Earlier this week, (geeky) news outlets reported that Wes Copeland has achieved a “perfect” game of Donkey Kong with a score of 1,218,000. While the truth of the matter is a bit more complicated than that, it is true that we are not likely to see a higher score on Donkey Kong any time soon.
If you’re into classic arcade games, you probably know that Donkey Kong has what is known as a “kill screen” — a point where the game simply crashes. Several other classic 8-bit arcade games (including Pac-Man and Dig Dug) also have kill screens, typically the result of poor variable handling.
In some games, this leads to a finite score ceiling. For example, the highest possible score in Pac-Man is 3,333,360. I am ashamed that I didn’t have to look that up. In Pac-Man, the player’s current level is stored in a single eight-bit binary register. That means level 0 is represented as 00000000 in binary, level 1 is 00000001, level 2 is 00000010, and so on. The largest number you can store here is 255, which is represented as 11111111. When the player beats level 255, the machines tries to increase the level to 256. Since 256 can’t be stored in a single 8-bit memory location, this is what happens:
Every level in Pac-Man contains a finite number of points. Each level has 240 dots, 4 power pellets, and 4 ghosts than can be eaten a total of 4 times. If you eat everything possible (all the dots, power pellets, ghosts and fruit) on every single level without dying, congratulations — that’s a perfect game of Pac-Man. Your score will be 3,333,360.
Donkey Kong is different. In Pac-Man, there’s a maximum number of points that can be achieved on each level. In Donkey Kong, there’s not, because many of the scoring events are random. For example, if you jump over a single barrel in Donkey Kong you’ll earn 100 points, but if you jump two at a time you’ll earn 300 points (three will get you 500). There are techniques that can help you group barrels together in order to maximize your score, but in some cases it just comes down to luck. Occasionally you’ll jump a barrel and get no points at all. It’s not fair, but it happens.
The goal of Donkey Kong is to score as many points as possible before the game crashes. In King of Kong, Steve Wiebe scored 1,064,500 points in Donkey Kong before reaching the kill screen. A year later, Hank Chien was able to score 1,064,500, but since then, people have found additional methods of “point pushing,” or intentionally running up the score. At one point it was thought that 1,100,000 was the game’s ceiling. In September of 2015, Wes Copeland scored 1,170,500 points. Six hours later, Robbie Lakeman scored 1,172,100.
The reason for these tiny increases in score is that it takes roughly three hours to reach the kill screen in Donkey Kong. For three hours, players must not only avoid dying, play an essentially perfect game and squeeze every single point possible out of the game, but also be lucky. In the case of Copeland and Lakeman’s scores, a difference of 1,600 points is literally collecting two additional 800 point items over the three-hour game’s play time.
Wes Copeland’s current score of 1,218,000 represents all of that — a game in which Copeland not only didn’t die (which allowed him to use his extra men to play the level prior to the last level multiple times and gain extra points), but every single lucky coin flip went his way. For someone to beat Copeland’s latest score, someone would have to play another perfect game of Donkey Kong and somehow get even luckier than Copeland. It doesn’t seem likely or possible for this to happen.
When it does, I’ll let you know. ;)
If you have three hours to spare and would like to watch a quintessentially perfect game of Donkey Kong, here is a video of Copeland’s recording breaking game.