Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Gaslighting a Historical Event? - Billy Mitchell and His Perfect Pac-Man Game

On July 3, 1999, Billy Mitchell made history by playing the first verified perfect game of Pac-Man.  This was major news at the time and Mitchell was celebrated for his achievement.  He not only became something of a celebrity in the video game world but also helped to raise the visibility of Walter Day's Twin Galaxies, an entity devoted to keeping records of high scores and other video game achievements. For nearly twenty years that achievement was generally accepted and unchallenged. Recent developments, however, have called this historical event into question. Allegations of cheating by Mitchell have caused Twin Galaxies and Guinness World Records to no longer recognize his achievement.

We will discuss the game, give an overview of Mitchell and Twin Galaxies, recount the story behind the event and the incidents which gave rise to allegations of cheating and the effect they have had on high scores and records of the past.




Running a Marathon – Achieving a Perfect Pac-Man Score

Let me begin by describing the enormity of the task of playing a perfect Pac-Man game. A perfect Pac-Man score is 3,333,360.  To do this the player must eat every dot, every energizer, every fruit and all four ghosts four times per board for boards 1-18.  There are 240 dots and four energizers on each level, eating each one gives you 10 and 50 points, respectively.  Eating ghosts will give you 200, 400, 800 and 1,600 points if you eat them before the energizer runs out.  Bonus fruits appear twice per level.  Cherries (level 1) are worth 100 points, strawberries (level 2) 300, peaches (levels 3 & 4) are 500, apples (levels 5 & 6) are 700, pineapples (levels 7 & 8) are 1,000, Galaxians (levels 9 & 10) are 2,000, bells (levels 11 & 12) are worth 3,000 and keys (levels 13 through 256) are worth 5,000.

You must start with 5 Pac-Men and earn one via points and after that you cannot die until the split screen level, 256.  Then on level 256 you must eat not only the visible dots on the left side of the board, but the nine dots contained on the corrupted right side of the board.  When you eat the nine dots, you must die and the dots will be reset until you run out of lives. 

It all leads to this, level 256, coutesy of wikipedia
The dipswitches located inside the cabinet have options for 1 Pac-Man, 2 Pac-Men, 3 Pac-Men and 5 Pac-Men.  They also allow one extra Pac-Man at 10,000, 15,000 or 20,000 points or no bonus Pac-Man.  They also allow for 1 Coin = 1 Play, 2 Coins = 1 Play, 1 Coin = 2 Play and Freeplay.  A stingy arcade owner could set the dipswitches to only allow you 1 Pac-Man, no bonus and charge you 2 Coins per credit.  Most arcade owners usually set it to 3 Pac-Men and a bonus at some score.  The original Pac-Man game did not allow you to continue, that was something introduced in the Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga 20-year Renunion machines. 

As the levels progress, the ghosts become faster, leave their pen earlier, change their patterns and the energizers generally do not last as long. Intermissions come in Pac-Man after level 2 (first), level 5 (second), level 9 (third) and level 13 (third repeated) and level 17 (third repeated).  At level 19, the ghosts stop turning blue when you eat an energizer.  You essentially repeat level 19 234 times until you reach level 256.  Maxing out your score on level 256 depends on the dipswitch settings in the game.  However, the fastest Perfect Pac-Man game to date took almost three and a half hours to finish, so you will be standing at that machine for a long time.

There are two sets of official ROMs released by Midway. The first shows a 1980 copyright date on the title screen and the second shows a 1981 copyright screen. The second makes the early levels more difficult by switching the ghost’s patterns around, but by level 5 the difficulty is the same for the rest of the game.

William James Mitchell Jr. – A Celebrity of Competitive Arcade Play

Billy Mitchell had been setting video game records since 1982.  He was one of the first members of the U.S. National Video Game Team, originally organized by Walter Day.  He achieved record scores on several of the most popular arcade games of the time, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Ms. Pac-Man, Centipede, BurgerTime and of course the quintessential arcade game, Pac-Man, during the 1980s.  He was recognized as the record score holder in each of the above games by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1985.

Mitchell himself is an iconic and polarizing figure.  He has been proclaimed the "video game player of the century".  It is a title he has used recently without a hint of irony given that he may be justly called the "video game player of the last century".  He almost always appears in public with a collared button-down shirt and a Stars & Stripes tie.  His hair is long and he features a prominent mullet and often takes photographs with a thumb extended upward.  He freely admits that he plays video games to compete against other players and to break high scores.  His day job consisted of running his family's chain of restaurants and manufacturing a hot sauce called "Rickey’s World Famous Sauce".  He was portrayed in a rather negative light in the King of Kong movie against the unassuming Steve Weibe.  Mitchell held not only a personal but a professional stake in Twin Galaxies, Inc., serving as an officer of the corporation.

After beating Pac-Man, Mitchell became known outside of the classic arcade scene and Twin Galaxies.  His achievement was widely reported on in the news outlets of the day.  He met with Pac-Man's designer, Toru Iwatani and was crowned as "video game player of the century" by Namco President Masaya Nakamura.

Undermiming the Old Twin Galaxies Network – The Fall of Todd Rogers

Among Billy Mitchell's friends was fellow record-setter Todd Rogers.  Rogers was actively involved in Twin Galaxies as a referee.  Rogers had the achievement of being recognized with the longest-standing video game record, a 5:51 time in the Atari 2600 game Dragster.  Activision used to invite players to mail photographs of their high scores to it and would send patches if a player achieved at least a certain score. Rogers had submitted so many high scores to Activision that he called himself “Mr. Activision”.

But by 2017 his Dragster achievement had been called into serious question.  Analysis of Dragster's dissassembled 6502 (6507) machine code and tool-assisted play to make the best choices showed that the 5:51 time was impossible and the best time that could be achieved was a 5:57.  Todd Rogers was unable to prove or explain or replicate his score despite being featured on the Ben Heck Show.  He also set other scores that seemed impossible and to which other competitive gamers could not come close.

Dragster, anything with a lower time is a lie according to the simulations, courtesy of mobygames
Todd Rogers got away with an uncritical reception of his scores for years.  His scores were supposedly verified by another Twin Galaxies referee named Ron Corcoran.  However, Rogers and Corcoran were friends and video evidence of a high score was not required during the 1980s and 1990s.  Ron Corcoran is serving decades in prison for sexual offenses in California, so he is hardly a creditable source.  Rogers claimed that the police confiscated all of his tapes proving his high scores when they raided Corcoran's house.  The police responded that they returned the tapes.  Despite many of his scores having been challenged and quietly removed in the past several years, Rogers was not banned from Twin Galaxies until January 29, 2018.  The ban removed all his scores from its database.  As far as Twin Galaxies is now concerned, “Fraud” Rogers never achieved high scores.

Changing Values and the First Challenges to Mitchell’s Scores

The 2007 King of Kong film gives an impression that Twin Galaxies was an old boys net, applying double standards to established champions like Mitchell and Rogers and scrappy newcomers like Weibe.  It showed that uncritical acceptance of high scores was not unique to Todd Rogers. Mitchell's submission of a video tape recording of his Donkey Kong score just after Weibe's score was achieved was suspicious in its timing and the recording's technical faults.  However, on the strength of that tape, Day announced that Mitchell held the high score and that Twin Galaxies would not accept Weibe's score solely because he acquired a Donkey Kong board from a source distrusted by the Twin Galaxies crew.

In 2012, the old boy net had been seriously reduced in its influence.  Day sold Twin Galaxies and the brand and its information essentially went on hiatus until it was bought by Jace Hall in 2014.  Speedrunning, not high scoring, is the modern focus of setting video game records.  Points were the measure of achievements in the old arcade games which had no end, but the fastest completion is what record-breaking players of more modern games try to achieve.  But even the older games sparked continued interest. Younger players like Hank Chien, Wes Copeland, Robbie Lakeman and Rick Fothergill were smashing old records and setting new ones. Old records on arcade machines that have become highly sought after collectibles no longer command the fascination as do more modern games.

Moreover there had been an underground of highly skilled players who had disassociated from the Twin Galaxies crowd and had been critical of Mitchell's scores for years.  One of these individuals made a pair of "documentaries" which can be found on Youtube.  These documentaries, “The Perfect Fraudman” and “The King of Con”, allege that Billy Mitchell cheated his way to high scores in Donkey Kong and was not the first person to play a perfect game of Pac-Man.  Calling these productions documentaries is being generous, they are polemics against Billy Mitchell and are difficult to get through.

Yet Each Man Kills the Thing they Love

In 2018, serious allegations about Mitchell's Donkey Kong were raised by individuals who did not have axes to grind, the ability to analyze arcade behavior and far more adept at utilizing social media than Mitchell or his haters.  His scores were called into question because his video recordings did not match the behavior of original arcade hardware.  Instead the way the video depicted the frame-by-frame screen drawing showed a drawing method that was closer to MAME or another emulator.  Mitchell had denied ever playing Donkey Kong on MAME and responded with commissioning his own expert but the expert concluded that his videos were not achieved with original unmodified Donkey Kong hardware.  His scores of 1,047,200 and 1,050,200 were disqualified on the basis of his suspicious video submissions.  His score of 1,062,800 was not videotaped and was witnessed by his buddy Todd Rogers. 

Mitchell’s scores was first seriously questioned in the Donkey Kong Forum, which announced it would no longer recognize Mitchell’s above-reported scores. It did continue to recognize a score he achieved of 933,900 on May 7, 2004. However, that placed him as number 47 in its high score list, far below his pinnacle of number 20.

Man vs. Monkey, courtesy of Mobygames
When Twin Galaxies finally announced the results of its investigation, it dropped the same permanent ban hammer on Mitchell as it did on Rogers.  It also instituted a modern form of damnatio memoriae in that all his scores and records were removed from the site.  With that decision, Guinness World Records also removed Mitchell's records from its records as it had done with Rogers'.  Guinness explained that it relied on Twin Galaxies to verify video game records, so when Twin Galaxies made its decision, Guinness marched in lock-step.  As a result, Steve Wiebe was confirmed as the first person to have scored over 1 million points on Donkey Kong. His play had been vindicated over ten years after the film that made him and Mitchell famous had been released.

This blog entry is not intended to analyze the cheating of Rogers and Mitchell, other sources have done those stories far more justice than I could hope to in mere text. However, an overview of their cheating is a necessary for the blog article and people who read this a year from now may find the above information helpful to refresh their memories of the context in which these issues arose. But let us turn from talking about Nintendo’s first huge hit to Namco’s.

The Funspot Events of May and July, 1999

Billy Mitchell performed his perfect game of Pac-Man at Funspot Family Fun Center, located in Laconia, New Hampshire.  Funspot has an awe-inspiring collection of functional and playable classic arcade machines and pinball machines.  Guinness World Records recognizes it as "The Largest Arcade in the World."  I have been there twice and have been amazed at how many games are there.  You could easily spend all day there playing classic arcade games.  It also has other attractions such as mini-golf, a bowling alley skeetball and bingo. Most of the classic machines are on the second floor of the main Funspot building.

Pac-Man and at least 100 of its contemporaries are located Upstairs, courtesy of Funspot
Funspot has cabinets of many of the classic arcade machines, including Pong, Space Invaders, Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Galaga, Star Wars (vector), Asteroids, Tempest, Rampage, Double Dragon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Street Fighter II and so on. Funspot is open to the public all year round and I highly recommend a trip (which may be out of the way depending on where you may be in New Hampshire).

This is the best picture I could find from Funspot of its Upper Level and it doesn't come close to doing the floor justice
Mitchell was not the first person to attempt the perfect score in public. In Funspot's first video game and pinball competition held in May, 1999, Rick Fothergill came 90 points shy of a perfect score. (This would later be called the first International Classic Video Game Tournament held at the American Classic Arcade Museum (a.k.a. Funspot)) The only reason why he probably was not the person who held the first perfect game record is because he died once. Twin Galaxies recognized the 3,333,270 score Fothergill achieved on May 8, 1999.  His scoring effort was widely reported by major media entities.  

Mitchell was also present but scored less than Fothergill at the official tournament.  Apparently there was some kind of gentleman's agreement not to play try for a perfect game until the 2000 tournament, but Mitchell broke it less than two months later.  While this does not reflect well on Mitchell's character, it has little if any relevance as to whether he achieved the first Perfect Pac-Man game.  Mitchell, who lived in Florida, returned to Funspot on July 1, 1999 to secure the first Perfect Pac-Man game for the United States of America (Fothergill is from Canada, but the ultimate honor of beating the game must go to Japan, which made the game that was the focus of so much effort). He tried achieving the perfect game on July 2, but a mean kid pulled the power switch or cord to the machine after he was well into his game. He returned early on the following day and made history.

Walter Day was not present at Funspot on July 3, 1999 but Mitchell called him on a cell phone as he was reaching the 256th board.  He also called or had someone call his friend and future perfect Pac-Man player Chris Ayra to tell him that he had reached the kill screen.  Finally, Rick Fothergill calls him on his cell phone.  The operations manager of Funspot at the time, Gary Vincent, is possibly the only person confirmed to have likely to have witnessed the end of Mitchell's game.  Twin Galaxies, of which Day was the principal at the time, instantly confirmed his perfect score and game. The achievement was big news and many, many articles were written about Mitchell and his world record close to the July 3 event.

The Importance of Being Earliest

There can only one first person to play a perfect Pac-Man, just like there can be only one person to be the first to reach the North and South Poles (Roald Amudsen), the first person in space (Yuri Gagarin) or the first person to set foot on the a non-Terran celestial body (Neil Armstrong).  The unmodified Pac-Man PCBs have been shown to be able to award a maximum of 3,333,360 points and thus a definitive end.  Other games like Donkey Kong do not have a demonstrable limit to their high scores and thus their record boards are always in flux.

The achievement has far greater historical significance than almost any other video game record because of Pac-Man's meteoric popularity in the early 1980s.  It sold more arcade machines than any other single game.  "Pac-Man Fever" was not just a hit on the singles charts, it spawned into a TV show, ports of the game to every system, hand-held games, merchandise of every description.  Almost every kid had something Pac-Man related in their home.  The game was simple enough to be played by both child and adult alike and had an addictive quality that kept people putting one more quarter into the machine. 

"I have a fever, and its only prescription is more Pac-Man!" courtesy of discogs
More importantly, during the time between May and July, anyone else in the world could have been the first to achieve and verify a high score.  Funspot's Pac-Man was hardly the only Pac-Man machine around and other places would have accommodated a skilled individual trying to gain a high score.  By 1999, the rise of the Internet would have informed everybody what the high score in Pac-Man was and how you could achieve it.  In fact, Fothergill obtained the perfect score on July 31, 1999, so the competition was on. 

Mitchell’s achievement really helped put competitive gaming on the map. Younger gamers Records of high scores had previously been relegated to dusty volumes in the local library became important again. People also began to recognize the value of conserving these large, bulky machines of light and sound instead of throwing them into a landfill. Perfection had seemingly eluded the gaming world on Pac-Man for nearly 20 years, and perfection achieved after performing the equivalent of a marathon has an attraction that is impossible to overstate.

Challenges to Mitchell’s Pac-Man Record

Several challenges exist to Mitchell's Perfect Pac-Man outside the issues with his Donkey Kong scores.  The first is that he may not technically have been the first person to achieve the 3,333,360 score.  According to the King of Con documentary, that honor should belong to Bill Bastable.  Bastable reportedly accomplished this feat September 2, 1988.  The proof of this is less than compelling. A Polaroid photograph was taken of the high score screen.  Moreover, he also used one of the dipswitches on the PCB to pause the game three times.  Unfortunately this is not good enough in this day and age.  

Polaroids on their own are just not trustworthy anymore.  Todd Rogers' impossible Dragster score was submitted via a Polaroid.  Photographs can be manipulated and faked, even back in the mid-1980s.  However, the use of the dipswitch to pause the game is what disqualifies Bastable's score.  Allowing the game to be paused lets the player take a break, get a coffee or take a trip to the bathroom.  This is a privilege that an ordinary patron of an arcade would not have.  There is another switch on the PCB that allows you to instantly go to the next level and can save you from losing a life. Mitchell, Fothergill, David Race, Tim Balderramos and Donald Hayes, the other individuals confirmed by Twin Galaxies to have played a Perfect Pac-Man, presumably did not have access to the PCB during gameplay.  They had to stand at that machine for three and a half to six hours to earn their achievement.  At a public arcade it would be rude to let a machine be left in a state where only one person could play it.  

The second challenge to his Pac-Man Perfection is the video of his play.  According to Funspot, Mitchell had a camcorder over his shoulder that recorded him play.  The tapes were sent to Twin Galaxies and Jace Hall played a little bit of one in March during a livestream.  The tapes showed that the sound was not in sync with the video, being slightly behind.  However, given that the machine's refresh rate is 60.61Hz and a camcorder records at 59.94Hz, this is unremarkable.

There appear to have been three tapes (assuming each tape recorded at a standard two hour speed).  Former Twin Galaxies referee Robert Mruczek watched the tapes have indicated they saw him actually achieve the high scores on the tape.  The portion of the tape I saw only shows the Pac-Man screen, not Mitchell or the controller panel.  You can hear him talking, the noisy atmosphere of Funspot and even the movement of the joystick.

While it is possible that Mitchell may have taken breaks during the changeover from tape to tape, this would have had to have been done in the safe zones where the game's logic does not send ghosts depending on Pac-Man's position in the maze.  Analysis of the tapes may assist in determining whether Mitchell took breaks, but given that Twin Galaxies has made its decision, such analysis is unlikely to occur.  While it does appear that you can take a break when you start a level by going into the safe zone by going right one space and up two spaces on any level, this is something that may have been noticed by onlookers.  The safe zones were very well known and it is possible Mitchell may have taken a pair of breaks if he had to switch tapes in the camcorder.  Given the limitations of the technology of the time, a short pause to switch tapes is not enough to invalidate his achievement.  He could not leave the machine lest someone else decide to play it.  

A third challenge is that the Perfect game is one done at the factory default settings of 3 + 1 Pac-Men (at 10,000 points).  The official manual does not indicate these settings as the default.  Someone who plays a Perfect game of 5 + 1 Pac-men has played a perfect game of 3 + 1 Pac-Men and more.  Ultimately, it is what the board is ordinarily capable of that determines the Perfect game, not the default settings.  Interestingly, there is a jumper on the PCB that can be bridged to give a more difficult Pac-Man game.  However, what it does is it adjust the difficulty levels to bypass the speed, pattern and ghost eating times for 1, 3, 6, 19 and 20, making for a game with fewer opportunities to earn points (ghosts mostly stop being eatable at level 14 instead of 19, so it should be left unconnected.  You can tell whether the difficulty jumper is enabled by looking at the attract screen.  If the light blue ghost is well out of the box by the time Pac-Man eats the lower right energizer, then the difficulty jumper is enabled in the 1980 Midway ROM set.  If the light blue ghost kills Pac-Man before he can reach the energizer, then the difficulty jumper is enabled in the 1981 Midway ROM set.

Some may quibble that Mitchell only received the high score because he had the arcade cabinet he used set to the maximum number of starting lives (5) and a bonus.  The typical player only got three lives with a quarter. While I could see Funspot adjusting the Pac-Man dip switches, assuming they are not ordinarily set for 5 + 1 Pac-Men, for a good Pac-Man player, I do not believe they would have allowed Mitchell to fiddle with their PCBs or leave the PCB exposed for the hours it would take him to get a high score.  It took Mitchell approximately five and a half to six hours to finish his Pac-Man game.  By the end there would have been a sizeable crowd gathered and local media representatives may have been present.

Private Entities and the Public Interest

Some might say that the arcade age has long past, so who cares about some old video game records?  How is it relevant in today's world of Mass Effect, League of Legends and Overwatch?  After all, it is very difficult even to compete properly these days.  MAME play only gets you so far and the number of true Pac-Man machines still in service are very small.  Personally I do not know of one closer to me than Funspot, which is a two and a half hour drive away.  However, while I could conceivably get the experience, without the ability to get on the Twin Galaxies high score leaderboard, with the Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga 20th Anniversary machines, even those are becoming harder to find.  Ten years ago they seemed ubiquitous.  Forget about Donkey Kong, that arcade game has never been re-released and MAME cabinets are no substitute for the real thing as Billy Mitchell found out.

Do we need to grab our airbrush for photos like these? (Mitchell has his hand on the Centipede cabinet), courtesy of classicarcadegaming.com
Twin Galaxies and Guinness World Records are private entities and are entitled to recognize whomever they wish as achieving a high score on a particular game.  One cannot serious argue with a policy of banning cheaters for life.  While the punishment may seem harsh, it has a salutary effect of potentially deterring future bad conduct and the removal of untrustworthy information.   It also makes the entity more credible in the eyes of the public.  The new owner of Twin Galaxies, Jace Hall, did not buy just a database, he bought a brand.  He had no connection to the old guard and has to ensure that Twin Galaxies remains relevant.   I doubt that Rogers, nevermind Mitchell, would have been banned when Walter Day was in charge. 

On the other hand, a record-keeping organization's credibility can be called into question if it ignores verifiable historical facts.  As mentioned above, Mitchell's perfect Pac-Man was performed in a place accessible to which the public were invited and welcomed, watched by several individuals (by the end anyway) and recorded on tape.  Funspot is owned by Bob Lawton and his family, not Walter Day.  Funspot was started in 1952 and had video arcade machines since the 1970s. 

The Future of the First Perfect Pac-Man Game

After Twin Galaxies banned Mitchell and Guinness followed suit by no longer recognizing his achievements, including the Perfect Pac-Man.  Guinness explained that it relied on Twin Galaxies to verify video game records and their decision to unrecognize Mitchell was a consequence of Twin Galaxies' decision.  It went on to state that it would look for the appropriate holder of these records in the next few days.  As of April 13, 2018, you can no longer conduct a successful search for the "First perfect score on Pac-Man" on the Guinness website.  By default, Guinness should have recognized Rick Fothergill as Twin Galaxies now recognizes him as being the first. I find it curious that it has not, but I doubt it is particularly high on Guinness’ priorities now that media attention has moved on.

Mitchell’s case for his Pac-Man would likely be improved by full access to his high score tapes. The only copies of those tapes may be in the possession of Twin Galaxies. Twin Galaxies has made its decision and cut all ties with Billy Mitchell and would probably not want to lift a finger to help him at this point. Guinness has far, far greater brand recognition and prestige among the general public than Twin Galaxies could ever hope to have. If Mitchell wanted to try to independently prove his score to Guinness, the irony is that he may not be able to because the proof lies in the hands of an entity to whom he is persona non grata.

Ultimately, when people deny a historical event, they are implying that those who witnessed, took part in or contemporaneously reported on that event accomplices, liars or dupes.  It is very easy to do that behind the anonymity of the Internet.  It is much harder to do that to someone's face, although Mitchell has had his personal hecklers in his time.  However, historical documents, like articles from Time and other newspapers and magazines widely reported on the achievement.  Several articles written since then (several of which were very helpful to this blog entry) has perpetuated the fact that Mitchell was first.  Ultimately the challenges to Mitchell’s Pac-Man perfect game are unpersuasive and smack of collective rejoicing in his comeuppance and downfall. This denial of history reminds me of Amon Goeth's nasty "Today is History" speech from the movie “Schindler's List.”  

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