Over the years, King of Kong star Billy Mitchell has seen his world-record Donkey Kong scores stripped, partially reinstated, and endlessly litigated, both in actual court and the court of public opinion. Through it all, Mitchell has insisted that every one of his records was set on unmodified Donkey Kong arcade hardware, despite some convincing technical evidence to the contrary.
Now, new photos from a 2007 performance by Mitchell seem to show obvious modifications to the machine used to earn at least one of those scores, a fascinating new piece of evidence in the long, contentious battle over Mitchell’s place in Donkey Kong score-chasing history.
The telltale joystick
The photos in question were taken at the Florida Association of Mortgage Brokers (FAMB) Convention, which hosted Mitchell as part of its “80s Arcade Night” promotion in July 2007. Mitchell claims to have achieved a score of 1,050,200 points at that event, a performance that was recognized by adjudicator Twin Galaxies as a world record at the time (but which by now would barely crack the top 30).
In his defamation case against Twin Galaxies, Mitchell includes testimony from several purported witnesses to his FAMB performance. That includes former Twin Galaxies referee Todd Rogers (who was later also banned from Twin Galaxies), who testified that the machine used at the event was “an original Nintendo Donkey Kong Arcade machine as I have known since 1981.”
But the pictures from the FAMB convention, made public by fellow high-score-chaser David Race last month, raise additional questions about that claim, thanks to what Race calls a “glaringly non-original joystick” seen in the machine shown in those photos.
Original upright Donkey Kong arcade cabinets were shipped with a distinctive short joystick with a prominent black ball atop a silver metal stick (close-up available here). But the machine behind Mitchell in the recently released FAMB photos clearly shows a taller joystick with a red ball and stick.
Use of a non-original joystick would violate Twin Galaxies’ Donkey Kong rules, which require games be played with “an original stock 4-way Donkey Kong arcade joystick, or a replacement 4-way joystick of exact size and shape as the original Donkey Kong arcade game joystick.” Twin Galaxies’ also requires “a wide image of the game’s control panel” in any record recording to verify this. And archived rules discussions also suggest that players of that era knew cabinets with aftermarket joysticks were known to be unacceptable, even if the core arcade board had authentic Donkey Kong software.
A taller joystick might actually be a hindrance for high-level Donkey Kong play since it requires more physical movement to get the same in-game results. But that disadvantage could be worth it if the controls in question were an eight-way joystick rather than the standard four-way joystick Nintendo shipped on original cabinets. An eight-way joystick mod could give a player an advantage by letting them enter diagonal inputs (e.g., up and left simultaneously), which could speed up transitions after climbing ladders, for instance.
Mitchell also testified in court documents that his FAMB Donkey Kong performance was “visible on a TV above the cabinet to give the guests greater viewing capability.” But while a VCR can be seen above the cabinet in the photos—presumably to record the performance for later verification—no such external display can be seen (though it conceivably could have been brought in for added visibility when Mitchell was actually playing).
In that same testimony package, technician Robert Childs testified that the FAMB score was achieved using “my same Donkey Kong Arcade machine,” which was purportedly used by Mitchell to set a 2004 record of 1,047,200 points in Childs’ warehouse/showroom. Assuming that’s true, the non-standard joystick could also further jeopardize that performance’s place in the record books.