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The untold truth of gaming's biggest cheater

Forget about Bowser and Dr. Eggman: right now, the biggest villain in video games is Billy Mitchell. For over 30 years, he was one of the most prominent gamers in the world, holding high score records on classic arcade titles like Donkey Kong, Burger Time, and a high score in Ms. Pac-Man, set in 1985, that stood unbeaten for the next 17 years.

On April 12, 2018, however, all that came crashing to an end. After other competitive gamers made allegations of cheating, Twin Galaxies, the organization charged with sanctioning high scores that crowned Mitchell as the king of arcade games back in the '80s, determined that three of his world-record scores have been falsified. While Mitchell himself maintains his innocence, he's been struck from the record books and banned from all future competition, putting an end to three decades of dominance. That might seem simple, but the real story behind Mitchell's rise and fall is a maze with more turns than Pac-Man and sights more shocking than a Donkey Kong kill screen. From bitter rivalries to a lawsuit against a kids' cartoon, here's the story behind Billy Mitchell.

The original high score

Billy Mitchell had his first brush with mainstream media attention all the way back in 1982. At the time, the home console market had ballooned to incredible heights, and the arcade market was booming, thanks in part to dedicated players who devoted themselves to racking up high scores to claim bragging rights. 

The competition was so fierce that the founder of the Twin Galaxies arcade, Walter Day, began collecting verified high scores to compile an official national scoreboard, which also made his Ottumwa, Iowa arcade the go-to destination for players looking to be immortalized in video game history. Less than a year after the scoreboard became public, ten of the country's top gamers came to Twin Galaxies for a competition that was covered by Life magazine, including Billy Mitchell, age 17. He'd racked up a world-record 15,000,000 point score in Centipede, and spent his weekend setting yet another world-record in Donkey Kong with a score of 874,300, which would stand for the next 25 years.

No matter what would happen later, the legitimacy of that particular record is definitely not in question. It was set in public, with witnesses, on a fully functioning Donkey Kong arcade machine. That said, if there was ever any question about why Mitchell is so often portrayed as the bad guy in these stories, consider that he showed up to the photo shoot looking like a pro wrestling heel, with a homemade t-shirt reading "CENTIPEDE 15,000,000."

The King of Kong

Unless you were around for that article in Life, it's likely that you know Mitchell best from 2007's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, a documentary about the high-stakes competition surrounding classic arcade game high scores, and Steve Wiebe's attempt to break Mitchell's record after 25 years.

Like a lot of documentaries, King of Kong definitely frames its subjects as part of a narrative, sacrificing objectivity for the sake of drama. It's easy to see why. If the filmmakers had scripted the entire thing, it's doubtful that they could've created a character who fit the mold of a villain better than Mitchell.  He's the undefeated champion, a tall businessman with a neatly trimmed beard who competes at video games — which he assures the viewer are not meant simply for fun — while wearing an American flag necktie. He consistently refuses to face Weibe in a head-to-head match, and when they do encounter each other, Mitchell casually trash-talks his would-be rival while walking behind him, speaking just loud enough for Wiebe to overhear. And that's before he starts literally comparing himself to the Red Baron and "the abortion issue."

Despite being framed as the villain, though, Mitchell was reportedly surprised at the narrative constructed by the film, telling MTV that he was "unhappy" with how "they paint me as a son of a gun."  

Steve Wiebe's quest for glory

In stark contrast to its treatment of the Kong-dominant hot sauce magnate, The King of Kong portrays Steve Wiebe as a hero of almost Luke Skywalkerian proportions.

He's every bit the archetype of the lovable loser, to the point that he's unemployed when the documentary begins, filling his time after being laid off by playing a secondhand Donkey Kong machine in his garage and using the nigh-mystical power of math to learn the patterns. More than that, though, he's presented as someone with a series of challenges to overcome, with potentially record-setting games all being disqualified for one reason or another. There were even allegations that he may have unwittingly used a Donkey Kong game that had been tampered with after getting a board from Roy "Mr. Awesome" Schildt, a particularly ironic twist given the current status of this story.

Unsurprisingly, Wiebe's view of the film is a little different from Mitchell's. He does, however, acknowledge the way the two players were framed, telling MTV, "I don't think he's an evil person. I don't necessarily think I'm a saint or anything ... but the way things played out, we kind of fell into those roles." In the years since the film, Wiebe has stayed active in the pursuit of the Donkey Kong record, and as a musician, releasing an album of contemporary Christian music called The King of Song. Really.

"Mr. Awesome"

While the focus of the documentary is centered on Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, there's another player involved in this story, too: Roy Schildt, also known as Mr. Awesome. Schildt is another character that seems straight out of pro wrestling, driving to arcades in a customized Trans-Am and competing for classic gaming high scores while dressed in a full-on military outfit, doing push-ups between rounds of Missile Command. That game, which he preferred to others thanks to its "macho" "phallic associations," is the one in which he held a record from 1983 to 2006.

Oh, and thanks to a dispute over Missile Command and Mitchell calling the legitimacy of his scores into question, he hates Billy Mitchell so much that he was kicked out of a classic gaming event in 2010 for trying to present Mitchell with a plaque celebrating his induction into the "Douchebag Hall of Fame."

But here's the thing: Schildt has been alleging for years that Mitchell was cheating, and now it seems that Twin Galaxies agrees with him.

Garrett Bobby Ferguson

Steve Wiebe and Mr. Awesome aren't the only people who have gotten into a conflict with Billy Mitchell over the years, although one of his more notable feuds didn't involve a video game high score at all. Instead, it was centered on Season 2, Episode 7 of Cartoon Network's Regular Show: "High Score."

In it, Mordecai and Rigby — a bluejay and a raccoon who work as park groundskeepers — set their sights on setting a high score on an arcade game. When they do, they break the world record, and summon the previous record-holder: Garrett Bobby Ferguson. After challenging them to a head-to-head competition, GBF employs all sorts of dirty tactics, but to no avail. His record is broken, and then Ferguson explodes in a shower of yellow goo.

Ferguson bears a pretty striking resemblance to a certain real-world arcade game record holder. Billy Mitchell certainly thought so: he filed a lawsuit against Cartoon Network and Regular Show in 2015 for an unauthorized use of his likeness. Eventually, however, Judge Anne E. Thompson dismissed the case, based on the crucial differences that "GBF appears as a non-human creature, a giant floating head with no body from outer space, while [Mitchell] is a human being," and citing the fact that unlike GBF, Mitchell did not explode when his record was broken. If he had, that would've made for a pretty different ending of King of Kong.

Trading records

The story of Billy Mitchell's Donkey Kong record didn't end with King of Kong. In fact, after the events of the movie, he broke Steve Wiebe's record, then had his record broken again. In the years since the documentary, the high score was passed multiple times by several players, with the sudden surge in record-shattering scores likely attributed to renewed interest fueled by the film.

Wiebe would lose the record in 2011 to Hank Chien — also the subject of a documentary about his DK pursuits —who racked up over 1,000,000 points at an event called the Kong Off, which he would win again in 2016. From there, others would dethrone him, with Robbie Lakeman becoming the current champ with a score of 1,247,700 on February 2, 2018.

With all these new players surpassing their records, it's tempting to wonder why anyone would bother focusing on Mitchell at all — until he was removed from them, Twin Galaxies' leader boards had him ranked at #14. At the same time, Mitchell's 25-year record still stands as a monumental achievement, and his status as the subject of an award-winning film raised his profile enough to keep people interested, and cast some doubts on the truth behind the record-setting tape he was able to produce after Steve Wiebe beat him the first time.

The investigation

The challenge to Mitchell's record didn't come from Mr. Awesome, Steve Wiebe, or anyone else that you might be expecting at this point. Instead, it was Jeremy Young, the moderator of the online Donkey Kong forum, who analyzed the tape and determined that Mitchell's record-setting performance wasn't actually done on a Donkey Kong arcade machine. Instead, Young alleged that Mitchell used an emulator, and Twin Galaxies agreed.

The evidence cited by Young begins with the fact that while Mitchell has racked up plenty of impressive scores, he's never managed to break 1,000,000 points while playing in public with witnesses. Everyone has an off day or two, so that's easy enough to dismiss, but it got Young investigating the infamous tape of Mitchell's 1,062,800-point performance — the one that made Mitchell the first person on record to break the million-point mark.

From there, the evidence began to stack up. It comes down to some pretty technical stuff, but one of the most compelling pieces of evidence involves a frame-by-frame comparison of how the first level of the game is rendered on the monitor. The slight differences between the true arcade version and its emulated equivalent led Young to conclude that Mitchell did use an emulator for his record-setting score.

Arcade vs. Emulator

So here's the big question: if the actual code of the game is the same across platforms, then why does it matter if he played on an emulator?

For starters, emulated games are easier to manipulate, whether it's adjusting how the game adds points to your score or something as complicated as a full-on ROM hack. Even if the game's code remains unaltered, however, running it on different hardware can create slight differences in how the game is played. Regardless of the platform, emulation is almost never 100% perfect. When you're dealing with something that's as granular as world-record arcade scores, where split-second timing and minor variations in pattern recognition can make all the difference, then the slight changes from emulation can make for a an entirely different set of patterns to exploit.

But that doesn't necessarily make them easier. Even Jeremy Young told Polygon that "to say that [emulation players'] accomplishments on emulator are somehow less than that of their arcade competitors is ridiculous." If Mitchell's score was recorded on an emulator and not arcade hardware, as Twin Galaxies has ruled that it was, then it was presented to them under false pretenses, in violation of the rules. In this case, it's the lie that matters more than the actual score.

Struck from the record

After launching the initial investigation in February, Twin Galaxies announced on April 12 that they had determined Mitchell's Donkey Kong score was fraudulent, banned him from future competition, and removed all of his records. Not just this particular high score, but everything, including scores in other games and that original 25-year Donkey Kong world record from 1982. Even his Guinness World Records are gone, as Guinness relies on Twin Galaxies for their video game scores, and defers to them when it comes to decisions about invalidating records.

Interestingly enough, Mitchell's not alone in this. His case comes hot on the heels of a similar investigation into Todd Rogers, who set a record in the Atari 2600 game Dragster back in 1982 and held the Guinness record for the longest-standing video game high score. After that score was determined to be literally impossible, all of Rogers' records were removed from Twin Galaxies as well ... including a suspiciously high score on the 2600 version of Donkey Kong.

As for Mitchell himself, he maintains that his score was legitimate, and that he'll be able to prove it and reclaim his rightful place in video game history. He's even accused Young of creating falsified footage using an emulator, which would require Young to have done a pixel-perfect recreation of Mitchell's legitimate game in order to discredit him. Young responded by saying that the allegation "does not make sense to me," and that he "would label that so unlikely as to be impossible."

Wiebe triumphant?

Given their history, it's tempting to see Mitchell's downfall as a victory for Steve Wiebe, but that's not exactly the case. With new high scores from players outpacing their records — and the lack of a Pac-Man-style maximum score to put a cap on them in the future — neither Mitchell nor Wiebe were in serious contention for the top spot. Wiebe has apparently retired from rescuing Pauline from giant gorillas, telling Twin Galaxies that "I'm happy I had my time. The score I got back in the day was a good score."

There is, however, one big change the comes for Wiebe as a result of Mitchell's disqualification. With his score removed from the records, Wiebe is officially the first player on record to ever break 1,000,000 points in Donkey Kong. No matter how many new high scores are set, being the first person to do something is the kind of record that can't be taken away.

Unless, you know, you cheated.

Of course, it's still possible that Mitchell could prove that Twin Galaxies and Jeremy Young are wrong, and that his score was legitimate all along.