Billy Mitchell was the undisputed world champion of Donkey Kong. Now, suddenly, his gaming legacy is in tatters - but he’s come out fighting. What’s the real story?
Last week, a man named Billy Mitchell (not the EastEnders one) was stripped of all of his old-school gaming high scores, including his impressive 1,047,200 points on Donkey Kong (the first ever million-plus score on that game).
Competitive 8-bit video gaming doesn’t tend to make a lot of headlines, but this has received news coverage all over the world. The entire world of retro gaming has been shaken to its core. Its very, very, deeply, incredibly nerdy core.
But what’s going on? Who’s this dude? And why is Donkey Kong called Donkey Kong when he’s clearly some sort of ape?
What is Mitchell said to have done?
Mitchell has been a big name in gaming for decades, holding several world record scores. But new evidence has come to light that at least some of his highs scores were achieved not on a proper old Donkey Kong machine but on an emulator. When you hit a baddie with a hammer in the game, you are awarded a slightly randomised amount of points, but statistical analysis of the points awarded in Mitchell’s record-breaking run suggests that something was off.
The conclusion reached was that not only did the footage come from an emulator (specifically a MAME, a Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator), but it might be spliced together from multiple runs. This is all very, very much against the rules of Twin Galaxies, the gaming organisation that works with Guinness in tracking gaming world records.
Essentially, the Donkey Kong record he broke wasn’t on a Donkey Kong machine, and that ain’t cool, but also he might not have broken it anyway, and that’s even less cool.
As of right now, all of Billy Mitchell’s records have all been removed from the Twin Galaxies site.
How did this all come out?
A member of the Twin Galaxies community named Jeremy Young spent a long time thoroughly analysing several record-breaking tapes of Mitchell’s. Eventually he concluded that MAME software had to have been used - the giveaway was something involving transition screen images, which were inconsistent with being generated by a genuine Donkey Kong machine.
Billy Mitchell has always been something of a controversial figure within the gaming world. He’s been accused of cheating on other past occasions, as well as frequently coming across as something of a bully - it’s easy to see why someone might be willing to put a lot of time into looking for evidence of his misdeeds.
Wasn’t this all in a movie?
It was indeed, a great movie! Mitchell was one of the stars of The King Of Kong, Seth Gordon’s award-winning 2007 documentary about the world of competitive old-school gaming.
As the film followed likeable everyman Steve Weibe attempting to break Mitchell’s record, Mitchell came across onscreen like a kind of real-life Hans Gruber. There appeared to be a huge amount of dodginess around both his own record attempts and his attempts to discredit Weibe, and he came across like a proper cartoon villain.
Like, if it wasn’t a documentary, you’d have seen half of his scenes and gone “Oh, that’s a bit much”. It’s a fantastic film, far more compelling and entertaining than you’d think a film about a bunch of middle-aged nerds sitting at arcade machines could ever be.
One of the key bits of evidence in the case against Mitchell is seen in the film - a really dodgy-quality VHS of him ostensibly breaking a record.
Mitchell was also one of the sources of inspiration for Peter Dinklage’s character in Pixels:
What else do we know about Billy Mitchell?
Mitchell runs a successful chain of restaurants in Florida, Rickey’s World Famous Restaurants, as well as a hot-sauce business. He’s been a big name in gaming ever since the mid-1980s, when media appearances in outlets like Time Magazine made him kind of the face of competitive gaming.
The first time video game records were included in the Guinness Book Of Records, he was in there six times. He allegedly played the first ever “perfect game” of Pac-man in 1999, although that record, along with all his other ones, has now been wiped. He was once described by Oxford American as “the perfect man”.
He has an extensive collection of patriotic ties, and uses USA as his three-letter name on the type of scoreboards that let you do such things. Here is an excellent picture of him meeting a cosplayer version of himself.
How has Mitchell reacted to all of this?
Mitchell denies any and all wrongdoing. He delivered a statement to Old School Game Magazine (which he’s also on the advisory board of, which is probably the sort of conflict of interest best avoided in a case like this) vowing to clear his name.
“We will show that everything that has been done, everything was done professionally, according to the rules, according to the scoreboard, the integrity that was set up” he said.
Anything could happen now, but the ball is very much in Mitchell’s court in terms of proving he didn’t cheat. None of his records are current ones, but he had a good few firsts in there, so some people might find themselves retroactively celebrated as pioneers of gaming a few decades after their achievements.
Why is Donkey Kong called Donkey Kong?
The word “donkey” was chosen by creator Shigeru Miyamoto as a synonym for “stubborn”, with the “Kong” part intended to get the “ape” message across. The title “Donkey Kong” was intended to pretty much translate as “Stubborn Ape”.
So now you know.