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Nov
08

Perfection

Next weekend, I will attempt to do what has only been done by a handful of people. I will attempt to play a perfect game of Pac-Man.

To date, this has only been accomplished by seven people. Depending on your criteria, though, that number can be further reduced. If you are tracking original factory speed Pac-Man – which I think is boring – there are seven individuals who have played a perfect game, starting with Billy Mitchell in 1999. If you are tracking Pac-Man Turbo, though, that number gets reduced to two people (Donald Hayes and David Race, who both have also accomplished the feat on factory speed). Since The 1up only has Pac-Man Turbo, that is the variation I play. As such, if I get a perfect game I will be the third person to ever do it on that particular variation.

Further, six of those seven perfect players did it in the privacy of their own home and sent the unedited videotape in for certification. The only Pac-Man player to ever get a perfect game in a live, true arcade environment was Billy Mitchell. If everything goes well next weekend, I will be the second ever live perfect game.

Third ever turbo perfect game and second ever live perfect game, second only to the great Billy Mitchell, at that. No matter how you look at it, those are impressive feats. It’s kind of a big deal.

Even though I will be surrounded by a community of competitive arcade gamers as I go for the perfect game, I won’t be the main attraction. That’s because I chose the Kong Off 3 as my venue, which means the focus will be on the world championships of Donkey Kong. As such, my perfect game attempt has been relegated to the lower portion of the fight card, as it were. From the Kong Off press release:

“The highlight of the Kong Off 3 is the Donkey Kong world championship but it’s not the only happening. The largest number of arcade game world record attempts, a 24-hour marathon game of Tron by a single player as well as multiple attempts at completing perfect games on Pac-Man will take place during the three-day event.”

(At least I made the press release. Take that, guy going for the Burgertime record!)

I chose the Kong Off because it was a chance to get Twin Galaxies verified without going through the hassle of videotaping the entire ordeal and the innards of the machine immediately thereafter. Those hoops are quite difficult to jump through when you don’t have an arcade cabinet of your own and are at the whim of your local arcade owner. Luckily, my local arcade is in downtown Denver and happens to be the Kong Off venue for the second year in a row, meaning Twin Galaxies referees will be on site to verify scores. Convenient! And maybe not being the focus will be a blessing, as all eyes will most definitely not be on me.

Through a variety of fortunate events and coincidences (timing, location, Aspergers-focus), I will be able to attempt a world record in my own backyard, at a bar I visit every Friday, and not even be pressured about the hoopla surrounding my attempt. In a word: Perfect.

Why Pac-Man?

I’ve been asked many times why I bother playing a 33-year old game for hours on end. Honestly, I don’t have a quick answer. When you get down to it, though, it’s all about perfection.

I don’t know if it’s an effect of my Aspergers, but I am definitely a perfectionist. I suppose it’s related to how I view everything as black or white, perfect or failure. Grayscales are difficult for me. As such, I prefer when things have absolute answers or goals. Either you accomplish it or you don’t. I don’t want a participation trophy.

I’ve learned that Pac-Man is perfect for me. Due to a programming bug, there is a definitive ending to Pac-Man. As you play the game, there is a level counter that draws fruit in the lower right corner to mark your progress. When you begin level 256, there is an overflow bug in that level counter that causes the machine to try to draw all 256 fruit on the screen at once, which then garbles the right half of the screen. The end result is that half of the 244 dots of the level don’t get drawn. Since you cannot progress to the next level until you eat the 244th dot, you are stuck on that 256th level until you run out of lives. It effectively kills your game, hence this level is known as the kill screen.

Such is life. No matter how good you get at it, it always ends with a whimper.

Inevitable death, and yet... bliss

Because the game has a set ending, it has a maximum achievable score. That score — 3,333,360 — is referred to as a perfect game. The only way to get that score is to progress through the entire game in one life without missing a single edible ghost, bonus fruit, or dot. The reason you cannot die on your way is because there are 9 hidden dots on the right half of the kill screen that regenerate every time you die on level 256. Thus, with each life you have in reserve, you can expand your score by 90 points at the very end, up to the maximum of 3,333,360.

If that sounds difficult, it is. Again, seven people ever.

Perfection? Set goal? Patterns and systems? Hours of focus required? Sign me up!

When I am playing Pac-Man, I am in heaven. There’s really no other way to describe it. I know exactly how all of the ghosts behave and, in some ways, I can control where they go. It’s all a big system! Perfect for an Aspie like me. It’s a mix of algorithms, if-then criteria, and problem-solving. The ghosts all have individual movement algorithms based upon their relative location to you. Locations! There are set times when ghosts speed up every level when a certain number of dots are eaten. Counting! I love counting things in a systematic manner. But the target number of dots for each speed increase changes with which level you are on. Memorizing data tables! You’re on the second apple level now, that means you’re at level 9 and the ghosts speed up with 60 dots left (and again at 30) and you only get 1 second per power pellet to eat all four of them. It scratches so many itches at once.

It’s like a choreographed dance, but one that isn’t social in any way, shape, or form. Once I get past the levels where the ghosts are edible, I can relax to the point where I reach a meditative state. I’ve never explicitly meditated before, probably because its very goal — turning off the brain — is nearly impossible for me. As such, I wouldn’t know exactly what that’s like. However, when I reach that point where I just have to avoid the ghosts and not worry about eating them, my brain turns off and I reach what I think meditation would feel like. I zone out. No thoughts. The crowded 1up becomes a warm background that I don’t notice. I stop sweating. I stop fidgeting after every level clears. The jukebox songs don’t matter. The drunks bumping into me don’t matter. Time doesn’t matter. Nothing around me matters but that glowing CRT screen in front of me. If I stay in that state long enough, I don’t even notice the joystick anymore. I get to a point where I’m just watching the game play itself. It’s simply amazing. And it can last for upwards of three hours.

When I finally get pulled out of that state, either by kill screen or Pac-Man death, I miss that state of not having my brain going on overdrive. I imagine that’s what being a NT feels like. I wish I could be that way all the time. But no, as soon as I’m back to thinking, I’m over-thinking everything. The music is too loud again. The drunks are annoying me again. The joystick sucks whenever I try to move downward. In a way, Pac-Man is my way of escaping Aspergers for a little while.

 

How Did We Get Here?

Really, it all started with a failed $20 bet.

When I flew out to Denver to interview for the job that would finally move me here, I stayed at my friend Cody’s apartment and slept on his couch. He dropped me off at my interview that April morning and I completely nailed it. When he picked me up afterward, there was a sense that we should celebrate the impending awesomeness. We went to Lodo’s for lunch and then walked the block to The 1up. It was my first visit to the barcade. I was immediately in love.

After grabbing a couple of beers, Cody challenged me to Pac-Man. Apparently he had done this sort of challenge before with local friends and figured it was a quick way to take some of my money. Cody would put down $20 and play a game. Then, I’d put $20 into the pot to try to beat his score. If I didn’t beat his score, I’d put another $20 in for each attempt to beat his score. If I succeeded, he would put in $20 and try to recapture first place. At the end of the day, whoever had the high score would walk away with the entire pot of money. Seeing as I was about to go through a major life-change and would probably have to pay for the move, I wasn’t comfortable with the $20 buy-in, especially since his personal best score was in the neighborhood of 180,000 points. I tried to haggle it down to $5 per game. When Cody refused to lower the buy-in, we decided there would be no bet and we’d compete just for bragging rights.

Clearly I have those bragging rights now. I lost that afternoon, but I should have looked at that initial visit as an investment.

After moving to Denver, we would go to The 1up weekly. The first two months, Cody and I were neck-and-neck. We started getting very competitive with our games. Both of us were regularly getting to the stages where the ghosts stopped changing colors when you grab the power pellets, but not much further. My personal best finally beat his on July 3, 2012, at the now-meager score of 246,190.

Progress!

A couple of weeks later, we arrived at The 1up to find someone already playing on the Pac-Man machine. Normally when this happened we’d get a beer and head to the Killer Instinct machine for a few matches. After doing so this time, however, the guy was still at the machine. We peered over his shoulder. He was still playing on the same quarter, with a score above 600,000! We were incredulous. Here was a guy who avoided all of the ghosts and grabbed both bonus keys per map. He meticulously followed the same path for the first half of the map and freestyled the latter portion. We watched him go on like this for another 100,000 points. When his game was over, I asked him what his personal best score was.

“About 850,000,” he replied.

Challenge accepted!

He went on to tell me that after you get past the point where ghosts aren’t edible anymore, it’s just a matter of using a pattern to drive your score higher. Since I am good at recognizing patterns, I had noticed that already while watching him play. I had already memorized the portion he patterned – everything until he grabbed the first bonus key. When he stepped away from the machine, I played a game while he watched. I didn’t beat my personal best, but he said that he liked what I saw.

“I’m Ricardo. I’m sure I’ll see you guys around here. Keep playing, you’ll be good.”

Over the next month, I tinkered with that pattern. Eventually, I was able to work out a pattern that expanded on Ricardo’s and would clear the level about 50% of the time without any improvisation.  I regularly scored in the 300,000s and 400,000s. My games were starting to take too long for Cody, who was stuck near 180,000. He eventually stopped competing with me. That was fine, though, because I had a new goal: Beat Ricardo.

My scoring fluctuated wildly using this new pattern. Some nights I could get 718,220 while scoring only 280,940 on the next visit. It was maddening, but progress was still being made. I had memorized my pattern and could get it to the point where it was 80% reliable, but I still couldn’t top Ricardo’s 850,000.

Finally on November 9th, I had a breakthrough. Actually, I originally had one too many beers, which lead to a breakthrough. I was having a rough night of Pac-Man when I decided to have “one more beer,” which turned into a couple, maybe a few. On the final game of the night, I was in pattern mode when the joystick slipped from my hand. In my stupor, I grasped for the knob and tried to reestablish my normal pattern. I succeeded, but with slightly different timing. Panicked, I completed the stage with far fewer close calls than normal. What the…? Let’s try that again. The next level, I inserted a deliberate pause in my pattern. Perfect completion of the map. And again with the next one. And the next. This is amazing! This is my new pattern!

By the end of that game, my personal best was 1,906,490. I was so giddy during the last million that I had a huge smile on my face and was chuckling to myself. I cannot wait to come back for my next game! The problem with that timing was that the next Friday (my normal 1up visit day) was the opening night of the Kong Off 2, and the Pac-Man machine was taken off of the gaming floor to make room for the Donkey Kong machines. The following week was Thanksgiving, which took us to St. Louis for family obligations. Will the next game never come?! Due to these weeks off, my next game wasn’t until November 30th, but it was well worth the wait. 3,069,120!

Next goal: Kill screen.

At this point, I thought it would be easy to get to the kill screen. I was wrong. That personal best game was good fortune, as I would find out through a four-month stretch that saw me only sniff 3 million once. It turns out that my pattern was only reliable 90% of the time and I had lucked out in my consistency during that personal best game. That stretch was rough. I almost wanted to quit. I started trying out different improvisations on my pattern, hoping to find one that would take my game to the kill screen promised land.

On March 22nd, I lucked out. The improvisation that worked was simply going the opposite way around a corner loop. This minor change completely changed how the ghosts behave in the crucial portion of my pattern that determined whether or not I could grab the second bonus key without major threat. Unfortunately, I discovered this variation on my final life of the game. However, that minor change resulted in my current pattern, which is 99% reliable.

Armed with this new pattern, I returned to The 1up the following day and finally killed Pac-Man.

You always remember your first

After a celebratory Ectoplasm shot, I began wondering what the next goal would be. There wasn’t much left to do now but aim for perfection. It’s always about perfection. What more perfect way than to score a perfect game while Walter Day was present so I could get Twin Galaxies verified for the world record? And so the Kong Off was set as my target and my deadline. We’re a week away and it’s simultaneously so far away and too close.

 

3,333,360 Is The New 300

Growing up, I loved bowling and would strive for the perfect game there. Again, always chasing perfection. Since my high score ended up at 272, I was never able to achieve perfection on the bowling alley. It has always bugged me, but I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it won’t happen. Hopefully my Pac-Man quest will find a better ending.

As I’ve found out over the past seven months, doing perfect eating and perfect pattern work for 3+ hours can be difficult. There’s a reason only a handful of people have completed a perfect game on Pac-Man. I’m hoping next weekend to add my name to the list of the elite. Wish me luck!

1 comment

  1. William Carlton says:

    Great write up!
    You the F’ing man.
    I’m originally from Florissant, MO.

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