The much heralded Todd Rogers was recently banned from longtime video game scoreboard Twin Galaxies. His scores were erased from it and the story traveled worldwide.
While Rogers was being put through the online ringer, I was viewing photos of Billy Mitchell walking around a gaming event somewhere, sticking his thumb up in the air every time someone came within 30 feet of him with a camera. While the man known for decades as “Mr. Activision” was being called every name in the book, Mitchell was drinking in his latest personal appearance, with people treating him like some sort of video game pioneer.
It seemed backwards to me.
I know this one will be polarizing. It needs to be. If the world suddenly cares about the integrity of scoreboards and world records on ancient video game titles, then they need to know why I have so many questions about Billy Mitchell. I’m going to be asking them here because other people need to be asking them, too.
Quick backstory: I used to love the guy. I was a Twin Galaxies referee and editor from October 2008 to February 2011, and at first I thought he was a “nice guy” too. I believed the hype that surrounded the man just like anyone else did, even though a little glimmer in my head wondered why I hadn’t heard of him until the end of the century. The guys I’d always read about in books, magazines and newspapers growing up were guys like Eric Ginner, Ben Gold, Steve Harris, Donn Nauert and Jeff Peters. I didn’t recall ever reading about Mitchell and assumed that I had just missed it all.
So I dug into Twin Galaxies and Billy Mitchell’s history, and I found a lot of things. I found articles about Walter Day that Walter had never seen before. I found stuff about all kinds of champions from those days that I hadn’t seen before. What I didn’t find, however, were any articles about Mitchell. Or any tournament entries. Or any tournament wins. He popped up in a few background photos and his name appeared here and there without much padding, but that was it. While I found dozens of feature articles and news clips about the aforementioned champions, I found none on Mitchell prior to 1999.
I also found things that raised a lot of other questions.
It’s amazing to me, frankly, how fast I went from being loved to hated by many in the Twin Galaxies community both inside and out as I began to ask questions about Mitchell. It’s interesting how events that booked me to appear before they booked him suddenly cancelled on me after they signed him to appear. It’s interesting how friends of his suddenly started to accuse me of things while I was on the Twin Galaxies staff and how many others spread out said rumors with zero evidence (because there is none). Daring to question Mitchell saw me ostracized by many who’d supported me before, and yet not a single answer ever came by way. Not a single action was taken.
Frankly, it’s foolish in my opinion for Rogers to be scrutinized if Mitchell isn’t scrutinized in exactly the same manner. So today, I present just some of the questions I have had over the years that I think others need to at least be asking about Billy Mitchell. While I’m sure some will call it a hit piece or claim some sort of personal vendetta, this is nothing of the sort. From a historical point of view, these are questions and experiences that need to be talked about. From a professional point of view, events paying to bring him in and films choosing to feature him need to have more information at hand than he would ever provide himself.
Read on and judge for yourself.
The Perfect Pac-Man
Perhaps Mitchell’s greatest stake to fame is being the first to reach a Perfect Pac-Man score of 3,333,360 in 1999. The media poured all over it. He’s taken paid bookings for almost two decades now based on this feat alone.
And the rules relating to the game were changed just before he did it.
Factory settings for Pac-Man saw gamers start with three lives to start, with one bonus life at 10,000 points. Twin Galaxies always asked players to play under factory settings except under special “tournament settings” challenges and what not. Every score ever logged by Twin Galaxies prior to 1999 were expected to be done with three lives to start, all the way until just before Mitchell wanted to be the first to score a “perfect” that is.
Billy Mitchell was not the only player capable of accomplishing this feat, by the way. Other players were vying for the same accomplishment and it really came down to the fact that Billy went to Funspot to do it without others knowing his plans to do so. Just before that trip, though, the settings for Pac-Man at Twin Galaxies were changed to allow FIVE lives to start rather than three. The argument was that the extra two lives needed to collect the hidden dots in the final level that regenerate after losing a life would ensure nobody could come along later and claim a better score. The reality is that the rule change ensured he would be “the first” to accomplish this under settings that allowed for extra lives that were never allowed prior to the rule change. Everyone else before was playing under different rules than Billy played on that day.
Also worth note is that – while the score was recorded by Mitchell – it was not viewed by any TG officials before being announced. It simply took him calling Walter Day on the phone for the news to break worldwide.
Is it really a “historic first” if the rules it was played under didn’t exist prior?
Missing Donkey Kong Junior scores
In the 2007 film King of Kong, it is mentioned that Billy Mitchell “held the Donkey Kong Junior world record since 1982″.
Therefore, it is worth asking why numerous Donkey Kong Junior scores higher than Mitchell’s – all of which were accepted and printed by Twin Galaxies – went missing. You can see three of the scores above as they appeared in publications in 1983 on official Twin Galaxies score lists. Two of my three examples are only marginally larger than his and came from established players from the time. The third score is doubted by some, but it has been proven in recent years to not only be possible but it’s been beaten badly by numerous people.
These scores were notably missing from the three mid-80s editions of the Guinness Book of Worlds Records that ran Twin Galaxies scores. Mitchell’s lower score ran instead in all three editions. Worth noting that Mitchell is named as an owner of Twin Galaxies in newspaper articles from that same time period.
From 1996-2004, Twin Galaxies worked to reconstruct their database, as the original one was long lost. They did so by using magazine listings exactly like these. The full, new Twin Galaxies database went live in 2004 with Mitchell’s Junior score at the top of the rankings. An Internet archive look at the TG website shortly before their “big blue” database website launched lists Mitchell as a referee at this time.
When I saw this in 1999, I asked Walter Day about it. His answer to me referred to the fact that the website had to be rebuilt and that “some scores just didn’t make it back into the database.”
However, every Donkey Kong Junior score lower than Mitchell’s that was printed in these magazines did make it in. Also, other scores listed in the pages shown above also made it in, including a very controversial Robotron score that many doubt happened, proving that these magazines were found and used in the database reconstruction.
So why did the Junior scores lower than Mitchell’s vanish twice? I’ve been asking this question for nine years now, but nobody wants to address the question.
Donkey Kong 2010
(Note: This article was written several days before the folks at Donkey Kong Forum examined this very score and others similar to it. They determined Mitchell was illegally playing them on an emulator, along with stats that suggest cheats were used. Click here to see the full story, then come back to this part and read about the events that surrounded it.)
On August 2, 2010, I received a phone call from Billy Mitchell. He wanted to give me the scoop, telling me of how he’d gone to a local arcade on July 31 and broke the Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Junior records on the same day. His intent was to encourage me to break the news to the world via an online article, as I did a lot of online freelance work like that at the time. What he also seemed to forget, though, is that I was also one of Twin Galaxies’ lead referees at that same point in time.
At first, I agreed to do an article about his claims, stating that they were yet-to-be-made-official scores. The reason for this is that he simply hadn’t gone through the proper adjudication process for Donkey Kong at that time, rules put into place – ironically enough – after the fall out from the King of Kong film controversy over the game. He demanded that I alter that wording, calling the scores official under the argument that they’d been witnessed in person by someone else working for Twin Galaxies at that time.
That someone else, by the way, was Todd Rogers.
I refused to do the article, especially after phone calls to me off an on all evening, going as late as 11 p.m. I woke up the next day – August 3 – to a late night email that stated Mitchell would just do a press conference at that next weekends “Big Bang” event in Ottumwa, Iowa. That event was slated to start on August 5.
I spend the afternoon of the 3rd reaching out to then-Twin Galaxies head referee David Nelson and to then-Twin Galaxies owner Pete Bouvier. Neither of them were happy to learn the news. They agreed as I did that Mitchell had not undergone the proper adjudication to claim these world records and that calling a press conference doing so was wildly inappropriate. Twin Galaxies – not Billy Mitchell – was to determine if scores were valid.
Sure enough, we arrive at the event and Mitchell’s plans are brought up. Nelson and Bouvier did not want to accept his scores, asking for footage to be provided to us and time for us to validate it under the same rules everyone else was expected to submit under. Mitchell refused, stating that the press conference was taking place regardless and that he would “put the screws to him” if Nelson refused to recognize the scores.
It came down to discussions involving the entire Twin Galaxies referee staff at the hotel that night, along with a call by Bouvier the next morning to go ahead and accept them. Another gamer – Mark Kiehl – had just handed me footage of him beating Mitchell’s new Junior score anyway, and frankly Pete was tired of it and eager to just “shut him up” and placate him.
The press conference ran, with Mitchell displaying video footage that involved direct-feed footage of both games – a violation of submission rules for years by that point in time. Even more interesting is that a magazine was present at the event (seen above) that was already announcing the “new world records” and even the press conference.
Even if one wishes to believe that magazine could have managed to have that information printed and available there in just a few days time, the fact of the matter is that the magazine was announcing Mitchell as having set two new world records without any confirmation of such from Twin Galaxies or any of the staff. He literally self-proclaimed it and got the magazine and press to run it, strong-arming Twin Galaxies at the last minute into going along with him as well.
Many did have questions, and under orders from Bouvier – who owned me thousands of dollars for unrelated work I’d done at that time – I went along with it and assured everyone Mitchell’s scores were on the up-and-up. In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t, and not just because Bouvier would eventually pay me only 20 percent of what he owed me but because I took the integrity of the scoreboard too seriously to like myself much for knowing all this and playing ball.
I did gladly trumpet out how Kiehl actually set his score first, though, and I really pushed on the news of Steve Wiebe beating Mitchell’s DK score just weeks later, too. I might have been ordered to play ball relating to Billy Mitchell but nobody said I couldn’t passive aggressively rub it in when he quickly got beat twice over.
These events and the mentioned short of my pay by the owner led me to resign from Twin Galaxies in early 2011. Once my non-disclosure with the company ran out, I told this story publicly and have off and on for years, but nobody ever acts on it. Someone reportedly challenged Mitchell’s DK score specifically last year, but no action has been taken, even with my re-telling of this story once already. While a massive investigation hit Todd Rogers, nobody is looking into Mitchell yet again.
Nowhere Near All of It
Over 2,200 words in and I’ve hardly scratched the surface. There are more instances of missing scores, ostracizing key people who have raised similar questions and even questionable decisions like Mitchell giving an award to a convicted child predator in 2014. But this point of this article is not to go into everything, it is just to give a taste of what’s out there to those who scrutinized Todd Rogers for the past six months.
Video game history is a delicate thing. Guys like me are already constantly fighting poorly researched YouTube videos and online blogs that falsely blame the 1983 industry crash on E.T. and who claim Mario wasn’t named Mario until 1982. For far too long, Mitchell has been played up as this legend among legends, even well over other champions from the 1980s that should be in that conversation but are never, ever mentioned.
I have more questions than answers regarding Mitchell and have for the majority of a decade now. This piece simply asks them yet again while recounting my own personal experiences with him over time. Those who went after Rogers as they did would be serving the video game communities and the history of the industry to ask the same questions about Mitchell that I’ve been asking. He might be able to coerce people to ostracize and question a handful of people who’ve spoken up about him but if as many people start asking about him as asked about Rogers, the truth behind it all is sure to come out.
Maybe then, the proper people can finally get the credit they have overdue, and the new players of today can get credit, too, without Mitchell jumping in front of them along the way.
Please consider it.