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
“TO BE ONE OF ONLY SIX PEOPLE TO HAVE CLIMBED THIS MOUNTAIN… SOME SEE IT AS THE HOLY GRAIL IN ARCADE GAMING”
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