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Arcade fame turns to infamy as Billy Mitchell's record-setting Donkey Kong score is invalidated

Arcade fame turns to infamy as Billy Mitchell's record-setting Donkey Kong score is invalidated
From TechCrunch - April 12, 2018

The record-setting score that settled the Donkey Kong arcade rivalry, made famous by the documentary The King of Kong, has been invalidated by Twin Galaxies, the de facto arbiter of arcade world records. Whats more, Billy Mitchell, the occasionally controversial player who set the scores, has been permanently banned from consideration for future records.

Its a huge upset that calls into question decades of history. Will other similarly disputed scores get the ax? Are any old-school arcade legends safe?

Before anything, it should be noted that although this sounds like kind of a random niche issue, the classic gaming scene is huge and millions follow it closely and take it very seriously. Breaking a high score on a 30-year-old game or shaving a quarter of a second off a record time can and will be celebrated as if the player has won an Olympic medal. One can never underestimate the size or sincerity of online communities. Cheating is, of course, not tolerated.

With that said, its worth considering that Billy Mitchells case is unique. He is undoubtedly a highly skilled player and has been setting records since the 80s. But, as anyone who watched The King of Kong will have learned, hes also a bit shady and his Donkey Kong acumen is far from established.

The issue is simply that despite having provided tapes of games setting recordsincluding being the first to break a million in Donkey Kongno one has seen him play like that in person.

That may sound like a red flag, but in the speedrunning and record-setting community, a great deal of practice happens alone, in an empty arcade, or otherwise with no credible witnesses (though Twitch has changed that). You could set a world record while in the zone after getting home from work, but it doesnt count unless its reviewed and accredited by a neutral party. Twin Galaxies is the largest organization performing that duty, and they take it very seriously indeed.

You may remember that at the end of The King of Kong, Mitchell reestablishes his supremacy over plucky local kid Steve Wiebe with a direct capture tape of a run scoring 1,047,200 points. There are no witnesses to this game. Shortly after this, he also recorded a 1,050,200 score, also not witnessed. And just a week before being inducted into the International Video Game Hall of Fame in Iowa, he set records in both Donkey Kong (1,062,800) and Donkey Kong 2.

Now heres where things get dicey (and nerdy).

Jeremy Young, aka Xelnia, put together the official two-part complaint on Twin Galaxies. For one part of it, he mentioned the suspicions some already had regarding the evidence set forth of the last and highest score Mitchell set, in an arcade called Boomers.

As others had already pointed out, not only are the run itself and resulting score not shown in the video, but the referee is among the least reliable, and the timeline is unclear, among other things. Most damning, however, it is clear that when Mitchells confederate ostentatiously swaps out the Donkey Kong board (so it can be verified elsewhere) for a Donkey Kong Jr. one (which Mitchell supposedly later set a record on), both PCBs were in fact the latter.

Twin Galaxies user Robert.F explained the differences in charming internet forum argot:

to a UN-trained train eye Dk and DKjr look the same and in fact they are vary similar, except for a few noticeable differencesthe DK pcb has white text on the pcb and the Dk jr has banana yellow text printed on the board ,, the DK pcb is 1/2 digital and 1/2 Analog sound and there is a adjustment pot on the dk pcb for the Analog sound`s, The Dk Jr board is fully digital and has no Analog sound adjustment pot in the exact same position on the dkjr board, and the 3rd noticeable differences and you will see; it if you review the video carefully Dk has the same ROM socket lay out and the same number of sockets as a Dkjr pcb ,, But DKjr has one of them ROM socket empty ,,,,,,

But these circumstantial issues could be explained as a bit of confusion in the moment, a misspoken word in their excitement, and so on. Fortunately, that wasnt the extent of the evidence.

As you may know, emulators are a type of application made to run old software (like arcade games) as closely as possible to how it ran on the original hardware. MAME is by far the most complex and perhaps the best-known emulator; this amazing app can emulate everything from Donkey Kong to much more recent games with complex 3D graphics. Of course, MAME runs arent accepted for world recordsyou could easily manipulate the software or even the game data itself. Real arcade hardware is required.

But MAME isnt perfect; there are tiny differences in how it displays graphicsthings you wouldnt notice unless you were watching a game frame by frame looking for them in particular.

Which is exactly what people started doing with Mitchells no-witnesses, only-on-video scores.

It turns out that the original Donkey Kong PCBs had a specific method of rendering a scene during graphics transitions called a sliding door effect, distinctive in the pattern of how pixels are updated. Careful inspection of Mitchells tapes showed not a sliding door, but instead a distinctive artifact of MAME emulation whereby the frame is rendered in chunks according to how the data is loaded from memory.

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