Billy Mitchell is a video game icon who needs little introduction; he was one of the first players to gain mainstream recognition for his skill at arcade games, and more recently found fame in the documentary King of Kong, where he was positioned as the antagonist to Steve Wiebe's heroic underdog.
Despite submitting high scores for a wide range of games, Donkey Kong is the title with which Mitchell has been most strongly connected in recent years thanks largely to the impact of that movie, but it's been a long time since he was at the top of the high score table, with newcomers like Wes Copeland and Robbie Lakeman overtaking his achievements. Despite this, Mitchell's outclassed scores on the game have now been called into question. Speaking in a very detailed post on the Donkey Kong Forum, moderator and scoreboard maintainer Jeremy "Xelnia" Young claims video evidence exists which suggests that three 1,000,000+ point scores submitted by Mitchell were obtained using emulation rather than original arcade hardware.
Why does this matter, you might ask? For a wide range of reasons, it turns out. Firstly, playing Donkey Kong via Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME) is not the same as playing it on real hardware; the timing and controls are different for starters, and MAME also allows players to record and replay inputs in order to patch together a "perfect" run from more than one attempt. It should be stated that there is no evidence that Mitchell has done this, but submitting a record attempt via MAME does open up some doubt.
So how have these claims come about? The evidence relates to how the game generates its levels on a real cabinet. An authentic arcade unit uses a "sliding door" effect, while some older versions of MAME render entire parts of a level at once. It's only possible to spot this key difference by watching footage in slow-motion. Young has compared Mitchell's submitted footage with both MAME and original arcade hardware and has deduced that "each of the Donkey Kong world record direct-feed recordings presented by Billy Mitchell and verified by TG were generated in MAME and not by original Donkey Kong hardware."
If footage of Mitchell obtaining a high score on a real Donkey Kong cabinet existed, these accusations might not hold much weight - but the problem is no such video has been submitted for any of his three million-plus scores. The sole piece of video evidence is a screen recording of Mitchell's highest claimed score of 1.062 million points, which was only shown publicly at a short press conference event at the International Video Game Hall of Fame in 2010. The authenticity of this is supported by Todd Rogers - the same Todd Rogers who was recently banned from gaming high-score board Twin Galaxies after it was claimed that he lied about his seemingly unbeatable Dragster record on the Atari 2600. Not exactly the kind of person you want backing you up, then.
Twin Galaxies hasn't removed Michell's scores as yet, but it has issued a statement on the matter and says that it is:
...in the process of fully reviewing the compelling evidence provided by Jeremy Young to support his current score dispute case against Billy Mitchell's Donkey Kong score. We will do this thoroughly and impartially. In the meantime, we will continue to observe this discussion by experts in the community and will also examine any further evidence that may be provided during this review period.
As far as Young is concerned, the evidence speaks for itself:
Scores already on the board are always subject to review, and if the preponderance of evidence is against [one score], than the score should be removed, even if no single bit of evidence is a 'smoking gun.' In my view, we have reached that point with Billy Mitchell.
Since the claims were made, other key members of the Kong high score community have gotten involved. Wes Copeland - himself a former Kong record holder - claims that Mitchell's 1.05 million point game was patched together from multiple emulated plays. Citing data obtained from the KongTrackr analysis app, Copeland points out that Mitchell's run benefits from a higher-than-average ratio of points from smashing enemies with the hammer. Hammer smashes are assigned points semi-randomly, and Copeland claims that Mitchell's run is:
...evidence of splicing. Billy replayed the boards over and over until he got the right smash RNG [random number generation] to lock in his pace.
Copeland feels that it's "extremely unlikely" anyone could obtain such an amazing streak of luck with hammer smashes in a normal run. Again, nobody has proven any of this, but given the weight of the other evidence, it doesn't seem all that outlandish.
While it's been a long time since Mitchell's name was at the top of the Donkey Kong high score table (the highest of his submitted scores is only good enough for 12th place these days, and his highest "confirmed" score of 933,900 points - achieved in front of multiple witnesses at Midwest Gaming Classic in 2004 - is the 47th), if these accusations prove to be true then it will be a sad end for one of the most famous faces in the world of gaming high scores.
All of this drama has rather overshadowed the fact that the current world record holder Robbie Lakeman has beaten his score again, pushing the world record up to 1,247,700 points.