The Ballad of Billy Mitchell

In the late 70’s there wasn’t much on offer when it came to games – you might be able to play some pinball, possibly have a go at some slot games, however that was pretty much it. But in 1978 with the release of Space Invaders, arcade games really began to take off and by the start of the 80’s the golden age had begun with incredible classics like Pac-Man, Frogger and, perhaps most importantly of all, Donkey Kong – all launched by 1981. That last one is the main topic of this article and the man who’s still heavily associated with the arcade game if not the ape himself: William “Billy” James Mitchell Jr.

Born July 17, 1965, Mitchell was perhaps a little old to become enamoured with video games when they first appeared but was eventually drawn to the Donkey Kong machine. From there, the legend grew as he cleaned up high scores on any number of arcade cabinets with massive high scores in Donkey Kong and a world record perfect score on Pac-Man of 3,333,360. This record is particularly impressive as it involves clearing 256 levels and takes around 6-7 hours and navigating a final level full of broken code with invisible walls and pellets. Mitchell’s various achievements were all quite well documented and even inspired a documentary in 2007 that began to raise questions about the famous video game superstar.

In 2007, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters followed the story of Steve Wiebe and his attempts to beat Mitchell’s high score set way back in 1982. While Mitchell never agreed to play against Wiebe despite the latter asking him multiple times, he stated how important it was to play publicly in a sanctioned location for verification. In the documentary, Wiebe tries to submit his high score of over a million via a tape but is refused by Twin Galaxies. Later in the documentary, after beating Mitchell’s high score at Funspot (a location Mitchell had mentioned as an ‘official’ place to win) a tape was submitted by Mitchell where he landed a high score over a million and this result was accepted. While there was a rationale for this decision in the movie, Mitchell’s choice of video submission would have major consequences down the line.

Fast forward to this year on 2nd February when a member of a Donkey Kong forum, Jeremy Young, analysed footage of Mitchell’s high score from King of Kong and found that rather than an official cabinet he was playing on a MAME emulation unit. This would give him an advantage with multiple ways to alter the game. In April, Twin Galaxies removed the high scores they’d received from Mitchell as an investigation had proved he had not used original unmodified Donkey Kong software. This led to other rumours that the score itself may have been fraudulent.

Billy Mitchell’s fame may have been tarnished but he’s been very vocal about attempting to clear his name. Whether or not he is successful remains to be seen.