In-Depth With the King of Kong
In last July's issue of Harper's, Joshuah Bearman revealed a wealth of information on classic gaming in general and Billy Mitchell specifically. Mitchell is one of the subjects of last year's documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Mitchell is a fascinating guy, with his supremely high-maintenance mullet, a list of arcade game records a mile long, and even his own brand of hot sauce. Bearman contributed some footage to King of Kong, but his encounters with Mitchell go beyond what we saw in the film -- and make for great reading for anyone interested in classic gaming, or the character of Billy Mitchell. In Bearman's article, Mitchell comes off as less of an egomaniac (I think the film was cut specifically to make him seem evil), and more of an eccentric whose particular obsession is classic arcade games (and who happens to have a big, amusing ego). Here's a snippet of the article on the always-fascinating topic of "kill screens":
For Billy, though, there is always the question of going further. Back in his van, we talk about what is known in classic-gaming argot as the "kill screen." This is the edge of the universe, the place where instructions end. Billy has seen a lot of kill screens. Pac-Man comes to a halt at level 256, as the program runs out of code and the entire right side of the screen is engulfed by senseless symbols. Circus Charlie just freezes. Donkey Kong ends after five seconds on level 22. The first time Billy reached the impassable final level of Dig Dug, he lost all 400 of his free men. Then there is Galaga, which eventually closes in solitude. After everything comes nothing: No enemy armada. No music. No score. Just you and the existential void. Other games end in violence. In Burgertime, Billy says, the kill screen came ot level 28, which he describes as the most chaotic moment he has ever experienced. The fried egg and hot dog and pickles chased him around so aggressively that Billy took it as a cruelly encoded joke. That did not prevent him from attempting to breach Burgertime's event horizon. Everyone said it was impossible, but he had to know: Is there more?
With Pac-Man, there has always been a powerful appeal surrounding the notion of "The Doorway"--a prospective passageway to the other side, a way past level 256. There are hints right at the threshold. As the maze comes undone, the disintegrating edges seem to hint at an unprogrammed but perhaps navigable new space. Equally enticing is that the final prize Pac-Man collects is not a fruit but a key, the last of nine--and why are there keys if there is nothing to unlock? Such questions have generated considerable controversy.
Read the rest of the article on Bearman's blog (unfortunately it's only available as a PDF, but it's nicely formatted).