Billy Mitchell has been a polarizing figure in the tight-knit world of classic video game high scores since well before he appeared as Steve Wiebe's antagonist in the 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. But the Mitchell doubters got some strong new support on Friday as the Donkey Kong Forum—a popular clearinghouse for tracking performance in the game—removed Mitchell's best claimed scores from its high-score list.
In a detailed post on the Donkey Kong Forum justifying the decision, moderator and scoreboard maintainer Jeremy "Xelnia" Young cites video evidence to suggest that three 1,000,000+ point scores presented by Mitchell were actually set using emulation rather than actual arcade hardware, as Mitchell claimed.
While a real Donkey Kong cabinet generates and displays game scenes in a "sliding door" effect, sliding from one side to the other, old versions of MAME instead build entire chunks of a level at once and then display them as a complete screen buffer (with slight differences as MAME has been updated over the years). The difference is noticeable in slow-motion, frame-by-frame analysis of the transitions between Donkey Kong levels. In the analysis, a new stage is first built in pieces after the "How High Can You Get?" interludes.
Comparing slow-motion footage of Mitchell's videos with those from MAME and authentic cabinets, Young writes, "show that each of the Donkey Kong world record direct-feed recordings presented by Billy Mitchell and verified by TG were generated in MAME and not by original Donkey Kong hardware."
“The preponderance of evidence”
The difference between a MAME-set record and one set on an authentic Donkey Kong printed circuit board isn't academic. Besides important differences in timing and controls between the two, MAME allows players to easily record and replay inputs to piece together a record-breaking run from multiple attempts. While there's no direct evidence that Mitchell did this kind of rerecording, presenting a MAME run as actual arcade gameplay would certainly introduce the possibility of such cheating.
Young cites other reasons to doubt Mitchell's score submissions. While Mitchell claims all of his 1M+ point scores came from "direct feed" off an actual Donkey Kong cabinet, setting up such a direct output from the ancient arcade hardware requires an incredibly complex setup, as laid out by Donkey Kong streamer Chris Gleed. This is why most Donkey Kong scores are confirmed in front of a live audience or using a video camera pointed at the screen, which can also have the benefit of showing the player at the cabinet at the same time.
There is no such footage of Mitchell actually at the controls of a real machine during his three claimed 1M+ point games, including the infamous "surprise" footage presented in a climactic scene in The King of Kong. What's more, there are some significant questions regarding the circumstances under which each score was supposedly created.
A screen recording of Mitchell's highest claimed DK score of 1.062 million points was only shown publicly at a short press conference event put on by the International Video Game Hall of Fame. The authenticity of that record is mainly propped up by testimony of Todd Rogers, who was recently banned from gaming high-score board Twin Galaxies after evidence he had lied about a long-standing Dragster record on the Atari 2600.
"Scores already on the board are always subject to review, and if the preponderance of evidence is against [one score], than the score should be removed, even if no single bit of evidence is a 'smoking gun,'" Young writes in the Donkey Kong Forum post. "In my view, we have reached that point with Billy Mitchell."
Fall of a giant?
Mitchell's various gaming achievements, braggadocious style, and signature American flag tie have made him one of the most recognizable (and parodied) professional gamers for years before esports were even a real thing. His biggest claim to fame in the gaming community remains playing the first perfect game of Pac-Man, an undisputed record which he achieved in 1999. But Donkey Kong has become a big part of his public persona in recent years, including a ride on a giant Donkey Kong machine at December's Citrus Bowl parade.
While Mitchell's Donkey Kong scores were impressive at the time he claimed them, they've since been surpassed in video-verified runs by numerous players. Mitchell's highest claimed score only ranked at No. 20 on the Donkey Kong Forum rankings before being removed. As it stands, Mitchell's highest confirmed score—an impressive 933,900-point performance achieved in front of multiple witnesses at Midwest Gaming Classic in 2004—is the 47th highest score listed on the site.
Mitchell has not responded to a request for comment from Ars Technica. Twin Galaxies—a long-standing video game high-score authority recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records—responded via a forum post by commissioner Dave Hawksett. He wrote that "Time will be needed for Twin Galaxies to fully review this evidence. We will do this thoroughly and impartially. In the meantime we will continue to observe this discussion by experts in our community."
Incidentally, Wes Copeland's 1.218 million-point Donkey Kong game—referred to by some as a perfect game of Donkey Kong when it was achieved as a new high score in 2016—was surpassed in December with a 1.247 million-point game from Robbie Lakeman. Both of those amazing scores have direct video evidence showing the players performing on actual arcade cabinets, yet another way they seem to be in a different class from those of the storied Billy Mitchell.