Over a Barrel

By Josh Criss
Sunday, November 9, 2008

I was an awkward, stick-thin 13-year-old, and one afternoon I entered my small-town Vermont arcade as I did most days after school. The place was tucked away in the left corner of a run-down shopping plaza, hidden between a movie theater and a fabric store. It was a refuge for nerds, sullen toughs and other misfits looking for escape in a town that had little else to offer. The games were not just fun; they demanded complete focus, so everything else faded away. I was there every chance I could get.

On this day, everyone was crowded around a new cabinet, leaving the other games virtually abandoned. The kid at the joystick was no doubt the arcade's alpha male, likely sporting wisps of facial hair. The rest of us were left to jostle for glimpses of the screen. For me, too short to see over most heads and too low in the hierarchy to expect to play anytime soon, it was hard to get a good look at the game -- but its name was plastered on the side of the cabinet: Donkey Kong.

For an arcade crowd used to single-screen options such as Pac-Man, Centipede and Frogger, Donkey Kong represented a new era in video games. Featuring four different screens, the game had a bizarre, cartoonish quality; even the angry expressions of the titular antagonist, a rogue gorilla, were cutely entertaining. It was also the first appearance of the game's hero -- the stubby, overalls-clad, mustachioed carpenter, Mario (in later games, he became a plumber).

Donkey Kong's basic premise is that the gorilla has kidnapped Mario's girlfriend and carried her to the top of a building under construction. As Mario, you must reach the top of four different construction screens and rescue her. Every level starts with the "barrel board" -- the first of Donkey Kong's four screens -- a series of ladders and slanted girders that Mario must ascend. At the top of the structure, Donkey Kong is releasing barrels that roll down the girders toward Mario, whom you control. The barrels take shortcuts down some ladders while rolling over other ladders, creating ever-changing barrel groups that Mario must jump over or otherwise avoid. Randomly, the gorilla will also pick up a barrel and hurl it in Mario's direction. During all this mayhem, one or more fireballs work their way up from the bottom girder. If they reach Mario, he dies. If he touches a barrel, he dies. If he falls off a girder, he dies.

There is a "pie factory board" that features conveyor belts carrying what look like pies (actually pans of cement), and fast-moving fireballs. There's the "elevator board," where Mario must jump from one precarious moving platform to the next before negotiating a never-ending series of bouncing springs. And finally, the "rivet board," in which Mario must avoid a team of fireballs while removing eight rivets from a five-story skeleton of girders.

Untold weeks after Donkey Kong arrived at my local arcade, I finally got a chance to play. I became an average player, but it never really hooked me. The arcade closed some years later, as sophisticated home consoles took over, and I forgot about Donkey Kong. In the decades since, I have lived the typical life of a government contractor, bought a small condo close to work, and watched the years pass by in a blur.

This past February, I rent the documentary "The King of Kong" -- the story of the quest for the Donkey Kong world record between archrivals Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe -- and it takes me back to my own first glimpse of the game. I fondly remember the dim lighting and artificially induced adrenaline of my hometown arcade. I'm intrigued by the general agreement among the film's gamers that Donkey Kong is the hardest of the classic games -- citing, in particular, the legendary status of the third elevator board. I find myself wondering how I could do at the game, if I really tried.

There's no need to go looking for an arcade, as the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME) has been available as a free download since the late 1990s. MAME uses data cloned from the actual circuit boards of classic arcade games, then essentially fools your computer into thinking that hardware is installed. The effect is identical to having just plugged the original arcade cabinet into a wall outlet. In the case of Donkey Kong, you hear the gorilla's mocking snort, then "INSERT COIN" appears on the screen, atop the list of high scores. No need for quarters, though -- every press of the "5" key equals one credit. And, just like that, the game I had to wait weeks to play as a lower-tier arcade rat 27 years ago has possessed my computer.

But this time, Donkey Kong grabs me. I realize that virtually every time Mario dies, you can identify your error and convince yourself that you won't repeat it. I discover that the barrels and fireballs have surprisingly complex behaviors -- all but invisible to anyone playing the game casually -- that can be subtly influenced by your own movements. In "King of Kong," Steve Wiebe talks of "controlling the barrels," and as game follows game, I gradually understand what he means. Pulling it off consistently is another matter. As the weeks pass, I'm amazed by the amount of depth crammed into a game that, on the surface, appears to be a cartoonish and goofy distraction.

With my 40th birthday approaching, I find myself obsessed with Donkey Kong. A game before work. A game after work. Games until it's time for bed. The world record is 1,050,200 points. Within three weeks, I've recorded a 185,000-point game. After five weeks, I reach 228,000. Every death is a new lesson. And then there's that notorious third elevator board. Game after game, and between games, I study the third elevator board like the Warren Commission studied the Zapruder film.

It all comes down to climbing the board's final ladder. Sometimes you get killed by a bouncing spring, sometimes you don't, and it's nearly impossible to see why. I find a YouTube video titled "How to Beat the Third Elevator Stage on Donkey Kong," which suggests that all you need to do is run for the ladder when a spring lines up perfectly with the metal platform atop the left elevator. After initial elation, I discover that it only works about 60 percent of the time. Finally, I find an article from Wired.com's "How-To" series that breaks the case wide open, and it's written by Steve Wiebe himself.

Yet even after it's broken down into elementary-school components, I find the board's final run for survival too hard to execute. To dash Mario toward the ladder and then up it, while at the same time analyzing the next spring that emerges, takes the dual-brained concentration of a skilled pianist. It's beyond me.

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