Arcade Archives: Vs. Balloon Fight (1984 Arcade Review)

Owwww. Ow ow ow ow ow. Owwie. My hands. My beautiful, bony hands. What the hell were they thinking with this one? Look, I’ve never been the biggest Balloon Fight fan in the world. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of Joust, either. So here’s a warning to fans: maybe take this review with a grain of salt. Balloon Fight has never been for me. But, it could be with enough twists to the formula, which is why Vs. Balloon Fight got my attention. Of all the Nintendo Vs. System coin-ops, Balloon Fight has the most profound change to the NES counterpart. Well, besides Vs. Duck Hunt, where you can shoot the dog in bonus rounds (though you’re not supposed to). It’s the same concept: flap your arms to fly, and then come crashing down on top of enemies to pop their balloons. After that, you then can hit them a second time as they parachute down, or kick them off the ledge once they land, Mario Bros.-style. So, yea, in a nutshell, Balloon Fight is really just Joust with an extra hit-point and parachutes instead of eggs. The big difference over its NES counterpart, besides having a lot more levels, is that Vs. Balloon Fight is not a single-screen game. In the coin-op, the size of the playfield is doubled vertically and you have to scroll the screen upwards. It makes for a more exciting, intense experience. Enemies might come flying out of nowhere (especially when bumpers are added after six stages) creating a chaotic atmosphere that somehow never feels cheap because you ought to know better than to leave yourself wide open from the unseen menaces above. It should be great!

Sigh.

Here comes the “but..” Like the Starks say: nothing counts before the “but.”

Vs. Balloon Fight has absolutely brutal gravity. The amount of flapping it requires is completely unreasonable by any standard. The NES version allows you to maneuver with a steady pulse of tapping the button. But, for a game that you’re expected to pay two bits per session, that won’t do at all. You have to absolutely button-mash to maintain your flight, Track ‘n Field-style. I’m not having a pity-party for myself here, but I literally physically cannot button mash to this degree anymore. Thankfully, my family, including my 12-year-old sister, also couldn’t believe how furiously you had to tap the buttons to maintain your flight. Again, I’m not a fan of the NES version, but I think I’d remember if this was one of the reasons why. Just to make sure, I threw on the home version on Switch Online, and it took me only a few seconds to verify the gravity for the arcade version isn’t like the NES version at all. The worst part of this whole issue with Vs. Balloon Fight is, if you start to come down, the gravity seems to further intensify, requiring even faster flapping to regain your momentum. Maybe that’s more “realistic” but it’s a frick’n video game about a guy in a balloon dueling to the death with birds using balloons themselves. To hell with realism! And why the heck didn’t anyone care this much about realistic gravity when it was Pinball? The gravity especially affected me in the wide-open bonus stages, which require you to chase down balloons that rise out four chimneys. I would inevitably lose my strength, and any attempt at recovery was hopeless and I’d crash pathetically to the ground with balloons still rising.

In addition to the crushing gravity, the walls and ceilings seem to have a lot more bounce to them. This can be problematic near the water. The enemies tend to do what I call “ride the current” and drift across a straight line, going through one side of the screen and coming out the other, and this will likely include one that hovers just above the water line, where the big fish will jump up to snatch you. Since there’s often platforms right above you, I tended to bounce off them and make myself hover too close to the water. I lost more lives to falling in the drink than I did to the enemies, easily. Well, partial credit for the bumpers. Those things ought to have warning signs. And yes, the fish will eat the enemies too, and it’s ALWAYS hilarious when it happens!

On the NES, you can hold the B-Button to autoflap. Thankfully, Arcade Archives games almost always have an option on the button mapping menu to turn-on autofire. Even better is that you can set the speed, and this is one of those games where that matters greatly. In fact, I took advantage of it and set a different flap speed to each face button (kinky, right?). It works great! Hey, the game’s now completely playable, and you get to appreciate what is actually a massive improvement on the Joust formula. Fun characters. Lots of charm. The combat has weight and my beloved OOMPH and it feels impactful to crash a balloon, complete with satisfying POP sound! It always brought a smile to my face seeing the sad look of an enemy as it slowly drifted to its potential doom. Of course, they can turn the tables on you if you wait too long, pumping a new balloon and upgrading to a more aggressive level of AI. There were also moments I got sadistic glee out of. Like having a stage with lots of bumpers, and I’m at the top of the level and suddenly I hear the fish jumping up and down, and then a few seconds later a bonus bubble starts to rise onto the screen, meaning an enemy just got eaten off-screen. Side note: I’d like to think that the bubbles are the enemy souls going to Heaven and bursting them sends them straight to Hell. Or maybe it stops them from being resurrected. Either way is bliss!

I did NOT die from this. When you take too much time to finish a stage, the clouds tap three mountains and cast Ball Lightning at you. It bounces around the stage and is an instakill even if you have two balloons. But, right here, more than half of it hit my body and I survived. That might be the most generous collision box I’ve seen in an arcade game.

Now, here’s why the gravity should be a deal breaker: because in the two modes designed specifically to compete for online high scores, you can’t turn on autofire. Yes, there’s online leaderboards in the main mode too, but you can cheat like you’ve been made an honorary Houston Astro in those. In addition to all scores counting no matter what adjustments you make to the game’s default settings (including giving yourself extra lives), you can use the interrupt save state feature. Until you game over, you can keep returning to the main menu and restarting from where you last saved. I used this to put myself 4th on the all-time leaderboard, because screw it, why not? Meanwhile, if you so much as pause the game in Hi-Score or the five minute Caravan mode, the game is over. You can’t just continue and must restart the game. While future releases of Arcade Archives would allow autofire in Hi-Score/Caravan, since it makes no sense to ban them when everyone has the option to turn them on and thus it’s a level playfield, they’re disabled here. So, 66% of the game requires you to mash buttons more than any game not based around the Olympics should, and those are that have protection from cheating. I figured this was an easy NO! Well, no, because it’s not 66% of the package where autofire is disabled. It’s 50% of it.

Let’s talk about co-op.

My promise to my readers in 2023: I will make a good faith effort to take the multiplayer for a test drive in games more often.

Being a Nintendo Vs. System release, a real Vs. Balloon Fight has two screens, which allows for two separate games to be played at once OR for a two-screened co-op experience. On a single Nintendo Switch, this is represented by two side-by-side mini-screens. Or, if you each own a separate copy of Arcade Archives: Vs. Balloon Fight, each player can have their own screen with one of the players hosting a game. I wasn’t willing to spend $16 on this, so Angela and me played on one screen “cooperatively” in quotation marks that feel ashamed to be associated with such an obvious lie. The only cooperation we showed was our mutual understanding that the two of us would be spending the next hour trying to assassinate each-other. Oh sure, we were bound to kill a few enemies would die along the way too. You know, in the crossfire. But really, once the game started with me immediately making a beeline for her and popping one of her balloons, sh*t was on. And guess what? It was a lot of fun, but it also further exposed some obvious weaknesses in Vs. Balloon Fight.

YOU MURDERER!

If a player runs out of lives, they can’t just re-up without issue. When either player has a game over, the action pauses and goes to the continue screen. If a player continues, the level restarts from the beginning. Since the other player was likely to be on their last life, we took to just feeding ourselves to the fish as soon as the game restarted so that we’d both have full lives to continue the fratricide. I get that it was 1984 and jump-in continues weren’t the commonplace practice yet, but it really hurts the flow of the multiplayer mode, especially when you’re having a blast killing each-other. It also sort of renders competing for points completely pointless. If you’re losing, pull a Tonya Harding and whack the other player. Your score resets to zero if you die. If you got a high score, too bad. That’s fine though. We had a jolly good time playing aggressively against each-other while also dealing with the enemies. We came to appreciate a comically well-timed betrayal when one of us was actually dealing with the baddies.

We’d actually work together best during bonus stages. I credit the cheerful music. Also, just so we’re clear: there’s no Balloon Trip mode in this. With the gravity it has, it’d basically be impossible anyway.

Even my parents got in on the action, and watching my Mom avenge me by taking out Angela about three seconds after Angela respawned from the previous murder will go down as an early highlight of 2023 for me. So, was this multiplayer mode enough to save Vs. Balloon Fight? Surprisingly.. yea! Barely, but barely counts. While I’m still pretty peeved that the modes I cared most about going into this are basically unplayable by me, fun is fun, and with autofire and a second player, Vs. Balloon Fight is a lot of fun. It could be more fun with some adjustments, like letting players reload without the level restarting. Especially since you’ll be draining each-other’s lives. Or, if you want to legitimately cooperate, that’s also fun. Of course it is! Trying to make homicide look like an accident is always fun.

Angela: “I KNEW IT!” Oh, like you weren’t doing it too!

Arcade Archives: Vs. Balloon Fight is Chick-Approved

Arcade Archives: Vs. Balloon Fight was developed by Hamster
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99 burst your bubble in the making of this review.

Arcade Archives: Kangaroo (Review)

This week, I’ve looked at the maze chase. I’ve looked at the gallery shooter. I looked at.. whatever the hell Journey was aiming for. But, what about the Donkey Kong-like platformer? How about Kangaroo? It was released in 2020 as part of the Arcade Archives lineup too, so no need to dip into MAME this time. Believe it or not, Kangaroo was not some kind of historical curio. Despite being made by Sun Electronics, who would go on to be Sunsoft, maker of Blaster Master and the NES Batman, Kangaroo was distributed in America by Atari. Thus, a lot of people think of this as an Atari game, and one that could have gone into my Games They Couldn’t Use feature. Indeed, you’ll be seeing Kangaroo for the Atari 2600 and 5200 in part two of that very series. It was a moderate hit for Atari, and in fact did well enough that it was even adapted into an animated short as part of the legendary Saturday Supercade cartoon block. But, as an Arcade Archives release, Kangaroo deserves its own look. While I’m grateful that Hamster released this as a solo-effort, holy smokes, this is a terrible game. Anyone who thinks I’ve gone too easy on the retro games this week, just wait. I’m going to have a Kangaroo burger here.

Literally the only stage that works without MUCH of a hitch, and it couldn’t be more bland, basic, and boring.

I’ve nicknamed Kangaroo “Sloppy Joey” because that’s how Kangaroo feels. Like a game that wanted to ride coattails, but was made by people who had no clue what they were doing. Kangaroo is made-up of three levels where the object is to climb to the top of the stage to reach your joey, and one level where you can bring the joey to you. It wants to be Donkey Kong so bad it can taste it (what does Donkey Kong taste like? The answer is “chicken” because most everything tastes like chicken, which is why you should NEVER TRUST THE CHICKEN!) but it didn’t seem to understand how to do any of the things Donkey Kong did in terms of movement or level design. I’ll start with the movement, where jumping is mapped to UP but so is climbing ladders. It makes jumping over gaps a pain in the butt. If you fall or jump down even an inch, you die.. in some parts. In other parts you still can’t fall even a single pixel length, but you can jump down to a lower ledge. There’s no consistency except anytime you step off a ledge, you die. Even if the ledge is literally the size of your foot. At that point, it isn’t a ledge, is it? It’s a step, right? But it kills you like you just fell off the Grand Canyon. In general, the movement just feels sluggish and unresponsive. The best thing I can say about it is it’s not as bad the level design, which very much incorporates that death-by-gravity inconsistency.

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The stages of Kangaroo are some the most bizarrely constructed I’ve ever seen. They’re so weird. After a conservative first stage, the second stage begins with having to hop-up a series of uneven platforms, and this is where the game’s biggest flaw reveals itself: the rules are inconsistent. When you ring a bell, it spawns more fruit, though most of it is below you, and you will die if you even attempt to jump lower once you ring the bell in level two. The fruit DOES carry over if you lose a life, but actually going to retrieve it is apparently not possible. I tried it, and if there’s a spot where it’s safe to do it, I couldn’t find it. Normally I’d check YouTube clips to see if I’m missing something but then I was like.. why would they make it so the fruit respawns below you anyway? Wouldn’t it make sense to have the bell on the first floor, with some kind of extra risk element blocking it, and put players at a choice? See what I mean about how this makes no sense? I imagine even in 1982 or 1983 that risk/reward design was a known thing, right? Which again makes this feel like a game by people who were just sticking things on a screen and crossing their fingers that they could reach the goal, sort of like me when I make a Mario Maker level. I did make a good faith effort to try to go lower and get the fruits, but the moment I went any bit lower than the platform I was on, I went into the death animation. BUT, then you get to level four, and there’s a series of ladders and gaps, and sometimes you do have to jump to a lower platform, which is now safe to do. Just what everyone wants from a video game: one that changes the rules as you go along.

Specifically it’s the spot by the broken ladder in the right-center of the screen. You can jump down to the platform left of it. The same drop, even off a jump, will kill you in level two. Kangaroo plays Calvinball. It just makes up the rules as it goes along.

Nothing goes right in Kangaroo. I’ve had moments where I punched an enemy that wasn’t even in its throwing animation and we both died. The collision is bad, especially on the third stage. It wanted SO DESPERATELY to be the non-conventional Rivet Stage in Donkey Kong type of twist. In it, there’s a stack of monkeys holding the platform that the joey is on and you can punch the monkeys out from the stack to keep lowering the platform. You’ll be dodging apple cores dropped from above or thrown at you from the side this whole time, and other monkeys will come and try to join the stack or push back. It takes several punches to successfully dislodge a monkey, but if you’re not lined up right, you’ll punch right through them. Even though logically it should still be a punch. While alone it wouldn’t be a deal breaker, Kangaroo is a series of little annoyances that add up to one hugely crappy game. Like, you jump high enough that you’re clearly above platforms and should land on them, but you don’t. You go through them unless you jump on them from the correct platform. What was even the point of being a kangaroo then?

Also why is THIS the third stage when it has a climatic feel to it? It should have been fourth. It’s like they wanted to make a Donkey Kong-like game without taking any time or effort to figure out why Donkey Kong worked.

Sloppy Joey is ugly. It’s glitchy. It flickers like an Atari 2600 game, which is especially off-putting for an arcade game. It controls like crap. It has illogical design and scoring, especially with how the bell works. It’s also a game that defies challenging for high scores because you’re at the mercy of dumb luck. There’s a giant ape that shows up to box you and, if it scores a punch, you lose your boxing glove. But, it appears seemingly at random. I’ve had multiple instances where I’d go several games without seeing it once. Of course, it yields a high score if you punch it first. Like all Arcade Archives games, the main reason to own this would be to compete on online leaderboards. My high score was the only one in over a dozen attempts that had the great ape appear. So the one element that would make this engaging in 2023 is based on pure random chance. Most annoying: it has legitimate charm that makes you want to like it. Little touches like how, a second after you duck, the kangaroo pops its head up as if to peek and see if the coast is clear. I mean, come on! That’s adorable. And it pisses me off even more because instead of refining gameplay, they wasted their time and energy on crap like that. Of course, that little extra detail is probably what scored this a spot on Saturday Supercade. Fun fact: despite Atari’s status as the undisputed kings of video games during that show’s run, Kangaroo was the only Atari-published game to be part of Saturday Supercade’s lineup. What, they couldn’t come up with Missile Command cartoon? Which, going off how the rest of Saturday Supercade “adapted” video games (such as Q*Bert being basically Happy Days or Grease), Missile Command would probably be set during the Great Depression and be about sentient missiles running a news stand. Well.. okay, I’d totally watch that.

Kangaroo is not Chick-Approved

Kangaroo was developed by Sun Electronics
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation

$7.99 got pounced in the making of this review.

Arcade Archives: Kid Niki: Radical Ninja and Arcade Archives: Elevator Action (Review)

Arcade Archives: Kid Niki: Radical Ninja was developed by Hamster ($7.99 said “tubular, dude” in the making of this review)

I’ve found the most generic, uninspired, bland, yet still playable game ever made. It’s called Kid Niki: Radical Ninja. I’m not sure what the story on it is, though it feels like something made to cash in on Dragonball back in the day. It’s a typical post-Mario platformer with the “twist” being you spin a sword in front of you to slay enemies. And, well, that’s pretty much it. Run right, and hit the attack button as needed. You can jump, and it’s works and doesn’t feel crappy. The controls are responsive. It’s not a badly made game. And hell, maybe for its time, it was a little more special. Probably not, since my play session with it wasn’t met with dozens of squealing retro gamers going OMG KID NIKI, HEART! In fact, hardly anyone recognized it at all. Maybe one or two people noted they rented the NES version of it back in the day. I’m used to having my older followers unleash the gushing for these titles. Not even a sniff of that here. So Kid Niki is truly lost to the ages despite being available in 2019 on Switch and PS4, and it’s not hard to see why. Every single aspect of it, from its look to its sound effects and action make it feel like you’re playing a fake video game being shown in a bad sitcom. It’s so typically 80s gaming that it’s like a joke game.

I had to abuse the interrupt save states to beat Kid Niki. The normal run-of-the-mill enemies are not a challenge at all. The same can’t be said about the bosses. Especially the last one, which is one the most unfair, impossible encounters ever. I had to save hit-to-hit because, during one phase, bubbles rise up from the floor so fast and so randomly that it’s really sheer luck to not get hit by one. If anyone gave a shit about Kid Niki, it’d be in the discussion for the worst boss in gaming history. I’d show you a clip but it has video capture disabled. Likely because the game sucks so badly.

Probably the best thing it has going for it are its boss fights. The tone, ahem, RADICALLY changes. The game does a neat thing I’ve never seen before, where hitting the boss inflicts damage upon it but causes your sword to go flying behind you, where you must retrieve it. Mind you, this doesn’t happen while making your way to a boss. It’s a neat mechanic that actually works to add tension and nuanced challenge to an otherwise bland game. I wish it did more things that changed up the formula like that. I think if Kid Niki had been remotely creative in its level design, enemy design, or play mechanics, the bosses would have gone down as some of the most memorable in classic gaming. They’re grotesque, they’re legitimately frightening, and pretty fun to battle. And that’s the travesty of Kid Niki’s mediocrity: that these quality boss encounters are lost to history.

Maybe it’s just me, but Kid Niki checks off so many gaming 80s gaming stereotypes that it almost seems like a movie prop.

If Kid Niki is the poster child for being less than the sum of its parts, Elevator Action is the poster child for being more. Unlike Kid Niki, my fans largely recognized it, which, duh. Of course they did! The franchise had legs. As I was typing this, I discovered Kid Niki actually was a franchise, at least in Japan. It had two Famicom sequels and a Game Boy spin-off. Who knew? Well, very few outside of Japan did. On the other hand, Elevator Action was at least well known enough to get a global sequel and a slew of remakes. I had one on my PlayStation 3 and it was the shits. But you have to be at least X amount recognizable to get a modern remake, so Elevator Action was remembered as a classic.

What’s really weird is Elevator Action isn’t a particularly good game if you focus on it mechanically. It’s slow, often feels unresponsive, and movement is pretty clunky. And yet, the fundamental gameplay is fun and genuinely exciting. Plus, for a 1983 game, it sure has an air of violence. What can I say? I love violence, and Elevator Action has this macabre vibe about it. When you fire a bullet at someone and it hits, it makes this incredibly satisfying popping sound that never failed to put a smile on my face. Also, I might have something wrong with me.

I actually played this in early September and deleted all my media for it. Whoops.

Don’t get me wrong: I think Elevator Action is a borderline bad game. It just does so many things wrong. You can’t duck in elevators because.. reasons. There’s too much waiting around for one of the slow-moving elevators to come to the floor you’re on. The level layouts can be so bad and nonsensical that they kill the pace of the game dead. And, frankly, I got fucked by unavoidable deaths more than once. So, why is Elevator Action fun? It really shouldn’t be. It’s a very badly made game.

It’s not exactly Mortal Kombat, but the murders in Elevator Action feel like murders, and that’s good enough for me.

I think it’s a matter of the concept is so smart and so immersive that you really only had to get the bare minimum working to create something worthwhile. Which is not to say the concept just works, period. Elevator Action Deluxe, the aforementioned PS3 game, was terrible. But what is here does feel like you’re a real spy really shooting bad guys. I’d love to see the exact same concept redone today with sharper controls and a little bit of blood. Make it feel like a real, white-knuckle espionage via elevator arcade experience. But what we got here defied all my beliefs that a retro game needs to handle well to be fun. Elevator Action plays like shit. Elevator Action feels sloppy. And Elevator Action is kinda, sorta, just a little teeny tiny bit fun. Well, fuck me.

Arcade Archives: Elevator Action was developed by Hamster
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4

$7.99 legitimately giggled at shooting bad guys in the balls in the making of this review.

Elevator Action (and not Kid Niki) is Chick-Approved and will eventually be ranked on the IGC Arcade Retroboard.

Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong (Review)

I want to get the technicalities of this release out of the way first: I hated the previous two efforts in the Arcade Archives series that I played. Punch-Out especially felt like it had butchered the original game, with the timing all off and input lag from Hell. And I really like Punch-Out and would probably accept even the most mediocre game in the series, which tells you how bad the Arcade Archives release had to have been. The second game, Vs. Super Mario Bros. (which my sadistic fans chose for me), also suffered from slight control issues. I confirmed those issues were tied to the emulator Arcade Archive used and not part of the original game by checking other emulators in a way that was, ahem, totally legal. Cough.

Very unfortunate luck on my part, because it made me assume all the Arcade Archives releases were trash. But I’ve been monkeying around (see what I did there?) with Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. for the last two days. I’ll get to Junior in the next review, but right now I want to talk about Donkey Kong. Yea, this is going to be one of those preachy not-really-a-review reviews I sometimes do like the Mario 2 piece from a few months back.

Review of the actual product: if you want a version of the actual arcade Donkey Kong from 1981, and not the mediocre NES port that’s missing an entire level and tons of animations, this is what you’ve been waiting for. The shit authentic arcade controls are replicated in all their putrid glory here, so you can’t blame the emulator for this one playing like clunky shit. And it even has online leaderboards, the Japanese version that changes the ordering of stages, and an earlier version of the DK ROM that’s easier. And, like other Arcade Archive releases, there’s the five-minute time limit “Caravan Mode” that is a LOT more fun for Donkey Kong than it is for other games. So, nice package Hamster. Bravo.

This is the legendary “pie factory” level that was deleted from the NES port of the game. The truth is, it’s the easiest BY FAR of the four stages. I could often just run straight up to the top in just a few seconds. But, if you care about your score, you actually do have to use the hammer and get smashes. Of course, the second hammer is positioned in a location so as to be functionally useless. The neatest thing about playing Donkey Kong in 2019 is that it’s the learning curve game for what became, let’s face it, the most important game designer of all-time. And you can see the learning-on-the-job unfold before your eyes.

The thing is, you can’t polish a turd.

But, you can put that turd on a pedestal and say it’s one the most important turds ever. It’s still a turd, but look at it! Wow! What a glorious, important turd!

And Donkey Kong is important to gaming history. Hell, to world history. It put Nintendo on the map. It gave us Mario. It launched the career of Shigeru Miyamoto. It drew one of the most important trademark lawsuits in history that’s still taught in law schools to this day. Donkey Kong as a franchise is still popular and profitable to this day.

But, the 1981 arcade game and ports of it being fun and relevant to gamers today?

Nah.

This is NOT a port of Donkey Kong. This is a completely unrelated platform-puzzle game that had the first four levels of Donkey Kong shoehorned into it. Like taking an otherwise healthy person and skin-grafting a cancerous tumor to them. UPDATE: By popular request, I reviewed this. There, I think I’m covered on my vintage Donkey Kongs. At least until someone bitches at me to review Donkey Kong Country.

Over the next few reviews, all of which will be Arcade Archive releases that I’m doing as part of my self-discovery/reflection via games from before my time journey I’m on, you’ll be hearing the phrase “gaming has come a long ways” a lot. That’s because it has. And while Donkey Kong has possibly aged better than I previously gave it credit for, it’s still not really a well made game. In fact, while playing it over the last couple days, I found myself baffled that it’s become this staple of high score chasing among classic gamers. You can probably thank that on the 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

I didn’t realize how silly it is trying to explain Donkey Kong score chasing until I typed everything below. It’s absurd. Mesmerizing, but absurd.

So, let’s talk about that flick and why I found myself so bewildered.

In the movie, the defending world champion of Donkey Kong, Billy Mitchell, has his record chased by an unemployed engineer/school teacher named Steve Wiebe. It’s an absolutely engrossing film in part because of how big of losers everyone in Mitchell’s camp are portrayed. Especially Billy himself, who comes across as someone who tried to ride his fifteen minutes of fame long past the expiration date. When Wiebe breaks his world record on his own Donkey Kong machine, people show up to his house to inspect his Donkey Kong (that sounds like something a urologist would do), without him apparently knowing it. Twin Galaxies, the self-appointed governing body of high scores that was given legitimacy by Guinness World Records, disqualify his completely legit score citing a “gummy substance” on the board and a guilt-by-association taint because Wiebe had interacted with a guy who called himself “Mr. Awesome.” Mr. Awesome was persona non grata for, among other reasons, calling Mitchell and his camp a bunch of cheaters.

So Wiebe flies to the destination of all classic gaming high score chasers: an arcade in Bumfuck, New Hampshire and AGAIN breaks Mitchell’s record. For a day. While this is happening, a video of a previous high score Mitchell claims he had been holding onto is sprung on Twin Galaxies immediately following Wiebe’s victory. Despite the tape being of poor quality and having seemingly weird edits made to it, the head ref of Twin Galaxies, Walter Day (who fawns over Mitchell like a love sick puppy for most of the movie) declares it a legit game and score and Billy once again the World Champion of Donkey Kong. The favoritism displayed for Mitchell is made perfectly clear to the audience. Since the movie’s release, that side of the equation has claimed they got a “bad edit” and the order of events was distorted. The movie ends with Billy no-showing a challenge to play Wiebe live, but Walter Day issuing a completely meaningless apology for the way they treated Steve. No happy ending.. until the epilogue, where Wiebe once again passes Billy and becomes the undisputed Donkey Kong champion.

Besides Mitchell, Wiebe, and Day, the person most people remember most from King of Kong is this guy. He was one of Billy’s lackeys. He’s the one who went to Wiebe’s house uninvited to “inspect” the arcade machine. When Wiebe traveled across the country to set the new record in New Hampshire, this guy was there, trying like a total rat to psyche him out because he aspired to be the first person to reach the Donkey Kong kill screen at that particular arcade. When it becomes obvious that Wiebe is going to make it, his last ditch attempt to cause Wiebe to fail (at least as it’s framed in the film) is to lure a crowd around Wiebe and add to the pressure. He walked around annoying other players by telling them “there’s a Donkey Kong kill screen coming up.” When Wiebe sets the record, Kuh makes a HILARIOUSLY sad face about it. It’s the type of face you’d expect to see from someone who just got notarized message from their parents declaring them to be an accident. Kuh has gone on to call the movie distorted or fake and edited to make him look bad. I mean, for that to be true it’d require flagrant cherry picking of footage with a lower moral footing than Homer Simpson wanting to grab the babysitter’s sweet-sweet can.

That was 2007. Now, while I have a TON of friends who are into that scene and know a lot of the players in King of Kong personally, I’ve never really given two squirts about high score chasing. King of Kong was a fascinating movie, but my interest in the culture was limited to that.

AND THEN..

The domino effect started in early 2018 when a guy named Todd Rogers was exposed as a cheater and all his high scores were wiped by the new ownership regime at Twin Galaxies. A regime that had no loyalty or fanboyism for Mitchell and his crew. His most famous high score, for the Atari 2600 game Dragster, was proven to be impossible. The evidence was indisputable, and Rogers also claimed other scores that nobody could possibly achieve. Not only were his scores wiped, but he was banned from competition. He’s not even allowed to submit new scores even if those scores are certified by the Pope.

Rogers also happened to be one of the only “witnesses” to some of Billy’s Donkey Kong scores. While the Donkey Kong world record was now well out of reach of Billy’s skill level (the strategy he used had long been abandoned by experts of the game when new tactics had been discovered), Billy’s scores were still on the scoreboard. When people put those under a microscope, they decided that they had really been done with MAME, the most popular arcade emulator in the world. Why does that matter? Well, the great thing about emulated games is you can use these things called save states. Anyone who has followed my look into gaming’s past knows about these well. I’ve been abusing the SHIT out of them in order to complete some very hard classic games. Of course, I’m actually admitting I’m doing it. Mitchell had claimed that his scores had been done on a real Donkey Kong cabinet. The score in particular that sunk his battleship happened during a pre-planned event where he also claimed to have set the Donkey Kong Jr. record, and they staged a video of them switching the boards used, but the video clearly shows they just took one board out of the machine and put it back in, essentially revealing that at least one of the two high scores couldn’t have been possibly done at that time.

But the kill screen on Billy Mitchell’s records came in part from the tape he submitted to beat Steve Wiebe in the King of Kong. People realized that older versions of MAME load Donkey Kong’s levels differently than a real arcade machine. It’s subtle, but it’s there, and it’s easy to see once you know what you’re looking for. And while not all MAME versions load levels this specific way, NO real Donkey Kong arcade cabinet does. In all the tapes that were examined that Billy Mitchell submitted, of which the only live witness was a guy already banned for cheating, the levels loaded like they do in MAME, and not an arcade machine.

Billy Mitchell’s scores.. ALL his scores, even ones not disputed like his perfect score in Pac-Man.. were removed from Twin Galaxies and he was banned from further competition.

My high scores I have here, which are pathetic (I set out to break 50,000 and barely got past 30,000 twice at my best) would be considered legally higher than the highest score by the guy who was recognized internationally as the best Donkey Kong player ever for decades. I’m also, as far as the governing body of baseball is concerned, a much better baseball player than Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose too.

I can’t stress enough how damn riveting this entire fiasco was. It was fascinating. It was by far the most interesting gaming story I saw unfold in 2018. Even more fascinating was how Billy’s camp really didn’t want to believe any of it. And they still don’t. Watching this thing play out made me realize how a televangelist can get caught with a roomful of prostitutes and crack and keep their flock. Flocks are made of sheep, and sheep don’t care what the shepherd does. That’s what makes them sheep. They just follow. Mitchell has since claimed he was railroaded, but now the people in charge of the scores aren’t susceptible to Jedi mind tricks. Seriously, in King of Kong Walter Day says Billy can just distort the truth like a Jedi and people will listen, and he says it with a gleam in his eye. Well, that cool kids club is on the outs and now getting high scores is held to a higher standard. Then again, since the guys setting the records in the 80s and 90s were also apparently the ones running the scoreboards, the standards weren’t high to begin with. It’d be like the office workers at the PGA saying “hey Bob, did you see Tiger Woods won the Masters?” “No he didn’t.” “He didn’t?” “No! (types into computer) BECAUSE I DID!” As absurd as that sounds, that’s basically what happened with multiple video game records and a guy who was not a champion got to walk around calling himself a champion for over thirty years.

And now that I’ve actually put more than a few minutes of playtime into Donkey Kong, all I can say is “I don’t get it.” Because I don’t. Why would people get worked up over high scores in a game where the scoring is determined by complete random chance, Thanos style.

Because seriously, it is. Most people don’t realize this about Donkey Kong. It wasn’t covered in the movie.

When Mario gets the hammer and smashes pies or fireballs, the score you get for doing so is completely random. You have a 25% chance of scoring 300 points, a 50% chance of scoring 500 points, and a 25% chance of scoring 800 points. And, all the enemies and objects that you can gets smashes on are spawned by random chance to begin with. Smashes are keys to world record chasers, but players have no control over what they get. People who are emotionally invested in that pursuit look at me like my head is on backwards when I say that it’s a meaningless world record that in no way signifies who is truly the best Donkey Kong player. The best of the best players all are capable of reaching the “kill screen” where the game runs out of memory and simply crashes 22 levels in. Since the scores you get along the way are out of their hands, shouldn’t the best player be considered the player that crashes the game the fastest? Or maybe the fastest player to the kill screen but requiring players to reach a scoring benchmark that you’d reach even if you ignored the RNG and just smashed X amount of pies, barrels, or fireballs per stage just to prove they have the chops to score points and complete the game at a fast clip. So, like, call it 500,000 points + fastest to the kill screen = undisputed best in the world at Donkey Kong.

Well, even that idea wouldn’t work because the enemies and barrels spawn randomly as well. Honestly it just should be fastest to the kill screen.

It’s worth noting that in one of Billy’s high scores, he got an ABSURD amount of smashes. A statistically unlikely amount, especially considering that none of the other documented high scores could even get a fraction of the smashes he got. Fun fact: with emulation, you can use a technique called “stitching” which allows you to use save states to “stitch together” perfect videos of games. If you mess up, or if the RNG lottery isn’t on your side, if you reload a previous save state, the video being created of the game in the emulator (which really just maps button inputs and isn’t the type of video you’d get using a camera, but more like a record of what buttons were pressed at what times during a particular gaming session) won’t even mark the spot where the save/reload happened. In fact, that stitching technique is the secret sauce that made the coolest special feature in SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, the video mode where you can take over the controls at any point, possible.

Oh wait, I forgot: nobody made a movie about the person who got to the kill screen fastest, so nobody cares about that record. But really, any prestige on being the Donkey Kong champion seems like it’s somewhat tainted because so much of the game is random. It’d be like calling the person who won highest Powerball jackpot the most skilled lottery player in the world. All games have random elements, but Donkey Kong is almost always governed by randomness, from enemies to the scores. While skill matters, each new record is owed in a larger part than other games to those skilled players having lady luck give them a reach around.

That’s what’s so weird about Donkey Kong to me. I’m not talking about the franchise or the game’s historical achievements, but rather the game as an entity unto itself. The one thing that keeps it relevant today, in 2019, thirty-eight years after its release, is so completely meaningless. Remove the mainstream knowledge of the high score chase from the equation and all you have left is another historically important Golden Age game that aged badly. Really badly in Donkey Kong’s case. The controls are terrible. The movement is uncomfortable. It’s not entirely clear to me why sometimes when I jumped over a barrel I would get 100 points and sometimes nothing would happen.

And man, that collision detection is absolute dogshit. You know how with some games, you set off the detection when you’re well away from an object? Donkey Kong goes the opposite direction. There were multiple instances where I was clearly striking barrels or fireballs with the hammer and registering no damage at all, leading directly to my death. It never seems consistent from one moment to the next, and unlike the King of Kong crowd, I don’t find the game compelling enough to put in the time to figure out what pixel on a barrel or fireball I’m supposed to be striking that destroys it and grants me my random score. I’d rather chase scores in WarioWare. At least that’s still fun today.

Nothing mean (but completely fair) I say about Donkey Kong takes away from what it accomplished. It was the Little Engine that Could of gaming. It gave birth to multiple icons, real and fictional, and even took down Universal Pictures in a court of law while it was at it. Hot damn, that is so fucking cool. I can’t think of any other single game that directly caused so many important chapters in our community’s history than Donkey Kong. And that’s why it should be remembered and celebrated.

But playing it today? Meh, whatever floats your boat. Just don’t tell people my age or from generations after me that we’re assholes if we don’t have fun doing so. Because Donkey Kong really truly isn’t a good game, people. Not in 2019. And honestly, based on the games from that era I’ve played, not in 1981. If all you’ve ever got to eat for years is bread and water and someone offers you a plate of tofu, you’re going to remember that tofu as the best fucking meal you had long after you started to eat real food. Maybe Donkey Kong stood out to you because there was nothing like it at the time. It would seem pretty sweet then and the memories would only grow sweeter. But I can’t believe people would actually defend a game with so many horrible design problems. If I paid for a game with rules that say hitting something with a hammer destroys it and instead the hammer went right through the fucking thing multiple times, I’d ask for my money back. But I’m not suggesting that’s what classic gamers should do. Donkey Kong was shit, but it gave us everything we love. That debt has long since been paid.

Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong was developed by Hamster Co.
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99 (are you fucking kidding me??) said there’s a Donkey Kong kill screen coming up if anyone is interested in the making of this review.

Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong was purchased by a fan for me to review. Indies I pay for myself out of pocket. Retro games I’ll accept from fans. Because $7.99 is a gigantic waste of money for this, so much so that I feel a little guilty about it, I’m matching the purchase price with a donation to Direct Relief. It’s fire season in California, everyone. Please donate. These guys show up to help when people actually need it.

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