Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Steve Wiebe and the Future of Donkey Kong

By Phil Day

[This article was originally published 22/10/2010 by aurcade.com - PD]

Me explaing to Steve Wiebe what a gambit in chess is.

Remember the first scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Indiana Jones is jumping from one platform to another, he’s being chased by a runaway boulder, and the temple thing he’s trying to escape from his collapsing all around him; it reminds me of Donkey Kong. And no sooner Indiana evades all that, and is outside with his hungry hands holding the prize, some other guy comes along and effortlessly takes the prize away from him. We all know that feeling one way or another. Hank Chien knows it, and now Billy Mitchell knows it (both former Donkey Kong world record holders). However, having spoken to the new Donkey Kong world record holder, Steve “king of Kong” Wiebe, he said it was anything but effortless.

I have to admit. I wasn’t one of the true believers. I had my doubts that Wiebe was going to regain the crown as the King of Kong. So much so that I wrote a letter to him urging him not to push himself too hard to get it, some of you reading this will think that’s a bit odd. And I would think the same. But having spent a couple of days with Wiebe at this year’s Big Bang in Ottumwa I started to feel the pressure put upon him by his fans, even if he didn’t. Every few meters a complete stranger would be asking Wiebe: When? When? When? When are you going to get the Donkey Kong world record back? Wiebe said this was getting to him a bit saying: “I don’t want to end up in a mental hospital”, and having just watched Billy Mitchell break Hank Chien’s world record score with a couple of men spare couldn’t have eased the strain. Wiebe stated that:

“I don’t know if the fans understand what it takes to do it live and put on a performance at E3 and be in a position to get the world record, I don’t have the luxury of being able to restart over and over. And if I pace it and it doesn’t look like I’m going to get the record early on I can’t just ditch the game. ... When I’m at home I’m not thinking about the pressure of people watching me, but there is that pressure of people asking: where are you at?”

It seemed clear to me that when I first spoke to Wiebe he had all the skills, but it also seemed to me that maybe he was balking from the anxiety. Others had started to leap frog him and he felt he needed to do something about it. But my concern is when does a player call it quits? I couldn’t help but thinking that maybe Wiebe just didn’t have enough gas in the tank. I’m glad to say I was wrong. He did say the daily grind of playing Donkey Kong was becoming tedious, and was thinking about playing only once a week. But luckily for him, his good friend and fellow gamer, Andrew Laidlaw (former Galaga champion), told him that “you’ll start a game and you’ll never know if that’s the game that’s going to get you the record.” At this point it sounds a bit like the gambler’s fallacy. However, before it came to that: “Low and behold I hit the record.” Wiebe’s voice lifted a little when he said that.

Wiebe’s new score of 1,064,000 points is roughly 2,000 points higher than the previous score. It’s doesn’t sound like a lot, but for those who know the game even a little, know how much effort is required to get those extra two thousand points. So how did he do it?
Wiebe said: “I just began relaxing and having fun”. He also changed his strategy a little. He said he was initially “hoping to hit a home run. ... That’s where I was having problems, not being able to reach the kill screen ... but I was able to score the points with a method I was using when I got my first world record score of one million and forty-nine thousand. So I reverted to that method.”

Having regained the Donkey Kong world record I was curious how he felt about Donkey Kong now. In Ottumwa I’d asked Wiebe if he was able to regain the world record would he walk away from Donkey Kong forever. So I asked him again. He replied in his modest humble Wiebe way:

“I’m just glad that I could come back once, just to say that I was able to do it.”

Wiebe is genuinely humble about such a desirable score to have all to himself. I have to admit, I’ve never enjoyed playing the game, I loved the movie King of Kong, and having met Walter Day, Steve Sanders, Billy Mitchell, and spent some time with them, I’m glad the makers of the film didn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. Although one aspect of the truth seems to have prevailed: people are locking horns over the Donkey Kong world record. I think it would be fair to say that the Donkey Kong world record is by far the most sought after prize in classic arcade gaming. It’s like that rare baseball card that you’re willing to swap twenty other cards for (maybe it’s harsh to say, but I think there are many world record scores out there that I’d bunch together and trade for this one high score. All of Tom Duncan’s? Yep, I’d make that swap, and I’m betting many others would too). So what of other players who are a threat to Wiebe’s new score? I asked former Donkey Kong world record holder Hank Chien. Chien said:

“In my opinion, the most serious contender is Dean Saglio. He currently has the MAME world record which is significantly higher than the arcade world record. However, he will have to get adjusted to playing on a joystick since he is accustomed to playing on a keyboard. If he is able to transition successfully he may be able to put up a score that is out of all of our reaches.”

The name Saglio has come up again and again. But the problem is Saglio doesn’t have a machine. Don Hayes and Jon McAllister both believe there is no difference in how the game plays on the MAME to the arcade. So I asked Wiebe if he thought the transition from keyboard to arcade machine would be a big problem for Saglio.

“I wouldn’t think so ... If the jump button in on his left hand and the arrows are on his right hand, it might be tricky to retrain yourself”

We came to the conclusion that Saglio might have to play upside down or cross his hands.

But it’s all the point pressing in Donkey Kong that I find so mind numbingly painful and uncomfortable; all that timing specific stuff – ugh! How do these top players keep their mind fresh and ready and keep going back for more. Wiebe sort of understood what I was on about, but he likes the game, he finds it lots of fun, like so many others do. But most people aren’t playing at his level, where every little point counts. Most people get to play in a relaxed way grabbing points where and when they like. But not for the top players. To hold the top position in Donkey Kong has become something altogether different. For Wiebe it’s “going to come down to who has the stamina. Is it something that others are willing to go through? Willing to go through all the rigmarole?” I’m guessing not many are, but I’m also guessing most don’t have the skill-set to be in the position to seriously consider going through all the rigmarole. So I had to ask the world champion Wiebe where he felt the Donkey Kong score plateaus out?

“I think a million one hundred and fifty thousand. That’s gonna take some good fortune. ... I’ve done boards where I’ve gotten thirteen thousand, fourteen thousand [points] on the barrel board, and on the pie factory eight or nine thousand, getting a sixty thousand plus level. If you were to extrapolate that type of scoring through the whole game you’d be up in the million two hundred thousand. ... The way I play, I could get 1.1, and that what’s [Chien] and other players who are point pressing are getting.”
So I asked Chien as well, he concurred:

“There is still a lot of room for improvement in Donkey Kong as we are not near the humanly achievable maximum yet. ... A realistic maximum is about 1.2 million, but that would require everything coming together: carrying all your extra men to the end, and a large amount of skill, luck and cojones.”

Wiebe didn’t speak of cojones (balls) but he did speak of luck in detail. He said that in his recent world record game his Jumpman was on a ledge cornered by a fire-barrel. Good fortune had the fire-barrel choose to go left than a little more right – there was only a pixel in it. He would have been burned, and his world record score along with it. Wiebe called this a fluke, he is also thinks this is what it’s coming down to for the genuine contenders.  And it’s the little things like this, Wiebe said, that have caused so many problems in the past with submitted scores. He went onto to say that “they have really dissected my games, some of these naysayers – I won’t name any names – but you could go through anyone’s Donkey Kong game and go: Wow, there must have been some tampering of the board to get through that situation.”

The randomness has caused some people to think that different Donkey Kong machines are harder than others, this sounds like bollocks to me. Speaking of which, it is clear there are three definite players that have the cojones (bollocks, balls) to take the score to the possible 1.2 million: Chien, Mitchell, and Wiebe (and by the sounds of it, Saglio). Curious as to who might hold the final score on the center court of classic arcade video games, I asked Wiebe if there was anything that one player might have knowledge of the game that could give them a clear advantage; are there things he still hadn’t learnt?

“Nothing that’s going to break it wide open. ... Nothing that’s going to make it a slam-dunk. It’s always going to come down to the barrels and the hammer ... getting some 300 point jumps over 100 point jumps. ... Every time a barrel is released by the monkey [such disrespect for Donkey Kong] the timer goes down by one. So if you were to sit at the top and jump every barrel, you’d have the same number of points as the bonus. So if a barrel gets by me and I don’t jump it, that’s at least one hundred points I’ve missed. So I’m trying to jump every barrel that’s coming. ... before, I’d steer them out of there way and be glad that I was still alive.”

However, I must point out again that I believe that Donkey Kong has an expiry date; 1.2 million seems to be it. Steve Sander’s, the original King of Kong, also believes a score of 1.2 million could well be the end of Donkey Kong. Todd “Mr Activison” Rogers thinks it is 1.3 million (Wiebe thinks that would be like hitting a 53 in golf). In my opinion, whoever gets there first will bury the game forever. I asked Wiebe if someone were to put a 1.2 million on Donkey Kong tomorrow where would that leave Donkey Kong for Steve Wiebe? He said he’d play a game here or there, but in saying that he likened it to buying a lottery ticket. In some ways I can’t help but think it may be very close to that already. Nevertheless, he did add that while the score is still reasonable, and somewhat forgiving if you make a wrong move, he is still willing to play. And I, along with many others, am happy to hear it. Congratulations Steve Wiebe.

1 comment:

  1. I think the coolest part of this is how much Wiebe just flat-out enjoys the game. Amid all the ghosts in the machine, amidst all the competitive pressures, in the middle of all the nitty-gritty gameplay components, we have a man who just likes the game.