Twin Galaxies at 40 - Tim McVey Day, January 28 1984

Jason Bennett,

January 28, 2021 2:19 PM

When an 8-bit snake and a billion points led to an epic record and a longer nap

On November 10, 1981, Jon Bloch and Walter Day opened an arcade in downtown Ottumwa, Iowa. Flanked by a shoe store and an optometrist shop at 226 East Main Street, Twin Galaxies welcomed its first customers at 6:30pm and in doing so, joined an ever-growing number of arcade businesses that opened across the country and around the world hoping to tap into the wallets of gamers eager to try their hand at the latest video game offering.

As part of a 40 year retrospective, we'll be sharing examples of historical materials from the Twin Galaxies Documentary Archive over the coming months. To kick things off, we'll start with arcade champion Tim McVey.

Thirty seven years ago on January 28, the residents of a small Iowa gathered to celebrate a first in the history of civic day declarations: a video game high score. Led by Mayor Jerry Parker of Ottumwa and Twin Galaxies owner Walter Day, guests and the media gathered at the same downtown arcade where 17 year old homegrown champion Tim McVey became the first person to score a billion points on an arcade game released by Rock-Ola Manufacturing Corporation called Nibbler.

A day of celebration at the Twin Galaxies arcade [Source: Cathy Meddin-Robinson]

Nearly two weeks earlier on a chilly Sunday afternoon, Tim walked into Twin Galaxies and dropped a token into the arcade machine. Two days later, Tim’s game finally ended with a new world record score of 1,000,042,270 points, the first billion ever achieved on any video game. But Tim’s journey to that milestone stretched back to the previous summer when he walked into the arcade to find Tom Asaki, a Montana State University student in front of the same game. 

Already known as a Ms. Pac-Man champion, Tom had gotten the idea of being the first person to achieve a billion points on a video game. In surveying possible candidates, he briefly considered Robotron: 2084 but calculated he would need to be playing for a week to hit the magic number. Nibbler, however, offered more promising point metrics with the possibility of securing a billion after two days of continuous play. Instead of shooting Spheroids and Quarks, in Nibbler the player navigates a snake through a Pac-Man style maze, consuming objects for points. However, with each gulp, the length of the snake increases and with it, the risk of colliding with yourself and a lost life. 

Nibbler eyes more food and a greater chance of running out of maze to navigate

In June 1983, Tom was ostensibly on vacation to California but he changed up his summer travel plans and headed to Ottumwa. Only 4 weeks earlier, Tom had set a new Nibbler high score of 838,322,160 and was feeling optimistic that a billion was within reach. After a day of arcade action, Tom crossed the 600 million point threshold with dozens of lives in reserve and was in great shape. A local newspaper photographer in attendance snapped a photo of the gamer flashing a thumbs up sign. However, by 10pm that Wednesday night, Tom’s game blinked out as he accidently accumulated more than 127 reserve lives. In doing so, a repeatable glitch caused the machine to reset, bringing his promising match to a disappointing end. 

Tom demonstrates the different sides of Nibbler  [Source: Cathy Meddin-Robinson]

Inspired by Tom’s quest, Tim decided to undertake the billion point mission as well. Over the ensuing months, the gamers built up a rapport as they both spent time together at the arcade and exchanged notes on game strategy. As they traded places attempting to reach the magic number, Tim’s moment finally arrived 6 months later in the dead of winter.

Tim was hopeful when he walked into Twin Galaxies that Sunday afternoon - he had been practicing for months, with six serious runs under his belt. And to help ward off the boredom and fatigue that invariably confronts marathon gamers, Bill Mitchell and Chris Ayra kept Tim "psyched up” to maintain his focus over the duration of his run.

By Monday evening, Tim knew that he was in good shape as he surpassed his previous high score of 716 million after 31 hours of play. But when he closed within 200 million points of his goal, he nearly threw in the towel: a friend ran into the arcade with a “certified letter” that declared someone had reached 2 billion points on Nibbler. As Tim debated whether he should continue all the while losing lives, it was hurriedly clarified that the alleged game was achieved by two gamers playing the game in shifts. With his goal reaffirmed, Tim pressed on.

Tuesday morning arrived, and word got out to the local newsroom that Tim was at 900 million. A news crew scrambled down to the arcade to catch the moment, but the distraction of equipment set-up and the glare of the lights to illuminate the big moment nearly did Tim in. With a crowd and cameras rolling, Tim re-established his focus.

And then, it happened. As Tim completed a level with 999,950,950 points, he stepped back as the game tabulated and added his bonus points, displaying the highest score ever witnessed on an arcade game at that time - 1,000,042,270. Although he had 10 lives in reserve, Tim was done. With the billion points registered on screen, he eventually left Twin Galaxies and made his way back home where he set a personal record to match his high score efforts - 38 continuous hours of sleep. 

A copy of the original Tim McVey Day poster from the TG Documentary Archives

For other examples of Twin Galaxies history, check out the newly uploaded archive materials at the following link

The source material for this story was from “The 1,000,000,000 Point Game,” by Paul Stokstad (Computer Games, July/August 1984) 


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