Steve Wiebe is a bit of a legend in gaming circles. He was, after all, at the center of the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
, which chronicled his push to topple Billy Mitchell as top Donkey Kong player in the world.
Wiebe's crowning achievement, in the film, was achieving a kill screen — an incredibly hard to reach end-game scenario, in which the program essentially terminates itself by killing off the player — on the Donkey Kong machine at the renowned New Hampshire arcade Funspot.
So when he showed up at last month at the Kong Off, a two-day competition that gathers the best Donkey Kong players in the world to compete for a $1000 cash prize, there was an air of expectation.
But the only player to reach a kill screen on the first day of the event, at Richie Knucklez Arcade in Flemington, New Jersey, wasn't Wiebe. It was the little-known player sitting next to him: Cranston's Eric Howard.
"I've been playing off and on since early 2009," Howard writes, in an email interview. "What made me good at Donkey Kong was . . . learning the game from scratch. I didn't watch anyone play. And I learned some things others might not know. Using a quote from the movie, 'It's in your DNA. You either have it or you don't.' "
Howard, who sat hunched over his Donkey Kong machine for 10 hours on the first day, intermittently receiving backrubs from his girlfriend, began playing the game after watching the documentary.
And when he was told he'd be sitting next to Wiebe at the competition, he was elated. Then he got a little concerned. Sitting next to Wiebe meant he'd be compared to him the whole time he was playing. If he failed to post a decent score, he worried, he'd just be "the guy sitting next to Steve Wiebe."
Howard decided early on that, in order to put himself on the map, he had to reach a kill screen. He even called it out, Babe Ruth-style, the day before the event. "Now," he writes, "I'm the guy who got a kill screen sitting next to Steve Wiebe."
Howard started practicing Donkey Kong on a crappy machine at his local bowling alley. But he could only go so far.
"The owner of the machine wouldn't fix the jump button which would cause me to die," he writes, "so I decided to buy my own machine . . . Things like age have an effect on the CPU chip, the Z-80, and old ROMS. Also, there are many different board sets like TKG — XXX and so on . . . Damn! I got a little nerdy right there."
After practicing for about two years, Howard was able to post some pretty high scores, though he never took the record. "I was one of the last people invited to the Kong Off," he writes. "I actually didn't think I was going to get in."
While other players at the event eventually beat his score, including Wiebe and current record holder Hank Chien, Howard still placed third overall — even beating out Billy Mitchell. Not bad for his first time in the limelight.
"I felt on top of the world and I still do," writes Howard. "I've got some more tricks up my sleeve (other games), so stay tuned."