Arcade King

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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.

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson