Why are play­ers of 30-year-old games still chas­ing new high scores?


The twisted tale of gam­ing ri­valry doc­u­mented in 2007’s The King Of Kong isn’t re­spon­si­ble for start­ing the high-score-chas­ing scene that sur­rounds vin­tage ar­cade games, but it cer­tainly fu­elled in­ter­est in it. Nearly seven years on, Don­key

Kong’s high­est scores re­main hotly con­tested. Plas­tic sur­geon Hank

Chien set the most re­cent world record in 2012, ac­cu­mu­lat­ing 1,138,600 points, some 90,000 over the fi­nal score laid down by Steve Wiebe in The King Of Kong. It was the third time the Amer­i­can had raised the record that year and his fifth world-beat­ing score in a row since 2010. His skill has proven al­most unas­sail­able. Al­most.

Chien’s scores were set on real ar­cade hard­ware, which is the only for­mat that mat­ters to high-score chasers. How­ever, a fel­low Amer­i­can, Dean Saglio, used ar­cade em­u­la­tor MAME on his PC to break the 1.2 mil­lion score bar­rier in Oc­to­ber 2013. Em­u­la­tors are easy to ex­ploit, so hard­ware mat­ters, but the his­tory of high-score com­pe­ti­tions is rarely about the in­ter­face and more about the hands play­ing it.

Chien’s rise to the top of the Don­key Kong rank­ings starts with MAME. “The film [The King Of Kong] got me in­trigued. Ini­tially, I started play­ing out of cu­rios­ity, but I quickly re­alised the depth of the game­play and that I was nat­u­rally gifted at it,” Chien says. “In the very be­gin­ning, I played a lot, per­haps three hours per day. Af­ter reach­ing the killscreen – the mo­ment a bug makes the game un­playable – I had a huge sense of sat­is­fac­tion and toned it down to about one hour per day.” It marked an­other turn­ing point for Chien, too: he bought a Don­key Kong cab­i­net. He had the means and talent to chal­lenge the names made fa­mous by The King Of Kong, and did so. He’s dom­i­nated the scene for years.

Don­key Kong is a race to achieve the high­est pos­si­ble score be­fore level 22’s timer bug kicks in. Saglio’s run proves there’s still enough wig­gle room left to hit 1,206,800 points, but fel­low killscreen leg­end Pac-Man hit its score limit in 1999 when Billy Mitchell played the per­fect game of the Namco clas­sic. His record hasn’t stopped oth­ers try­ing to reach his mile­stone 3,333,360 points, though.

Jon Stood­ley is the UK’s best Pac-Man player, and he’s still chas­ing that per­fect run. He’s man­aged to get 3,331,540 points to date. Some 31 years ago, his record was the world record, stand­ing at 3,221,000. For Stood­ley, Pac-Man has been ‘his game’ for most of his life, and Mitchell’s per­fect run is a goal that keeps push­ing him for­ward. “It’s my in­ten­tion to recre­ate [the per­fect game] here in the UK at a live event,” he says. “Ev­ery­one has their own per­sonal goal, and be­cause the idea of a per­fect game was con­sid­ered non­sense some years back, the in­cred­i­ble ap­pli­ca­tion needed to achieve it is the chal­lenge.” As far as he’s con­cerned, three decades is time well spent. “To be one of only half-a-dozen people in the world to have climbed this moun­tain is most def­i­nitely worth it. Some see it as the Holy Grail in ar­cade gam­ing.”

Stood­ley’s life­long re­la­tion­ship with Pac-Man fits the vin­tage score-at­tacker mould that Hank Chien bucks: hard­ened masters who have played their game for its life­time as well as theirs. For Chien, how­ever, as an ea­ger learner with nat­u­ral talent, the In­ter­net was vi­tal. “In the Don­key Kong scene, YouTube and livestreams have helped all of us im­prove


our game tremen­dously,” he says. “Thanks to the In­ter­net and watch­ing var­i­ous people play, I was able to im­prove my score to 1 mil­lion points. It was then that I re­alised I was an ‘ex­pert’ and ca­pa­ble of get­ting the world record at the time.”

Stood­ley’s train­ing couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent, but his mind­set is more re­vival­ist than hard­core score chaser. “I have an orig­i­nal Pac-Man Mid­way cabaret ar­cade ma­chine that I com­pletely re­stored. It has to be ab­so­lutely orig­i­nal for me in or­der to feel com­fort­able achiev­ing a per­fect game of Pac

Man.” He also places an un­usual limit on him­self: “I play ‘free­hand’, which means not us­ing any pat­terns [to max­imise scores] in the first 21 boards. This is the ex­act way that I played in 1982.” This makes for a more im­pro­vi­sa­tional and in­trigu­ing game to watch than Mitchell’s ro­botic run. Stood­ley has to shepherd the ghosts off the cuff, es­chew­ing mod­ern tech­niques such as Con­tin­u­ous For­ward Mo­tion pat­terns, which are of­ten re­searched by dig­ging deep into the game us­ing em­u­la­tors.

Em­u­la­tion’s value in the scene can’t be un­der­es­ti­mated, it seems. Chien con­sid­ers it an es­sen­tial tool. “Oc­ca­sion­ally, I’ll ex­per­i­ment with new tech­niques on MAME, be­cause it’s

eas­ier to skip to a spe­cific point in the game by us­ing save states. I can prac­tise the same thing over and over, or save a spe­cific sit­u­a­tion to study it later,” he ex­plains. For Paul Spriggs, the UK’s top Robotron, De­fender and

Star­gate player, it’s his main method of play. “A work­ing cab will cost a grand and be un­re­li­able as hell,” he says. “I bought a PlayS­ta­tion when they first came out with the sole in­ten­tion of play­ing De­fender and Robotron [in Dig­i­tal Eclipse’s Wil­liams Ar­cade Clas­sics]. My orig­i­nal De­fender cab­i­net got thrown out three years ear­lier, be­cause I was told that it couldn’t be fixed!” Spriggs quickly worked out that a PlayS­ta­tion fight­ing stick would suit both Robotron and

De­fender, and to­day pro­motes ac­cu­rate recre­ations of orig­i­nal cab­i­net con­trols via the Wil­liams De­fender Play­ers Unite Face­book group. “These con­trollers cost be­tween £100 and £150 and don’t take up the room,” he ex­plains. And, be­ing mi­croswitch per­fect, they are a bridge em­u­la­tor play­ers can use to train for break­ing records on orig­i­nal hard­ware.

Robotron is an un­usual case where high scores are con­tested not on orig­i­nal hard­ware, but via em­u­la­tion. “Robotron had a bug in it that caused the game to some­times ev­ery 25,000 points, and we are hav­ing tour­na­ments based on this, but it isn’t the same. The risk-ver­sus-re­ward fac­tor van­ishes, since it’s all risk, and the game loses its ap­peal.”

Robotron has no stan­dard killscreen and the high­est pos­si­ble score is only capped by a player’s abil­ity to stay fo­cused. Lim­it­less­ness has made it a poor show­piece for score chas­ing, but that might yet change. “Larry [DeMar] is us­ing a few spare bytes of ROM to slightly change the game,” Spriggs ex­plains, “and we’re hop­ing he can cre­ate some­thing that will make it harder to play for mas­ter play­ers.” Au­then­tic­ity takes a back seat for Robotron’s high-score scene. Wil­liams’ other lauded Jarvis and DeMar clas­sic,

De­fender, re­mains a moun­tain to climb even af­ter 34 years of in­ten­sive play by the world’s most skilled. Ac­cord­ing to

Mikael Lindholm, cred­ited as the best De­fender player in the world by his peers, it has plenty more to give. “In the­ory, it’s pos­si­ble to play this game in­def­i­nitely on its max dif­fi­culty set­tings, us­ing no Smart Bombs or Hy­per­space, and on a sin­gle ship,” he says. “You can al­ways get bet­ter at this game; it will al­ways keep chal­leng­ing you. And this is why I’m still at­tracted to it af­ter so many years. You can al­ways “IT WAS LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT. HOW COULD ANY­THING BE SO COOL? NO OTHER GAME HAD TALKED TO ME LIKE DE­FENDER” crash and re­set if you fired di­ag­o­nally and hit the outer wall,” Spriggs ex­plains. “We thought in the ’80s it was a volt­age spike or hard­ware fault, but it’s a soft­ware prob­lem, since it hap­pens in MAME too. I now play Robotron us­ing a par­tic­u­lar bug­fixed ROM ver­sion that doesn’t crash. It was done with [ Robotron cre­ator] Larry DeMar and Dig­i­tal Eclipse, so we ac­cept it as a le­git ver­sion.” As for that fight­ing stick, it’s still Spriggs’ weapon of choice. “I still play Robotron us­ing four but­tons for fir­ing rather than two sticks, and can still play in­def­i­nitely, be­cause I’ve played Robotron for longer us­ing that stick than I did in the ar­cades!”

For top play­ers such as Spriggs, Robotron’s in­tense mix­ture of ag­gres­sion and claus­tro­pho­bia holds an al­lure that hasn’t di­min­ished in 32 years. How­ever, as part of an elite group that can play to the point where sur­vival is largely aca­demic, Spriggs finds that it has be­come an en­durance sport, and be­lieves play­ers must make up new chal­lenges to en­ter­tain them­selves. “I think Robotron has gone as far as it can, game­play-wise. The only chal­lenges left are to see how far you can get with­out the game award­ing you a bonus man de­velop new moves and so­lu­tions to dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions. Your ac­cu­racy, ex­e­cu­tion and tim­ing can al­ways get bet­ter.” Lindholm also has a hope­ful out­look for the fu­ture of De­fender play. “What will it look like when some­one is play­ing on the very edge of skill? I hope there are some De­fender mon­sters out there who have kept play­ing for all these years and never stopped chal­leng­ing them­selves. It re­ally bugs me that I could’ve – should’ve – been that guy”.

Lindholm’s self-crit­i­cism stems from a break he took in 1991, which lasted un­til he dusted off his De­fender cab in 2010. Bought in 1985, while he was still at school, his per­sonal De­fender ma­chine now stars in YouTube videos of vir­tu­oso play that are stun­ning in their flu­id­ity and grace. He first played the game in 1981, though, scor­ing a piti­ful but com­mon 450 points. “It was love at first sight. How could any­thing be so cool? No other game had talked to me like

De­fender; I felt it was ‘my’ game,” he re­calls. High-level De­fender is im­pro­vi­sa­tional chaos. It mar­ries twitch skill with a con­trol method that pre­sents a colos­sal bar­rier to en­try, but be­comes a fine in­stru­ment once mas­tered. “Once you’ve learned the ba­sics of ma­noeu­vring your ship

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