Last week saw the release of the much anticipated arcade gaming documentary, Man vs Snake. Joining a roster of other similarly themed movies such as The King of Kong, Chasing Ghosts and the excellent High Score, the film tells the story of one man’s efforts to repeat a unique arcade world record achieved some 25 years ago on the rare Rock-Ola arcade title Nibbler.
Released in 1982, Nibbler was the first arcade video game to allow a player to score 1 billion points before it rolls back to zero. Up to then, games typically “rolled” at either 100,000 or 1,000,000 points, taking the score back to zero. The game would run out of digits, partly due to programming restrictions, and just the thought by the programmers at the time that no one would ever score that high. This rollover score became a legitimate target for players who sought to marathon arcade video games that otherwise had no ending. In time, multiple rolls were achieved on many classic arcade titles. Pacman is a good example – a perfect game score on that title is 3,333,360 points. At the end of the game the high score on screen will read just 333,360 – having rolled over three times back to zero at each of the three million-point stages of the game.
I speak from experience in playing live Missile Command. You have to grab a referee’s attention when getting close to a million points. For a score to be valid and properly verified, a referee must witness any rollover.
Nibbler was different. Whilst not hugely popular, it’s main selling point was the fact that it had a nine digit rollover point: here was an opportunity for someone to be able to record the first ever billion point game. As writer Joshua Bearman puts it in the movie:
The billion on Nibbler was this thing; like one of the seven summits. It was like Annaperna. Somebody had to get there.
Rock-Ola themselves clearly saw some press in this and quickly sanctioned a competition to find the first player to achieve the mythical goal, putting up a grand prize of an original Nibbler cabinet to the first player to get there.
As a maze style game, Nibbler puts the player in the shoes of a snake, who must travel around a variety of mazes, eating up dots (sounds familiar right?). The mechanics are interesting in that there are no enemies as such. In fact, your worst enemy is yourself – a timer counts down on each maze, and with each dot eaten, your snake gets longer. Colliding with your growing body, or running out of time before all the dots are consumed, results in the loss of a life.
The game cannot be regarded as one of the classics of its day, but the mystique of the billion point goal and the events surrounding it, has meant its profile has always been at the forefront of the hobby.
There are other challenges facing the marathon Nibbler player – one being the sound effects, which must surely go down as some of the most grating noises ever to be bestowed upon human ears; as Billy Mitchell himself puts it, it is not a game you want to play for more than 20 minutes. But add to this, a weird quirk also needs to be figured out by the marathon player. Joe Ulowetz, Nibbler’s programmer explains:
When I programmed Nibbler, I designed it so that it gave one additional life every four waves. In 8-bit arithmetic, 128 is a negative number. If you got to zero or a negative number of lives, the game would end. Someone getting 128 Nibblers is something we never expected.
To you and I, what this means is that any skilled player capable of racking up tens of extra lives in reserve as they play, needs to be very careful. Going beyond 127 banked lives and then dying, will end the game, as quite simply, the game thinks you have no lives left. Add to this a two digit lives counter at the top right of the screen, you also have to read hexadecimal code to understand exactly how many lives you have in the bank after 99 are gained. Fun huh? Maybe, but imagine concentrating on that after 30 hours?
To battle through that last 100 million points after two days of playing, when your mind and every other part of your body wants to shut down, you need every single life you’ve stored up to get you over the line. So management of that aspect of the game is absolutely key.
But these are minor issues compared to the big one. To get to one billion points on Nibbler takes anything up to 50 hours of continuous play. That’s on one single game. Breaks are possible after building up enough lives in reserve, players can afford themselves an occasional 10 minute bathroom break if required, but of course they will have to get those sacrificed lives back to earn the next interlude in their play.
And so on January 17th 1984, at the Twin Galaxies arcade in Ottumwa Iowa, Tim McVey became the first ever player to achieve the billion point score, just beating his close rival Tom Asaki to the goal. After taking nearly 45 hours to get the score, Tim cycled home and slept for another 36 hours straight. He woke, ate some macaroni cheese, then cycled back to the arcade to play some more games.
The mayor of Ottumwa declared the date as Tim McVey Day, handing Tim a key to the city in honour of his 1,000,042,270 point total. Also presented with his newly acquired Nibbler machine from Rock-Ola, Tim became the first (and probably only?) player in history to have a civic day named in his honour.
Word then got out of a player in Italy on learning about Tim’s achievement, set about beating the score. Later that year Enrico Zanetti dumped a 1,001,073,840 score on the title, surpassing McVey’s world record by a million points. Whilst not officially recognised by the American-based world record adjudicator at the time, the score was a flea in Tim’s ear, and this is largely where the documentary picks up the story.
McVey’s new challenge was to regain his score, and put beyond doubt his dominance of the game. As Tim puts it in the film, this was HIS score.
What the movie does very well is to tell the human story behind the game. The subject matter quickly becomes irrelevant, and the viewer gets to learn exactly the huge physical and emotional sacrifices that anyone gunning for a world record has to go through to achieve their goal.
A protagonist in the shape of Dwayne Richard is introduced along the way. Canadian born Dwayne (himself a fearsome opponent on any classic arcade game) goes head to head with Tim in a race to achieve this new goal. We see a variety of hardware failures and mind games come to the fore as both players seek to pip each other to the finishing post. Dwayne actually beats Tim to the finish line, only to subsequently discover a timing problem with his boardset, resulting in him magnanimously asking for his score (which took “just” 35 hours to achieve) to immediately be removed from the records.
You very quickly get a sense that Tim knows the game inside out (I suspect no one else anywhere in the world has put as many hours into Nibbler than him), and has a great insight into what is achievable – the film documents one live game that he literally walks away from just a few hours from the billion, despite having over 30 lives left in reserve – you can see that the guy just knows he wouldn’t do it after assessing his mental and physical state at that point. It’s a fascinating insight into the mindset of a marathoner.
Tim is a great lead. He wears his heart on his sleeve – and the movie is all the better for it. With the continuous support of his wife, Tina, he battles through many obstacles in pursuit of his goal. Add to this the other characters (all of whom you’ll be familiar with if you are into the hobby), including lots of programming snippets and insights from the game’s creators, the resulting package is a must watch for collectors and non-collectors alike. As a human story it is a triumph. This is the story of an ordinary guy, achieving extraordinary things.
Here’s the official trailer:
I won’t spoil the story, but please, I implore you – go and watch this documentary. You’ll thank me for it – and all for the cost of a Starbucks or thereabouts.
Information on where and how to watch the film can be found on the website here.
Do spread the word about this article – this film really does deserve our support.
Thanks for stopping by this week!