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.

They sat for years on the information, content in knowing that at all times, one of the two friends held the Pac-Man record, even if it wasn't the perfect score. "Chris and I were like Mark Maguire and Sammy Sosa," Mitchell says. Throughout the '80s and '90s, people called Mitchell regularly claiming to have scored a perfect game on Pac-Man, but none could tell him the correct score.

Until, that is, he received a call in 1998 from Canadians Rick Fothergill and Neil Chapman. "What's the perfect score?" Mitchell quizzed them.

"3,333,360," Fothergill fired back.

Mitchell sits back and places both hands palms down on the table, as if recalling the disappointment he felt when he learned his Pac-Man formula wasn't a secret any longer. "That's when we knew they were for real," Mitchell says. "We thought, 'We've had this knowledge since 1983, and 15 years later, there's not a prayer we're going to let someone beat us to the Holy Grail. '"

Mitchell was indeed under pressure. In May 1999, Fothergill came 90 points shy of a perfect game -- the closest anyone had come to the record. So on July 1, 1999, Mitchell walked through the doors of Funspot wearing his American-flag tie to emphasize the U.S.-Canadian Pac-Man rivalry. Fothergill, in turn, wore a Canadian flag draped over his back like a cape and dubbed himself "Captain Canada."

In Pac-Man, the mazes change and the level of difficulty increases for every level up to 20. From level 21 to 255, the maze and level of difficulty remain constant. It becomes a test of endurance. At the final level, 256, the player encounters a split screen in which letters, numbers, and characters obscure half the maze. "It's like literally playing with your eyes closed," Mitchell says. The Japanese creators have said the split screen occurs because they never finished the programming. They had assumed no one would ever get to level 256.

Making it to the final level without dying, and with having eaten every ghost and every bonus item in the previous 255 levels, offers the player a chance to obtain a perfect score. He then must clear all the dots on the visible side of level 256, as well as nine dots obscured by characters on the other side. At that point, the player must die intentionally and again clear those nine obscured dots, which always come back, with each of his remaining men. Only then can the player obtain 3,333,360 points. Fothergill came 90 points shy of a perfect score because he was down one man by the time he reached level 256.

On the first day of a mano a mano competition, Mitchell was off to a good start. About two hours into the game, Mitchell noticed a kid having trouble with his own game. He was fiddling with his machine, pushing buttons wildly and jerking the joystick in all directions. The kid crawled behind the machine, bumping the power strip and knocking out a row of arcade games. Mitchell's Pac-Man screen went blank. "Oh, I was livid!" Mitchell says.

Mitchell decided to wait until the next day to try again. Fothergill hadn't been able to score a perfect game that day either. This time, the staff at the arcade put the Pac-Man machine on an individual plug to prevent another accident. A photographer from one of the local newspapers had heard what was going on and came to witness the event.

As he did the day before, Mitchell worked through the dozens of monotonous levels without missing a single ghost or bonus item. When he needed a break, he would trap the ghosts by forcing them into a loop -- a trick of mastering the up-left-down-right pattern -- that would last 18 minutes until the ghosts reversed directions.

At 1.9 million points, about four hours into the game, Mitchell made his first bad turn and barely evaded a death that would have blown his perfect score. Noticeably fatigued, Mitchell began to give himself commands, saying: "Bottom right, left corner." From that point, he cruised to level 256 without incident.

At the final level, he went into a hiding spot and forced the ghosts into a loop. He called Ayra, who was in Miami, to tell him he was the verge of a perfect game. By that time, a crowd had gathered around the Pac-Man machine. Mitchell returned, his eyes bloodshot and hand aching, and cleared the final level. He then did it again and again with his remaining men until he had 3,333,360 points, just as he'd calculated. He finally let a ghost kill his last man. No victory music. No cartoon of Pac-Man riding into the sunset. The screen simply read "Game Over." Mitchell turned to see the photographer lifting the camera. He smiled and raised his thumb in victory. The bulb flashed.

"Unbelievable," Mitchell remembers the photographer saying. "Quote?"

"I never gotta play that damn thing again," he immediately responded.

Journalists from around the world jumped on Mitchell's story. For a time, Mitchell fielded calls from reporters at all hours of the night. To this day, he continues to receive fan mail. In fact, earlier this year, MTV featured him on True Life: I'm a Gamer, which has sparked even greater interest in his record. "This was something everyone had in common," Day says of the interest in Pac-Man. "It was a rite du passage. Everybody could relate to it." At Funspot, on the wall next to the Pac-Man machine, a photograph of Mitchell still hangs.

Mitchell claims his next video game record -- 1 million points in Donkey Kong -- will have as much of an impact as the perfect Pac-Man. He's been practicing on his own machines for years and claims he's already surpassed Sczerby's current record score. He'll announce the game date soon, he promises, and then he'll travel to New Hampshire and put it all on the line: 1 million points or bust.

So why has he gone to such great lengths with video games? "You have to do what you enjoy in life to make the rest of life bearable," he explains.

It's doubtful, though, that a seven-digit score in Donkey Kong will win Mitchell any new respect among his employees at Rickey's Restaurant & Lounge. As he plays Ms. Pac-Man for the benefit of New Times, a waitress walks past on her way to the kitchen. "Pac-Man champion of the world," she says, her voice lilting sarcasm as saucy as the chicken wings she serves.

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson