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The most interesting Donkey Kong machine in the world (update)

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Our colleagues over at Curbed followed up on a story this week of the infamous New York bachelor pad that made headlines last summer for, potentially, putting the kibosh on a wedding. The reason? An over-the-top, $32,000 arcade-themed bedroom. But something didn't quite line up.

Owner Chris Kooluris says that there were many reasons for the breakup with his fiancee, and the bedroom remodel certainly didn't help. Curbed's Hana Alberts does a great job of telling the story of the entire place, and how it came to be decorated throughout. But one curio caught the eye of us here at Polygon — the Donkey Kong machine on the far side of said bedroom.

That's not like any Donkey Kong machine we've ever seen before, so we dropped Kooluris an email to find out more.

"You're gonna love this."

Turns out, he bought the machine from a New Jersey arcade owner who goes by the name Richie Knucklez. And that's where things start to get interesting.

"Yeah, I know Chris," Knucklez told Polygon in a loud, brash voice. "You're gonna love this."

Curbed reported that the Donkey Kong machine came from the famous documentary, The King of Kong, a story about two rival Donkey Kong champions named Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell. But that's not really true. The machine wasn't made until after the movie came out.

The Donkey Kong machine sitting in Kooluris' New York apartment is a customized, refurbished, competition-grade machine used in the first ever Kong Off, a live, head-to-head event held at Richie Knucklez's arcade in New Jersey in 2011.

It was played, and signed by, none other than Steve Wiebe himself.

The story goes like this.

After the hype surrounding The King of Kong, Knucklez hatched a plan to get Wiebe and Mitchell, and as many other high-level Donkey Kong players as he could find, together at his arcade for the first ever in-person Donkey Kong competition.

Knucklez then went around to businesses in his neighborhood to sell sponsorships. For $3,000, he sold the rights to advertise at the event, and when it was all over sponsors could take home a competition used, custom Donkey Kong machine.

Turns out, Knucklez has been doing this kind of refurbishing work for years now.

"I restore arcade cabinets back to their original glory," Knucklez said. "When I started this business you could either go quality or quantity, and I went quality. I took the machines and I sanded them down to bare wood, and then I took them to Maaco.


"I had Maaco color-match an original Donkey Kong, and they sprayed ‘em for me just like they were a car. I’ve sprayed about 30 of them so far. So it’s got that high-gloss finish, and it looks like it’s straight out of the factory. I replace everything on the machine — all the stickers — so there’s no cigarette burns, so it looks like you’re getting a Donkey Kong from 1981."

These particular machines each has a uniquely silk-screened, numbered marquee, which you can see in the photograph above. They don't say "Donkey Kong," but instead read "Kong Off." Knucklez says that he had each competitor sign their machine, and took photographs of serial numbers to insure their authentication down the road.

"I sold four cabinets beforehand, and raised $12,000 to do the event," Knucklez said. "I wound up having 8 machines left over. And within 6 months I had all of them sold except one. I held onto the Steve Wiebe machine. I guess it was maybe a year-and-a-half later I was falling on hard times with my divorce ... and I needed money and Chris [Kooluris] said, 'Hey, I want to buy the Steve Wiebe machine.'

"I didn’t want to sell it. I wanted to keep one for myself."

"I didn’t want to sell it. I wanted to keep one for myself, but I wound up selling him the very last one for the same price — $3,000. So he got the last one."

Knucklez said there's a little easter egg on the machine as well, and you can clearly see it in the photograph above. Around the screen, the printed yellow bezel? That's not Mario in the lower right corner.

"Billy Mitchell thought he’d be funny and he made stickers of himself, in the same exact size as Mario on the bezel, and he went around to all the competition machines and stuck his sticker — without me knowing — on everybody’s machine."

That way, for the duration of the first Kong Off competition, Mitchell would be staring down every competitor in the house.

"He's a funny guy," Knucklez laughs.


The first Kong Off wasn't the last, but it was one of the best Knucklez said.

"It was about an hour before the end of the competition when Steve Wiebe had to leave to catch his flight," Knucklez said. "Nobody there had a fan club except Steve. And he goes, 'This is my last game, no matter what, because I have to catch my flight. This is my last quarter drop.' So he puts the quarter in, and he takes the lead! He gets the highest score! So the whole crowd went nuts. I picked him up on my shoulders, and I carried him around the arcade while he slapped high-fives to 150 people."

Mere minutes later, while Wiebe was driving to the airport, Hank Chen beat his record. "He was only in the lead for maybe 20 minutes, which is so funny."

So, what's this customized, signed, competition-grade Donkey Kong cabinet worth you might ask? Not even Knucklez knows. None of the 10 machines from the first Kong Off have been re-sold, to his knowledge. But in 20 years time, he says, the sky's the limit.

The next Kong Off will be announced soon and, with the help of his new business partners at Live Nation, Knucklez hopes it's the biggest one in history. But before then, he has a documentary on the way. Called The King of Arcades, it tells Knucklez's story of punk rocker turned entrepreneur. Expect to see it on Netflix soon.

For more photos of Chris Kooluris' amazing bedroom, head over to Curbed for the full gallery.

Update: For the max resolution image of that famous front bezel, featuring Billy Mitchell's sticker and Steve Wiebe's authenticating signature, click here.

Update 2: As it turns out, our updated photo highlighted the wrong signature on Chris Kooluris' cabinet. Billy Mitchell signed every single cabinet at the first Kong Off, and that signature was featured on the sticker placed around the bezel. Steve Wiebe, along with every other contestant, signed the marquee in silver marker. You can see that signature in the detail shown here. Here's an even closer photo from Kooluris himself.

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