Norman Bates. Darth Vader. Hannibal Lector. John Kreese. Some of the most memorable characters in film history have been villains. But for my money, the greatest of them all is actual flesh-and-blood — and he’s the subject of 2007 documentary, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.
A clever, conniving, petty, egotistical man, he proves that — when it comes to video game scores and hot sauce at least — fact is stranger than fiction. He’s also a somewhat ridiculous figure, so-much-so that the combined talents of Mel Brooks, Monty Python and the Zucker brothers couldn’t have invented him. And this week, for typically villainous reasons, he’s back in the news.
His name is Billy Mitchell. And while he might not have eaten anyone, or blown up a planet, or encouraged a karate kid to sweep another karate kid’s leg, in my eyes he did something much worse. As Billy Mitchell cheated at Donkey Kong.
Who is Billy Mitchell?
Born in Massachusetts in 1965, Billy Mitchell is the owner of the Rickey’s World Famous Restaurant chain, as well as hot sauce line Rickey’s World Famous Sauces. Which he claims — without a hint of irony — makes him “the all-round most seasoned person in the hot sauce chicken wing industry.”
He’s also one of the greatest competitive gamers in history. In 1982, Billy was invited to a Life Magazine competition that brought together the best players in America. While there, he became the first person to reach the ‘kill screen’ at the end of Donkey Kong.
His success with that title, as well as Donkey Kong Jr., Centipede, Burger Time, and Pac-Man — on which he claimed to have played the perfect game — saw him named Video Game player of the Year by scorekeepers Twin Galaxies in 1983. And Video Game Player of the Century at the Tokyo Game Show in 1999.
Billy has a very definite look, maintaining a beard and mullet combo, and wearing a ‘Stars and Stripes’ tie to proclaim his patriotism. He has the words ‘No Surrender’ written on his phone. And believes in ‘Billy Mitchell’ to an absurd degree, proclaiming his genius with a malevolent grin, his mouth smiling, but his eyes filled with rage that anyone would dare try to compete on his level.
Billy also has little doubt about his influence over others. He says “If I have all this good fortune. If everything’s rolling my way. If all these balls have bounced in my favour. There’s some poor bastard out there who is getting the screws put to him.” And claiming of his enemy-turned-friend Steve Sanders “He’s the person he is today because he came under the influence of Billy Mitchell.”
Modest he is not.
What Happened in The King of Kong?
The King of Kong brought Billy Mitchell to the attention of those outside the world of competitive gaming, as he endeavoured to protect his Donkey Kong high-scores from Steve Wiebe, a newcomer to the scene. And the hero of the piece to Billy’s villain. Being a sweet, shy, good-natured teacher for whom this is his final shot at glory. And a guy who Mitchell gleefully spends the movie trying to discredit.
King of Kong documents how both Billy’s friends and fans worship at his alter. He’s described as perfect and even compared to a Jedi, while it’s said that “When Billy Mitchell walks into an arcade, everything stops.” Though that might have less to do with his gaming prowess, and more because people want to get a good look at his hair.
And he’s far from understated when describing Billy Mitchell in the third-person, comparing himself to Helen of Troy, German fighter pilot The Red Baron, and — most bizarrely — the abortion issue. “Whatever I say, it draws controversy” he claims, the narcissism now pouring out of him. “It’s sort of like the abortion issue. If you’re for it, you’re a son-of-a-gun. If you’re against it, you’re a son-of-a-gun.”
If viewers ignore the ego, the pomposity, and the wild claims — though you really shouldn’t as they are very entertaining — Billy doesn’t exactly cover himself in glory when it comes to the gaming aspect of the film. Early in proceedings, he claims “To me, most importantly, when you travel to a location like Funspot, that makes it official. If tomorrow Tiger Woods scores a 59, big deal. If he does it at Augusta, that’s where it counts.”
Yet when Wiebe travels to Funspot to play him live, Mitchell is nowhere to be seen. And when Steve achieves a new Donkey Kong high score, Billy instead sends a video of him reaching an even higher score. On a tape that mysteriously jumps during key moments.
Mitchell later says “When you want to put a score up, and you want to have the title of world champion, you’re competing against everyone in the world. You want a title for your own living room? Man I’ll send you that title. Your own arcade? I’ll sign it, make up the paper, and I’ll send you a plaque. You want your name in the Guinness Book of world Records and the Twin Galaxies international scoreboard, you have to earn it. I have to earn it. There’s a lot of scores that I’ve gotten. And when the time comes and the pressure’s on, I’ll have to do it in a public forum. As I always have.”
But when Wiebe travels 3,000 miles to play a competition IN BILLY’S HOMETOWN, he still refuses to go head-to-head. With Mitchell visiting the arcade and muttering under his breath “There’s certain people I don’t want to spend too much time with” as he walks past Steve mid-game.
Billy then makes a hasty retreat, and that’s pretty much the last we see of him in the movie. The villain undefeated. But running away with his tail between his legs.
Why is Billy Mitchell Suddenly in the News?
At the end of The King of Kong, in spite of Mitchell’s efforts to undermine and invalidate his videotaped efforts, Steve is welcomed into the Twin Galaxies fold. And in a glorious epilogue, beats Billy’s score to take the Donkey Kong record.
Following the release of the film, Mitchell reclaimed the record, and for the last few years a variety of people have held it and passed it on, including Billy and Steve. But neither is the current holder, with the most recent record set by Robbie Lakeman on February 2, 2018.
That same day, the Donkey Kong forum removed three of Mitchell’s high scores, claiming they were made using an arcade emulator which allowed him to modify his performance. Then last week, both Twin Galaxies and Guinness World Records took down all his scores and banned him from submitting more, citing King of Kong footage as helpful in spotlighting where he had been cheating the system. Much as anyone who watched the film could clearly see.
Steve Wiebe — who is now recognised as the first million-point Donkey Kong player in history — spoke to Variety about the ruling. “The more I thought about it from the King of Kong days, it all seemed to make sense” Wiebe explained. “All the things that were happening at the time… like why he didn’t come out and play me, and why he was inciting whose records were going to be authenticated and who’s were going to be dropped. King of Kong referenced that he was a referee and on the board of directors. When that leaked out, it started to make sense.”
Wiebe added, in typically understated fashion: “I’m not the champ anymore, but getting recognition for being the first to a million is a great consolation. That’s what I was really bummed out about 11 years ago.”
Billy Mitchell’s Response
At one point during The King of Kong, Billy Mitchell’s friend Doris Self says “He’s a very devious person. He works things out to his ends very well.” While others claim that he always has something up his sleeve. As all great villains should.
And over the weekend Billy Mitchell hit back. Speaking to Old School Gamer at the Midwest Gaming Classic, he said the following (which can be viewed in the above video).
“I’ve been asked to address things that are recently in the media. The fact of the matter is, now there’s a true professional due diligence being done to investigate things that happened as far as 35 years ago. In a professional manner, not in the shock-jock mentality designed to create hits. We will show that everything that has been done was done professionally.”
Mitchell adds “I wish I could hand it to you. But it’s taken a considerable amount of time. Witnesses, documents, everything will be made available to you. Nothing will be withheld. You absolutely have my commitment to that.”
The villains I mentioned at the start of this article all got sequels. And now maybe this bad guy will get his, with the controversy pretty much demanding a King of Kong 2. Should that occur, we hope someone reminds Mitchell of these words he said during the first movie…
“The worst thing that could happen would be to give somebody the credibility of a score that doesn’t deserve it. But even far worse than that, would be to deny somebody the credit, when they deserved it.”
As at this stage in the story, it very much looks like Billy Mitchell is guilty of both.