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Lawsuit Over Donkey Kong High Score Settles

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

After years of slow-moving litigation, a major lawsuit between a video game organization and one of its high score-setters has just settled. FindLaw takes you on a recap of the legal controversy between Billy Mitchell and Twin Galaxies.

Twin Galaxies is considered the authoritative source for verifying and ranking video game achievements. They meticulously assess player submissions, ensuring fair competition and legitimate records across various platforms and genres. Think of them as the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame for the realm of gaming. They document records, achievements, and events, preserving the evolution of competitive gaming and celebrating the accomplishments of players from generations past. Beyond just record-keeping, Twin Galaxies fosters a vibrant community for gamers of all levels. They provide a platform for players to interact, share strategies, discuss their love for games, and even compete in official tournaments.

Twin Galaxies hosts and facilitates official competitions, providing opportunities for gamers to test their skills against others and showcase their talents. For gamers striving for recognition beyond their immediate circle, Twin Galaxies serves as a springboard. They feature exceptional achievements, connect players with potential sponsorships, and provide opportunities for public exposure, giving talented individuals a chance to shine in the wider gaming community.

Mitchell’s Rise to Game Fame

One such individual was William James Mitchell Jr., or “Billy” Mitchell. He rose to fame during the 80s for his incredible skills in classic arcade games, particularly his perfect score on Pac-Man in 1999. This achievement, along with many other high scores, earned him recognition as a pioneer in competitive gaming and the nickname "King of Kong."

Mitchell's journey to video game stardom wasn't typical. Initially uninterested in video games, he discovered them in his teens and was captivated by the attention they garnered. He quickly honed his skills, particularly in pinball and Donkey Kong, before dominating Pac-Man. His perfect score, achieved without losing a single life, was a monumental feat that cemented his place in gaming history. He’s appeared in documentaries and television shows, including The King of Kong and High Score.

But Mitchell's story isn't all pixelated sunshine and rainbow ghosts. In 2017, the validity of some of his records was challenged, including the Pac-Man high score. Investigations revealed discrepancies in video footage and scoring methods, leading to not only being stripped of his titles, but even lawsuits by organizations like Twin Galaxies.

Billy Runs to His MAME

Critics pointed toward inconsistencies in video evidence, suggesting he might have played on MAME, an emulator, instead of original arcade hardware. MAME stands for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, and as the name suggests, it's a powerful piece of software designed to recreate classic arcade games on modern computers and other platforms.

MAME's primary mission is to preserve the legacy of vintage arcade games. As original hardware deteriorates and becomes obsolete, MAME acts as a digital archive, meticulously replicating the internal workings of these machines to ensure the games live on for future generations. This allows players to experience not just the games themselves, but also the unique hardware environments they ran on.

Why is this relevant? Wasn’t Billy playing arcade games live at competitions? Well, not exactly. Four of the high scores that Billy set over his career (the ones that were later in dispute in litigation) were submitted virtually. They were represented as being “direct feed” recordings from an arcade machine that had been authenticated. This means that the recording was made to show exactly what was sent to the display monitor of the arcade machine, producing an exact replica of the game that was played. Audio for Billy’s games was not recorded.

Mitchell’s Signature Move

One of the contested four scores was staged around an actual gaming event (a 2007 mortgage brokers convention; random, we know). But others were allegedly achieved at Mitchell’s friend's workshop or a specific arcade. In other words, for at least three of Billy’s high scores, gaming referees and spectators were not watching him play the game live in person.

Using emulators like MAME is a no-no for players competing to set records because there are several ways to tweak the game to your competitive advantage. Namely, it’s possible to stitch several gaming sessions together using “save states” and produce a recording of what looks like a game played as a single playthrough.

And while emulators are intended to replicate the playing of arcade games as closely as possible, there are some slight differences. In the case of Donkey Kong, for example, the way that the MAME software draws the game boards is subtly different from how an original arcade machine does it. The differences are only visible when the recording is slowed down, but when that is done, you can see what are called “MAME signatures.” You can see similar “arcade signatures” when real arcade games are slowed down.

In Billy’s case, the footage of three of his Donkey Kong high scores showed several different “MAME signatures” while showing no “arcade signatures.” This directly contradicted his claim that his recording submissions were played in authentic arcade cabinets. Twin Galaxies and even Billy’s own hired techs could not reproduce the same signatures that were displayed in Billy’s recording on genuine arcade machines.

King of Kong Sent PAC-ing

In light of this evidence, in 2018, Twin Galaxies made a statement claiming that Mitchell cheated to achieve his Donkey Kong scores by not using original, unmodified hardware. They also stated their decision to remove all of his scores and, further, to ban him from competing on their leaderboards in the future. Twin Galaxies was just one of various organizations and people that made public statements against Mitchell for cheating. Karl Jobst, a prominent YouTuber and investigative journalist within the gaming community, also roasted Mitchell on his channel.

Mitchell responded by filing various lawsuits against people lodging accusations at him, namely based on defamation. In addition to a defamation suit against Jobst, Mitchell sued Twin Galaxies in 2019 for defamation. His complaint alleged: "Twin Galaxies, under its new ownership, did not act as an impartial arbiter, but rather as a biased observer intent on generating publicity and internet 'clicks' by accusing Mitchell, the most visible of all video gamers, of cheating."

Two years later, with that litigation still ongoing, Twin Galaxies countersued Mitchell. The organization accused him of conspiring with their original owner, Walter Day. Their complaint claimed that the two “engaged in a decades-long fraud to manufacture value” for Twin Galaxies’ score database. It claimed that the fake Donkey Kong scores were part of this scheme.  It claimed that the two “knew that these score performances were fake, but still included the scores on the Twin Galaxies Score Database because of their need for self-aggrandization, their avarice, and their desire to create perceived value for the database so that they could one day sell Twin Galaxies and the Twin Galaxies Score Database and take the money for themselves."

The Dust Settles

With just three months ahead of the scheduled trial in a California state court, a settlement was announced. This was amid a hearing in which Mitchell and one of Twin Galaxies’ attorneys were facing potential sanctions for misconduct during discovery. The terms of the settlement have remained confidential. However, there is a lot of speculation within the gaming industry that Mitchell wouldn’t have won the case due to the overwhelming evidence against him, and that Twin Galaxies likely chose to settle just to avoid the costs of litigation. Despite the controversy, Billy Mitchell remains a significant figure in the gaming world.

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