The Second Act of Steve Wiebe

Jason Bennett,

May 28, 2020 10:20 AM

Ten years after last entering the record books for top score on Nintendo's Donkey Kong, Steve is ready to turn the page.

Not long ago, mornings used to follow a predictable routine for Steve Wiebe - stirring from bed at an early hour, coffee in the kitchen with his wife Nicole, the necessary morning grooming, and then a 30 minute commute to Redmond High School followed by lesson prep as the school’s math teacher before the homeroom bell. Today, while the coffee and conversation are still there, Steve’s commute is now 25 steps into the den where he settles in at his computer to record video lessons on geometry and calculus for the virtual classroom while also answering student questions and checking up on assignments. 

When Washington state's governor Jay Inslee first issued emergency orders in March to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the resulting school closures gave new impetus for teachers to reflect on long-standing issues about the potential challenges of on-line instruction, as well as opportunities. In a similar vein, the disruption also spurred Steve to undergo a parallel period of reflection: a chance to evaluate changing circumstances, recurring questions, and his legacy as an arcade video game competitor.

In August 2010, Steve submitted a then-world record of 1,064,500 points on the arcade game Donkey Kong, the first Nintendo title to feature the company’s iconic mascot, Mario, known at that time as “Jumpman." The score would also serve as Steve's final submission before stepping back from competitive gameplay. Coincidently, just a few weeks earlier, Steve was feted at the inaugural induction ceremony of the International Video Game Hall of Fame and Museum in Ottumwa, Iowa for his career of world record performances on Donkey Kong, and more recently, Donkey Kong Junior. Although the convergence of the ceremony and his decision to step back was happenstance, the symbolism was not lost on him. 

“There comes a point where you move on from a certain time period in your life,” observed Steve. “I had been playing for world records for over a 10 year period and I felt that I had nothing more to gain.” 

Of course, Steve’s journey was more public than most. His appearance as the principal protagonist in the cult favorite documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters popularized his quest for world record glory opposite Donkey Kong competitor Billy Mitchell. The see-saw battle for top spot portrayed in the film continued after its release until newcomer Hank Chien burst onto the scene with a score of 1,061,700. 

“When I lost the record from Hank and then Billy,” Steve recounted, “I made a decision to regain it one more time and then be done with trying to continue reclaiming the record.” With scores pushing ever higher into new territory, the reality of more time and more practice became stark. “I didn’t have the necessary passion to continue pouring hours upon hours into the game,” he confessed, “so I was at peace with my final scores even though I knew I could do better.”

Before long, Steve’s “garage office” - his orange colored Donkey Kong Junior cabinet and stool seat - were fenced in by boxes and patio furniture. Although he figuratively hung up his gloves, Steve would occasionally burrow his way back to his office seat to shake off the rust leading up to the annual arcade tournament hosted by Richie Knucklez known as the Kong Off, where he appeared alongside the best Donkey Kong players in the world. But in the weeks leading up to his last Kong Off appearance in 2018, the cabinet remained buried. 

Pursuing a world record on Donkey Kong was always a balancing act - with work, with family, with interests in golf, with pursuits in music. But equally important, it was also a matter of being able to personally justify that balance with the implicit agreement between Nicole and their children that the collective effort to make it all work was worthwhile. And without the pursuit of a world record to guide them, the Wiebe household invariably settled into a new equilibrium, and for Steve, a newly weighted balance that offered more time for his other pursuits. 

That’s not to say that Steve ever truly left Donkey Kong behind, partly because we wouldn’t let him. He still received emails from fans of the documentary, viewing him through the lens of 2006 when he was in the throes of competition until he finally clinched the world record at the film’s conclusion. 

“They still think I’m the record holder,” confided Steve with a twinge of guilt. But he would still thank them earnestly for their kind words and sign the DVD copy of the film they would later send in the mail.

And on the flip side, it’s fair to say that Donkey Kong never truly left him. 

“I always enjoyed playing the game Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Junior,” offered Steve, “so the fun aspect never left for me.” 

The fun of those games first entered Steve’s life during the hey-day of arcades during the 1980s. “There were a few arcades where I would ride my bike and get in trouble for not doing my chores,” he explained. Games like Asteroids and Pac-Man originally held his interest, but with the release of Donkey Kong in July 1981 and Donkey Kong Junior the following year, Steve found his arcade calling. So much so, that his parents finally had to draw the line. “Once my mom actually walked into the arcade and took me home and embarrassed me in front of my friends,” he divulged, sharing the nightmare of every 80s gamer. “I had a good game of Donkey Kong Junior going at the time, [and I] never lived that one down.”

Steve Wiebe   [Photo credit: Lucien Knutsen]

His attachment to the game followed him through college where he purchased a cabinet to play in his fraternity, and again years later when he started a family with Nicole and commenced his world record runs in earnest upon discovering the video game records tracked by Twin Galaxies.

Following a decade of competition, it’s not surprising that Steve reached a point where he was satisfied with his accomplishments and left the field of competition on a high note. But questions can often linger with competitors, in the same way they lingered with Steve.

What if? 

Was that my best?

In the years leading up to his 2010 record, Steve recognized that there were gameplay techniques in Donkey Kong that he could have pursued more aggressively as he pressed for points.

Cycle jumping on the top girder of the barrel board. 

Being more aggressive with the top hammer on the rivet board by smashing trapped left fireballs for extra points.

But in the trade off between honing those techniques and the inevitable learning curve to perfect them, Steve opted to stick with what got him this far. “I was grinding it out and not pushing the envelope by doing the same techniques,” he recalled.   

Looking at the Twin Galaxies leaderboard today, Steve’s last world record submission now sits in 14th position. On the high score list maintained by Donkey Kong Forum, his score is further down still with a rank of 24. While Steve could accept what his placement represented in terms of a growing community of experts pushing records higher and higher, he was never indifferent about it, either.

“The score that I have on there doesn’t represent my skill level,” Steve confirmed. “I was going down and down [the leaderboard], and people who are picking up the game for the first time, after a few years they’re leapfrogging me. And I thought to myself, ‘I have to do something.’”

Those reflections on his legacy brought into focus other factors: he recently released his fourth music CD, and his kids were now young adults, opening the door for him to consider whether a new balance was presenting itself. Then a friend suggested in mid-March that in light of covid, Steve should consider streaming Donkey Kong play on-line. By early April, Steve found himself back in the garage office, clearing away the boxes. 

“I had been playing a little bit of Donkey Kong since the end of April and was brushing off the cobwebs,” he revealed. “Privately, I was considering going for a score of 1.15 million, which is a score that I’ve been capable of doing if I was willing to put in the time.” But the commitment was still tentative, the goal of a new personal high score still in flux. Then a recent email from Twin Galaxies head custodian Jace Hall prompted further reflection. 

“He encouraged me to get back into the video game scene,” Steve recounted. “I thought his message was serendipitous since I had been tinkering with going for the high scores again, but I didn’t want to make a public spectacle about it because I didn’t want to raise any expectations.” Steve initially considered keeping his quest a secret so if he failed, no one would know the difference, but Jace convinced him otherwise, “and it turns out that was exactly the push I needed to get me off the fence.” 

On the road back to competition, Steve stated that he will be guided by a simple but powerful goal: “force yourself to get out of your comfort zone.” And the potential discomfort won’t be limited to fine tuning what he already knows. “It’s about extending your existing techniques and leveraging knowledge from the community today,” he points out. For Steve, it will mean incorporating new practices into his strategy such as going for the purse bonus on the elevator or grabbing the bottom hammer on the pie factory. 

Although recently he hasn’t been able to play Donkey Kong while his cabinet’s monitor is being repaired, Steve didn’t let the time go to waste. “I used the time to study everyone else,” he offered, mentioning the games of Hank Chien, Wes Copeland, Robbie Lakeman, and current world record holder John McCurdy, “we’re all building on the shoulders of giants.” 

Steve will be building out his record runs slowly at first, and maintaining humble expectations along the way in looking to a new personal best. 

“This could be two years,” Steve laughed.

He’ll initially devote his time to drilling into his gameplay a range of point-pressing techniques, and from there start pushing into full-fledged record runs. And to share in his quest, Steve’s goal is to have a stream up by June where people can witness his progress on a semi-regular basis. 

While not given to making bold promises, Steve is keenly interested to see how things unfold. In an echo of the game’s “How High Can You Get” screen, Steve isn’t ruling out that if things break his way, he’d be interested in pushing his score into what he called “the McCurdy zone.”

But Donkey Kong is not the only arcade record on the horizon. Steve has also set his sights on a new Donkey Kong Junior record, and if he can manage to find a cabinet, a record on Nintendo’s Popeye. 

While Steve has an enviable pedigree, he’s taking nothing for granted. “I have a clear bar that I can set my sights on,” he said, looking to crack the top ten. In turning his attention to the top score, there’s a hint of renewed competition, of a willingness to learn, to push, to grind it out. “It’s a very difficult score to beat,” he confirms, “but I have finally the interest in going for it.”

And with time, effort, determination, and a little luck, the day may come when the next person who watches King of Kong and reaches out to congratulate Steve as the current world record holder may be right after all.

(To stay up-to-date with Steve as he moves towards setting up his Donkey Kong stream and learn more about his new album Years Gone By, you can follow him on Twitter at @stevewiebedk)

[Banner photo credit: D. Begley]


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