Near the end of 2010, a young man from Canada quietly appeared on the Donkey Kong scene and almost immediately began to manhandle the MAME leaderboards.
Other players barely had time to ask "who is this guy?" before he had reached his first kill screen. Then he tied Dean Saglio's record for most points on screen 1. Finally, he put up the second verified Donkey Kong score ever to eclipse the 1.1 million mark. All in a matter of eight months.
It was both amazing and terrifying to witness.
There was now a new sherriff in town; a fresh challenge to Saglio's dominating reign atop the MAME standings.
Jeff Willms, a 22 year old math and computer science student, will go down in Donkey Kong history as the quickest study to ever play the game.
He achieved the kill screen after a shocking one month of play, and leapt directly from 900,400 to 1,107,600 before the year was out.
Such feats are simply unheard of. It generally takes at least six months to forge a kill-screen capable player, and the march to a million is often measured in years.
Maybe it wouldn't have come as much of a surprise, if we'd known from the outset the mind that we were dealing with.
Willms is, as they say, "scary smart." An imposing chess player, he won a regional championship and boasts a near master-class rating of over 2100. During the course of his Donkey Kong training, he created a program that utilizes screen recognition algorithms to detect and calculate a player's scoring pace.
The rest of the world's Donkey Kong players—whether active or inactive—have no choice but to concede that Willms got better at this game in months than we did in years. And at this point, Dean, Hank, and Billy are the only ones not playing catch-up.
Willms' tournament opponents may get a stay of execution this year, since he suffers from the same problem encountered by fellow MAME-master Dean Saglio: those infernal arcade-style controls. Not native to them and having developed his precise style on a keyboard, Willms is having a hard and frustrating time practicing stick-and-button play. Sometimes we watch his livestreams just to remind ourselves that he's human, and be relieved that there seems to be an obstacle in his path. For now.
If the adjustment proves to be impossible and Willms doesn't win the Kong Off 2, he can always console himself with the next-best thing: taking over the world.
Next: Hank Chien »