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King of 3: George Riley

Posted by Rob Maerz on October 28, 2014 at 1:25 PM

King of 3: George Riley Takes On Junior and the King of All Kongs

Originally published in Retrocade Magazine Volume 1 Issue 1


The organizers of the The Grassroots Gaming Expo must have had a hunch that George Riley wasn’t attending – they added Donkey Kong 3 to the list of tournament games.


George Riley is undeniably the greatest Donkey Kong 3 player on the planet. Period.


And while the rest of the classic gaming world goes gaga over another Donkey Kong kill screen and its world record changing hands (yet again), his accomplishments on the less glamourous, black sheep of the Donkey Kong series goes unheralded in contrast.


Riley’s current marathon record of 3,538,000 is almost 1,000,000 points better than Dwayne Richard’s second place score.


George also holds the DK3 tournament settings world record with a score of 857,200 that was set in June 2010. That score is almost 400,000 points better than Dwayne Richard’s inaugural score of 473,400 achieved in October of 2005.


With George Riley submitting MAME scores to MARP and sitting numero uno in not only various Donkey Kong 3 ROM sets but also Donkey Kong Junior ROM sets, one can only suspect the man is serious in gunning for the Donkey Kong Triple Crown.


And why should expert Donkey Kong Junior players care that he’s putting up great scores in MAME? Because he learned Donkey Kong 3 in Java.


So, before George’s future accomplishments render him inaccessible, I nabbed him for an interview with Retrocade Magazine.


When did you first get into classic gaming?

Riley: Maybe Rip Off was the first one I really remember. I think I actually have a picture of me playing the game. Maybe the picture helped me remember that time more clearly.


My first home console was the Commodore 64 which I got when I was 10. Unfortunately a few months later it was stolen when we moved. I have no idea what happened to it, but I did get another Commodore 64 years later.

 

You are also a classic console collector. When did you get into the hobby and any significant finds in the wild?

Riley: If you want to get technical, I guess I was a collector when I got my first Atari 2600 at the age of 17 in 1992. I would go to thrift stores from time to time and pick up an Atari 2600 game. I would only go for the popular games that I knew of though. Boy, if I had insight about the fact that the rare games would be worth a ton one day I may have tried to pick those up as well. I started actively collecting for the Atari 2600 in 2001.


I have had a few good finds in the wild from time to time. I found a Pengo loose in a thrift store for $2 once and I also was able to find a Starpath game player for the Atari 2600 at Salvation Army about seven years ago. About three years ago I bought about 25 mint condition Atari 2600 boxes. Some were rare like Basic Math and they also had around 4 different gatefold games. I also have found Sears and Atari Heavy Sixers in the wild along with a few Atari Joystick Heavy Sixers. It is easy to get Heavy Sixer Joysticks where I live. I don't think anyone besides me really knows what to look for in my area.


I believe you had an Atlantis II up for sale. Do you still own it and how was it acquired?

Riley: I actually had two different Atlantis II carts at one time. It was a freaky coincidence. Both were loose, but one had extensive documentation. I posted on AtariAge (a site for classic game collectors) about this auction with great documentation. The seller had a reserve that was insanely high. I mentioned how I had bid that up to $2,000 and it still had not broken the reserve.


Later on someone had posted about how he would sell his Atlantis II for $1,500. It was loose but had the box sticker stuck to it. I jumped at the opportunity and bought it.


The guy who had the Atlantis II with docs had his reserve super high and no one had a high enough bid. He tried again with no success. Then, out of the blue, he contacts me with a second chance offer through eBay for my original $2,000 bid. I decided that although this was going to hurt me financially it would be worth it. Through the years I sold both of them: one was for college and the other to go after the Donkey Kong Junior record.

 

You are currently the record holder on the Atari 2600 translation of Galaxian. How would you compare the quality of the 2600 translation of this classic against the arcade game itself along with the other ports released to e.g. the Atari 5200 and ColecoVision?

Riley: Personally, I prefer the Atari 2600 version. Usually arcade ports are nothing compared to the original, but this title seems to be an exception. First the colors are livelier on the Atari 2600 and for whatever reason the sounds are not as annoying. And finally I am just good at the Atari 2600 version while the arcade version rips me apart. It is fun to play games that are challenging yet still allow you to dominate it.

 

If I recall, you first broke Todd Rodgers' 2600 Galaxian record and then subsequently broke your own record by doubling up Todd Rodgers’ score.

Riley: Yes, that is 100 percent correct, except I also broke the record live with a 1.955 million game. I just was not able to send that one into Twin Galaxies.


How much playing time was spent on Galaxian until you broke the record? What were your average scores on the game before you went on the run to break the record? Did you have a "breakout" moment in your game progression that built your confidence in knowing that you could break the record?

Riley: AtariAge has a high score game of the week contest - they so happened to have Galaxian as one of their games of the week three different times.


At first, I really was not that good at this game - I would get scores of around 25,000 to 35,000. Then, the first time they had it as a game of a week I found out I was really adept at it and got a third place score of 89,000+. Then the second time they had it as a game of the week I had a score of 201,000+ which was good enough for first place.


I noticed that some really good players were having trouble with this game. I am talking about a player who would regularly break Atari 2600 world records could not even get 100,000 points on this game. They had the contest a third time and I had a score of 217,000+.


About a couple of months later I saw Steve Wiebe play Donkey Kong at E3. It was during the summer time of course. And I thought that the idea of going after a record for a short period would be a fun thing to do. It was an easy choice for me to pick: Galaxian. I am a substitute teacher and I’m single so I have more time on my hands than the average person. So I thought to myself, what the heck? Why not go for Todd Rogers’ record?


Of course, his record was 1,343,700 points. Like I said, my high was around 217,000 points so I really did not think I even had a shot. So, I posted that I was going to give myself two months time to go after this record. I decided I was only going to play three games a day at first, because I did not want to burn myself out. At first the progression was slow but at a steady rate. Soon 300,000 was hit, then 400,000 and then 600,000.


At first I had no intention of submitting this tape, but soon enough people started posting how that was a dumb thing to do and no one would ever really know you did it unless you submitted a tape. At first I thought you needed a camcorder, so I used that as an excuse. Once I found out though that they accepted VCR submissions, I decided to go for it. At the time I hit 600,000 I decided to actually send in the score. At first I did not use a printer and just used a hand written copy of the agreement.


I actually sent the 600,000 tape to the world record holder Todd Rogers himself. I could have sent it into Tom Duncan at first but, I just wanted to write to Todd telling him how I really thought he was probably the greatest game player out there and that he was really an inspiration to me. For whatever reason, that game was never verified and so I sent my next tape into Tom Duncan. I found him extremely quick in verifying - I mean within a matter of a couple days. So, from then on I stuck with him.


As far as when I thought I had a legit shot at getting his record was probably when I hit the 800,000 mark. I was now at an area where I was only a few hundred thousand away. Another time I really knew I had a shot was when I flipped the game, and actually got another extra man at 7,000. In fact I took that game up to 30,000 points of the record. So, I was definitely on the doorstep when that happened.

 

In the game that you broke Todd Rodgers’ record, was there any anxiety when approaching the record score? What about during the game after you eclipsed Rodgers' score?

Riley: For me there was a ton of anxiety. I had come close to Todd's score and then for two straight weeks I did not even come close to his record. I was suffering a mental block or a slump and it was really getting me down. Then I had my run.


It was actually the day before my deadline of July 31st. I knew if I did not do it this run I would not be able to do it by the deadline. I was about to drastically cut down on my game play to only one game a day instead of three or even more like I was pushing myself the final two weeks. As I broke it, a huge smile came on my face and I was able to push it 300,000 points further.


I am a man who very rarely cusses. But, for that one time I actually decided to unload the F-bomb to express my excitement and said “I F'ng broke Todd Rogers’ record!” And I used caps with all big letters in bold to express it.

 

Was there any difference in your performance when you broke your own record? Was it relaxing knowing that you were just improving upon your own record with really nothing to lose?

Riley: Well yeah, once you break the record, then a lot of the doubt fades away. When I first broke the record the main obstacle was freaking out, making the wrong move and dying right away after I just had died. When I doubled Todd's record my main challenge was no longer of fear but of focus.


Galaxian, as far as the game is concerned, does not let up. It is a constant barrage of enemies one after another - there are only 3 seconds between levels. There are no bathroom breaks because there is not a continual giving of men like other games. You get 3 men to start, another man 2 minutes later and then you have to wait about 2-1/2 hours before another man is given. So, because of the constant barrage you need to be always focused on what you are doing.


At about the 5 hour mark I noticed I was actually starting to get mentally fatigued. I was starting to miss ships that I usually can get easily. For most marathon games the game play is at a level where it is not that mentally taxing. Galaxian is very mentally taxing. And so concentration was the biggest thing.


Later on after I set the record I found out that Twin Galaxies seems to allow for a person to park their ship or character in a safe spot and take 5 minutes off per hour if the game is over 6 hours. My game was 7 hours so I could have used this trick and possibly reached a much higher score. Most likely the person who will break my record is going to use safe spots and take time to rest in order to break the record.


As far as doubling Todd's score: at first my goal was not 2,696,100 (which is a little more than double Todd's record) but to get 3,000,000 points for the year. When in less than a week I got to 2,696,100 (it took me 7 hours to get that score), I realized that I could be spending a ton of time just to increase the score another 300,000 points. So, for me that was good enough and it was time to go after bigger and better things.


That score has been very good to me. I was able to have it featured on Twin Galaxies Parade of Champions and the score was featured in the Guinness Book of World Records: Gamer's Edition. Heck, I even signed a couple of books as autographs which was a pretty cool experience.

 

The Donkey Kong 3 record is, at this time, the one you are most famous for. What is it about DK3 that makes it special?

Riley: Well, for me, it has to be the multi-tasking that goes on in the game - from spraying the worms, Donkey Kong and bugs to defending the flowers and dodging Donkey Kong's coconuts - there simply is so much you have to do all at once. If you let one thing go everything falls apart. Most other classic games from this era are not multi-tasking games.

 

If memory serves, you were playing DK3 on a Java app before you purchased a DK3 machine, is that right?

Riley: OK, yes, I went the extremely unusual route of playing Donkey Kong 3 on Java. I found that this really helped later on.


One main reason is I could not rely on any sound clues - it was all on visual clues. Sound plays a very important part of the game. Also, I was using a keyboard with Java. I decided to then search for a Donkey Kong 3 machine in the area but there was none.


But, I did find an Ultracade. I found that playing with a joystick was way easier than playing with a keyboard. Within a week I was getting to 3,000,000 on easy settings. At this time I knew that if I could get a Donkey Kong 3 machine I would be able to have a great chance at breaking the record. I took a leap of faith because I had no idea how the game would play on Twin Galaxies settings.


I looked around and found nothing. So, I went online and decided to enlist help. I offered $50 to the person that could find me a Donkey Kong 3 machine. Shortly after, someone posted about this party supply place in L.A. I called them, and they offered to sell the Donkey Kong 3 machine for $775 shipped. I knew this was overpaying, but I was desperate and believed I could break the record. So, I took the plunge and bought the machine.


Upon receiving the machine the joystick played a tad bit stiff and the monitor was not perfect. But, I gladly paid and went about going after the record. I soon found out the joystick was really bad and deteriorated. I still could play but I had to put effort in moving the joystick and it was starting to put blisters on my left hand. Soon the monitor was also having problems and would go out of whack if played too long.


How was your score progressing? And at what point did you breakout, giving you the confidence in breaking the record?

Riley: I had no clue as to what Twin Galaxies settings were going to be like. I decided to put the machine on 5 man settings first which is the Twin Galaxies Tournament Settings (TGTS). On the third try I broke the TGTS record without even recording. At that point I knew that I would eventually be able to get the Tournament and Marathon records.


I felt so confident about the Marathon record that I actually told you I was going to go after the record for the AtariAge Memorial Day weekend tournament. I think within two days of the tournament I broke the record. Then I just gradually moved up that score until I hit the 3,000,000 mark.

 

Some feel that Donkey Kong 3 has nothing to do with the Donkey Kong series: it's missing Mario and it's a shooter instead of a platform game. What are your thoughts on that and does it have anything to do with the perception that DK3 does not get the attention it deserves like the previous two titles in the series?

Riley: I always point out one thing: Shigeru Miyamoto was the lead programmer for this. Among Nintendo fans this man’s name is extremely revered and just bringing his name up in an argument is pretty powerful.


Well, if you think about it Donkey Kong Junior was also extremely different. I mean you are playing as neither Donkey Kong nor Mario but as Donkey Kong Junior (another character that disappears after that game). True, it is a platformer, but there are no hammers - just fruit.


Most people who are really, really good at Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Junior are primarily platform gamers. I think the biggest problem with DK3 is that it is a shooter first and foremost and a very hard shooter at that. So people don't really want to spend the time needed to become really good at the game for so little glory. Dean Saglio is the current record holder for Donkey Kong on MAME and has also been dabbling with Donkey Kong 3. I saw a game he played on Donkey Kong 3 just a couple of days ago and unlike the other games he was playing, he really seemed extremely frustrated. He even said words to the effect of "this game is going to be hard to get good at."


For me, that is probably one of the greatest compliments I have ever been given: the world record holder on the most highly competitive game admitting that this game was hard to get good at. I have seen this man play Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior and Zookeeper. The man completely owns these games and does things that are simply amazing.

 

You discussed that you discovered a "blue screen" in DK3 - can you discuss what that is and how you discovered it?

Riley: The Blue Screen: basically that is where the game repeatedly gives you the same blue screen over and over again. Strangely enough, I was just playing around with Java one day and was able to get to it. I decided to see if the same thing happened on my arcade machine and sure enough it did.


As a side note, Donald Hodges later found out with save mode that the game actually loops back to board one on board 257. As a challenge I decided to see if I could do that with Donkey Kong 3 on default settings in MAME which, ironically enough, are the easiest settings. I was able to do that and I achieved a score on MARP of 6,689,400 on Easy settings. I also found out that the game does not give out extra men after you loop the boards. I was really hoping this would happen because then the game can be marathon’d for a very long time. But alas, that was not the case.

 

Do you think that your DK3 record is one that could stand for ten years or more due in part because of it being less popular than DK, DK Jr. and the fact that your score is so high?

Riley: Well, some very high profile names have tried to go after this record or have had the record. Dwayne Richard and Shawn Cram are usually mentioned among the greatest gamers of all time and they were the former world record holders. John McAllister also toyed with the idea of going after the Donkey Kong 3 record. So did Steve Wagner, Justin Knucklez and Brian Allen. And like I said Dean Saglio has been trying his hand at this game as well.


Yes, the game is less popular than the other games, but some very big names in the arcade world have had their go at this game. One thing I have learned is that no record is safe. At the moment I am sitting pretty, but someone out of left field could come and knock me off my perch. Heck that is what I did to Dwayne Richard. Also, let it be noted that the Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Junior records changed hands a bunch of times in 2010. So, I believe that no Donkey Kong record is truly safe - even the Donkey Kong 3 record.

 

What attributes do you possess that allowed you to crush the DK3 record?

Riley: I think the biggest thing for me is the fact that I love to play this game. I mean I really, really enjoy what I do in the game. I really believe that in order to become great at something you need to have the love.


But besides that, I also think you need to have a chess-like mind. You need to be able to see three or four moves ahead at all times. The ability to constantly focus is also a must. And lastly I think you need to have a strong will. This game will at times kill you off a couple of times very quickly. It can be really mentally discouraging if you let it get to you. The key for me is to mentally stay in the game when this is happening.

 

How are you progressing on Donkey Kong Junior? Do you foresee yourself being the first gamer to achieve the Donkey Kong Triple Crown?

Riley: I have been stuck at 1,161,100 for about a month now. I have had a couple of games that were within 10,000 of that mark in the past week. To be honest, my highest official goal really for this game was 1,000,000 points which is something I have far exceeded. I think 1,200,000 is possible for me.


My goal really isn't to get the Triple Crown with these three games. My goal is to be the all around best on all three games. A lot of Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Junior players do avoid Donkey Kong 3 like the plague and the ones who play Donkey Kong 3 generally don't go super hard after Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Junior. So, basically what this means is that my competition in being the all around best is not that huge.


I believe if I can get 1,000,000 on Donkey Kong then I will have the title wrapped up. I am almost done now with Donkey Kong Junior. In about a month and a half, I will move onto Donkey Kong as my primary game and I understand the commitment this is going to take. Unlike Donkey Kong Junior where I devoted a year of my time to this game, I will devote two years of my time to Donkey Kong. Based on most people’s experiences, it seems that the learning curve is about two years of hardcore practice in order to become an elite player.


Now of course if somehow I stumble upon all three records than obviously I would be on cloud nine for a very long time.


 

I had Space Jockey back in the day and it’s currently in my VCS collection. Some may view it as a terrible VCS title. What are your thoughts on the game itself and what was enticing for you to break the Space Jockey world record? How long was the game play to achieve the score?

Riley: OK, I will admit that this is by far my least favorite game of any of my records.


After I got the Galaxian record, I really had this thought that I did not want to be known as a one trick pony. So I searched for the game I had the best chance at breaking a record with. Sure enough, Space Jockey fit the bill. The only thing I really needed was an 8 hour tape instead of a 6 hour tape because the game play was going to take at least 6 hours to break the record. As far as the game it took me 7 hours and 45 minutes to set. To be honest it was pure torture to play.


It felt like this was pure hell on earth to play. The game is super easy and super repetitive. There is only one screen and it kept going on and on and on and on and on. I would rather be on a road trip with a couple of kids “saying are we there yet?” every 10 seconds than to play that game.


By the way, two of the previous record holders have also stated their disdain for this game. Most games are a game of endurance or skill. This is a game of tolerance for such horrible game play.


Have you considered going for 1,000,000 on Laser Blast?

Riley: Thankfully, Laser Blast stops at 1,000,000 and thankfully enough people have done it - like ten or so where the relevance is meaningless. If Laser Blast did not stop, I might think about it. Same goes for Megamania. I love that game, but ten or so have maxed that game out as well. i

 


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