Billy Mitchell never expected to play the role of the villain. He didn't anticipate hate mail and badgering phone calls. He didn't think he was a bad guy.
The former "Donkey Kong" world-record holder, who maintains he's never publicly said a bad word about a fellow gamer, has burnished a 20-year reputation as a top player and patron of the arcade field. But he has read the reviews of "The King of Kong," a new documentary he's in. He's heard that he comes off basically as a bragging, cocky and — worst of all — meddling gamer who won't give the new "DK" champ, a real-life Rocky Balboa named Steve Wiebe, his due.
"It's funny — if 'funny' is the right word, which it isn't," Mitchell said recently. "They paint Steve as the family man and I guess they paint me as a son of a gun."
The "King of Kong" documentary has racked up positive reviews since its debut at the Slamdance Film Festival in January. Its creators and its hero, Wiebe, have made themselves available to the press (see " 'Donkey Kong' Record Holder Says New Flick Settles His Score").
Billy Mitchell, however, has kept quiet until now.
A couple of weeks ago, Mitchell agreed to tell his side of the story to MTV News. What followed were a series of phone interviews with Mitchell, his friends — including current and former top officials at Twin Galaxies, the volunteer organization that sanctions video game world records including Mitchell and Wiebe's — and independent filmmakers who witnessed some of the events related in the film. Mitchell and his colleagues also provided MTV News with extensive documentation of e-mails, message-board posts and even plane-ticket purchasing records to affirm that Mitchell was no "Donkey Kong" villain hurling barrels at Wiebe every step of the way.
Mitchell hasn't seen the film but knows what it says about him, and he denies he did wrong by Wiebe, regardless of what the film shows. "I sit here and I go through it," Mitchell said of the events chronicled in the movie. "I go through it all the time and without kidding you, I receive this and I question my conscience." The answer he hears is that his conscience is clear.
Viewers of the film might be surprised at this. Doesn't it show Mitchell avoiding a chance to compete with Wiebe at a 2006 arcade event located just 20 minutes from his home in Florida?
According to Mitchell, he hadn't played "Donkey Kong" for a half-year at that point and didn't see the sense of trying to compete.
Doesn't it show Twin Galaxies' top scorekeeper, Walter Day, at a 2005 New Hampshire event asking if a tape Mitchell had sent to the event from his home in Florida — a tape with a "Donkey Kong" performance that trumps a new world record Wiebe had just set there in person — was an official submission for a world record?
The movie doesn't show Mitchell's answer, but it shows Day going over to the computer and inputting Mitchell's score. Day tells MTV News that he remembers Mitchell answering, "Yup," to the aforementioned question, but Mitchell says he doesn't remember the call. And he wants the record to show what "The King of Kong" does not: that cooler heads prevailed after New Hampshire, and Mitchell's taped score was yanked within 48 hours of its posting, giving Wiebe the record and the glory for months to come.
Mitchell objects to much of what he has heard is in the film — and he has backup from the Twin Galaxies community. "If I were to liken the movie 'King of Kong' to a food, I would compare it to Swiss cheese, because it is so full of holes," said Robert Mruczek, the organization's former top referee.
Mruczek supplied MTV News with articles he wrote that initially praised Wiebe's accomplishments, to demonstrate that he was accepting of Wiebe at first. He also pointed to old posts on the Twin Galaxies site that show the breakdown of that trust: disputes over the purity of Wiebe's "Donkey Kong" hardware, hurt feelings over Wiebe's alliance with Roy Shildt — an eccentric gamer and enemy of TG — and a squabble over a DVD Wiebe tried to sell on eBay.
Day also objects. "When I saw the film, I was very upset," he said. "I saw the dynamics of stress between Billy and Steve and all those other people. At first I was mad at the players, mad at me and mad at everyone. Then I went away and sent [the filmmakers] an e-mail and said, 'Look, you got the plot all wrong.' "
The filmmakers do acknowledge they left stuff out. Producer Ed Cunningham and director Seth Gordon said they have shot more than 300 hours of film and streamlined some of the narrative to make it easier to follow. As a result, some complications are skipped, like the fact that when Wiebe first started gunning for a "Donkey Kong" record in 2002, the world champ was actually an upstart gamer named Tim Sczerby who claimed the mark from Mitchell in 2000.
How contentious is all this and how hard is it to nail down the truth? Consider the events of spring and summer 2004.
In the middle of that year, Wiebe submitted a trio of "Donkey Kong" performances to Twin Galaxies, each taped with a camcorder that was trained on the arcade machine in his garage. The third and best of the runs broke the game's million-point barrier — 1,006,600 — a historic achievement. In July, Mitchell was a guest at a gaming event at New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where he debuted a videotape of a run that reached 1,014,400. Both scores had to be submitted for official review.
At the end of July, Mruczek reviewed both tapes and prepared a 10,000-word article chronicling and celebrating the dual achievement. In spreadsheet form, he noted how every point in those runs was achieved. His figures revealed that Mitchell liked to get his points jumping barrels. Wiebe showed a preference for using the hammer. Mruczek shared the article with MTV News, but he never published it, because a Twin Galaxies gamer revealed that Wiebe had achieved some of his scores using a "Double Donkey Board" — a piece of circuitry that also contained a copy of "Donkey Kong Jr." but, more importantly to Twin Galaxies' referees, wasn't an original "DK" board. They considered that Wiebe's board may not run precisely like an original one would.
And then a week before August's Classic Gaming Expo in San Jose, California, two Twin Galaxies community members and experienced gamers — Brian Kuh and Perry Rodgers — paid an unannounced visit to Wiebe's house in Seattle. Wiebe wasn't home, but they were given access to his garage by a member of Wiebe's family. The visit has been described as a "break-in" in a press interview by Gordon, much to the consternation of Mitchell and friends. They maintain that in the process of checking out Wiebe's machine, Wiebe and Kuh played a friendly game of "Donkey Kong," were cordial and have pictures to prove it. Mitchell denies dispatching Kuh and Rodgers.
Then came CGE. "I thought at the Classic Gaming Expo, Steve would see we're good people, we're straight shooters, and we're fun," Mitchell said in the recent interview. At the event, the two gamers shared a podium where they joked about their budding rivalry and sat for a joint Web radio interview. They also tried to play "Donkey Kong." The problem was there was no real "DK" machine there. They found a cabinet that could run a version of the game.
Mitchell remembers playing it and doing well on his first try at the machine. "There's a little luck involved. I got 929,000. I got there on my second guy." He recalled Wiebe spending much of the event playing at that machine: "There's always good luck and bad luck. He struggled. In the end he came through with a good score: 893,000. He got there with his last guy on his last game on the last day."
That account flies in the face of "The King of Kong," which portrays Mitchell as ducking every chance he has to play at the same venue as Wiebe. Said Mitchell: "The 'fact' that I don't play and don't face off with him is crazy."
Wiebe remembers the event differently. He e-mailed Cunningham recently with his recollection of Mitchell's time at the CGE machine. He remembered Mitchell being disappointed with the controls. And his memory of Mitchell's score? "He got to about 50,000 and ditched the game."
At least two independent-film crews were at CGE 2004, and members of them told MTV News they remembered the two men playing but don't have the scores. Day and Mruczek both recall CGE, but neither of them kept a record of the scores.
Ultimately, the documentary hasn't settled the Mitchell/Wiebe debate, which has been going on for nearly a half-decade. Mitchell, Day, Mruczek and several other arcade aficionados are now compiling a response to the film, a timeline they plan to post on TwinGalaxies.com in June. An early draft of the document lists " 'KOK' fiction," like, "Billy Mitchell will stop at nothing in order to keep his 'DK' score," and promises "facts" that will prove those assertions wrong.
On Saturday, Twin Galaxies referee Todd Rogers is bringing a tape of Wiebe's current "Donkey Kong" world record — 1,049,100 — to the International Classic Videogame & Pinball Championships at Funspot in Weirs, New Hampshire. Rogers said he's seen "questionable things" in the run and wants to consult with other referees. Day maintains that run has already passed muster with two referees and was solid enough to go in the record books in March.
One person who thinks Billy Mitchell should let it slide is Steve Sanders. He's Mitchell's best friend and a skilled "DK" player himself. He dismisses the remaining suspicion of Wiebe's abilities as "black-helicopter" conspiracy theory. But he also laments how the film portrays his friend, a "quality individual" — it leaves his better days on the cutting-room floor. "Is the movie accurate?" Sanders asked. "I would say yes. Is the movie fair? I would say no." He thinks Mitchell should ride the "King of Kong" infamy to some sort of success.
Mitchell won't say what his next move is. Asked if he plans to sue, he said, "I'm unhappy that so many good people were portrayed in such a negative light and it will be interesting what large law firm may step forward and offer to assist us in our quest for the truth." He could make his statement in the courts, but he could also make it at the arcades. After a long time off from "Donkey Kong," he's planning a return.
When and where will he show up? And what will he do if Wiebe drops in? It sounds like the formula for a sequel.
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