History means a lot to Billy Mitchell. The 42-year-old gamer from Hollywood has had a long one, beginning back in 1982, when he first set the world record in the arcade game Donkey Kong. Mitchell was a master behind the joystick — manipulating the popular gnome-like action hero Mario as he dodges and hammers Kong's colossal barrels — on the way to the gaming pantheon. He's been crowned the Video Game Player of the Century, was the first to record a perfect game in Pac Man, and once logged more than 47 straight hours playing Centipede.
These days, Billy Mitchell is trying to prevent history from being revised, and, he says, his reputation tarnished by a newly released documentary.
At the moment, though, he's having technical difficulties. "My computer's not the best machine," he says, fumbling through his AOL e-mail interface. A Portland website has just reviewed The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters — a film about Donkey Kong in which Mitchell costars — and he's trying to write a response. He pokes at his keyboard with a single outstretched forefinger, making a steady clacking sound like an antique typewriter, like someone's technically challenged grandfather trying to log onto the Internet for the first time — not the gaming genius he's been perceived as throughout his career.
Mitchell clicks on a link, and up pops the review he's responding to. At the bottom of the page, written in all capital letters, are the words: "I HATE BILLY MITCHELL."
It's a harsh review but not an uncommon one. Since The King of Kong debuted this January at the Slamdance Film Festival, Mitchell has heard countless reports of how deceitful and villainous he appears on screen.
The documentary, from Launchpad Productions, directed by Seth Gordon, opened locally last week at Sunrise Cinemas Las Olas Riverfront. Mostly, it follows Steve Wiebe, a middle-school science teacher from Redmond, Washington, who's on his own quixotic mission to become the best Donkey Kong player in the world. It seems like a reasonable goal until Mitchell shows up as the film's mulleted scoundrel, thwarting Wiebe's efforts at every turn. He appears to plot to undermine Wiebe's scores, dodging every chance to play in public, even pitting a sweet old lady against his rival. Audiences hiss at Mitchell's seemingly unprovoked malice as passionately as they cheer for Wiebe's naive resolve.
Mitchell says the image the film creates of him is simply not real. He insists that he never dodged Wiebe or stood in his way.
"I had been ignoring this for months," he says. "I can be called a bad guy — so what? But it really bothers me emotionally to have my friends and family get portrayed in a negative light. I want to do this so people know the truth."
For the record, both Wiebe and Launchpad say the film captures Mitchell authentically.
Mitchell is sitting in his small, aged office at Rickey's Restaurant & Lounge in Hollywood — the family business he's managed since 1985. The room is lined with yellowed papers, bottles of hot sauce that share the restaurant's name, and a series of black-framed pictures featuring sinewy horses with names etched below them. "It's something we used to do," Mitchell says of the time when his family owned racehorses.
So much of what Mitchell does is focused on his family. If he's not in his office, coordinating shipments or answering calls from customers curious about the shelf life of his hot sauce, he's shuttling his two young children around to school and athletics (he has another daughter at Florida State). He doesn't have much time for games, he says — the very things that have formed such an important part of his life. In fact, you won't find any type of game, let alone a classic Donkey Kong cabinet, anywhere in his home. "As each year goes on, videogames take more of a back seat," he admits. "The memories of videogames captivate my past. As far as the future goes, it's almost entirely my family."
For Mitchell, the declining role of gaming in his life is just one of the omissions that would've changed his portrayal in Kong — left out, he believes, to create a history that fits a specific vision: That Billy Mitchell, the megalomaniac gamer, and Steve Wiebe, a dejected family man, were intense rivals.
"The idea that we hate each other is crazy," Mitchell says. "If I operated the way the movie says I do, I'd feel like I always need a shower."
In the film, Mitchell comes across as an oily competitor who avoids any chance to compete against Wiebe. Viewers first see him dodge Wiebe at the Funspot competition in February 2005. Instead of traveling to the event to compete, Mitchell sends 80-year-old Q Bert champ Doris Self to the contest with a videotaped score. We feel Mitchell's icy grip from afar as he plots against Wiebe via telephone. We see Walter Day — founder of Twin Galaxies, an organization that acts as gaming referee — squash Wiebe's aspirations of claiming a record through live play by posting Mitchell's seemingly dubious taped score as the new record on the TG website.
Mitchell's betrayal of Wiebe is all there on film, as vivid as the colors on an arcade screen. So how could it be wrong?
Easy, Mitchell says. It's all in the emphasis. That tape he sent with Doris Self? It was "just for fun," not an elaborate tactic to cheat Wiebe. The score from Mitchell's tape was yanked from TG's website just days later, and Wiebe actually reigned as Donkey Kong champion for the next eight months — a fact the film doesn't reveal.
But why hadn't Mitchell shown up in person for the mano a mano that audiences have clamored for? He says director Gordon and producer Ed Cunningham knew well in advance that he wouldn't be at the Funspot contest, which Mitchell, distracted from gaming, hadn't attended since 2002. Cunningham even dispatched a film crew to Mitchell's house to tape him during the competition. (Cunningham denies that he ever received a definitive answer on whether Mitchell would appear at Funspot and expected that he might show up on the final day of the competition.)
"They wanted to film me playing games," Mitchell says. "But I don't have any games in my home, so they asked me to talk with the people at Funspot."
During that time, Wiebe called Mitchell, asking if he was going to show at the contest. Mitchell found it strange. "After I got the message from Steve, something really rubbed me the wrong way," he says. "The contest had started already, and they knew I wasn't going to be there. I thought, 'Why is he calling me?' "
Mitchell suspects he was being set up as the villain from the get-go.
The last time Wiebe and Mitchell had actually spoken was in 2004, when Wiebe submitted three taped Donkey Kong scores to Twin Galaxies. Wiebe's score of 1,006,600 points at the time was not only a record; it destroyed the previous score of 879,200 set in 2000 by then DK champion Tim Sczerby — also not mentioned in the film. Below Sczerby's score was the original record that Mitchell had held: 874,300 points, set in 1982.
Mitchell says he called Wiebe, congratulated him for his score, and invited him to the 2004 Classic Gaming Expo in San Jose, California. At the Expo's banquet dinner, the two shared kind words about each other, and Mitchell drew a comparison to sluggers Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire.
"I thought that was such a positive rivalry, where each person was happy to root for the other guy and give incentive to each other," Mitchell recounts of the meeting.
The pair had planned to play a game of Kong, and Mitchell had drafted congratulatory posters in the hopes that both of them would top the 1 million-point mark at a live venue. But once at the convention, the only version of the game they could find was an emulation, unsuitable for a sanctioned match. They actually played a friendly game and later appeared on a gaming radio program together, talking about their shared interests in Kong.
The next time they would meet would be the last: the Guinness World Record Tournament, set in 2006 at Apollo Games in Pompano Beach. In that scene, comprising the film's climax, Wiebe is left wondering why Mitchell would refuse to participate in a contest within minutes of his hometown and why the veteran gamer would snub him so harshly.
But according to Mitchell, he had not played videogames in nearly a year because of family considerations, which he says Cunningham knew. A spokesman for Apollo Games confirms that it was Cunningham who arranged to have the store turned into an arcade for the film.
Mitchell maintains that, contrary to what the film shows, he was at the Guinness luncheon at Rickey's and exchanged words and a handshake with Wiebe. Video clips taken from the camera of TG referee Todd Rogers show Mitchell interacting with Wiebe at the luncheon — also cut from the film.
Wiebe himself, though, says he got no warmth from Mitchell. "I was unwelcome there [Rickey's]," Wiebe says. "It was obvious from the tension. You could argue that we were best friends four years ago, but that wasn't how he treated me when the film was shot."
Friends of Mitchell, including veteran gamer Steve Sanders and Twin Galaxies' Walter Day, agree that the film capitalizes on Mitchell's colorful personality. Day says he was shocked when he first saw the film. "I found it so difficult because of all the positive intent that all the players were trying to contribute to gaming. It felt like such an angry movie."
Sanders, who appears in the movie, has agreed to support it. He says he thinks The King of Kong is accurate, though it's not fair to Mitchell. "It's easy to walk away from the movie and think, 'God, what a jerk, what a villain,' " Sanders says. "I feel very sad for Billy."
In late July, Mitchell made a return to the world of Donkey Kong at an '80s-themed Mortgage Brokers' Convention in Orlando. He jokes about the invite he received last August to play Kong at the convention. "For some reason," he says, motioning to his helmet of jet-black hair, "they thought I could look very '80s-ish." He accepted the invitation only once they agreed to send his family with him and donate to his charity of choice: the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
On his third "life" (after "dying" twice during the game), Mitchell scored 1,050,200 points, beating the record held by Wiebe by 1,100. He let his remaining Marios die without scoring any more points.
An onlooker asked him why he would give up the opportunity to score more.
"A long time ago, I would've thought the scores we have now are impossible," he says. "But credit to Steve [Wiebe], to Tim [Sczerby], and Brian [Kuh]. Competition made it possible.
"Besides," he adds, smiling wide, "I told him, 'I'm Billy Mitchell, not Steve Spurrier. I don't have to run the score up. I just want to put one in the win column.' "
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