The retro gaming community has been rocked with scandal. Decades-old world record scores on classic arcade and console video games are being called into question.
The two most prominent cases revolve around Billy Mitchell (star of the 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters), who has been accused of using MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) for some of his high scores on Donkey Kong, and Todd Rogers (seen in the 2007 documentary Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade), whose 1982 score of 5.51 seconds on Dragster for the Atari 2600 has been shown to be technically impossible.
According to the Washington Post, “Rogers said he took a Polaroid picture of his 5.51-second time and sent it to Activision, the game’s publisher, which confirmed the score. In 2000, Rogers’s score, as recorded by Activision, would eventually be formally imported into the databases of Twin Galaxies, a group that keeps track of video game records around the world. Through the ensuing years, other game records would rise and fall on the Twin Galaxies scoreboards, but the closest anyone could come to Rogers in Dragster was 5.57 seconds.”
In 2001, Guinness World Records recognized Rogers as having the longest-standing video game record in the world, but Twin Galaxies has thrown out all of his records—not just his Dragster time—and banned him for life from its online database of record-breaking scores.
In a recent statement, Twin Galaxies said: “The presented software analysis model concluded that achieving score times of less than 5.57 seconds is not possible under standard and normal play conditions. Beyond the software analysis evidence, which speaks directly to Todd Rogers’ Dragster 5.51 score time, this dispute case has collected a significant amount of circumstantial evidence as that extends well beyond Todd’s single score performance. We have evaluated this evidence carefully and found it to be compelling and relevant.”
For his part, Rogers stands by his scores, and David Crane, the programmer who created Dragster, released a statement in support of Rogers: “My position is very simple. The high scores published by Activision in the 1980s were authenticated using the established methods at the time, by the governing authority at the time. I have no doubts, then or now, that Todd Rogers achieved the scores attributed to him, provided the necessary corroborating evidence to support those scores, and earned the right to be named world champion by the accepted validating authority.”
Personally, I've known Todd Rogers since I met him at the Classic Gaming Expo in Las Vegas more than a decade ago. He introduced himself and was very friendly. Years later, at the 2015 Classic Game Fest in Austin, he came up to my exhibitor booth to say hello. By sheer coincidence, I had a couple of copies of Dragster displayed on my table marked $5 each. Knowing a good photo-op when I see one, I grabbed the Dragster cartridges, asked Rogers to hold a copy of one of my books, and had my son, who was helping me at the booth, take a picture of us.
A short time later, something strange happened.
After Rogers left my booth, I went to the restroom and left Ryan in charge.
When I came back a few minutes later, Ryan handed me the aforementioned Dragster cartridges, and there was some scrawling on the labels with a black sharpie. Much to my surprise, Todd had come back while I was gone and signed them without asking. I was stunned and a little irritated. Who does such a thing? At least he could have asked if I wanted them signed. This was my merchandise, after all.
I was tempted to confront Todd and tell him that doing such a thing was uncool. But he had always been nice to me in the past, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Plus, he meant well and thought he was doing me a favor as he seemed to think his autograph would make the games more valuable. And Dragster was a cheap game anyway, so it was no great loss, even if the games didn’t sell because they were scribbled on. (Rogers is fairly well-known in the retro gaming community, but hardly a household name, especially before the cheating accusations. As such, his autograph wasn’t really worth anything.)
After the Dragster cheating scandal story went viral, I posted the story of the autographing incident on Facebook to a few retro gaming groups, voicing my amusement and mild annoyance that Rogers had signed my games without asking. While many commenters thought it was an odd thing for him to do, I got several inquiries from people wanting to purchase the cartridges.
I went rummaging around in my garage, rifling through my convention boxes, and discovered that I still had one of them. (I thought I had both, but apparently one of them had sold at a convention.) I immediately put the signed copy of Dragster on eBay for $19.95. To give the cartridge some provenance, I included with the auction a certificate of authenticity with my signature and the photo of Todd and myself. Nothing fancy, but something you could display with the cartridge in a shadow box, which is exactly what one of the bidders said he was going to do if he won the game.
Much to my surprise, the auction, which ran for seven days, took off and several collectors got into a bidding war for the game. When all was said and done, it sold for $830—an almost unthinkable sum for a primitive racing game that unsigned only goes for around $5 to $10. Ironically (in more ways than one), it turns out that Todd Rogers was right. His signature did make the cartridge more valuable. Just not in the way he would have ever imagined back in the pre-scandal days of 2015 when he signed it.
Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story. The winning bidder flaked out on me and didn’t pay for the game, so I had to file a report with eBay and get my closing costs back. Luckily, there was still plenty of interest in the cartridge. After several inquiries, I offered the game to filmmaker Darrin Peloquin. A fairly well-known name in the retro gaming community, Peloquin is the director of The Bits of Yesterday, a documentary on video game collectors.
“The cart is representative of a bygone era when video game scores and crazy accomplishments mattered,” Peloquin said after he agreed to the purchase of the signed copy Dragster. “I remember when you would hear gossip around the schoolyard of another kid who did an impossible thing in a game. Everyone would be filled with different emotions, from jealousy to doubt to excitement. In the analogue days, we just had hearsay and really low-quality pics and videos. I think this cartridge is plays into that mystique, regardless of recent findings on Todd Rogers and his ‘impossible’ score.”
Peloquin said he plans on keeping the cartridge and displaying it in his collection.
“It is definitely a conversation piece,” he said. “Of all the signed items out there by Rogers, this one has the now infamous ‘5.51’ impossible score on it. It’s proof that he toted that accusatory lie for some time, and I feel like it’s like owning a piece of the Berlin Wall or something.”