Robbie Lakeman Climbs His Way to a Donkey Kong Record

Jason Bennett,

June 17, 2020 4:48 AM

Competition heats up again on Nintendo's arcade classic

If you want to be a champion in the classic arcade scene, you’d better get used to not being a champion.

Just ask Robbie Lakeman.

Robbie has held the arcade world record score on Nintendo’s Donkey Kong four times, and he lost the top position four times. On one of those occasions, his change to second place lasted less than a day, but in other cases, it lasted for over a year and a half. 

Robbie last relinquished the world record position in March 2019 when John McCurdy - a fellow Donkey Kong player who had steadily climbed the standings - streamed a game of 1,249,500 points, beating Robbie's then-record of 1,247,700 points. At the time, Robbie was in the midst of competing at Kong Off 7, an annual Donkey Kong tournament where he previously earned the championship title and had returned to defend it. In the midst of an elimination playoff game, he received news of John’s achievement, which added to the myriad of distractions any player has to keep at bay when in the midst of competition. He pressed on, but ultimately bowed out of the tournament. Over the intervening months, John would further push his world record to 1,259,000 points, putting more distance between their respective scores.

The champion was now a former champion -- again.

When Robbie first claimed the Donkey Kong world record in 2014 with a score of 1,141,800 points, it heralded the ascendancy of a new generation of players first ushered in by Hank Chien. In 2015, the arrival of another gifted Donkey Kong player, Wes Copeland, signaled a new rivalry as the two players traded positions at the top of the arcade leaderboard for the next three years. In doing so, the community formally turned the page on the contest between Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell popularized in Seth Gordon’s cult documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Against this backdrop, John’s arrival in 2019 represented a new rivalry but a familiar dynamic.

But rivalries only tell part of the story. The competitive Donkey Kong community had grown by leaps and bounds since Richie Knucklez hosted the first Kong Off at his New Jersey arcade in 2011, with names such as Vincent Lemay, Mark Kiehl, Jeff Willms, and Jason Wade elevating game play alongside Robbie and Wes. Dean Saglio showed the way by breaking the 1.2 million barrier, a milestone once thought impossible. But Robbie was no slouch at the Kong Off, either, winning back-to-back championships and demonstrating that between the KO titles and world records, he could keep the pace, and set it as well.

Robbie Lakeman (and Dave Clark, left) competing at Kong Off 7 in Banning, CA [Image source: J/R Foto]

If Robbie had a superhero origin story, it wouldn’t involve radioactive spider venom or powerful gamma rays, but a stack of paper filled with legalese. In 2006, the United States Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which barred American citizens from engaging in the burgeoning on-line poker scene. Robbie developed an affinity for poker, but with his continued participation legally blocked, he was in search of a new pastime. A few years later his friends were heading to Funspot, an amusement centre in Laconia, NH. Growing up, Robbie was already familiar with the site since his grandparents lived in the small resort community. On this trip, Robbie’s friends were looking to achieve a world record on one of the 250 golden age arcade titles maintained there as part of the world’s largest arcade.

“I tagged along and realized that classic games from the 80s appealed to me,” explained Robbie earlier on his Twitch channel, “and that I had the skills to play those games.”

In short order, Robbie secured world records on a number of golden age titles, including Universal’s Cheeky Mouse, Konami’s The End, and Namco’s Super Pac-Man. But he soon developed an affinity for jumping barrels and wielding hammers in a pixelated quest to save Pauline from the clutches of an angry ape named Donkey Kong.

“A couple years later,” Robbie explained further, “I had developed the skills to go after the record.”

After claiming and reclaiming the arcade world record over the next four years, his reply to John’s score would take time to pull together. In the weeks following Kong Off 7, Robbie found himself at Rickie Knucklez’s arcade where he streamed Donkey Kong runs. Despite some promising attempts, piecing together a world record run would require more patience. Then several months would pass where Robbie didn’t have access to a Donkey Kong arcade cabinet at all, and the closure of Funspot to combat the spread of covid-19 beginning in March would further complicate his situation to put in the practice to achieve a 1.2 million point game.

Robbie's last man dies on Level 22 for a score of 1,260,700 points [Image source: Lakeman421 Twitch stream]

When you’re attempting a Donkey Kong score over of 1.2 million points, you’re engaging in a style of aggressive gameplay where in most cases you’re delaying the completion of the stage as long as possible and putting your character in danger in order to accumulate points (commonly called point pressing) before the game’s kill screen on Level 22, which abruptly ends the match. It’s a level of game play where the effort to eke out an extra thousand points - amidst random point values and on-screen enemies - is achieved in fits and starts. 

Then yesterday, everything came together. A few weeks earlier, Robbie secured a Donkey Kong cabinet and set out to stream and get back into form. He started his game strongly, achieving 149,500 points after the first 4 levels. But the game also generated its own share of drama along the way. Down to his last man on Level 16-2, Robbie had to push through 6 levels and 35 frantic boards of play before achieving 1,260,700 points by the kill screen, capping the three and a half hour game.

"I am so tired man," he declared after registering his initials RAL on the game’s scoreboard. "I can barely walk."

But to understand what keeps Robbie coming back, you have to look beyond pride and bring into focus his family -- from playing Super Nintendo after school as a kid, to summertime visits to Funspot with his grandparents, or dedicating his Kong Off wins to his father who passed away in 2011. It’s a kinship that provides perspective, for both the inevitable highs and lows of competition, as well as life.

"Too bad my time at the top [of the leaderboard] will be short," he offered humbly on Twitch, "but it's been fun."

In Robbie’s case, Donkey Kong fun has a habit of repeating itself.

*Robbie’’s run is official on the Donkey Kong Forum, but has not yet been submitted or adjudicated on Twin Galaxies at the time of this writing.

You can catch Robbie's 1.260 million point game on his Twitch channel, Lakeman421


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