Barrels, angry monkeys and Mario – why are so many men obsessed with this classic video game?
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
IF YOU’RE AN AMATEUR, YOUR TIME ON DONKEY KONG WILL END WITHIN 60 SECONDS
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
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,...