The 1,000,000,000 Point Game
By Paul Stokstad
Computer Games Magazine
A billion points. They once said no man would run an under-four-minute mile, and it was done. They said no man would ever break Babe Ruth's home run records, and it was done. They said no man would ever scale Mount Everest, and it was done. But to score a billion - count'em - points at an arcade game! That has never been done. Now there is a feat that is truly impossible. Well, on January 17th, the impossible became possible.
It didn't happen overnight. Actually, it happened over two nights, from 2:00 on Sunday afternoon to 10:45 in the morning on Tuesday, January 17th. That's when 17-year-old Tim McVey of Ottumwa, Iowa nearly collapsed with relief after playing the arcade game Nibbler for 44 hours and 45 minutes. His score - 1,000,042,270 points. Tim was, and still is as we go to press, the only person on earth to score a billion points at an arcade game.
What does it take to score a billion points? Sure, you've got to be a terrific player. You've got to have whip-like reflexes, superior peripheral vision and the strategy to beat all strategies. But you've got to have more. For one thing, you've got to get motivated.
One night Tim McVey strolled into Walter Day's Twin Galaxies in Ottumwa and noticed the hush of attention surrounding Tom Asaki, whom you may remember as a member of the Think Tank that beat Ms. Pac-Man (see Computer Games, April). Tim asked what all the fuss was about, and somebody explained to him that Asaki had been playing the game Nibbler for two days on a single quarter and that he was up to 770 million points. McVey was shocked. He had never heard of anyone getting a score that high. Tom Asaki was hard at work on his quest to be the first person in the world to score a billion points. Asaki failed, but he inspired McVey. He had never even played Nibbler, but wanted to give it a try.
Tim quickly became addicted to Nibbler and started nibbling away at the top scores at the game. Tim and Asaki, both chasing the same dream, started spending a lot of time together and comparing notes. Sometimes they would play a game together, switching off every ten million points. Gradually McVey began to memorize the secret codes on the board that tell you how many men you have left. This is significant information on Nibbler, because you can die out by having too many men as well as none at all.
No matter how good you are and how slick your strategy, you can't even score a lousy million points unless you can marathon. Marathoning means having the endurance and stamina to play for long periods of time. It's not uncommon for a guy to collapse with exhaustion in the middle of a marathon game, or for his bicep muscle to just spasm up and call it quits. A few months ago, a guy named Chris Emory was marathoning Q*Bert at Twin Galaxies and he fell asleep three times in the middle of the game. Each time he nodded off, his friends picked him up and threw him in the shower in the back of the arcade. Mark Klug, who holds the world record at Pole Position, got so tired during a game that he rested his arms by driving the qualifying laps with his feet. Running a 26-mile marathon race almost seems easy compared to staring intently into a little glowing screen for two days, concentrating the whole time.
Walter Day has observed that the better arcade game marathoners seem to be physically big guys. There's no scientific data, but big guys just seem to be able to stay awake and alert longer. Tim McVey is just 5'8", but solid. There's one more factor that goes into a billion-point game - the game. Tom Asaki didn't pick Nibbler because he liked the game so much. Actually, it's a fairly mediocre game. But it is a high-scoring game. Nibbler has what Walter Day calls "the highest points per hour threshold" This means that you can score a lot of points in a relatively short amount of time. Asaki considered going for the billion on Robotron, but it occurred to him that it would take about a week of nonstop play...with no sleep. Some games make it impossible to score a billion. Q* Bert, for instance, causes strange things to happen. Five separate people have reported that after playing the game for long periods of time, they would start hallucinating! The configuration of cubes, like an optical illusion, would invert or turn inside out, making it impossible to keep track of what was going on.
So Tim McVey had all the ingredients: he's a great player, he's strong, he's got the stamina, he's got the right game and he knows all the tricks to play it. Tricks like building up 127 extra men by level 99 and then leaving the game, letting the snake circle the board automatically. When you do this, you get 12,000 points and you lose a guy. You will lose as many as 20 men in just ten minutes, but you get to take a little break that your body needs to survive such stress. Even master arcade game marathoners have to go to the bathroom once in a while.
There's one more attribute a master marathoner needs-persistence. Nobody, not even Tim McVey, scores a billion points the first time out of the box. You make dumb mistakes. You have a bad day. Worst of all, the machine dies on you. Consider Tom Asaki's history of persistent nibbling. . .
First try: Scored 838 million and lost his last man after 40 hours.
Second try: Scored 707 million and lost by getting over the maximum 127 men.
Third try: Got to 793 million, and then the joystick broke. Attempts to fix it short-circuited the machine and Tom's score.
Fourth try: Scored 120 million and the machine broke again. Asaki: "I just had to sit there and watch my men die."
Asaki never reached a billion. When McVey took the baton, his luck wasn't much better. . .
First try: Scored 168 million, then somebody hit a circuit breaker at the arcade and the score was erased.
Second try: Scored 403 million and was too tired to go on after 22 hours.
Third try: Scored 113 million and the joystick died on him.
Fourth try: Scored 716 million and lost his last man after 31 hours.
Fifth try: Scored 410 million and the screen blanked out. It is suspected that someone pulled the plug intentionally.
Sixth try: Scored 208 million and a circuit breaker erased the score.
Seventh try: Bingo-a billion points! Persistence paid off.
Something must be said for the value of encouragement-for those unsung heroes who don't score a point but slap you awake every few hours and stick slices of pizza into your face so you don't fall over with hunger. In Tim's case it was Bill Mitchell and Chris "Tempest" Ayra, who stayed awake the entire 44 hours with him and kept him psyched up and nibbling away at the billion. So what happens once you've got the inspiration, skill, endurance like a tank and a little help from your friends? You go out and nail the billion, that's what. McVey rolled along for the first 800 million points like nothing was going to stop him - no mechanical failures, no human errors. But suddenly a friend burst into the arcade with a certified letter claiming that somebody else had just scored two billion at Nibbler! McVey was crushed. What's the use of going for a billion when somebody else has already hit two billion? Psychologically defeated, he lost some of his men, but he kept on playing. A closer reading of the letter revealed that it was a two-man team that had reached two billion-one played while the other slept! Encouraged, McVey pushed on toward 900 million.
People are going for high scores at Twin Galaxies all the time, but when McVey started closing in on a billion, the local news station got excited and rushed a camera crew over to record the event. McVey, already exhausted and losing his supply of men, had to fight off the glare on the screen caused by the blinding camera lights. By the time he reached 990 million, he only had six men left.
Human beings have a way of doing the impossible when the pressure is on. No doubt you've heard stories of women lifting up Volkswagens when their children were trapped under them. Tim McVey, despite his fatigue, the lights and the ten million more points he needed, summoned up all the reserves of energy he had left. In those final minutes he actually won four more men, giving him ten, and when he completed a board with 999,950,950 points, he stood back and watched the bonus points ring up... 1,000,042,270. Then he walked away from the machine.
For his efforts, Tim McVey won a free Nibbler from the game's manufacturer, Rock-Ola. He also received the key to the city of Ottumwa, Iowa, which proclaimed a "Tim McVey Day" the next week. Now Tim is waiting for someone to break his record, and he says, "No matter what they get, I'm going to break it back." Until that happens, he's gunning for another goal - the first person to play an arcade game for 100 hours straight on a single quarter. According to Tim McVey, "I want to die or fall off my chair."