Billy Mitchell (video game player)
Mitchell at the 2014 Twin Galaxies
|Born||William James Mitchell Jr.|
July 16, 1965
Springfield, Massachusetts, U.S.
William James Mitchell Jr. (born July 16, 1965) is an American video game player and restaurateur. He rose to national prominence in the 1980s when Life included him in a photo spread of game champions during the height of the golden age of arcade games.
On July 3, 1999, Mitchell achieved the first perfect score of 3,333,360 points on the original Pac-Man. David Ramsey, writing for the Oxford American in 2006, described Mitchell as "probably the greatest arcade video game player of all time". Twin Galaxies and Guinness World Records recognized Mitchell as the holder of several records on classic games, but in 2018 Twin Galaxies determined that two of Mitchell's previously accepted scores for Donkey Kong were invalid because they were not from an original Donkey Kong arcade circuit board. As a result, Twin Galaxies and Guinness World Records vacated all of Mitchell's previous scores and banned him from submitting future scores.
Mitchell has appeared in several documentaries on competitive gaming and retrogaming, including Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade (2007), The King of Arcades (2014), and Man vs Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler (2015). The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007) follows his attempts to maintain his high score on Donkey Kong after it was threatened by newcomer Steve Wiebe. A tape that Mitchell gave Twin Galaxies during the documentary's filming proved instrumental in the 2018 investigation into Mitchell's scores, with the team that led the investigation citing the DVD extras as crucial evidence.
Early life and involvement with Twin Galaxies
Mitchell was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, and grew up in South Florida. He attended Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory School in 1983 and soon began work as a manager in the kitchen of his parents' restaurant, Rickey's Restaurant.
In grade school, Mitchell became an avid pinball player. He was uninterested in video games until he noticed that "everyone was standing around the Donkey Kong machine and wanted attention". His interest in arcade games was also spurred by a friendly rivalry with a fellow classmate, the two trying to outscore each other on both Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. Mitchell became curious whether Donkey Kong had a recorded world-record high score, and reached out to Walter Day at Twin Galaxies, at the time a single arcade in Ottumwa, Iowa, that had started tracking such records. Day told him of a record of 1.4 million claimed by Steve Sanders. In November 1982, Life brought several notable arcade players, including Mitchell, to Ottumwa for a photoshoot. Knowing it was impossible to achieve the score Sanders had claimed, Mitchell demonstrated that the game had an impassable "kill screen" when he reached level 22, while subsequently setting a high score of 874,300 that stood for more than 18 years. Around this time, Mitchell established a friendship with Robert Childs, who had a business buying and installing arcade cabinets in places like laundromats.
In 1983, Day invited Mitchell along with several other players from the photoshoot to participate in the "Electronic Circus", a 40-city tour where the players would demonstrate their skill at the arcade games at each stop. But the idea fell through and Mitchell and others spent the summer months camping out at Twin Galaxies and competing for high scores on video games, with Mitchell focusing on only a few selected titles. Later that summer, Day founded the U.S. National Video Game Team, a slimmer version of the Electronic Circus that aimed to make a stop in a major city in each US state, but the inaugural event had many snags. Day continued to bring Mitchell on various trips to confirm high scores reported by players, with Mitchell frequently calling out bluffs. By 1984, Day named Mitchell the Twin Galaxies' player of the year, but due to the 1983 video game crash, Twin Galaxies had to close down its storefront in March 1984, though it still tracked scores. After submitting a record score for BurgerTime in 1985, Mitchell moved away from video games for the next ten years, spending more time at his family's restaurant and eventually taking ownership of it.
Pac-Man was released in 1980. Players had discovered that it too had a type of kill screen: on reaching level 256, half the screen would be filled with nonsense glyphs that made it impossible to complete the level and continue. Following a 1982 claim made by an eight-year-old player of reaching more than 6 million points, which gained national coverage after President Ronald Reagan wrote to congratulate the player, Mitchell worked with his friend Chris Ayra in 1983 to determine that the highest possible score on Pac-Man was 3,333,360, which would require a perfect no-death run and collecting all possible points on the nonsense side of level 256's split-screen, requiring knowledge of where the edible dots were.
In 1999, a group of Canadian players, including Rick Fothergill, were reportedly close to reaching the theoretical high score, leading Mitchell to return to video gaming to try to beat this group to the achievement. On July 1, 1999, Fothergill set the world record, just 90 points short of a perfect score. In response, on July 3, Mitchell achieved the perfect score at an arcade in Laconia, New Hampshire, and set the game's world record as recorded by Twin Galaxies. For this, Namco, the makers of Pac-Man, brought Mitchell to Japan for the Tokyo Game Show that year to name him the "Video Game Player of the Century". After returning in November 1999, Mitchell offered $100,000 to the first person who could pass the split-screen level. The prize was not claimed by the January 1, 2000 deadline.
Further Donkey Kong high scores and The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
In 2004, Mitchell achieved a Donkey Kong high score of 933,900 in front of multiple witnesses at the Midwest Gaming Classic. In 2005, newcomer Steve Wiebe attempted to surpass Mitchell's score, an event documented in the 2007 film The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Wiebe attempted to have Mitchell present at these events to challenge him directly, typically at Funspot arcades, as public demonstrations of high scores were preferred over video tape. Mitchell had said, "To me, most important is to travel to a sanctioned location, like Funspot, that makes it official; if tomorrow Tiger Woods golfs a 59, big deal. If he does it at Augusta, that's where it counts." Mitchell failed to appear at Wiebe's events, saying he had not played games for half a year and needed to retrain and practice for the competition.
During Wiebe's attempts, he achieved a score of more than one million points on an arcade unit at his home, which was recorded on videotape and initially accepted by Twin Galaxies but later retracted since Wiebe's unit used an unofficial "Double Donkey Board" that had circuitry for both Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. Later in his attempts, Wiebe again managed a high score that beat Mitchell's 2004 record in front of multiple witnesses at a New Hampshire Funspot, which Twin Galaxies accepted. Just hours later, Mitchell submitted his own tape to Twin Galaxies which purported to show him achieving a new high score of 1,047,200, which bested Wiebe's score and which Twin Galaxies accepted as the new official world record. Wiebe and others at the New Hampshire location complained to Twin Galaxies, and eventually Mitchell's score was nullified due to being on tape rather than witnessed, giving Wiebe the record again.
After the film's release, Mitchell said he had not expected to be portrayed as a bad person, and that he had received hate mail and badgering phone calls because of the way the film was edited.
After King of Kong
On July 26, 2007, on the 25th anniversary of Mitchell's first record-setting performance, Mitchell again retook the Donkey Kong record with a score of 1,050,200. This score was known as the "Mortgage Brokers" score as it was made while Mitchell was attending the annual convention for the Florida Association of Mortgage Brokers. It was surpassed on February 26, 2010, by Hank Chien, who temporarily held the record.
On July 24, 2010, Mitchell reclaimed his title with a score of 1,062,800 at the Boomers arcade in Dania, Florida; it was the last time he held the record. The record was broken numerous times over the next six years by Wiebe, Chien, Wes Copeland, and Robbie Lakeman; each held the record at least twice in that span. On February 2, 2018, Lakeman set the new world record with 1,247,700.
Mitchell placed eighth out of eight in the Microsoft Xbox 360 Pac-Man World Championships on June 4, 2007. In 2008, he became the first video game player on a Topps Allen & Ginter trading card.
In 2015, Mitchell filed a lawsuit against Cartoon Network saying that in Regular Show a character who cheats at video games called Garrett Bobby Ferguson (GBF) infringed on his likeness. United States District Court for the District of New Jersey Judge Anne Elise Thompson threw out the lawsuit, saying that "the television character does not match the plaintiff in appearance".
In August 2017, Jeremy Young, a moderator on the Twin Galaxies online forums, expressed concern related to a video posted online by Childs of Mitchell's Boomers score. Mitchell had played both Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong, Jr. that day, breaking records for both, but was using the same cabinet for it, with Childs having swapped the circuit board between the runs. The videos did not show the complete record-breaking runs, and Young believed there might have been issues with the board swap. Mitchell and Childs affirmed that some parts of the board-switching were staged, but that that part of the recording was made well after the records had been set on legitimate hardware.
Young continued to investigate the Boomers video as well as the King of Kong and Mortgage Brokers scores, and in early 2018 posted evidence that both scores were made on MAME, arcade-emulated hardware, rather than actual hardware. Young subsequently removed the three scores from the site as the use of MAME emulation was considered invalid for high-score recording. Young's claim was backed up by Wes Copeland, a former holder of the Donkey Kong high score. Based on analysis of the scoring rate and frequencies of the game, he concluded that Mitchell's run showed a statistically unlikely rate of scoring. Further, it was determined that the Boomers and Mortgage Brokers scores were witnessed by Twin Galaxies referee Todd Rogers, who had been accused of submitting fraudulent scores for himself, putting Mitchell's scores in doubt.
Mitchell defended his scores on the East Side Dave Show shortly after this charge, saying, "I've never even played MAME. I don’t have MAME loaded in my home." Mitchell added, "The film footage that he has, that Jeremy has, shows MAME play... I'm not disputing what he says. What I'm disputing is the fact that I want him to have the original tape." Mitchell also suggested that the tape footage Young had may have been fabricated. Young responded, "The amount of foresight, patience, and technical knowledge required would be staggering" to make such tapes. To support his case, Mitchell said he sent Twin Galaxies recordings of the gameplay from these high-score efforts along with other secondary evidence to deny any cheating.
On April 12, 2018, Twin Galaxies announced that an investigation conducted into Mitchell's submitted scores found conclusive evidence that Mitchell used a modified Donkey Kong circuit board for the footage of his two high scores, but could not confirm that he was using MAME software. Twin Galaxies removed Mitchell's scores from their records and prohibited him from submitting scores in the future. Subsequently, Guinness World Records released a statement that it would remove Mitchell's scores: "The Guinness World Records titles relating to Mr. Mitchell's highest scores on Donkey Kong have all been disqualified due to Twin Galaxies being our source of verification for these achievements." The removal also includes Mitchell's Pac-Man high score and first recorded perfect game: "Twin Galaxies was the original source of verification for these record titles and in line with their decision to remove all of Mr. Mitchell's records from their system, we have disqualified Mr. Mitchell as the holder of these two records."
Mitchell has challenged these removals with his own evidence of the legitimacy of the high scores, and has threatened to sue both Twin Galaxies and Guinness unless it restores his records and retracts "defamatory statements" about him. The situation has created tension between Mitchell and several of his friends and acquaintances in the video game community. At the encouragement of his son, Mitchell has used Twitch to broadcast scores that beat his past efforts. Mitchell recreated the perfect Pac-Man score at Funspot in Laconia in July 2019, and took first place at a Donkey Kong tournament in Australia the following month.
Mitchell wears neckties symbolizing American patriotism in many of his public appearances. This began during his challenge to Canadian Rick Fothergill as he was approaching the perfect score in Pac-Man in 1999. Fothergill, in reaching a near-perfect score on July 1, did so while wearing a Canadian flag cap and calling himself "Captain Canada". When Mitchell set about to beat this on July 3, he opted to wear a patriotic tie, which became a persistent part of his outfits.
Mitchell has a long-standing rivalry with Roy Shildt, also known as "Mr. Awesome". According to King of Kong, animosity first developed between them after Mitchell caused Shildt's high score on Missile Command to be called into question. Shildt, in turn, has disputed Mitchell's credibility and accused him of cheating. In an incident during the 2010 International Video Game Hall of Fame, Shildt was ejected from the premises after haranguing Mitchell in public. Mitchell has said that he avoids Shildt.
Mitchell set high-score records on several games in the 1980s and 1990s. Since his initial high score in Donkey Kong in 1982 and return to record-breaking attempts between 2004 and 2010, others have matched or surpassed Mitchell's accomplishments. None of these records is considered valid by Twin Galaxies or the Guinness Book of Records.
- Mitchell and Chris Ayra reached the split-screen level 256 of Pac-Man in mid-1983. In 1999, Mitchell became the first player to achieve a perfect score of 3,333,360 points.
- He set the first acknowledged highest overall score on Donkey Kong with 886,900 points in 1982.
- He set a new record score for Ms. Pac-Man of 703,560 in January 1985, which stood until it was surpassed in 2001 by Ayra.
- He set a record score for Donkey Kong Jr. of 957,300 in 2004.
- He set a record score for BurgerTime of 7,881,050 in 1984, which stood until 2005.
- On July 8, 1985, he became the fifth person to achieve a score on Centipede of more than 10 million points in marathon play.
- He recaptured the world records for both Donkey Kong (1,062,800 points) and Donkey Kong Jr. (1,270,900) on the weekend of July 24, 2010. In 2015, both these records were surpassed. The Donkey Kong record was removed by the Donkey Kong forums in February 2018, which prompted Twin Galaxies to remove the records in April 2018 after an investigation concluded Mitchell did not use an original unmodified version of the Donkey Kong arcade hardware but an emulator or other disallowed means. There is also evidence that the score was falsified.
On September 17, 1999, he was awarded "Video Game Player of the Century" at the 1999 Tokyo Game Show. In a ceremony on the Namco stage, company founder Masaya Nakamura presented Mitchell with an award commemorating the first "perfect" game on Pac-Man.
On June 21, 2006, MTV selected Mitchell as one of "The 10 Most Influential Video Gamers of All Time". He was also nominated as leader of the Nerd Herd. Mitchell had been featured previously in the True Life episode "I'm a Gamer" in 2003.
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- "Former 'Donkey Kong' record holder's cartoon lawsuit tossed". Associated Press. November 23, 2015. Retrieved November 29, 2015.
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- "Dispute Decision: Billy Mitchell's Donkey Kong & All Other Records Removed". Twin Galaxies.
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- "The seedy darkside of....Video Game World Records". Retrieved August 21, 2016.
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- Plunkett, Luke. "Mr. Awesome: Champion Gamer, Playgirl Model". Retrieved August 21, 2016.
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- Great Big Story (July 21, 2016). Meet the Man Who Beat 'Pac-Man'. Retrieved 19 April 2019 – via YouTube.
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- Totilo, Stephen (20 June 2006). "Playa Rater: The 10 Most Influential Video Gamers Of All Time". MTV News. MTV.com. Retrieved August 21, 2016.
- Joshuah Bearman (July 2008). "The perfect game: Five years with the master of Pac-Man" (PDF). Harper's. 317 (1898): 65–73.
- Good, Owen S. (April 14, 2018). "The King of Kong may be dethroned, but Billy Mitchell still belongs to history". Polygon. Retrieved April 14, 2018.
- Details of Jeremy Young's analysis of Mitchell's gameplay tapes
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