Bar­rels, angry mon­keys and Mario – why are so many men ob­sessed with this clas­sic video game?

Emirates Man - - CONTENTS -

In the early hours of Septem­ber 5, 2014, while the rest of West Coast Amer­ica was tucked up in bed, Ari­zona’s Rob­bie Lake­man was wide awake, in­tent on mak­ing his­tory.

Sat be­hind an ar­cade cab­i­net in his Phoenix apart­ment, the 27- year- old park­ing valet scaled gird­ers, jumped bar­rels and dodged re­balls in a uest to save a damsel in dis­tress from a bel­liger­ent, lad­der- climb­ing ape. Lake­man was play­ing Don­key Kong – Nin­tendo’s sem­i­nal plat­form video game re­leased in 1981, six years be­fore he was even born.

As a tiny, pix­e­lated ario nally lost his life, Lake­man’s own was about to change for­ever. “Oh my God, I did it,” he said, his voice shaky as his usu­ally steady hand en­tered his ini­tials on the ma­chine’s high score screen and into gaming folk­lore. It was now of cial Rob­bie Lake­man was the new Don­key Kong world record holder. is score 1,141,800 points.

Hours later, once the adrenalin had worn off and he’d caught up on some much needed sleep, Lake­man di­alled the num­ber of Hank Chien, a 40- year- old plas­tic sur­geon from New York, known in gaming cir­cles as ‘ Dr Kong’, and the pre­vi­ous cus­to­dian of the record. “I did it,” Lake­man re­peated to his ri­val, in­form­ing Chien of his high score, some 3,200 points su­pe­rior to the one Dr Kong set in Jan­uary 2012. Ah, Don­key Kong. In spite of its prim­i­tive graph­ics and in­fu­ri­at­ing game­play – not to men­tion an in­fa­mous soft­ware glitch on the 22nd level ( nick­named the ‘ kill screen’) that means it’s im­pos­si­ble to com­plete – in­ter­est in the bleep- bloop­ing ar­cade clas­sic has never uite sub­sided. Adored when it rst came out in the early 1980s for be­ing at the cut­ting edge of tech­nol­ogy, amid a pro­duc­tion line of ex­cit­ing re­leases from gaming com­pa­nies around the globe, 33 years on – in the ruth­less, ever evolv­ing world of video games – it’s tech­ni­cally a creak­ing di­nosaur of yes­ter­year. And yet... While the likes of Call Of Duty, FIFA and Grand Theft Auto boast hy­per re­al­is­tic graph­ics, record- break­ing sales and the sort of bud­gets you’d more com­monly ex­pect from a Hol­ly­wood lm stu­dio, a pas­sion­ate clus­ter of gamers re­main sucked in by Kong. In love with the nostal­gia, the in­no­cent allure of plumber ver­sus ape, man against ma­chine, in a sim­ple and yet ex­as­per­at­ingly dif cult game.

If you’re an am­a­teur, your time on Don­key Kong will end within 60 seconds. Whereas for pro­fes­sion­als at the high­est level, one uar­ter can stretch over three full hours, with­out breaks, re uir­ing com­plete and ut­ter fo­cus. Any­thing less and it’s game over. Hun­dreds of pas­sion­ate fans play the game ev­ery day, whether the in­di­vid­u­als who were trans xed in the early ’ 80s, stood in an ar­cade with


a pocket full of quarters and a wide- eyed stare, or a new gen­er­a­tion of retro enthusiast, the most ar­dent of which are happy to part with over a thou­sand pounds for an orig­i­nal or care­fully re­stored Don­key Kong ar­cade cab­i­net. In fact it’s an es­sen­tial pur­chase for a com­pet­i­tive Kong player gun­ning for the ti­tle, as only scores regis­tered on th­ese old school ma­chines are recog­nised for the world record.

But what adds layer upon layer to Don­key Kong’s al­ready swollen legacy is the never- end­ing scrap for the game’s high score. Although it of­fers lit­tle more than re­spect from other play­ers for the vic­tor ( un­like mod­ern ‘ eS­ports’ which can bring mighty nan­cial re­turns, even spon­sor­ship, for elite gamers), the com­pe­ti­tion for the DK crown is erce, and, some­times quite ugly.

“I don’t care about beat­ing the world record, the only thing that I want is to kick the s** t out of Hank Chien,” says Vincent Lemay, a 24- year- old body­builder from Que­bec, in a thick French ac­cent. “I’ve been wait­ing for this mo­ment for like four years, it’s my only goal. I don’t care about the record; I just want to beat Hank. If I can beat him by 100 points then I’ll be happy.”

Self- as­sured, brash and with a frame only bet­tered in size by his mo­tor mouth, Lemay doesn’t ex­actly t the stereo­type of the spotty, day­light starved gamer nerds we are led to be­lieve is cus­tom­ary. He is no stranger to the cliché, nor his rep­u­ta­tion as a swag­ger­ing, mus­cle- bound con­tra­dic­tion of it. If any­thing, Lemay em­braces it. “When I say to peo­ple I’m good at Don­key Kong they say like, ‘ What the hell, man You don’t t the cri­te­ria ’ he laughs. “Be­cause [ the stereo­type] don’t look as mus­cu­lar as me, ob­vi­ously.

“Peo­ple think a pro­fes­sional gamer would be a shy guy, so­cially awk­ward, ugly and stuff like that. But in fact a lot of them are very bright and in­tel­li­gent. A lot of peo­ple have prej­u­dices about pro­fes­sional gamers, I think.”

Lemay, like many of the new crop of elite DK play­ers, was rst made aware of the bur­geon­ing sub­cul­ture after watch­ing The King Of Kong: A Fist

ful Of Quarters, a 2007 doc­u­men­tary di­rected by Seth Gor­don ( Hor­ri­ble Bosses, Iden­tity Thief). he lm charts the bat­tle be­tween Billy Mitchell – a prodi­gious gamer who found fame dur­ing the 1980s, who is long of hair, thick of beard and stock full of ar­ro­gance – and Steve Wiebe – a staunchly like­able ev­ery­man who jug­gles his fam­ily life and job as a teacher with notch­ing world- class Don­key Kong scores in his garage. Full of high drama and dirty tricks, The King Of Kong was a cult hit, com­plete with a rarely seen 96 per cent rat­ing on lm site Rot­ten Toma­toes, a raft of hastily re­leased copy­cat lms and is of­ten ranked as one of the nest doc­u­men­taries of all time.

Yet in spite of Wiebe’s styling as the doe- eyed hero in the movie, Lemay re­mem­bers the lm in a dif­fer­ent light. “Billy Mitchell is my idol in King Of Kong,” he beams. “I mean, he’s funny, he’s cocky and, let’s be hon­est, peo­ple re­mem­ber more the bad guy than the good guy.” With talk­ing trash his cap and trade, Lemay’s ri­valry with Chien is Wiebe v Mitchell for mod­ern times, and has swiftly be­come the stuff of legend.

And though he’s just as big headed as his all Amer­i­can cousin Billy Mitchell, Lemay cur­rently lan­guishes in fth in the all- time DK list, with a score of 1,135,900. But, true to form, he sees his run at the record as some­thing of a for­mal­ity. “If I have the skills, I should be the world record holder,” says Lemay. “It’s a very good record but it’s still beat­able, hon­estly. I don’t play games for fun. I don’t even like this game any more, it’s so frus­trat­ing. I have nightmares about Don­key Kong. But I’m a com­pet­i­tive guy, I want to play 10,000 hours on one sin­gle game and be the best.”

Since The King Of Kong came out in 2007, along with the ad­vent of a new eet of fa­nat­i­cal com­peti­tors – and sub­se­quent bat­tle lines be­ing drawn be­tween war­ring play­ers – the big­gest change of note has been the level of com­pe­ti­tion. Back in 2010, the high­est scores of Wiebe and Mitchell were wor­thy of the world record. Nowa­days, they’re only t for 11th and 12th place re­spec­tively. And even then that’s if you dis­count the scores of play­ers us­ing MAME – an emu­la­tor that mim­ics ev­ery as­pect of the orig­i­nal Don­key Kong ver­sion, but played on a com­puter key­board.

In­deed, though Rob­bie Lake­man made news head­lines around the world for his record snaf­fling score in Septem­ber, the high­est Don­key Kong score of all time in fact be­longs to Dean Saglio, who amassed a ridicu­lous 1,206,800 points in April 2013. his feat didn’t make the news, how­ever, and for DK purists and Guin­ness World Records alike, it doesn’t tech­ni­cally count.

“I would say it’s pretty much 50 50 in the Don­key Kong com­mu­nity,” says re­cently de­posed champ, Hank Chien, on the MAME v ar­cade de­bate. “I’m of the opin­ion that the key­board is a slight ad­van­tage – even Dean him­self thinks it gives you a slight ad­van­tage.” While Kongers agree the game­play be­tween the two is in­dis­tin­guish­able,

Rob­bie Lake­man It was now of­fi­cial: Rob­bie Lake­man was the new Don­key Kong world record holder. His score: 1,141,800 points

Steve Wiebe

8- bit por­trait of leg­endary Ja­panese video game de­signer Shigeru Miyamoto, cre­ator of sem­i­nal video game se­ries such as Su­per Mario and Don­key Kong, taken on April 19, 2012. Images were taken us­ing a 1998 Game Boy Cam­era de­vel­oped by Nin­tendo,...

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