The World Record for the Donkey Kong high-score has been highly contested over the past few years, with legendary gamer, Billy Mitchell holding onto the title for over 15 years, when an unknown rockie, Steve Wiebe stepped into the limelight and after a lengthy battle, claimed the top spot, the adventure being captured on film for Seth Gordon’s 2007 documentary, The King of Kong.
Fast forward a few years and another competitor emerged, a cosmetic surgeon called Hank Chien, a full time doctor who picked up Donkey Kong at a relatively late stage, but soon became the most prolific player around, grabbing the world record and the title, Doctor Kong.
You must have been 6 years old when Donkey Kong first came out; were you an instant fan, or did you only start playing recently?
I never played the arcade version of Donkey Kong when it first came out. It was only after watching the King of Kong, that I became interested in the game. I wondered why the game was so important and how hard it could really be. I didn’t start playing seriously until about 3 years ago. I quickly learned that the game was indeed very hard, but I improved rapidly so that maintained my interest.
Before you took the world record high score for Donkey Kong, it was being fought over by Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell. How did they react to you entering the ring?
I’m not sure of Steve Wiebe’s and Billy Mitchell’s exact reactions, but I know most of the public was a bit surprised when I “came out of nowhere.” Those following the Donkey Kong saga very closely knew that there were several players who were in the million point range, so I think those people were less surprised. I knew for a few months before I broke the world record that I was capable of doing it and I did not keep it secret. But as an unknown player, I didn’t have much of an audience. Steve Wiebe was once asked in an interview about how he felt about all the “new” players. His response was that he was glad there was so much interest in the game.
What was more exciting, obtaining the world record, or winning the Kong Off between Mitchell and Wiebe?
I would have to say winning the Kong Off was more exciting than getting the world record. For one, it was in a live setting with hundreds of fans cheering you on whereas my first world record was obtained at home with my brother as the only spectator. Expectation has a lot to do with it too. I wasn’t sure that I could win the Kong Off, whereas I was sure I could get the world record at the time I did it. Donkey Kong is such a random game that on any given weekend any one of us could have won.
For those of us that don’t know, how does a Kong Off work?
The Kong Off was an 11 person live competition that took place at Richie Knucklez Arcade Games in Flemington, NJ over a weekend in March 2011. Richie Knucklez invited who he felt were the top 11 Donkey Kong players and obtained 11 separate machines. We were given an unlimited number of attempts during the weekend with the single highest score of the weekend declared the winner. For the top players, each serious attempt takes at least an hour. Between breaks and taking care of your personal needs, that only amounts to a few serious attempts for the weekend. What made the competition especially interesting is that Donkey Kong has a killscreen (a finite ending to the game), so getting the high score of the weekend is different than aiming for your highest ever. If you play safely, you’ll have a higher average game, but you’ll never have an extremely high score. If you play too risky, you’ll have a higher potential score, but you may never reach it. Part of the strategy was figuring out that balance.
Besides being a world record holder, you are also a full time plastic surgeon. How do your patients react to your achievements?
A lot of my patients don’t know of my achievement. The patients who do know usually give one of 2 reactions: “Wow you must have really good hand-eye coordination. You must be a great surgeon” or “How much time do you spend doing that? How could you possibly be a good surgeon?” Some patients have actually found me through the publicity I got from having the Donkey Kong world record. However, I think after my patients get to know me, they realize it’s just a hobby for me and don’t think twice about it. My patients think of me as their doctor, not as the world record holder on Donkey Kong.
Last year you made the documentary “Doctor Kong: Cutting up the Competition”. What was it like looking down the lens of a camera for a year?
Technically I was only a subject in the documentary. I don’t want to take any credit away from Alexis Neophytides and the rest of the crew that actually made the documentary. It was fun to be a mini-celebrity for a year, which is why I agreed to it initially. There were also lots of funny mishaps. For example I wore the wireless microphone into the bathroom once without realizing it. “What’s all that splashing noise?”
How did director Alexis Neophytides first approach you about the project?
I met Alexis at Barcade in Brooklyn. We became friends over time and when she learned that I was getting close to the world record, she asked if I would like to be a subject in a documentary. I thought it would be fun and agreed.
Did you have a strict training schedule whilst preparing for the world record?
I don’t really have a strict training schedule. If I’m preparing for a world record attempt or other event, I’ll try to play one game per day to keep my skills sharp, but I go months without playing as well. It all depends on what’s happening in my life. I try to not let it interfere with my work and social life. It also takes the fun out of the game if you have a strict training schedule. It’s very easy to get “burned out” with Donkey Kong. I started playing out of curiosity and for fun and I try to keep it that way.
Are there any other computer games that you enjoy playing?
I don’t really play any games on my computer. I’m more of a console player. Since Donkey Kong, I haven’t had much time to play anything else since my video game thirst is satisfied with Donkey Kong. Before Donkey Kong, I was playing Super Mario Galaxy (Wii), Bioshock (360) and Lemmings (PS3). Nowadays, I’ve been playing Centipede (arcade), Words with Friends (iPhone) and Plants vs Zombies (iPhone). Now that I look at that list, it’s pretty varied!
Are there any other world records you have your eye on?
Not really. If I happen to get good enough at a video game to have the world record, I’ll go after it. That’s pretty much how it happened with Donkey Kong. Initially, my intention was not to go after the world record, but in the process of playing for fun, I got good enough, so I went after it. I was never much of a competitive player. I’ve always been a casual player.
How can people learn more about Hank Chien?
You can friend me on Facebook or follow me on twitter (@Hank_Chien).