In the documentary King of Kong, competitive video gamer Billy Mitchell makes a bold pronouncement. “When you want your name written into history,” he tells the camera, “you have to pay the price.”
In the moment, Mitchell meant that it takes effort to be the best, that racking up world records demands countless hours of practice and frustration. This week, however, he’s paying a very different sort of price, as evidence mounts that he may have fudged the rules along the way to achieving some of his best known scores.
The recent controversy began with a lengthy post on the Donkey Kong Forum from Jeremy Young, known on the site as Xelnia. Over the course of almost 2,000 words—complemented by multiple animated gifs—Young makes the case that Mitchell achieved three of his Donkey Kong high scores in emulated versions of the game rather than on original arcade cabinets. The evidence mostly comes down to subtle variations in the way that older emulators—like those that Mitchell would have used—render the environment on-screen. As Ars Technica explains, “While a real Donkey Kong cabinet generates and displays game scenes in a ‘sliding door’ effect, sliding from one side to the other, old versions of the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME) instead build entire chunks of a level at once and then display them as a complete screen buffer.” That matters in part because it can change the way the game is played, while also making it easier to falsify the record.
In his post, Young stops short of suggesting that Mitchell actively cheated along the way to earning his high scores in the game, but with an emulator he easily could have. Young notes that using the emulator’s recording feature, Mitchell could have played in a stop-and-start style, allowing him to patch together a more ideal run. Further, there are no witnesses to the three scores in question (Mitchell submitted evidence by video tape), and he probably didn’t have the skills to create a recording from the hardware itself, which increases the likelihood that he used an emulator.
Together, these and other factors led Young to announce that he would be removing Mitchell’s questionable performances from the Donkey Kong Forum’s high score list. Mitchell has not, however, been fully barred from the rankings, merely demoted: Where his previously recognized high score of 1.062 million placed him at No. 20 on the chart, he now lands at No. 47 with a score of 933,000, since he earned that one in front of a live audience in 2004.
In the wake of Young’s announcement, others have made additional accusations against Mitchell. As Ars Technica reports in an update to its original post, “Former Donkey Kong world record holder Wes Copeland has presented new statistical evidence that he says suggests Mitchell’s 1.05 million point game was patched together from multiple emulated plays.” Meanwhile, the site adds, another competitor managed to best his own previous No. 1 score in Donkey Kong, livestreaming a game in which he accumulated almost 200,000 more points than Mitchell had in the most impressive of his (allegedly fraudulent) runs.
Ultimately, Mitchell’s true gift to the competitive arcade community may have been the ease with which he filled the role of antagonist. In the years since King of Kong’s 2007 release, many other players have surpassed the accomplishments of Steve Wiebe, Mitchell’s good guy foil. While they may have paid prices of their own for their triumphs, it seems as if they’ve done so in a very different spirit, one that emphasizes mutual support as much as it does individual skill. From the outside, it’s hard to avoid the impression that they’ve come together in a spirit wholly contrary to the one Mitchell espouses in the film. Or, as Young puts it in the conclusion to his original post, theirs is a community “built on the idea of friendship through competition, camaraderie through our shared pains in pushing ourselves, our friends, and these games to their limits.”
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