark L.

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