Meet the 'Neil Armstrong' of Pac-Man

Story highlights

  • Billy Mitchell is the first person to achieve a perfect score in Pac-Man
  • He was crowned 1999 Video Game "Player of the Century" by Pac-Man's founder
  • He achieved record high scores in Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Centipede and Burger Time

Hollywood, Florida (CNN)When it comes to arcade games, Billy Mitchell likes to compare himself to Neil Armstrong.

"Who was the first one to the moon? Neil Armstrong. Who was the first person to get a perfect a perfect score on Pac-Man? Billy Mitchell. I was the first one. No one cares who was the second," he said.
Knighted the Video Game "Player of the Century," Mitchell has held world records in Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Centipede and Burger Time.
    Mitchell grew up in South Florida in the early 1980s, hanging around the Grand Prix Race-o-Rama arcade and amusement park. While he started out playing pinball, he began to notice a lot of hype around this cool new thing called arcade games. He wanted a piece of the action.
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    "Video games were becoming more and more popular and they were stealing the fire from pinball," he said. "All the competition was moving to video games and I wanted that competition. "
    Being good at arcade games in the early '80s was kind of like being a star quarterback on a high school football team, Mitchell recalled.
    "It was an absolute sporting environment. It was the place where everyone wanted to be. Everybody was fighting to try to be the best and we were at the forefront of it," Mitchell said.
    In 1982, at the height of what some consider the golden age of arcade games, LIFE magazine did a photo shoot with the 20 best arcade games players. Mitchell, who was 17 years old at the time, made it his duty to be selected for that photo.
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    "I was very sure I had the world record on Donkey Kong," he said. "There was a fabled score that was higher than mine. I was totally paranoid I was going to be left out of the photo, so in a one-month period, I began playing Centipede and prior to the event I set a world record on Centipede, which is how I'm featured in LIFE magazine."
    It was at that same gathering that Mitchell also became the official world record holder for Donkey Kong, beating out Steve Sanders, who claimed to hold that same, fabled high score which Mitchell feared would keep him out of the LIFE magazine photo.

    The secret of his success

    Mitchell attributes his success in arcade games to an acute ability to focus, an obsession for competition and a bit of luck.
    "You have to have a focus that you can play in a battlefield," he said. "I get knocked down just like everybody else, but the fact of the matter is, I don't ever ever, ever surrender. Simply standup and keep pushing forward."
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    At the same time, Mitchell knew when it was time to take a break. As the popularity of arcade games began to wane in the mid-1980s, he redirected his focus into taking over his dad's restaurant, kicking off his own hot sauce business and starting a family.
    "When I was 20 years old, I realized I couldn't play arcade games forever. The industry of arcade games was also beginning to change," Mitchell said. "It was the beginning of a metamorphosis from arcade games to home game systems."
    For the next decade and a half, Mitchell rarely touched arcade games at all. His hot sauce business took off; he got married to his wife, Evelyn, and had three kids. But in the late 1990s, Mitchell received a call, and on the other side of that call was a threat to his legacy.
    "These Canadian guys were on the line, claiming they had the ability to get a perfect score in Pac-Man," Mitchell recalled. "To allow someone else to come and get credit for the perfect score in front of me, was not acceptable. So there became the race for the perfect Pac-Man game."

    Nine Pac-Man dots from victory

    On July 3, 1999, Mitchell and his Canadian competitor Rick Fothergill faced off at Funspot, a historic arcade in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire.
    Mitchell, who knew Fothergill to compete wearing a red Canadian flag cape, decided that he'd arrive patriotic himself, donning a necktie bearing an American flag.
    In a fierce competition that lasted the entire weekend, Mitchell and Fothergill went head-to-head.
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    What resulted was unprecedented.
    Mitchell beat the game, scoring 3,333,360 points.
    He became the first person ever to achieve a perfect score in Pac-Man.
    Despite that major victory, Mitchell still tips his hat to his competitor who was dots away from beating him to it.
    "Fothergill came nine dots from a perfect score, right before me, right in front of me, it was that close," Mitchell said. "But the fact of the matter is that I played. I was the very first one to get a live perfect score."

    'Like a rock star'

    After defeating Fothergill. Mitchell was bombarded with TV interviews and public appearance requests.
    He also received a very special invitation from the founder of Pac-Man himself, Masaya Nakamura, who invited him to attend the Tokyo Game Show.
    In September 1999, Mitchell traveled to Tokyo and arrived to a red carpet welcome.
    "From the moment I arrived at the airport, I was treated like a rock star," Mitchell said. "When I walked through the crowd, the crowds would separate."
    During his stay, Mitchell was put into a room with a panel of Masaya Nakamura's inner circle.
    He couldn't believe that he now had the opportunity to ask the creators of Pac-Man anything he could ever want about his favorite game. But quickly Mitchell realized they knew less than he did.
    Billy Mitchell sits in his Hollywood, Florida, office where he develops custom arcade game covers.
    "I began to ask questions about Pac-Man, and they would respond, 'Mr. Mitchell we have no idea, we never thought scores like this were possible,'" he recalled. "They had more questions than I did. They had never seen Pac-Man played at that level before."

    The legacy

    Today, Mitchell wears his brown hair in a shoulder-length swoop. His beard is carefully trimmed and, despite the South Florida heat, he's rarely seen in anything but a vibrant patriotic tie and a three-piece suit. This is a style Mitchell has honed since his Pac-Man perfect score. It's his style and biting charisma that, in part, have kept his name at the forefront of the arcade gaming world.
    In 2007, Mitchell was featured in the documentary, "King of Kong," which depicted him ruthlessly defending his Donkey Kong high score against Steve Wiebe, a sheepish family man from Seattle.
    Despite Mitchell's, at times, villainous efforts, Weibe eventually did become the new Donkey Kong world record holder, with a score of 1,064,500.
    Since then, 11 other gamers have surpassed Mitchell's score.
    Despite losing some of his world record holdings, Mitchell believes his legacy will always outlast anyone else's high scores.
    "To be the first one to get a perfect score on Pac-Man is significant, to be the first one to do a kill screen on Donkey Kong is significant," Mitchell said.
    "It all comes back to that which is first."