Most nights, Shaun Boyd leaves his wife on the couch, contentedly cross-stitching in front of Downton Abbey or old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It's seven or eight, after they've eaten dinner, when Shaun excuses himself. He goes to the next room: his room, small, with a computer desk along the nearest wall and a shelf full of Stephen King novels. A thick curtain covers the windows. He fills a glass of water. He shuts the door and turns out the lights. He sits down on a barstool and leans forward, his face painted by the lambent orange and the cathode blue of his carefully restored Donkey Kong arcade cabinet. Onscreen, the great ape climbs his ladders and starts to throw barrels. The game begins.
Shaun has spent much of his last three years sitting before the machine. On bad days, he might leave in less than an hour, tired and frustrated, with a sense of some ineffable randomness working against him. On a good day, like Monday, May 21st, 2012, he could spend three hours: that's the day he pushed Donkey Kong to its limit — and perhaps his own. For the first time, he reached the “kill screen,” where a glitch ends the game. His score, 1,037,500 points, put him in fifth place in the Donkey Kong world record books. It took him almost two years and more than 1,000 games to get there.
He's never done it again. As young upstarts and wily veterans have slowly pushed record scores higher, he’s watched his ranking fall to 12th among arcade players. He's labored in darkness day after day, pitted himself against Kong and legions of falling barrels, deadly springs, and scorching fireballs. His reward has been hours of disappointment. A sane person might ask why. Why devote so much time to what is, after all, a game — one built 30 years ago for the sole purpose of parting players and their quarters?
Shaun's answer is more a description than an explanation. As he starts another game, he says, "This is the story of my life: restarting the game over and over again, trying to get the luck to play out in your favor. It's kind of like beating your head against the wall until it feels good." He laughs. A little. Later, he admits with a smile, "I think I'm addicted."
Addicted he might be, but he’s not going to stop any time soon. In the world of Kong, he feels he's a dark horse, underestimated because he's quiet and doesn't show off. Last year, his million-point game earned him a spot at the Kong Off, an annual tournament of the world's best players. He finished last. Since then he's dropped in the rankings, but he still believes he's got a world-beating game somewhere inside him. Beneath his calm, reserved demeanor lies a competitor.
Shaun Boyd has something to prove. So he takes an early flight out of the Detroit Metro Airport, headed for this year's Kong Off in Denver, Colorado, where 22 players will spend two days battling for the championship belt. "I want to prove to the community that I'm not just a lucky player that ended up in the top rankings because of a lucky game," he says. "I want to demonstrate that I can do it again."
A world-record score demands capitalizing on the one thing you can’t control: luck
Even at 11AM on a Saturday, it's basement dark in the 1Up bar and arcade, a below-ground, cultivated-dive establishment in Denver's hip LoDo neighborhood. Coors Field is a half-block away; the nearby warehouses have been transformed into pricey lofts. Inside, the bartenders are friendly and casually tattooed. A Nintendo sign hangs near the ceiling and a Centipede mural covers a back wall. "Hidey ho!" yells a pinball machine in Mr. Hankey’s signature voice. Another plays the Indiana Jones theme while nearby the Crypt Keeper titters. A poster on the wall advertises a pinball tournament on the first Sunday of every month.
Across the bar wait the Kong machines, 22 of them, all outfitted with a customized "Kong Off 3" marquee. The top 12 players, as verified by official record-keeper Twin Galaxies, have dedicated cabinets for the weekend. (Wild card players, who’ve qualified once or simply walked in from the streets, share the remaining cabinets.) The games are now more than 30 years old; each has its own unique quirks and failings, which keep an on-site repairman busy.
After careful testing, most of the top 12 have claimed their machines. One blue card reads, "Hank" — that’s Hank Chien, the New York plastic surgeon known as Doctor Kong who currently holds the world record of 1,138,600 points. Farther down the row is a machine for Vincent Lemay, a Canadian bodybuilder and motormouth and Chien’s long-standing rival. Third in the rankings, his online avatar is a crossed circle stamped over Chien's face. His signature reads, "If you can't pull a Vincent Lemay when the pressure is on … then you're definitely not good enough." Hank’s sig, in turn, reads, "World Record for most insults to Vincent."
This half-jesting bravado permeates the community of competitive Donkey Kong — a community that likely wouldn't exist without The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, the 2007 documentary that pitted two grown men against each other for the world record. It told a classic underdog story: Steve Wiebe was the humble family man just looking for a shot at the champ. The champ, Billy Mitchell, was the arrogant, mulleted alpha dog with no patience for challengers. (It's almost too perfect that he refers to himself in the third person.) The film became a cult hit, making minor celebrities of its stars and, more importantly, bringing a new generation of players to competitive Kong.
Even today, Wiebe and Mitchell still rank among the top 12. They show up Saturday morning during the pre-tournament mill-about and their appearance shifts the social gravity in the room: the next-generation Kongers slowly, imperceptibly, begin to gather around them. There’s a lot of picture taking and autograph seeking, along with keep-it-cool handshakes and small talk.
Wiebe has the amiable mien of a retired pro quarterback who's found another life; he appears comfortable with himself and his accomplishments, but content to consider them in the past tense. A fan asks about The King of Song, Wiebe's debut CD. Is there a sequel in the works? Actually he's working on a third album. "That's how I'd rather spend my time than playing video games," he says. Four young women arrive wearing blue T-shirts reading "Team Wiebe," and it's hard to tell what the man himself thinks about this. While nothing but gracious and accommodating of the fans, he also seems a little perplexed by his minor celebrity. Later, he says of a retired player: "He grew up." Someone in the crowd chimes in, "We'll all grow up."
If Steve Wiebe wears his celebrity like a fondly remembered old coat that’s now a couple sizes too small, Billy Mitchell wears his like a suit of armor. Cast as the heel in King of Kong, he arrives in his competition uniform: a dark jacket and American-flag tie, a carefully cropped beard, and a thick brow rising to a sculpted brown mullet. (His hair has its own Facebook page.) As the tournament begins, the players gather outside in a small brick-walled patio. The MC introduces each of them; they get to make an entrance, slapping hands with spectators before sitting down for what’ll be 9-10 hours of Kong.
For maximum drama, Mitchell’s introduced last. Just before he’s called, he leans down to warn a reporter: "Watch out, I'm going to knock over these Jenga blocks" — beveled two-by-fours stacked high on a pair of outdoor tables. The MC welcomes "Billy Mitchell!" and the man rears back and kicks over first one table, then the other, producing sound and fury for an audience of roughly three people.
Once inside, he doesn't appear too interested in competing. He’s satisfied to play a game or two, suffer some problems with his machine, then spend his time mingling with the audience and looming over other players. He offers complimentary bottles of Rickey's World Famous Hot Sauces, produced by his Florida restaurant. He smiles and mugs for the cameras, hamming it up. If you've seen the 1983 Life magazine photo of Mitchell sporting a wispy teenage mustache and what looks suspiciously like a hickey, you can't help but overlay that image onto his current 48-year-old self.
Billy Mitchell practically dared Shaun Boyd to take on Donkey Kong. In King of Kong, he said, "Donkey Kong, without question, is the hardest game." Shaun didn't believe it. He’d always given that honor to Battletoads, released on the NES when he was nine. A friend rented it, only to find no one could make it past the third stage. Then Shaun tried. Soon the neighborhood kids were gathered around to watch him play. They formed an assembly line: every time he died, they'd swap out his sweaty controller and replace it with a new one. "I didn't beat the game that day," he says, "but I made a lot of friends." Being good at the game brought him attention, but it was a source of satisfaction in itself, too. It was difficult — really difficult. With patience and determination, though, he could master it.
He took Mitchell's claim as a personal challenge. Donkey Kong had arrived in the US the year before he was born, and he'd never paid it much attention beyond a few brushes with ported versions. "I thought, 'This game can't be that hard,'" he says. "I was wrong. I was really wrong." It is hard. And no matter how skilled you are, a world-record score demands capitalizing on the one thing you can’t control: Luck. Randomness. Chance. "But I think that's the enjoyment of it," Shaun says, "trying to beat the odds."
Luckily, he’s not alone. When Billy Mitchell set his world record back in 1982, there didn’t yet exist a community of Donkey Kong strategists. Even in the mid-2000s, Steve Wiebe had to make his world-record run without much guidance or support. Today, though, in the wake of King of Kong, retro-gaming sites have dedicated boards for sharing arcana: the Donkey Kong Forum has almost 300 members offering tips and tricks, and the Donkey Kong Blog covers the games with ESPN-like diligence. Twitch makes it easy to stream games online, while the arcade emulator MAME enables players who don’t want to drop a few hundred dollars on an arcade cabinet. (Dean Saglio, current MAME world-record holder, plays on an aging Windows XP machine.) The game code has been dissected, its mysteries revealed. Little remains unknown about Kong, and that’s changed the game.
On the boards Shaun met Mike Groesbeck, who’d also just gotten into Donkey Kong after taking a break from some serious poker playing. They lived less than 30 minutes from one another in the Detroit suburbs and quickly bonded over their new obsession. Mike played his way into the top 12, but got bumped out just before the Kong Off. He thought he’d have to settle for a wild card, until another player dropped out.
The two travel to Denver together and on Saturday morning wait outside the 1Up for their introductions. Mike’s goes off without a hitch; he slaps high-fives with the crowd and sits down on his stool. The MC describes Shaun as being from Chicago. There’s a brief discussion. Detroit, no, he’s from Detroit. He’s from Detroit, and the MC introduces him as "Babyface Boyd" — a nom de guerre that, while accurate, is not exactly intimidating.
To the opening strains of Talking Heads’ "Burning Down the House," the games begin.
The length of a world-record Donkey Kong game — about three hours — leaves spectators plenty of time to do other things. Like ordering beer and, as with any place where men gather to play games, offering running commentary on the action. There’s not much to be said about the gameplay itself. To the casual eye it’s something less than poetry in motion. Watching the game is not playing the game, so spectators spend their time in a kind of parallel conversation: if the player’s average score per screen is this, and if he can capitalize on his deaths… much of which is rendered moot by a single errant barrel. "I gotta do a lot of practicing," comes a murmur from the crowd after a particularly deft onscreen move.
By the end of the day, nearly 10 hours later, Kong Off defending champion Jeff Willms leads with 1,096,200 points. Willms is a math and computer science student from Waterloo, Ontario; a long-time chess player, he turned his attention to Kong just a month before reaching his first kill screen, a milestone Shaun took almost two years to reach. "He doesn't say much, but he's a machine," Shaun says. The machine has achieved a monster score, frighteningly close to the world record. It sets a blistering pace for the competitors, only three of whom have ever scored higher.
Shaun’s first game ends with a death at 639,300 points. He finishes the day in 20th place. Billy Mitchell, having settled for 21st place, glides by and looks at Shaun’s score. "Nobody does well on their first game," he says.
"It's all of us versus the machine. I like that camaraderie."
Day two opens slowly, as bleary-eyed players make their way to the 1Up. Shaun and Mike share breakfast at a nearby diner, hashing out the previous day’s events. Mike’s landed in 10 place with 759,600 points. Neither has broken the million-point barrier; they’re both just hoping to reach the kill screen. "The score's high enough now that the skill level doesn't necessarily make as much of a difference as the random elements of the game do," Shaun says. "You don't necessarily determine what your score is; the randomness of Donkey Kong will."
By 11:30AM they’re on their stools, hoping for randomness in their favor. Steve Wiebe quickly breaks a million points, nabbing third place. Jeff Willms and Hank Chien retain first and second. Shaun struggles to get a game going. Luck isn’t with him.
In the world of Donkey Kong, "luck" is a weighty notion, constantly evoked and, almost in the same breath, subtly disavowed. When Shaun admits to a lucky game, he admits the randomness of a world in which two players executing the same game can have wildly different scores. For example, smashing a barrel might yield 800 points; it might yield 300 points. This is beyond the player’s control. But the player is supposed to be in control; that’s the ultimate point of mastering a game. And Donkey Kong has been mastered, excepting those bits of irreducible randomness. Shaun believes the elite players have reached the same skill level. This means even the best players have to admit the role of luck without discounting their own skill. The winning strategy, then, boils down to playing as many games as you can, hoping to be prepared for, as Mike puts it, "good randomness." You would want to be careful about reading this as a metaphor for life.
As Kong has given up its mysteries, its status as a game has changed. King of Kong focused on two men duking it out through a video game. Since then, says Shaun, "We've kind of solved all the methods for earning points. It's now not player-vs-player, necessarily. It's all of us versus the machine. I like that camaraderie."
That desire for community brought Shaun to the Kong Off, where day two passes quickly. The MC calls "last quarter" and Shaun begins, still hoping to improve over his first, best game. It ends the same way every game does: a spinning Mario falls dead, followed by the words "Game Over." Score: 415,700.
Two seats to his left, Ross Benziger, who sat out most of the first day due to illness, is vaulting from 22nd to second place with 1,067,100 points. Jeff Willms wins the Kong Off for a consecutive year.
Shaun steps away from his machine, crosses the metal barrier separating players from spectators. "I was imagining in my mind what I’d say if I won," he says, smiling but not dry-eyed. He pauses, smiles again, as though reimagining the moment. "Something along the lines of, ‘Surprised? Me too!" And then he laughs again.
Mike is among the last players. He rides his final quarter to the kill screen and ends with 1,020,700 points, good enough for eighth place. Shaun stands behind him until the end, cheering his heart out.
"I think the building is powered by the death of dreams."
Most nights, Shaun Boyd steps into a spartan room, closes the door on the rest of his life, and plays Donkey Kong in the dark. Him and the machine, alone. On the wall hangs a framed present from his wife: a cross-stitched Kong screen. At the bottom, the great ape lies upside down, vanquished. The score reads 874,300 in homage to Billy Mitchell’s earliest world record. Mario and Pauline, his princess, stand reunited under a pink, pixelated heart — a Keatsian moment before the next challenge begins.
There’s a cork board on the wall, too, where Shaun tacks slips of paper, quickly jotted ideas that come to him just before he falls asleep. They’re ideas for stories, articles, blog posts, even a novel he might one day write. Once, while working soul-crushing cubicle jobs, he imagined a man similar to himself. He scribbled that man’s thoughts on a piece of paper. "I think the building is powered by the death of dreams," it reads.
"You gotta be a little crazy to want to take the Donkey Kong world record," Shaun says. He looks at the time he’s spent, at his expanding waistline, and at the things he didn’t do instead — learning to speak Spanish or play the piano; building a killer iPhone app — and how little he has to show for it. He’s caught between believing he’s wasted his time on something trivial and believing if not Donkey Kong, he would have spent his time on something equally trivial.
He’s still weighing his skill against the game’s randomness. "All it would take is one really good game, but playing all of the unfortunate games where it didn't work out before that — do you really want to commit that amount of time?" he asks. "Some people do." And, at least for now, he really does.