Arcade Perfect: A Conversation With Gaming Champion Billy Mitchell
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"Oh, you expected me to be an SOB?"
Billy Mitchell smiles at me, through my screen, from where he's sitting on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, at his home in Florida. I've no immediate answer, but no, obviously. I didn't think he'd be an SOB. But the words don't come together, so I mumble some sort of fumbled something about reputation, and move on. He's still smiling. He knows this game.
Indeed, he knows several video games, intimately - and he knows how to absolutely dominate them. Foremost Pac-Man and Donkey Kong - he's the world record points scorer in both - but he knows his way around many more titles from what's commonly seen as arcade gaming's golden age, of the 1980s.
And he's also been portrayed, in documentaries like 2007's The King of Kong, as not always being the, let's say, easiest guy to get along with. I can see how some folk might get that impression. But an SOB? His warmth and openness during our conversation suggests otherwise.
Not that Mitchell doesn't absolutely thrive on getting the upper hand, though, and on being a leader in a field. Before finding fame - or, perhaps for some, infamy - with video games, he was a "hardcore, competitive" pinball player. To use his words, he's used to "crushing people" in tournaments, and has a competitive nature that makes him "want to destroy the other guy" - be that man or machine. In 1999 he was named "the video game player of the century", at the Tokyo Game Show, and chances are you're doing something right to get that kind of accolade thrown your way.
"I had such a fever for competitiveness," Mitchell tells me, suitably dressed for our video call in his trademark US flag tie and black shirt, his dark hair swept back like Nick Cave got lost on the way to an early Bad Seeds gig and wound up in some back-alley coin-op emporium instead. And it's a fever he retains, today.
"When it comes to competition, to being under the lights and under the gun, and staring down at your adversary? Nothing compares to that. I have fun on Twitch, but nothing compares to when you go to a championship, and you're under pressure, and you come away a winner."
He talks about needing more than a drive to succeed in the gaming world - well, in any competitive world. You need "the right state of mind", too. "When I did the first perfect Pac-Man score (in 1999 - of 3,333,360 points, since you asked), I said I was going there to do it," he recalls. "It was a laughing joke. It'd been estimated that some 10 billion games of Pac-Man had been played at that point, and I was going to step up and call the game? That was something to ridicule someone about. So I couldn't come home without doing it."
Mitchell's successes with Pac-Man saw him get closer to the game's developers at Namco, and he speaks with great fondness about his time spent with Toru Iwatani, the designer of the arcade classic (which celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this year). But while Iwatani knows the code of the game inside out, his skills at the cabinet are nothing in comparison to Mitchell's.
"My favourite thing is when I speak to someone, and they say, 'Oh, you think you know everything? You think you know more about Pac-Man than the guy who made it?'" he says with a chuckle. "And I say yeah, cos he told me I did. But while I couldn't do what developers do in 100 lifetimes, they couldn't do what I do, so it's a good match."
"I thought about playing 'Fortnite' for a moment... and then I laid down until the feeling went away"
But what about video games today? It's all well and good being a champion at arcade hits of the 1980s - but gaming's moved on. "Oh sure, I get asked, 'Have you ever thought of playing Fortnite?'" he replies. "And yeah, I thought about it for a moment... and then I laid down until the feeling went away. That's about the truth of it. But seriously, the amount of time and dedication it took to get to where I was in the older gaming world, when I was a kid; if I did that today I wouldn't have a wife, I wouldn't have kids, I wouldn't have a home, or a business. So, I don't have that desire to do that."
In 2018, Mitchell found himself in the spotlight for less-than-ideal reasons when his Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr records were stripped from him, after Twin Galaxies - the organisation that tracks and supplies scores to Guinness World Records - declared that he'd used an emulator to achieve them, and they couldn't verify the scores. Guinness punished him further, declaring Mitchell's Pac-Man record void, too. But Mitchell fought back. He challenged Guinness, and others too, and in June 2020 his records for both Donkey Kong and Pac-Man were restored after evidence of any wrongdoing simply wasn't there.
Clearly, it's led to some tensions in the competitive arcade gaming space - but Mitchell refuses to speak negatively of anyone. And of those who might look to start a war of words with him - beyond the faceless, nameless sorts who might send him nonsense online, who he dismisses as "crybabies behind the keyboards" - he has a clear mindset on how to deal with things.
"They're not worth you wasting your time with," he says. "Often, that's what they want (to create drama, and negativity). I had a wise man once tell me: the pig wants to grab you and roll you in the mud, he'll make a mess of ya but he'll enjoy it. So don't wrestle with the pig."
Talk of swine aside, Mitchell's next challenge - and the reason we're talking - is a virtual one. No travelling to the other side of the world, this time. No face-to-face sizing up of the opposition. From October 23rd to 30th he'll be participating in an online challenge through the retro-game streaming service, Antstream Arcade. Users of the service can challenge Mitchell - and the UK Pac-Man champion, Jon Stoodley - at the original arcade version of Pac-Man, to mark the game's 40th birthday. The competition will see players taking the game on in its 'Galaxian Mode', where Pac-Man himself moves at 90% speed while the ghosts are turned up to 110%.
"If you'd have spoken to me 40 years ago, when Pac-Man came out... it'd be the last thought that you'd ever be playing these games with and against people around the world, people who you've never seen and never met," Mitchell says. "I mean, how? Maybe that was something that could happen on Star Trek, but it'd never happen in the real world. But, here we are. So as for where we'll go in the next 40 years? I guess we'll actually be inside the game. We'll be running around inside the computer, shooting things. And I certainly hope you get more than one life."
I mean, not even the worst SOB deserves only one chance at the game, right?
You can find more information on (and sign up to) Antstream Arcade's Pac-Man tournament, which runs from October 23-30, at the service's official website.
Featured Image Credit: Bandai Namco Entertainment, Billy Mitchell
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