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Donkey Kong Arcade Game Celebrates 40 Years Of High Scores And Cutthroat Competition

Steve Wiebe plays Donkey Kong after the screening of Picturehouse's "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" at the Museum of the Moving Image on August 12, 2007 in New York City.  (Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)
Steve Wiebe plays Donkey Kong after the screening of Picturehouse's "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" at the Museum of the Moving Image on August 12, 2007 in New York City. (Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

The beloved arcade game Donkey Kong turns 40 years old this month.

First released by Nintendo in July 1981 to Japanese audiences, it became a mainstream hit in the U.S., surging a golden age of arcades for a decade. It also created a competitive scene, with gamers all vying for high scores and world records.

Steve Wiebe was the first Donkey Kong player to hit a million points. Wiebe is a math teacher at Redmond High School in Washington. While most there know him as Mr. Wiebe, Kong fanatics recognize him as a legend.

Wiebe first began to play the game while in college in the early '90s. He says it all started when he noticed that his fraternity brother had his own Donkey Kong machine. He bought one for himself, put the machine in his fraternity's house and started beating his friend's high-score records.

The game leads players to dodge barrels and fireballs on the top of a tower in order to save Pauline, the damsel in distress, from the clutches of the great gorilla Donkey Kong. But one day in 1991, the game stumped Wiebe when he hit level 22.

"I just died within about seven or so seconds," Wiebe says. "I didn’t know what was going on ... [I wondered] does my machine have a bug?"

So, he took the game home with him that summer. But he still could not figure out how to get past the level.

At the time, Wiebe was attempting to reach a personal goal: to score a million points. To his knowledge, no one had achieved the record before.

"At that point I was like, 'OK, I guess I’m not going to be able to get a million,'" Wiebe says. "I think my score was in the 960,000s, so I just sold my machine."

A couple of years after he sold the arcade machine, Wiebe discovered the truth behind the mysterious screen at level 22. It wasn't a "bug," as he originally thought, but a kill screen signifying he had reached the end of the game.

Then, Wiebe looked up the current world record for the game. Legendary arcade gamer and restauranter Billy Mitchell had set it in 1982.

“It’s actually carved a part of my personality that benefits me every day," Mitchell, who had been playing for years, says in the documentary "King of Kong." "I mean, a burning passion never to settle for what I have. In my business, in my family … that’s what competitive gaming has done for me."

All along, when Wiebe hit the kill screen in 1991, it meant he had beaten Mitchell's long standing score without even realizing it. So Wiebe decided to start vying for a million points again, and the race was on.

Both Wiebe and Mitchell trained for about five years perfecting their strategies until 2004. Twin Galaxies, an organization that keeps track of world records for video games, received a VHS tape from Wiebe. The video showed him hitting the first-ever score of one million points on the popular arcade game.

"When you reach the top [of the tower] you save the girl momentarily," Wiebe says. "And then Donkey Kong whisks her away up the ladder again. And then you do it all over again.

And just as the game plays out, Wiebe's victory was short-lived.

Wiebe was accused of playing with an unofficial circuit board, but he denies it gave him an advantage. Nevertheless, Twin Galaxies pulled his million score record from the books and put the prized title back up for grabs.

In 2005, Wiebe decided to go for the million point record once again, but this time in person. He attended a tournament in New Hampshire where he hit the game's kill screen after playing for two and a half hours.

"I get 985,000 [points]," Wiebe says. "I didn’t break the million live that I had done on tape, but I thought I was close enough that they could see my gameplay was valid and I could achieve a million."

Although a record-breaking score of a million points was in his grasp, a tape from Mitchell, Wiebe's rival, later arrived at the gaming tournament. It showed that he had successfully scored the million record, and Twin Galaxies declared Mitchell as the Donkey Kong record holder.

Both Wiebe and Mitchell continued to fight for new high scores a few years later. But as time went on, new players threw their hats in the ring and beat those records.

"I couldn’t sustain what I was doing forever and so at some point I was thinking 'It can’t just be me and Billy that can do this,'" Wiebe says.

Wiebe and Mitchell had faded into the background until Twin Galaxies came out with an announcement in 2018. They accused Mitchell and others of faking the tape he sent to the New Hampshire gaming tournament using unofficial hardware.

Although Mitchell denies these accusations and had his high-score titles reinstated by the Guinness Book of World Records, Twin Galaxies still dethroned him.

Instead, Twin Galaxies declared Wiebe, the now-high school math teacher, as the first player to ever break a million points in Donkey Kong.

"I don’t see myself getting the world record ever again," Wiebe says, "but it was worth it, I think, to accomplish what I did."

Alexander Tuerk produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Xcaret Nunez adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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