Why are players of 30-year-old games still chasing new high scores?


The twisted tale of gaming rivalry documented in 2007’s The King Of Kong isn’t responsible for starting the high-score-chasing scene that surrounds vintage arcade games, but it certainly fuelled interest in it. Nearly seven years on, Donkey Kong’s highest scores remain hotly contested. Plastic surgeon Hank Chien set the most recent world record in 2012, accumulating 1,138,600 points, some 90,000 over the final score laid down by Steve Wiebe in The King Of Kong. It was the third time the American had raised the record that year and his fifth world-beating score in a row since 2010. His skill has proven almost unassailable. Almost.

Chien’s scores were set on real arcade hardware, which is the only format that matters to high-score chasers. However, a fellow American, Dean Saglio, used arcade emulator MAME on his PC to break the 1.2 million score barrier in October 2013. Emulators are easy to exploit, so hardware matters, but the history of high-score competitions is rarely about the interface and more about the hands playing it.

Chien’s rise to the top of the Donkey Kong rankings starts with MAME. “The film [The King Of Kong] got me intrigued. Initially, I started playing out of curiosity, but I quickly realised the depth of the gameplay and that I was naturally gifted at it,” Chien says. “In the very beginning, I played a lot, perhaps three hours per day. After reaching the killscreen – the moment a bug makes the game unplayable – I had a huge sense of satisfaction and toned it down to about one hour per day.” It marked another turning point for Chien, too: he bought a Donkey Kong cabinet. He had the means and talent to challenge the names made famous by The King Of Kong, and did so. He’s dominated the scene for years.

Donkey Kong is a race to achieve the highest possible score before level 22’s timer bug kicks in. Saglio’s run proves there’s still enough wiggle room left to hit 1,206,800 points, but fellow killscreen legend Pac-Man hit its score limit in 1999 when Billy Mitchell played the perfect game of the Namco classic. His record hasn’t stopped others trying to reach his milestone 3,333,360 points, though.

Billy Mitchell’s 3,333,360 point haul in Pac-Man remains the world record.

Jon Stoodley is the UK’s best Pac-Man player, and he’s still chasing that perfect run. He’s managed to get 3,331,540 points to date. Some 31 years ago, his record was the world record, standing at 3,221,000. For Stoodley, Pac-Man has been ‘his game’ for most of his life, and Mitchell’s perfect run is a goal that keeps pushing him forward. “It’s my intention to recreate [the perfect game] here in the UK at a live event,” he says. “Everyone has their own personal goal, and because the idea of a perfect game was considered nonsense some years back, the incredible application needed to achieve it is the challenge.” As far as he’s concerned, three decades is time well spent. “To be one of only half-a-dozen people in the world to have climbed this mountain is most definitely worth it. Some see it as the Holy Grail in arcade gaming.”

“To be one of only half-a-dozen people in
the world to have climbed this mountain
is most definitely worth it. Some see it as
the Holy Grail in arcade gaming.”

Stoodley’s lifelong relationship with Pac-Man fits the vintage score-attacker mould that Hank Chien bucks: hardened masters who have played their game for its lifetime as well as theirs. For Chien, however, as an eager learner with natural talent, the Internet was vital. “In the Donkey Kong scene, YouTube and livestreams have helped all of us improve our game tremendously,” he says. “Thanks to the Internet and watching various people play, I was able to improve my score to 1 million points. It was then that I realised I was an ‘expert’ and capable of getting the world record at the time.”

Stoodley’s training couldn’t be more different, but his mindset is more revivalist than hardcore score chaser. “I have an original Pac-Man Midway cabaret arcade machine that I completely restored. It has to be absolutely original for me in order to feel comfortable achieving a perfect game of Pac-Man.” He also places an unusual limit on himself: “I play  ‘freehand’, which means not using any patterns [to maximise scores] in the first 21 boards. This is the exact way that I played in 1982.” This makes for a more improvisational and intriguing game to watch than Mitchell’s robotic run. Stoodley has to shepherd the ghosts off the cuff, eschewing modern techniques such as Continuous Forward Motion patterns, which are often researched by digging deep into the game using emulators.

Emulation’s value in the scene can’t be underestimated, it seems. Chien considers it an essential tool. “Occasionally, I’ll experiment with new techniques on MAME, because it’s easier to skip to a specific point in the game by using save states. I can practise the same thing over and over, or save a specific situation to study it later,” he explains.

The romance of a working arcade cab persists, but most players practice on emulators.

For Paul Spriggs, the UK’s top Robotron, Defender and Stargate player, it’s his main method of play. “A working cab will cost a grand and be unreliable as hell,” he says. “I bought a PlayStation when they first came out with the sole intention of playing Defender and Robotron [in Digital Eclipse’s Williams Arcade Classics]. My original Defender cabinet got thrown out three years earlier, because I was told that it couldn’t be fixed!” Spriggs quickly worked out that a PlayStation fighting stick would suit both Robotron and Defender, and today promotes accurate recreations of original cabinet controls via the Williams Defender Players Unite Facebook group. “These controllers cost between £100 and £150 and don’t take up the room,” he explains. And, being microswitch perfect, they are a bridge emulator players can use to train for breaking records on original hardware.

Robotron is an unusual case where high scores are contested not on original hardware, but via emulation. “Robotron had a bug in it that caused the game to sometimes crash and reset if you fired diagonally and hit the outer wall,” Spriggs explains. “We thought in the ’80s it was a voltage spike or hardware fault, but it’s a software problem, since it happens in MAME too. I now play Robotron using a particular bugfixed ROM version that doesn’t crash. It was done with [Robotron creator] Larry DeMar and Digital Eclipse, so we accept it as a legit version.” As for that fighting stick, it’s still Spriggs’ weapon of choice. “I still play Robotron using four buttons for firing rather than two sticks, and can still play indefinitely, because I’ve played Robotron for longer using that stick than I did in the arcades!”

“I still play Robotron using four buttons
for firing rather than two sticks, and
can still play indefinitely”

For top players such as Spriggs, Robotron’s intense mixture of aggression and claustrophobia holds an allure that hasn’t diminished in 32 years. However, as part of an elite group that can play to the point where survival is largely academic, Spriggs finds that it has become an endurance sport, and believes players must make up new challenges to entertain themselves. “I think Robotron has gone as far as it can, gameplay-wise. The only challenges left are to see how far you can get without the game awarding you a bonus man every 25,000 points, and we are having tournaments based on this, but it isn’t the same. The risk-versus-reward factor vanishes, since it’s all risk, and the game loses its appeal.” Robotron has no standard killscreen and the highest possible score is only capped by a player’s ability to stay focused. Limitlessness has made it a poor showpiece for score chasing, but that might yet change. “Larry [DeMar] is using a few spare bytes of ROM to slightly change the game,” Spriggs explains, “and we’re hoping he can create something that will make it harder to play for master players.” Authenticity takes a back seat for Robotron’s high-score scene.

Williams’ other lauded Jarvis and DeMar classic, Defender, remains a mountain to climb even after 34 years of intensive play by the world’s most skilled. According to Mikael Lindholm, credited as the best Defender player in the world by his peers, it has plenty more to give. “In theory, it’s possible to play this game indefinitely on its max difficulty settings, using no Smart Bombs or Hyperspace, and on a single ship,” he says. “You can always get better at this game; it will always keep challenging you. And this is why I’m still attracted to it after so many years. You can always develop new moves and solutions to different situations. Your accuracy, execution and timing can always get better.” Lindholm also has a hopeful outlook for the future of Defender play. “What will it look like when someone is playing on the very edge of skill? I hope there are some Defender monsters out there who have kept playing for all these years and never stopped challenging themselves. It really bugs me that I could’ve – should’ve – been that guy”.

With tournament settings, Missile Command offers no bonus cities, so record runs cannot recover easily from mistakes.

Lindholm’s self-criticism stems from a break he took in 1991, which lasted until he dusted off his Defender cab in 2010. Bought in 1985, while he was still at school, his personal Defender machine now stars in YouTube videos of virtuoso play that are stunning in their fluidity and grace. He first played the game in 1981, though, scoring a pitiful but common 450 points. “It was love at first sight. How could anything be so cool? No other game had talked to me like Defender; I felt it was ‘my’ game,” he recalls.

High-level Defender is improvisational chaos. It marries twitch skill with a control method that presents a colossal barrier to entry, but becomes a fine instrument once mastered. “Once you’ve learned the basics of manoeuvring your ship and can catch falling humanoids, the experience is freedom,” Lindholm says. “There is no limit to the complex manoeuvres these controls allow you to do.”

“Once you’ve learned the basics of manoeuvring your ship and can catch falling humanoids, the experience is freedom. There is no limit to the manoeuvres these controls allow you to do.”

It’s easy to see why Lindholm believes Defender is far from being truly mastered. Indeed, the game’s high-score record was last broken in October 2013 by Texan game developer Billy Joe Cain, who scored 33,644,750 points in 32 and a half hours. The record was livestreamed and set using marathon settings – the factory defaults, which allow plenty of extra ships, providing the breathing room required when eating and bathroom breaks force a stoppage in play.

Lindholm’s personal Defender journey is different. He’s trying to roll the score over (which occurs at 1,000,000 points) on maximum difficulty, using the dreaded original blue ROM, which is considerably harder than the standard red version used in most record attempts. His YouTube video from 2012, in which he reaches 909,000 with the difficulty set at 99-99 (starting difficulty at 99, progressive difficulty increase 99, making it as hard as Defender can be by level five), is 67 minutes of the game at its most murderous. Cain’s marathon run, by contrast, starts at zero difficulty and tops out at 30.

The difference between Chien and Lindholm’s skill-based runs and Spriggs and Cain’s endurance tests highlights the division in the vintage score-attack scene between marathon and tournament play. It’s a difference not just in the game, but also the type of player capable of chasing the highest scores.

Tony Temple is the UK’s best Missile Command player and current tournament record holder. With no bonus cities and no chance to rest, Temple set his record with a score of 4,472,570 in 2010, stopping only when a button on the cabinet failed. The marathon record, where cities are typically replenished after every 10,000 points, is a different matter. Swede Victor Sandberg broke the score record for Missile Command and set a personal one for sheer endurance. His closing score of 103,809,990 took over 71 hours, starting on December 27, 2013.

Victor Sandberg broke the record for Missile Command and set a personal one for endurance. His score of 103,809,990 took over 71 hours

While Sandberg’s superhuman feat impresses through dedication and resilience, Temple prefers Missile Command at the limit of stress management: “You get six cities to start the game, and once they’re gone, they’re gone. It’s Missile Command intensified. The most difficult thing is coping with the fact that the game could end at any moment. You are on a knife’s edge after just ten minutes of play. From that point on, the pressure is relentless. To be an hour into a great game only to have your game dashed by a sucker-punch missile from a low satellite on the far edge of the screen is difficult to recover from mentally.”

Like Lindholm, Temple believes Missile Command’s chaotic gameplay creates space for talented players to improve their skills. “There are no patterns to learn on Missile Command, so it’s really about being on top of your tactics and strategies. There are no resting spots; there is no time to think. The game has so much depth. There are all sorts of challenges you can set yourself, whether you’re picking the game up for the first time or whether you’re a more experienced player.”

The modern high-score record community isn’t just about the pre-’85 icons. Since The King Of Kong brought the drama of the scene to a wider audience, the scope has been broadened by plumbing arcade gaming’s golden years. US player Caitlin Oliver broke the Splatterhouse world record in November 2013 with a score of 606,000. While not the most obvious target for world record attempts, Splatterhouse is nonetheless a deeply personal game for Oliver, with much the same story of childhood discovery, mastery and eventual world domination. “My father got me a TurboGrafx 16 for Christmas one year, and I had to rent games, guessing based on box art whether or not I’d like it. I picked Splatterhouse and I fell in love,” she says. “It was the craziest thing I had ever played and I couldn’t get enough!”

This high-score scene isn’t reserved solely for games of the early ’80s; Namco’s Splatterhouse, for example, appeared in arcades in 1988.

Her journey to the world record has its own thread of serendipity. Access to a fabulously stocked retro arcade and a passer-by’s comment set the challenge: “I had gone to the Galloping Ghost Arcade [in Brookfield, Illinois], and was playing Splatterhouse, since I always enjoyed it and this was the only arcade I knew that had a machine. One of the guys who worked there asked if I was going for a world record or something. I told him that I wasn’t and was just playing. But it stuck with me. Why not try for a record?” Oliver believes that Splatterhouse is almost exhausted at 606,000 points, bar using a glitch on the final boss to gain two KO scores, which is legal in Japan’s high-score community, but not in the US. She has moved onto an even more obscure curio from the late JAMMA (Japan Amusement Machine and Marketing  Association) era: Banpresto’s Super Spacefortress Macross. As a vertically scrolling shoot ’em up, it couldn’t be more different in terms of the required skillset, but players such as Oliver and Billy Mitchell illustrate the rich body of work that record-hunters can plunder.

It’s unlikely Oliver’s next record attempt will take place at the Galloping Ghost. Instead, you can expect it to occur under the gaze of a webcam broadcasting live to the Internet. “I love it, I love it, I love it,” Oliver says. “It feels great to have people cheering you on, even if it’s just a few. It really makes achieving a record feel more like a victory. I honestly believe it’s helping revitalise the community on a fundamental level.”

“It feels great to have people cheering you on, even if it’s just a few. I honestly believe it’s helping revitalise the community on a fundamental level.”

For Stoodley, broadcasting is part of his Pac-Man raison d’être: “[Livestreaming] is the very reason I only play in a live environment. It not only recreates the live play of the old arcade experience, but also acts as a tutorial. I never keep my gaming secret. It was an important part of playing in the arcades in the ’80s: watching others play live and incorporating their strategies into your own repertoire.”

Temple emphasises the unifying and educational aspects of arcade livestreams: “I think it’s great and is definitely the future of competitive classic arcade gaming. There are no arcades any more to speak of, and the bulk of players are in the USA. Even there, getting the best players together at any one time is nigh on impossible. With the advent of streaming, anyone can watch at any time. I regularly get asked to dust the webcam down and stream some gameplay for players new to Missile Command.”

Tony Temple’s top score on Missile Command using tournament settings stands at 4,472,570.

Temple finds the pressure adds a vital spark: “It’s a fear thing. I just don’t want to look like a dickhead with all these people watching! No one wants a poor game when several thousand people are following around the world. But I like an audience [and] it ups my game, without question.”

For Spriggs, YouTube was vital to building the modern community: “I am in constant contact with players from all over the world, and it’s all down to YouTube. That was the first point of contact for many of us, and we connected and networked from there. If the 14-year-old me knew I was going to be in regular contact with the guys who wrote my favourite games, my head would have exploded.”

“If the 14-year-old me knew I was going to be in regular contact with the guys who wrote my favourite games, my head would have exploded.”

Chien is the sole dissenter. While he appreciates streaming video’s utility for learning, he prefers the solitude of just him and his Donkey Kong cab for score chasing. “Some people thrive on the adrenaline of having an audience watching them, but I feel I focus better alone. Since lots of people want to watch me play, I’ve gotten used to playing in front of an audience, and it’s definitely more fun playing in public. But for serious games, I still prefer peace and quiet.”

The arcade high-score scene is still very much alive in 2014. The vintage games it thrives on, as demanding as they are in terms of skill and endurance, are well suited to high-score chasing. Their simple, flexible systems offer players a chance to push further and further, and provide room for improvement even decades after their cabinets stopped being manufactured. From Donkey Kong’s deeper tricks, developed by decades of intense play, to exposing the logic underlying Pac-Man’s ghost patterns, it’s a culture that’s survived and grown through the adoption of new technologies. The majority of games being contested share a common thread: players who have spent decades playing them leading the way. But, as Chien proves, newcomers can make great strides forward by studying those who came before them.

The top arcade players we talk to all agree that modern games are rarely suited to such feats. “There’s a magic with something like Missile Command,” Temple explains. “It produces panic, sweat and intensity, and from a simpler and smaller code footprint than something like Super Meat Boy. Given the disposable nature of console games today and the sheer number of new releases every year, even the good games are lost in the noise over time. That’s not to say there aren’t true classics released these days, but GTAV isn’t going to be played in five years’ time. It’ll be yesterday’s news to GTAVI or whatever.”

“GTAV isn’t going to be played in five years’ time. It’ll be yesterday’s news to GTAVI or whatever.”

Missile Command, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Defender, Robotron and the rest were born at the right time, it’s true, but their real strength is they were never built to be beaten and never meant to stop swallowing credits. Modern games are designed to be finished and replaced, which means a once-standard open invitation to compete at the extremes of human hand-to-eye coordination and the very limits of the brain to process information has been lost. Why are players of games from 30 years ago still setting new score records for them? Their invitations to continue just keep on coming.