Pac-Man: Achieving The Perfect Game

32 years in the making, UK player Jon Stoodley achieved a live perfect score on Pac-Man on August 22nd 2015.

Here’s how Wikipedia describes a perfect game of Pac-Man:

A perfect Pac-Man game occurs when the player achieves the maximum possible score on the first 255 levels (by eating every possible dot, power pellet, fruit, and enemy) without losing a single life, and using all extra lives to score as many points as possible on Level 256. The first person to achieve this score was Billy Mitchell of Hollywood, Florida, who performed the feat in about six hours. Since then, six other players have attained the maximum score in increasingly faster times.

From my perspective, there’s three stages to achieving a perfect game:

During the first 20 boards, you eat dots and powerpills, and the ghosts turn blue and you can eat them, along with all the other dots and fruit. These screens vary in speed, and also vary in terms of how long the ghosts turn blue. In some instances you have one second to eat all four ghosts.

What follows from screen 21, are 235 boards of the same thing. This is known as “crossing the desert”. The powerpills don’t work and the ghosts cannot be eaten. You have to get a pattern in your head, learn it, and execute it 235 times over and over and over. No mistakes, no room for error. You are the loneliest gamer in the world at this point no one can help you, you are fighting your own mind – if it wonders, you’re in trouble.

And then of course, finally, the infamous “split screen” at screen 256. (Bear in mind that in order to get a perfect score, you have to arrive at this point on your first man. Every dot, every powerpill, every ghost, every fruit. Without losing a life). The game literally “crashes” due to eight-bit coding and an expectation from Iwatani-san that no one would ever get there anyway. In short, the garbage displayed on the screen means that there aren’t enough dots to eat for the game to register that the level is complete. There are dots there, but some are hidden in the mess on the right hand side. You eat what you can, then kill off Pac-Man, and do it again with your remaining lives.

Pac Split
The mess of the split screen. Level 256 of Pacman

So, do those three things, and six hours or so later, you get your perfect score of 3,333,360.

An achievement in itself…

But what many people don’t appreciate, is that whilst anyone can get a perfect game of Pac-Man – all the patterns are out there on YouTube if you can be bothered to learn them – not everyone can actually play the game to the point where you can manipulate the ghosts at will and put them where you need them to be in order to max out the game.

In 1983, Jon Stoodley from the UK, got to the end of the game – level 256 where it craps out. Decent enough to get it verified by the owner of the arcade and submitted to the esteemed UK magazine “Computer & Videogames”. They printed the score, and amazingly, what we now know is that had we over here in Blighty known about Twin Galaxies, the self-proclaimed custodian and officiator of arcade high scores on the other side of the Atlantic, his score of 3,221,000 would have been the officially verified Pac-Man world record at the time, beating the highest recorded score up to that point of 3,191,000 achieved by Tim Balderramos.

The score submitted should have got Jon to the UK arcade game championships back then, but Pac-Man was already seen as too out of date to be included so it went nowhere (trivia fact: Julian Rignall himself won that tournament).

But it was moot. Because shortly afterwards, everything went away.

Everyone stopped going to the arcades. Pac-Man was sent to the dump along with his arcade relatives QBert, DigDug and Mappy. Las Vegas arcade closed down and Jon got some O Levels and started his adult life.

Fast-forward 25 years and through a series of weird coincidences (no I can’t be bothered to explain) Jon discovers an old Pac-Man cabaret cabinet in a barn. He buys it and decides to restore it to its former glory with intent to start playing again.

“It was unfinished business” explains Jon. “I knew the game pretty well, but there was still more to do. I had to get to the end – complete it”. Jon had read about a certain Billy Mitchell who in July 1999 achieved the impossible – a perfect game of Pac-Man. Every dot, power pill, ghost, fruit bonus right up to the split screen at level 256, where the game craps out and ends. This culminates in a score of 3,333,360 – the ultimate game.

Incredible as this may seem, YOU can do it too. The patterns are on YouTube. If you can be bothered to learn them, then play the game for six hours in one sitting without losing a life, you can add yourself to the roster of just 6 other people who have now followed in Bill’s mighty footsteps and max the game out.

But Jon wasn’t going to do it the easy way. He has steadfastly refused to use MAME or to achieve a perfect game using patterns. His was the way of the Pac-Ninja. No cheats, no copying, no MAME, no rack-advance (a method whereby you can start the game on any level and practice). Jon played and studied – got under the skin of the game, learned how the Ghosts moved and worked out how to group them together – a must if you want to perfect the game. This freehand style can’t be learnt – you have to do it, and go through the mental strain of failing, picking yourself up again and going at it, time after time after time.

All this was in pursuit of his dark passenger: The elusive perfect game, and done the old school way – on an original Pac-Man arcade cab.


Crossing the desert

Imagine a game where you are on course for perfect, and three hours in your mind wonders and you go up instead of down. Boom. Game Over.

Again.

Level 16. Your grouping is one pixel out. The fourth ghost on the level where you get just one second to eat them all after eating a power pill, changes back to red just before you have the chance to eat it. Boom. Game Over.

Again.

You’re playing live in America on a cab you’re not familiar with. The monitor starts to heat up after being on all day and shakes almost imperceptibly on this cab the organisers have provided. 20 people are watching you four hours in. The shake gets worse. You start hoping it doesn’t get worse, and thinking about what you’re going to do if it does. Boom. Game Over.

Again.

You’re playing at home and streaming live on Twitch to the world. The dog gets up and knocks the webcam over. Boom. Game Over.

List all the things that could go wrong and Jon can tell you one more. I would have given up a long time ago – and most people do.

To study the split screen at level 256, Jon played half a dozen 5-6 hour games just to get to that screen so he could work out what he had to do should he ever get there at the end of a perfect run. He could have used rack-advance and got there in 10 minutes.

And incredibly all of Jon’s 20 or so serious attempts at perfect have been done live in an “arcade” environment – just like it would have been done back in 1983. I’ve witnessed many of these attempts and talked to Jon about his steely determination to get his perfect game in the way he wanted to do it.

I suppose it’s human nature to admit that after so many failed attempts, I started to think he’d never do it. The moment had surely passed. “Doing a Stoodley” became synonymous with breaking down on a videogame just before the end.

But in 2014, Jon got close. Really close. At the Play Manchester event, he got a “perfect eat”. Whereby everything was eaten by Pac-Man right to the end, but he lost a life along the way, meaning his score was just 90 points short of perfect.

This was back on surely. “It’s just a matter of time” said Jon.

August 2015. At the Play Margate event this time. He tried again. Live. After 2 failed attempts on day one, he quietly set up again on day two, and before anyone had realized what was happening he was on course for a perfect game. At 10.30 pm in front of dozens of witnesses, and captured in full on tape, Jon came out the other side with a perfect score of 3,333,360 points.

You see, what makes Jon’s achievement so extraordinary, is the way he’s done it. He’s never used a pattern up to the 21st board and plays them all totally “freehand”. Very few players can do this, and achieve a perfect game.

Six people have achieved the perfect score on Pac-Man to date. But most of them have learned patterns from other players to be one of the half dozen people in that elite club. But ask any other “perfect” player to cope with the game when their patterns break down, and the vast majority can’t. They’ve literally read a book, learned how to do it, and executed it. Of course, if those patterns break down, the game will typically end, because players don’t know how to recover when their game goes outside of the parameters of what they’ve learned. Jon mastered the game the old school way. He knows what to do because he’s always played the game on the fly, and has got into the underbelly and soul of the game.

There’s also something called “rack advance” in the game. This is where you can open up the machine (or do it in MAME), press a dipswitch and cycle through the screens, so that you can start on any of the 256 levels you want. Of course, if you have this sort of access to a machine, this means that you can advance the game to the split screen at level 256 where the game ends, and start there to practise that screen without having to plough through 255 levels to get to that point some six hours later. Jon has never used Rack Advance, he wanted to work it all out by playing, and dying, and playing and dying.


So many adversaries along the way to deal with!

Add to that his admirable decision to only do a perfect game in a live environment. He’s always been insistent that if the score wasn’t achieved “live” in front of witnesses, then it wouldn’t count for much, because back in ’83, that’s how it was done. The pressure of a live environment added to the difficulty of getting a score.

I dread to think of how many hours I’ve watched Jon playing Pac-Man at live events both here in the UK and America. I’ve witnessed some heartbreaking moments with him (even just the day before he achieved his score, he got to 2.2 million and his pattern broke down crossing the desert). It’s hard to know what to say when someone doesn’t achieve something they’ve worked so hard to get. Thankfully I don’t have to struggle to console him ever again about Pac-Man! More than any other gamer he’s paid his dues and deserves a huge amount of credit. Not to mention the money he’s raised for charity along the way.


Jon playing live

A lot of people play videogames for all sorts of reasons these days. It’s hard to define a “gamer” now. We were all called nerds once. Go back to the mid 2000’s and even then, just a few short years ago, we had a thing going on. It was ours – a little corner of the web that we knew would appeal only to a certain demographic. We could shout stuff from the rooftops that only certain people would get. I liked that.

But inevitably games have gone big. It’s not a dirty little secret any more – in fact in the last five years, it’s as ubiquitous as Facebook itself. The term “videogame” can now mean anything from arcade machines, consoles, and (the horror!) “mobile gaming”. Diluted like piss-weak Ribena, mobile gaming is a moneymaking machine spewing out acres of me-too shovelware, and the beautiful shining gems that we remember from years gone by, are harder and harder to find. Even my mum plays Candy Crush in the bath, and yet five years ago she was asking me to help her set up her new toaster.

Even over at good old Twin Galaxies these days you can submit a new score on level 1.2 of Kirby’s Fanny Pack 7: The Mother’s Dawn on NTSC (easy difficulty) on the Android platform if you really want to, and claim yourself to be the World Champion.

I’m pretty depressed about it all to be honest, thanks for asking.

So what’s happened to the original players? The guys who populated the arcades of the eighties?

The good news is they’re still out there doing their thing, albeit drowned within the noise of GTAV, Angry Birds, Flappy Bird, FIFA 2015 and especially Kirby’s Fanny Pack. Probably.

Some of these players not only still play the classics, but have also been on a mission. A mission to perfect their game of choice, unswayed by modern tech that can emulate games and break them down into tiny chunks allowing you to analyse down to the last pixel to get your game right.

Back in 1981 at 13 years young, Jon discovered Pac-Man in his local arcade “Las Vegas” in the town centre of Liverpool. As was typical, he’d get his pocket money, get on the bus, ride into town and play the game. He got better by watching other players, learning his craft and sharing tips amongst his peers. He learnt the game by looking over other kid’s shoulders, not by watching a video on YouTube as we might do now.

It’s really easy to underestimate what Jon has achieved here – his is a massive, massive achievement, really off the scale. I can’t see anyone else ever getting a perfect game of Pacman in the way he went after his goal.

Jon Stoodley paid his dues and joined an elite club on 22nd August 2015, and he did it in style.

Congratulations mate. You did it.


Jon with Bill Mitchell, November 2014

If you’ve got a spare few hours, you can relive Jon’s perfect game below. The whole game is in 5 parts: (Split Screen is at the end of Part 4).

One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s