Joust Champion Lonnie McDonald Talks Classic Games And Maxing Machines

Jesse Collins,

March 15, 2018 7:15 AM

Lonnie McDonald has been the Joust champion since the 1980s. But, in the modern age, he has become a mentor, pinball player, and touring showman, pushing over 180 Joust machines to the maximum score. He told us all about it.

Twin Galaxies, which has been around since 1981, has been the center of attention for record-keeping and adjudication for video game records since conception. In the modern era, it has grown to become so much more, adding a focus around competitive gaming and esports, while maintaining the historic light. Sometimes the retro games and heroes continue to rise into the modern era to grow their legacy.

Lonnie McDonald is the long-running champion of Joust. But, he’s much more than just that. Residing in Grandview, Missouri, McDonald has made it a life goal to continue being the game champion he has been since 1982. Modern gamers are used to the standard achievements that come with playing games and a score to go along with it. Lonnie, on the other hand, makes his own achievements. And, boy, does his achievement list look good.

Source: Southern-Fried Gaming Expo
Source: Southern-Fried Gaming Expo

As a classic arcade game player, he’s most notable for his achievements in the classic coin-op Joust. Back in 1982, he was proclaimed by William’s that he was the Joust World Champion for playing Joust for a full 24 hours in a row. Having the “highest 1st man” on Joust at 935,050 has given McDonald the titles of world record holder on Twin Galaxies and Guinness.

From the get-go, Lonnie was a champion. We asked him where it all started and he delved a little into his past to detail his story all the back in 1982. “Joust hadn’t been out very long.” he started. “My friend and I played the game in doubles constantly. (But), after about one million (points) or so, he’d want to play something else. I continued on.”

Once an arcade champion, always an arcade champion

He worked his way up to notoriety. “I believe I had my name on the high score board of every Joust we knew about within a 30 Mile Radius!” He exclaimed. “If someone beat my score, I went and put double their score up to humiliate them.”

His first real achievement came that year all on a bet. The bet was placed on him playing the game for 24 hours straight. “The bet was contingent as we didn’t know if the game play lasted 24 hours, but we suspected it did since I had played over 12 hours several times.”


Preparations were strenuous and Joust can be unforgiving to those that want to conquer it. As far as practice, he just followed his normal daily play and routines, but the event needed some stipulations. “We did, however, move the machine closer to the bathroom entrance as we established the game allowed around 200 extra men, but in a bathroom break you lose a man every 7-10 seconds. There is no safe place like some games.

From the start, the hope was to make a record. No one has previously done this before and something like this could be a crowning achievement, so they came prepared. “We set up a legal pad and a Polaroid camera. People wrote down the score and took a picture every hour and signed next to the score. A copy of all this information was sent to Williams Electronics and they sent me back a letter praising my accomplishment, which included stating that no one else had done this feet and that I was their World Champion. A Joust T-shirt was also included in addition.”

The quest for more scores continues

Since then, Lonnie has made it a point not to stop there. His goal was to break as many records as he could when it came to Joust. But, the focus wasn’t on points, the focus was on being first do do radical things. Let’s rollover 9999999 on as many machines as possible. “Just got 181 machines to 9999999,” he said when we interviewed him. “I have several slated between now and April.”

The original mission, though, was to get 9999999 on at least fifty machines in fifty states, which eventually became a quest to max out as many as possible, period. That original quest “took six years and thousands of miles. The time investment alone to find one in all 50 States, then travel, and (finally) play each one 4.5 hours.

He has some fond memories from his travels to 181. “Pretty cool meeting people and sharing the joy of their collections. I have played in arcades, (arcade bars), multi-million dollar museums, Disney Quest, cold storage, garages, basements, and even with it raining on my back.”

Source: Lonnie McDonald
Source: Lonnie McDonald

His favorite was good old #100, though. “100 was very cool. That was at the original Williams Building. I brought in Walter Day and the Creators of Joust: John Newcomer, Python Anghelo, and Bill Pftuztenreuter. Roger Sharpe (famous for the pinball industry) was our MC. Steve Sanders, from King of Kong, and his sons taught the Williams Staff how to play Joust while I played number 100 on its original ROMs. Prior to the 100th rollover, though, We had the Joust development team, plus Steve Sanders, Mark Hoff (game historian), and Walter together at Harry Carey’s in Chicago. It was a synergistic circle that completed a link for both Walter and I back to our Williams Electronics history in the early 80s.”

When asked if McDonald, who also runs the Joustmaster website, had any tips for someone wanting to get into Joust, he explained that it’s a game where chess meets physics. But, he got his inspiration from a variety of places. “I was a very accomplished pool player growing up,” he explained, “which equates to shooting angles well. I also played a lot of pinball and chess.”

It’s not all Joust!

Legacy is everything in video games and when it comes to the classics, there will always be games that take inspiration of their predecessors. Back in the 1980s, Nintendo’s Balloon Fight, which was very reminiscent of Joust, came out, which Lonnie hasn’t even played. Meanwhile, in the modern era, a team-based game, Killer Queen, has risen from the arcade ashes to put a new spin on the Joust thought process. Lonnie is aware of it and had some thoughts.

“I have been asked to play on several Killer Queen teams,” he said, “but opted out as I still have plenty of Joust to play. The flight dynamics mimic Joust. The cool thing is the ‘team play’ and development of communities. I think KQ speaks to the timelessness of Joust though. Of course the rule set is deeper, but It’s an enjoyable game.”

Source: Lonnie McDonald
Source: Lonnie McDonald

By dedicating his time to Joust over other games, he has remained the king of ostrich riding. While he has been a celebrity among the classic gaming community for decades, he’s gained more fame from repetition and endurance. He got the Twin Galaxies MAME World Record while attending the 30th anniversary of Joust, holds multiple JROK world records, won the USNVGT Joust Cut-throat Tournament, and has appeared across at least ten of the Walter Day Superstars trading cards. What more can he do? He can focus his sights on pinball and preservation.

“I played (pinball games) for about a year,” the Joust master turned pinball wizard told us, “got to 271, which put me in the top 1% world ranking. I qualified for both Kansas and Missouri State tournament, won some tournaments as well."

But, it’s not all about playing games. Sometimes, it’s about restoring them and preserving history. As an advocate for game preservation, he focuses some of his time on doing just that. “I collect and restore both pinball machines and video games,” McDonald began. “Our Grand Prix EM restoration won ‘Best 70s Pin’ at the Texas PinBall festival. I try to restore one machine a year or so now, just to put in our collection. So, I guess I’m an award winning restorer.”

Although he loves the fame of being iconic, McDonald left with a final thought on where he wants his legacy to go, not as just a player and restorer, but a mentor to those that want to achieve greatness as well. “The thing I find most interesting to do is inspiring and encouraging others to set personal world records.”

If you like classic gaming (and we know you do), check out our article on Pinballz Arcade in Austin and our interview with the Texas-based Killer Queen league!


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