Some press reports have referred to this accomplishment as the world’s first “perfect” game of Donkey Kong, implying a scoring mark that will never be surpassed. That framing has partly been driven by Copeland himself, who said on Facebook that “this will be my last record score… I don’t believe I can put up a game any higher than this.” A breathless post by the score-watchers at Donkey Kong Blog calls it “a score about which we could confidently say, even if not definitively, ‘this will never be beaten.'”
Yet there’s still some reason to believe higher Donkey Kong scores are technically achievable, even if no one in their right mind may be able to do so any time soon.
Point Ceilings 101
Donkey Kong is fundamentally different from more deterministic games like Pac-Man, which has a concrete score ceiling of the 3,333,360 that was first achieved by Billy Mitchell in 1999. In Donkey Kong, the highest possible score depends heavily on the random movement of the game’s myriad enemies. A few more barrels grouping together for multi-barrel jumps, or a few more flaming barrels wandering close to Mario’s hammer, can mean the difference between a merely great score and a record-breaking one. (Donkey Kong Forum goes into much more detail on state-of-the-art point-pressing strategies).
That randomness hasn’t stopped people from trying to calculate a theoretical maximum score, though. Back in 2010, then champion Steve Wiebe said 1.15 million points was “probably where it would be realistic to get a [maximum] score.” In 2012, the score-watchers at Donkey Kong Blog cited 1.2 million points as the “Current prevailing wisdom among the game’s top players” for “the practical ceiling” of the game. The fact that both of these “ceilings” have now been broken should show that the “perfect” Donkey Kong score is a moving target and that Copeland’s 1,218,000 might not be unbeatable.
In a 2015 FiveThirtyEight piece, DonkeyKongForum stats guru Jeremy Young mentioned the highly specific 1,265,000 as the game’s theoretical ceiling, though he failed to explain the math behind that number. A detailed analysis by Twin Galaxies referee Robert Mruczek, on the other hand, found a “reasonable theoretical maximum” of just over 1.3 million, given ridiculously perfect luck and flawless execution. Discussions of tool-assisted runs suggest that scores over 2 million points might be possible with tedious frame-by-frame analysis and massive save state-driven manipulation of the game’s random number generation, which would never be possible for an unassisted player.
Better to be lucky than to be good
Theory aside, a score higher than the current 1,218,000 should be humanly possible. For evidence, look at this analysis of the previous world record game from Robbie Lakeman, who scored just over 1.19 million points. Early in that run, just after level 6-6, Lakeman was “on pace” to score a whopping 1.26 million points, before the vagaries of chance and skill brought his score back to more reasonable levels. If Copeland’s lucky (and skillful) 71,200-point performance on the sixth stage could have somehow been repeated over and over again for the rest of the run, his score could have easily been in excess of 1.3 million.
Even without ridiculous luck and execution, though, Lakeman’s score shows that Copeland’s mark can be beaten. The real key to Copeland’s new record was the fact that he didn’t die at all during the first 155 levels of the game—an incredible feat for anyone, much less someone making risky, point-pushing moves for over three hours. This let Copeland farm the last barrel stage for in excess of 10,000 points per life while intentionally sacrificing three of his extra Jumpmen, leaving him with a single life to make it to the “kill screen” just two levels away. A game that combined the luck of Copeland’s run with the death-free skill of Lakeman’s could heave easily broken 1.22 or even 1.23 million.
Even if higher scores are technically possible, we’re definitely reaching the point of diminishing returns for Donkey Kong point pushing. For top-level players, breaking the record now is just a matter of the stars aligning for a perfectly focused run coinciding with an incredibly lucky streak of in-game randomness. The record will only be broken if someone playing perfectly also gets the in-game equivalent of a dozen coins flipped “heads” in a row (or if someone manages the unlikely feat of finding a currently unknown score-inflating strategy)
That daunting prospect is discouraging enough to make many competitors stop trying. Lakeman, who has been locked in a high score battle with Copeland for months, said on Facebook that he’s “not wasting his time” trying to surpass the new high-water mark. “I’m not lucky enough,” he wrote. “Good enough, but not lucky enough…. I won’t beat it.”
Of other high-level players who might be willing and able to take on the new record, Donkey Kong Blog mentions only Dean Saglio, the first player to break the 1.2 million point threshold back in 2013. Saglio’s use of MAME emulation to set his mark caused quite a bit of controversy, though, with many arguing that the more responsive keyboard controls give him an unfair advantage.
Even if Copeland’s current score is eventually beaten, however, Donkey Kong Blog is probably right to consider the Donkey Kong high score race effectively over, nearly a decade after King of Kong sent it into high gear. “Copeland’s run is, for all intents and purposes, a practical maxout,” the site wrote. “That’s what we wanted to see, and it exceeded expectations. This is a world record that leaves nothing to complain about, and so much to praise. The theoretical possibility of better is one thing; summoning the insane and blazing fire of motivation it will take to realize it is another.”
Listing image by Donkey Kong Blog