The pessimists, or anyone who doesn’t share the passion, will call them obsessed, crazy, or just downright odd. But the optimists, those that know and appreciate hard work, will call them hardcore.
The definition of a “hardcore” gamer varies depending on the genre or game, but what little I just said above can apply to virtually every type of game. And in like many aspects of like, the gateway to sympathy and appreciation is understanding. So today, I write to appreciate some of the most hardcore names in game history: the bigshots of the 1st Twin Galaxies Iron Man in 1985.
For the uninitiated, Twin Galaxies is an organization that keeps video game world records, especially of the arcade game variety, and the Iron Man was their endurance race. The rules were simple: you played an arcade game, and lost if you game overed, reached a kill screen, or stopped playing, willingly or unwillingly – in short, it was all about what you could do in one run. But taking 1st place wasn’t the part that drew the crowd; the true winners, in theory, would be anyone who would play the same game for 100 hours – anyone who achieved this was promised $10,000, which at that point in time was a far bigger sum of money than it is today (and anyone struggling in the job market can attest that’s still a pretty big chunk of change). There were only two Twin Galaxies Iron Man contests in game history – one in 1985, one in 2011 – but the first one remains a noteworthy for any game historian because of some of the hardcore losses that took place.
A quick google search will tell you the results of the contest, so I’ll focus on the crazier stories here. A man named Tom Asaki, who lost after playing one run of Nibbler for twenty four consecutive hours, lost due to a glitch in the game. Put simply, each extra life was stored as a single byte in the Extra Lives data. Because of that, reaching 128 extra lives would cause the game to erroneously interpret life count as negative one – a flaw on the designer’s part, but admittedly a reasonable one considering they only ignored this assuming no one would ever play that long and get that many extra lives. But, at a score of over 300,000,000 points, Asaki was forced out of the game – game over is a game over.
Billy Mitchell was (and still is) another bigshot name in that era of gaming, most notable for his success in the old Donkey Kong arcade game (there’s a documentary about this which, barring a few factual errors, can really capture some of the hardcore times of this era – and it can also show how big of a dick you can be if you’re not training modesty alongside your gaming skills, but that’s another story). Mitchell lost after Asaki, having played for so long that the oils in his hands broke down the trackball. He passed out from exhaustion during an attempt to repair the system, totaling thirty nine hours of play.
Nobody actually hit the 100 hour mark. The closest was James Vollandt, who played the game Joust for sixty seven and a half hours. The second place finisher, Jeff Peters, had passed out at the fifty hour mark – but as the earlier description implied, coming in first wasn’t good enough for these players. Vollandt tried everything he could to keep himself awake, including spraying himself with freon in the face to keep himself awake. His game also experienced malfunctions, wiping out all 210 of his extra lives around the fifty eight hour mark. He not only narrowly avoided a game over, but also earned back forty extra lives before finally leaving the game voluntarily.
As if doing any activity for more than twenty four hours – let alone sixty seven and a half – wasn’t an accomplishment, the time period had its own disadvantages that made this even more impressive. Just think: this was an age before almost all of the energy drinks we use to power through our games, and we also have the luxury of dramatically fewer kill screens. For those who don’t know, many games (predominantly arcade games) would eventually reach a point where, if played for long enough, the player would reach the numerical limits of the game’s code. Programmers of games could not waste precious processing power on checking the game’s state, so eventually a player, if really good at a game, would reach a point where the game becomes unstable and presents unexpected and sometimes impossible challenges. For example, the original coin operated Dig Dug would accidentally plant an enemy directly on top of the player at the 256th level. Reaching a kill screen in any of these arcade games would’ve meant immediate elimination from the competition, so a careful balance of doing well enough to never die but not so well as to crash the game would take more than skill; it would take years of experiencing the game to know just when and where glitches and pitfalls lie.
It’s been a very long time since these names were hailed the way they used to be with gamers, and it goes without saying that non gamers of their time would call them obsessed or addicted, the same way hardcore gamers of our age face a little hate. We remember these names because, in a way, they’re like us. They did great things in areas we care about. So, as a closing note, I ask RetrowareTV: if competitions like this existed today, in regular iterations with modern games, how would you fare? Would you even want to endure the grueling challenges and training they did to shoot for 100 hours of gameplay in one sitting? Would you try to win – and would you?