Arcade King

It's hard to miss Billy Mitchell. At six foot four, he towers above most people with his skinny body, brown shoulder-length hair, and neatly trimmed beard. He wears jeans, Oxford shirts, and Velcro shoes. An American-flag tie hangs from his neck. He owns several and wears one every day. "Remember, I was the one before 9/11," Mitchell says. The patriotic tie has become his trademark.

Sitting in a booth at his family business, the windowless Rickey's Restaurant & Lounge in Hollywood, the 37-year-old Mitchell is wary about discussing his future. You'd think his plans might involve his sauce business, Rickey's World Famous Hot Sauce, whose revenue he pegs at $5 million annually. But the condiment entrepreneur has what are for him much loftier plans. Mitchell, one of the superstars of competitive arcade games, has his eye on topping 1 million points in the once-popular arcade game Donkey Kong. "I planned it a long time ago with no indication of how difficult it would be and how long it would take," Mitchell admits.

On August 17, 2000, Tim Sczerby of Auburn, New York, surpassed Mitchell's previous, 18-year-old Donkey Kong record by 4,900 points. Since then, Mitchell has schemed to take his record back -- and with a score so high that no one will ever steal it away from him again.

"When I go to do that, I'm not going to do it in my garage with a camera," Mitchell says. "I'm going to do it somewhere where it will be reported."

The Broward County native's competitive obsession with arcade games began 21 years ago, when he was a gangly 16-year-old with a mop of thick hair that grew over his ears. It was 1982, and Mitchell had traveled to Twin Galaxies Arcade in Fairfield, Iowa, to join 19 of the other top video gamers for a Life magazine photo shoot.

Mitchell had more on his mind than magazine stardom. He wanted to set the record straight. Earlier that year, Mitchell had called Twin Galaxies' Walter Day, who publishes the Official Video Game & Pinball Book of World Records, to tell him that he had the highest Donkey Kong score. Unable to substantiate Mitchell's claim, Day invited him to compete against Steve Sanders, the Donkey Kong record holder at the time. "There was no chance he was better than me," Mitchell remembers. "None."

Before the cameras of Life, Sanders couldn't back down from Mitchell's challenge. He approached the Donkey Kong machine and played. Sanders was good, smoothly manipulating Mario, the nimble, schnozz-sporting protagonist of the game, as he dodged barrel after barrel. By the time he'd lost his last man, Sanders had racked up 190,000 points. "Just to give you an idea, if you got 190,000, you would be absolutely the center of attention in any arcade," Mitchell explains. "You would turn every head. You would be above and beyond the top 1 percent in the world."

Then came Mitchell's turn. He moved through the levels as deftly as Sanders had, yet nothing was slowing him down or putting him at risk of losing. "Everybody stopped what they were doing and watched him play Donkey Kong," Day remembers. "It was like the feat of the century. He went all the way to the end with the first man."

Mitchell had scored 874,300 points in Donkey Kong, which arcade aficionados consider one of the most difficult video games of the era. "That forever set me in a competitive obsession," Mitchell admits.

By the mid-1980s, arcade games reached the height of their popularity. They were everywhere: malls, convenience stores, pizza joints, and even interstate rest stops. At one time, more than 10,000 arcades operated in the United States, according to the American Amusement Machine Association. Today, fewer than 3,000 survive, largely due to growth in the home video-game market.

Despite the decline in arcades, Mitchell has remained committed to the classic games. In addition to the former Donkey Kong record, he holds or has held top scores for Donkey Kong Jr., Centipede, and Burger Time. He also has the standing Centipede endurance record at 47 hours.

Yet Mitchell had always wanted the "Holy Grail of video games" -- a perfect score on Pac-Man. Day after day, he and friend Chris Ayra studied Pac-Man and its voracious little yellow blob until they cracked what they believed was the video game's secret: the ghosts' movement patterns. In the game, ghosts chase Pac-Man through a maze and change directions based on the player's movements. If Pac-Man is above and to the left, the ghost will turn and chase in the corresponding direction, always choosing the shortest possible path.

Mitchell and Ayra discovered what they termed the "perfect choice." When given an option between two equidistant paths to Pac-Man, the ghost will choose which way to turn based on the formula up-left-down-right. If tunnels are open below the ghost and to the left, both leading to equidistant paths to Pac-Man, the ghost will always choose left. What's more, Mitchell and Ayra believed they were the only ones who had been able to calculate what a perfect score was: 3,333,360.