How Billy Mitchell became a video-game superstar and achieved Pac-Man bliss
Billy Mitchell, the most knowledgeable and masterful Pac-Man player ever to drop a quarter in a machine, is a hard man to find. When I asked one of his best friends, Walter Day, the best way to get in touch with him, Day told me, “First I spend an hour praying to God, then I visit a psychic, then I place a classified ad, then I hire a plane to carry a banner that says CALL ME BILLY! and make it fly all over South Florida. Because he might be anywhere.”
After some seventy phone calls, I manage to arrange a meeting with Mitchell at Ricky’s, the restaurant in Hollywood, Florida, that he took over from his father in the mid-1980s. Mitchell is probably the greatest arcade-video-game player of all time. When the Guinness Book of World Records first included a listing for video games in 1985 (discontinued in 1987), Mitchell held the records for Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong, Jr., Centipede, and Burger Time. In 1999, he achieved the Holy Grail of arcade gaming, executing the first-ever perfect game on Pac-Man. The feat requires navigating 256 boards, or levels, and eating every single possible pellet, fruit, and ghost, for the highest score of 3,333,360, all without dying once.
At six-foot-four, with a handsome mullet of dark-brown hair parted in the middle, Mitchell, age forty, cuts a striking figure. “Look what I got today,” he says, holding up a pair of Pac-Man socks that a fan from Canada mailed him. “I get something like this all the time.” His employees are unimpressed by the presence of a reporter; they’re used to hangers-on. When his sister, a co-owner of the restaurant, spots me, she blurts out, “I don’t know nothing about what he did. He got as far as he could on a game.” Fans come from all over the nation and occasionally the world to get a peek at the gaming legend. “If I get recognized six times in a seven-day week,” Mitchell says, “I call that a slow week.”
Mitchell enjoys his semi-celebrity status, but he rarely shows it off by actually playing video games. When I convince him to play a game on the well-worn Ms. Pac-Man in the back corner of the restaurant, a waitress hurries over to watch because she has never seen him play, despite working there for nine years.
The premise of Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man—a slightly faster offshoot with a similar setup and a cute new bow on the familiar yellow head—is, like all old-fashioned arcade games, quite simple. Pac-Man must eat all of the pellets arranged in a maze and avoid being consumed by four ghosts. Various fruits also appear and give bonus points when eaten. In each corner of the board is an energizer. When Pac-Man eats an energizer, the ghosts turn blue and the chase is reversed: Pac-Man can now eat the ghosts for yet more points.
Mitchell places a quarter in the slot and begins to dominate the game, giving an extemporaneous lecture on strategy as he goes. “See, each ghost has a unique personality,” he says. “The red one, he’s a complete headhunter. He’s constantly trying to zero in on your position. The blue one is more complicated; his movement is based on your position versus the red ghost.” He holds the joystick loosely with his left hand, maneuvering it with precise flicks of his thumb and index finger. “I use their personalities and put them in places, positions, and patterns advantageous to me.”
He stands squarely with his feet planted shoulder-width apart, his back straight, and his knees bent slightly, in the stance of a baseball batter, taut and balanced. Staring intently at the screen, his loose hold on the joystick occasionally tightens into a full-fisted grip, and his hand jerks with a violent thrust, up or down, left or right. Even well past the easier early levels, Ms. Pac-Man, the hero-character Mitchell manipulates, whips around the board, darting through the pathways of the maze at flawlessly executed angles. The game’s four ghosts, charged with tracking down and “killing” Ms. Pac-Man, are hopelessly overmatched. Mitchell taunts and teases his pursuers, leading them into harmless circles, grouping them together and pulling them apart with such exact command that it almost seems that some flaw in the wiring has given his joystick direct control of the bad guys.
Golfing legend Bobby Jones famously said of the young Jack Nicklaus, “He plays a game with which I am not familiar.” Ms. Pac-Man is my favorite video game. I am a well-above-average player, I have at certain times in my life obsessively devoted so many hours to it that I played out scenarios in my sleep, and I have observed hundreds of people play the game. I have never seen anyone play like this.
“See?” Mitchell says, fluidly guiding Ms. Pac-Man through the maze. “Absolute control. I’ve eliminated the mad, scattering chase. That’s probably how they intended the game to be played, running around out of control. But that’s not how I play.”
A South Florida native, Mitchell began playing video games when he was about sixteen. He was already a dominant pinball player when arcade games began to appear in the early ’80s. At first, he had no interest. “Video games were something new and different and I don’t like new and different,” he says. “But they started getting more popular. Everyone was standing around the Donkey Kong machine and I wanted that attention.”
It took about a month for Mitchell to realize that he was not just good at video games, but could play at a level unimaginable to everyone else in the arcade. “There are numerous characteristics embodied in a video-game superstar and Billy has all of these,” says Day, Mitchell’s friend, a video-game referee and self-proclaimed “Patron Saint of the Video-Game Age.”
“He has mind-body coordination, the ability to have your body absolutely enslaved by your mind, to take all directions and commands with no resistance, obstacles, barriers, or filters. He has hand-eye coordination, the preciseness, and fast reaction time.” More elusively, Mitchell also seems to possess a genius for recognizing patterns in space and foreseeing the way complicated scenarios will play out—his intuition is set to some higher frequency. “Think about a great centerfielder like Mickey Mantle,” Day says. “He had some deep inner intuitive sense. When the bat cracked the ball, he immediately knew where the ball was going and he’d take a few steps in the right direction before he even realized it. That’s like Billy playing video games. I get confused by all the action and colors and light. He sees the whole pattern immediately. His mental experience is heightened; he has a more comprehensive and clear vision than the rest of us.”
Mitchell wasn’t the typical video-game nerd; he also led an active life away from the joystick, playing football, basketball, and baseball in high school. (His father remains convinced that his son could have made it as a major-league pitcher if he hadn’t been so devoted to video games.) “I never skipped a day of school or a day of work,” Mitchell says, but he somehow managed to put in nearly forty hours a week on video games, much of it logged at Ricky’s, then owned by his father.
“He drove me nuts,” Bill Mitchell, Sr., recalls. “He played Centipede for thirty hours. I thought it was bad for his health. But he just got better and better. We had several machines and I couldn’t stand him playing because he would take up a machine for hours and spend one quarter. And it was probably a quarter he stole off of my desk!”
With video games becoming more popular, the best players naturally began to wonder how they stacked up against other top competitors, and reaching all-time high scores became a hot issue. Unfortunately, as Mitchell and others discovered, there was no one keeping track of or verifying these feats. A great player might know he had the high score on a particular machine, or even in the whole city, but there was no way to know for certain where he (or, very occasionally, she) ranked in the country or the world. Furthermore, many video-game players have the fisherman’s propensity for exaggeration, and urban legends of impossibly high scores abounded.
In January of 1982, Time ran a cover story on the surging popularity of video games that mentioned a player who had racked up nearly sixteen million points on a game called Defender, playing twenty-three hours on one quarter. “All sorts of video-game players in every arcade thought, ‘I can beat that score,’ ” recounts Day, who owned a brand-new arcade called Twin Galaxies in Ottumwa, Iowa. “Thousands of people went after it.” In February of 1982, someone beat the score at Twin Galaxies. Day called Williams, the manufacturers, to see if it was indeed the highest score ever recorded. When they told him that they didn’t keep track and didn’t know, Day decided that his arcade would take on the role of record-keeper. “Essentially, within months of its existence, Twin Galaxies became the official scorekeeper for the whole planet,” says Day. “Everyone went for it immediately. No one questioned us.”
That summer, Day got a call from a teenager named Billy Mitchell, who had read in Joystick magazine that someone had scored 1.4 million points in Donkey Kong. Mitchell told Day that he was sure the record was a fiction. “I said, ‘Bullsugar,’ ” Mitchell recalls. “This guy is not telling you the truth.’ ” His reasoning was pure self-assured bravado: That couldn’t be the high score because he had only scored 886,900 at that point. “I thought, there’s no way there’s anybody as good as me, there’s just no way.”
Day offered Mitchell the supposed record-holder’s phone number. “I gave him a short interrogation and he just didn’t have the right answers for two players on that level talking,” Mitchell says. “I called Walter back and told him he was lying. Several weeks later, he admitted it. The legend was born from there. I was considered a hired gun who chopped up people’s scores.”
Established as the best Donkey Kong player, Mitchell began to focus on Pac-Man and chase the high scores of Darren Olsen, considered by Mitchell to be the best Pac-Man player at the time. Early in the summer of 1983, it took Mitchell only a few months of playing to pass him. As Mitchell continued to elevate his play, he began to study the game’s intricacies and theorize on the boundaries of possible achievement. Along with his friend Chris Ayra, the only gamer at the time whom Mitchell might have considered a Pac-Man peer, they would take the game in parts, concentrating on the perfect execution of particular levels. Pac-Man, they discovered, reaches maximum difficulty at the 21st board and then repeats that board over and over, so that the challenge becomes one of consistency and endurance. A player must make it through what they dubbed the “long, slow grind”: getting through boards 21–255, all exactly the same, requiring four to six hours. Fortunately, there are a number of points in the game at which an expert player can take advantage of “hiding spots”—the ghosts are led to a spot where they will follow each other in a circle for a certain amount of time while Pac-Man rests. The player can then take a break to get a sandwich, use the bathroom, etc.
After surviving the long, slow grind, Mitchell and Ayra discovered the mysterious 256th board, “the split screen,” a legend among gamers. After all of those identical levels, the game’s final board apparently malfunctions, showing a jumble of text and symbols on the right side, and the regular board on the left side. The left side can be played normally, but the right side is baffling. Pac-Man and the ghosts can venture over to the computer-garble and black space, but there is no rhyme or reason to navigating it. Some symbols can be passed through while others are walls, and the patterns are random and complex. It is as if a trickier maze, full of new traps and angles and turns, had been designed, only you can’t see it; the warped collage of symbols you can see amounts to a misleading mirage.
“The easiest way to explain it in layman’s terms is that you might as well be running through a maze blindfolded,” Mitchell says. “We spent the most time on the split screen because it was so intriguing. We had to map out all the walls, figure out every possible dot, and figure out a plan to survive, because it’s instant death. We laid a clear sheet of plastic over the screen and literally ran and bumped, ran and turned, and diagrammed where the corners were.” If this weren’t tedious enough, Mitchell and Ayra didn’t have access to the current technology that allows players to skip ahead to the split screen; all of this experimentation required first getting through the initial 255 boards, and they would typically lose lives very quickly once they got to 256. Luckily, they eventually discovered a way to trap the ghosts into a hiding spot, allowing them to explore the board without danger.
Mitchell and Ayra determined that there were nine edible dots on the jumbled right side of the board. Four of the edible dots were visible on the screen, while the other five were actually invisible—Pac-Man must get to their location and eat them even though they cannot be seen on the screen. Once the left side of the board is cleared and those nine dots are eaten, however, the game does not advance. Pac-Man’s creators never imagined that anyone could possibly get so far, so they didn’t design it with enough memory to continue beyond that point. The reason that a perfect score requires doing all 256 boards with just one life is that a player can then sacrifice Pac-Man, and take advantage of his six total lives. After losing a life, the nine dots on the right side reappear and Pac-Man can eat them again, grabbing ninety more points. The process can then be repeated for all of Pac-Man’s remaining lives. This, Mitchell and Ayra determined, would allow the highest score possible on the game, 3,333,360.
They explained the secrets of the perfect score to Day, but then (at least as Mitchell tells it) they did a curious thing. They knew how to execute a perfect game in theory, but actually doing it would be a painful slog, simply because of the sheer number of levels they would have to get through perfectly. Another player later calculated that the perfect game requires the execution of 29,000 perfect corners. “Everything is perfect timing,” says Mitchell. “When you don’t execute, it alters your routine and puts you in a dangerous situation. You can’t mess up once. Just sit there and try to touch your knee 29,000 times and you’re going to miss eventually.” Given that ordeal, and since no one else was anywhere close to beating them to the perfect score, at some point in the mid-1980s, the duo simply stopped playing the game.
Fast-forward to the summer of 1998, when a pair of Canadians, Rick Fothergill and Neil Chapman, called Day at Twin Galaxies claiming that they had knowledge of the split screen and were close to achieving a perfect score. Day called Mitchell, who assumed it was another tall tale. “Every so often over the years, someone would claim something silly,” Mitchell explains. “Walter would put us on the phone with them and I’d run through half a dozen questions and just blow them out of the water.”
Mitchell would ask a set of questions that a player of his skill would grasp. He started easy: “What level do the ghosts stop turning blue? Describe how you execute patterns to get by these levels.” If that didn’t do the trick, he would move on to split screen questions: “What is the score after finishing board 256? How does it take place? Where are the invisible dots, what are their value, how do you capitalize on them?” Running through this routine with Fothergill and Chapman, Mitchell and Ayra realized that for the first time they were on the telephone with people who could speak their language, who knew what they knew. “They started comparing notes and then it was almost like It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” Day remembers. “Suddenly they realized they were in a race.”
“The knowledge we’d had since ’83, these guys had caught up,” Mitchell says. He was now confronted with the possibility that someone might achieve a perfect game before he did. “I told myself, ‘I should have put out this fire a long time ago,’ ” he says. “We just assumed it would be too hard for anyone to do, so we sat on the knowledge. After having had it all these years, we weren’t going to let them win.”
So Mitchell went back to the game that, according to him, he hadn’t played at all in more than a decade. He no longer owned his own machine, so he borrowed one from a friend, and began to wake up thirty minutes earlier and go to bed thirty minutes later to practice. “It was a tremendous struggle to get up to and through board 21,” he says. “Once I did that, I was off and running.” His first attempt to nab the perfect game came in May of 1999, at a competition held at Funspot—the country’s second-largest arcade, in Weirs, New Hampshire. He died at 1.7 million points, after several hours. “Something went wrong,” he shrugs. Fothergill, meanwhile, also lost one man but finished his game, ending up at 3,333,270, just ninety points short of perfection. Even when faced with up-close evidence that his place in videogame history was in jeopardy, Mitchell remained resolute: “I wasn’t going to let anyone beat me to it.”
Over the Fourth of July weekend, Mitchell flew back to New Hampshire for another showcase and guaranteed a perfect score to the media. His first attempt came on the morning of July 2. He was well past a million points when a kid playing in the arcade having trouble with his machine accidentally unplugged Mitchells machine. “I hit the roof.” Mitchell says. “The kid took off. I still don’t know who it was. But that day was shot.” Mitchell stuck around late into the night schmoozing and playing games and didn’t manage to get something to eat. He had arrived at the arcade that morning before the snack bar opened and with no restaurants open nearby (“New Hampshire is dead at night,” he complains), he went to bed without having eaten anything.
He planned to grab a bite the next morning, but he again arrived too early to get food, so he started playing Pac-Man. He kept playing for just under six hours. He executed the first twenty boards “freestyle,” which means he employed none of the learned patterns that allow Pac-Man to clear the board most efficiently, instead relying entirely on improvisation. “I didn’t use patterns because I knew people would say, ‘Show me the pattern and I can do it,’ ” he says. “That’s not true, you wouldn’t be able to do it even if I showed you how. But I did it freestyle, which was more difficult, so no one could even say that.”
With a crowd of fans and media looking on, Mitchell navigated his way through 256 boards, periodically employing the hiding spots to pause and do interviews. As he played the final board, having now gone without food for nearly two days, Mitchell called Day on his cell phone. Day recounts, “He was telling me, ‘I’m going here, now I’m going here,’ and then he said, ‘I did it.’ ” After somewhere in the neighborhood of ten billion games of Pac-Man had been played, Mitchell achieved the first ever perfect game. The very first thing he said: “I never have to play that damn game again.” His mission finally complete and his belly still empty, he walked across the street for a well-earned sandwich.
The perfect game, achieved on Pac-Man’s twentieth anniversary, was covered in Time and dozens of other media outlets, making him a semi-celebrity and an even bigger star in the gaming world. In August of that year, he was awarded “Video Game Player of the Century” at the Tokyo Game Show in Japan, and September brought what Mitchell called “the highlight of my career,” when Namco flew him to Japan to meet the game’s creator, Toru Iwatani.
According to legend, Iwatani, a programmer for Namco, went out with friends for pizza one night more than twenty-five years ago, and, taking his first slice from the pie, had a design epiphany. The remaining shape of his pizza made for a lovable, chomping, video-game hero, and Pac-Man—originally known as Puck-Man—was born.
“I met him and his inner circle of game creators,” Mitchell says. “I found it flattering, to say the least—I was completely intrigued, but they were even more intrigued to be sitting with me.”
Mitchell had all sorts of questions for them about the intricacies of the game, but he quickly discovered that they had far more questions for him. He knew and understood the game better than its fathers. “I had to explain the personalities of the ghosts,” he remembers. “They had no idea. They just ran programs and they don’t always know how it will fall together.” He asked about the split screen and they had no clue. They never thought a score like that was possible. “I told them that my theory was that the game just runs out of memory at that point,” Mitchell says. “They just shrugged their shoulders.”
“People will say, ‘Look at you, you think you know more than the guy who made the game,’” he says. “I say, ‘Yeah, I do, he told me so.’ ”
Other than when a reporter like me shows up, Mitchell has kept his word to stay away from the Pac-Man console. He thrives on competition, but he is not someone who plays for the love of the game. He never plays video games for relaxation; like a tennis prodigy, he wants to win but doesn’t seem to be having fun doing it.
“I enjoy the victory of it, but it’s pure pain,” he says. “I don’t know anything about a zone, or getting into a flow. It’s constant intensity and concentration. Nothing’s flowing. You squeeze a joystick in your hand for hours and it starts to feel like it’s going to shatter your hand. It’s a damn good thing it’s not a glass joystick.”
“I still have what I call a controlled obsession,” he explains. But now I apply that to my family and my business. I am obsessed with being the best. I am going to be the best. But now it’s the best husband, the best father, the best businessman."
“Video games are his own little world,” says his wife, Evelyn, a teacher, who was supportive of his Pac-Man quest and other gaming endeavors, but has never actually seen him play in a competition. “I don’t think I could get past the first board, so it doesn’t interest me.” While their two daughters take after their mom, their seven-year-old son, called Little Billy, has already shown evidence that he has inherited both his father’s talent and all-consuming drive, which “has to be controlled,” Mitchell says, admitting, “no one was controlling me. At least video games are an effective tool to make him do his homework.” Like his father, Little Billy’s first passion was Donkey Kong. Once introduced to the game, Little Billy played every moment he could and worked his way past the first three levels. The fourth level, the “elevator board,” is infamously difficult. “I told my wife, that’ll be the end of it, he’ll be on that board for a year.” Mitchell recounts, “He did it in a week.” The boy was three years old.
Many folks who meet Mitchell are surprised to find that the video-game legend has a family and a job, expecting instead a glassy-eyed, antisocial geek toiling away in his parents’ basement. “The reputation of a video-game player is a nerd,” Mitchell admits. “And half the time it’s true. The top one hundred gamers—they’re some of the smartest people I’ve ever met, but half of them are dysfunctional. You’ll have paranoids, guys with a hygiene problem who look like Uncle Fester, guys who are so absolutely introverted that they can’t deal with society. I’ve been up late and posted something on a message board at four in the morning, and literally one minute later, two or three guys locked away in the basement have posted a response.”
In addition to running the restaurant, he founded a hot-sauce company in 1987, and built it into a million-dollar-a-year business. Ricky’s World Famous Sauce offers Louisiana, Jalapeno, Chicken Wing, and Habanero sauces, the formula for the latter three co-designed by Mitchell, who, as usual, took an intense approach—he boasts that the sauces contain more cayenne pepper than any other major American brand.
Even if Mitchell has settled into a more or less normal adult life, he retains the competitive fuse of a teenage boy. Rumors that players had figured out a trick to get by the split screen level, which Mitchell is convinced is impossible, have swirled around the gaming community for years. Most famously, in 1982, President Ronald Reagan sent eight-year-old Jeffrey Yee a congratulatory letter for his supposed record score of 6,131,930, only possible if a player can get beyond board 256. Such assertions infuriate Mitchell because scores such as Yee’s are undocumented. In 1999, several months after his perfect game, Mitchell used the hot-sauce fortune to offer $100,000 to anyone who could prove the split screen could be beaten. No one was able to collect.
“Anyone that tells you they can beat the split screen is full of sugar.” Mitchell tells me. “I was beyond absolutely sure I wouldn’t have to pay it.” He remains deeply proud, and a little protective, of his sui generis video-game wizardry. Wanting to clarify a point about hiding spots, I try to ask him, “So someone can use these hiding spots—” Mitchell immediately interrupts me, “You don’t use the hiding spots. Someone doesn’t use them. I use them. I could show you how, but you wouldn’t be able to do it.”
While a crappy video-game player can improve, Mitchell’s level of arcade mastery, he is convinced, cannot be taught. He likes to tell the story of a Ms. Pac-Man player he met in New Jersey who could consistently score more than 200,000 points on the more difficult, “slow”-playing machine, which, in Mitchell’s estimation, put the man in the top one percent of players, Mitchell spent hours teaching him everything he needed to do to get a perfect score of 77,600 through the first five boards. At that point, the guy could score 75,000; he played and practiced for a year and only managed to get it up to 76,000. By contrast, when Mitchell first met Ayra, at an arcade, Ayra wandered up to him and watched him play the first five boards over his shoulder. “Wow,” said Ayra, and when Mitchell was done, he put in a quarter and got the perfect 77,600 on the first try.
“Nobody taught Dan Marino how to throw a football,” says Mitchell. “He fine-tuned it and practiced it, of course. But he had it. People ask me what makes a great video-game player, and the truth is, you have it or you don’t. It’s in your DNA. If you don’t have that, you’d better stay in school.”
It’s odd that Mitchells combination of extreme spatial and strategic acumen has been channeled so thoroughly into fiddling with joysticks and mapping out fantasy mazes. Wouldn’t he be the world’s best fighter pilot, say, or city planner? “Well, its actually a shame that you only have one life to live,” Mitchell replies, and without hesitation, adds, “If I was a fighter pilot, I would be the best. I’m sure of it.”
I ask Mitchell if his off-the-charts visuospatial skills and heightened intuition impact parts of his life away from the game console. “I see things that other people don’t see and hear things others don’t hear,” he says. “That’s usually a good thing, but not always fun. If a door-hinge is going to need oil soon, if someone’s wedding ring needs adjusting, if a letter on a sign way down the road is missing. . . . I don’t really need that in my life. It can be too much information.
“It’s like those elite gamers who can’t really function in society,” he adds. “On that level, the way you handle things in your mind, the way you compute and calculate, you’re taking your mind and putting it in a place it’s really not supposed to be. It’s like someone who takes LSD and goes crazy. You can run a computer the wrong way and fry it.”
Despite his insistence that the game cannot be taught, I pepper Mitchell with strategy questions throughout his Ms. Pac-Man demonstration. I’ve got my own high scores to think about, after all. At the conclusion of our interview, I suggest to him that I play a game while he watches, so that he can give me tips and tell me what I’m doing wrong. He looks at me with a stern half-smile. “You understand, its going to be everything, right?”
I put my quarter in and burrow straight into the red ghost within ten seconds. “First thing you did wrong is run right into the red ghost,” he deadpans.
“Believe it or not, I’m not that bad,” I say, sensing that he must be thinking I’m one of those score-fudging liars he routinely busts for Day. My nerves are shot. This is like taking batting practice while Ted Williams watches over your shoulder.
He patiently offers advice as I play—I rely too quickly on the safety of the energizers, I fail to keep the ghosts in a group, I don’t use the tunnels enough. But the salient point, unfortunately, is of no help: “You’re out of control,” he says. “You have to see the ghosts, see the game.”
I manage to settle into a decent run, but I keep trying to make maneuvers that are over my head in a weak imitation of what I’ve seen him do. “Uh-oh,” says Mitchell, several seconds before I die, each time. He can, of course, see it coming.