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The King of Kong may be dethroned, but Billy Mitchell still belongs to history

The black hat of the arcade is gunned down

Iowa Town Plans To Launch Video Game Hall of Fame And Museum Photo by David Greedy/Getty Images
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

As someone who believes in fair play, who thinks rules have meaning only if they are enforced, yeah, Billy Mitchell got what was coming. Jeremy Young, who maintains the authoritative book of Donkey Kong high scores, regretfully tossed all of Billy’s marks in February. Twin Galaxies is innately tied to Mitchell’s beginnings as a high score jockey in the heady days of 1980s arcade performances. On Thursday, it dusted its hands of Billy, likewise finding his most impressive scores in Donkey Kong to be fabricated.

As a writer, as someone who loves a good stem-winder, it kills me that Billy is now out of the picture. He’s literally banished from Twin Galaxies. Nothing he could do from now on has any meaning. My friend and colleague Brian Crecente reported yesterday that Guinness World Records (which collaborates with Twin Galaxies) has also wiped out all of Mitchell’s achievements — including an unrelated milestone, the first perfect game in Pac-Man history, registered in 1999. That is an awful price to pay. I’m troubled to justify that penalty. But when the black hat gets gunned down in the final scene, he loses all he ever had, so I accept it.

That mullet. Those crazy ties. The cocky glare. The hot sauce. God damn, Billy knew how to work it. Billy Mitchell, age 52, knew how to be the bad guy, knew how much money there was in being the bad guy, 10 times more than anyone on Twitch or YouTube. Billy was not famous for being famous, like those clydes. He was famous for being good — and famous for being devious.

Billy is eight years older than I am, and I like him because he still, to this day, resembles the teenagers who hung out in the Speedy Chef, laying quarters on the deck of Donkey Kong or GORF or Star Castle when I rode up on my bike at the end of my paper route. He was like the big brother who came home from football practice and intimidated me and my best friend, whipping off his shirt to flex and then sitting down to watch He-Man cartoons with a bowl of Apple Jacks. Billy projected both obsessive geekdom and an impenetrable Cobra Kai cool, and it’s what made The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters such a remarkable success more than a decade ago.

Steve Wiebe, who is now recognized as the first man to score one million points in Donkey Kong, was pure goodness and light in the film, as well he should be. Blonde hair, schoolteacher, dad, all of that. But that purity does not shine through without Billy’s villainy, dodging Wiebe’s challenges, moving the goalposts, evading his pursuit of the all-time high score. Then, when Wiebe scores a record 985,600 and, more importantly, overcomes the vagaries and alliances of the arcade high score scene — where Billy’s word is gold with the old Twin Galaxies — Billy slides under the door a VHS tape of a million-point run in Donkey Kong to steal it all away. And now we know what was on that tape is bullshit, like anything written about a gunfighter on the prairie.

Years ago, I proposed to some folks in Ottumwa, Iowa, where Twin Galaxies was born, that they should start a video games hall of fame and museum there. They did. I said they should bring back all the legends of the 1980s arcade scene, like a wax museum with the great heroes and bad men of the Wild West, frozen in an unholstered pose. They did. Billy was one of the first enshrined. He deserves it, the same way Pete Rose or Shoeless Joe Jackson also deserve to be remembered in Cooperstown.

Billy called me last month, waking me up from a nap even, to pour out a flannel-mouthed non-explanation of what was really going on. I smiled throughout the call. This was all part of the show. You’ll see, Billy said, the time will come and I have an explanation for this. Sure, OK. Then it turns out the dude brought in to vouch for his tape agreed that it was bogus. Shot him in the back. Classic gunfighter demise.

So they can wipe Billy’s name from the record books and vacate his claims, but if there is to be any factual retelling of the history of arcade video games and their high scores, he cannot be excluded. Thursday’s punishment only certified Billy Mitchell as the most famous arcade video game player of all time.