It's on like Donkey Kong at the 1UP this week
His obsession was born at the world's largest Entertainment McDonald's. It was there, at the Orlando behemoth, that sixteen-year-old Jourdan Adler began playing Mortal Kombat. And he's never really stopped.
The original Mortal Kombat was released in 1992, the same year that Adler got his first job, as a McDonald's fry cook, and it transfixed the teenager. Through Mortal Kombat, he could separate himself from the demands of work and home and homework and enter another world, albeit one behind a screen. The game demanded energy and attention in a different way than his teachers and parents did: It challenged him, and although he'd never had good grades in school, he fought for high scores here. His time with Mortal Kombat was his own; he was in control. And he was in good company: In the arcade, Adler never wanted for companionship; he was surrounded by combatants taking on Galaga, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong.
"I had played the traditional arcade games before, the other classics, but suddenly it clicked," Adler remembers. "It was this completely separate world, this world full of energy, where I could go whenever I wanted. All I had to do was touch the buttons." So between shifts, he poured quarters into the stocky black-and-red machine, then watched the square screen light up and quickly, craftily launched his attack on other players. Sometimes he won, sometimes he didn't — but gradually he got better. Good enough, in fact, that he considered going for a world-record title and applied to Twin Galaxies, the governing body of gaming score-keeping. But his messages went unanswered, and eventually he moved on.
But not from games. "Man, if I had only known that a hobby would become a career," the 36-year-old Adler says today, tugging at a black Atari T-shirt. "Actually, I probably wouldn't have done anything different. I'd probably have kept playing games."
"Jourdan's a genius, but that didn't show in school," confirms his father, Woody Adler. "It comes out in games, though, and the way he's made them his life."
And now he's about to begin the biggest game of his life: the Kong Off II, to determine the world champion of Donkey Kong.
It took some time for Jourdan Adler to really get into the game of games, though. He thought he wanted to be a graphic artist, but he lasted all of three semesters at Skidmore College. However, it was there in upstate New York that his obsession moved to a new level: He bought his first two arcade games — Ms. Pac-Man and Mortal Kombat II — which he took with him as he bounced from state to state, job to job and school to school, eventually landing in Colorado, where his parents had moved, in 1999.
He took a job at Wahoo's Fish Taco in Boulder, and worked his way from server to franchise owner. In January 2006, he and a business partner opened their own branch of Wahoo's in Austin, Texas, where Adler put a Mortal Kombat game in his office. He soon realized that where it really belonged was out on the floor.
"When I grew up, it was hard as a kid to get into bars and places that had these games," Adler remembers. "You had to go to real arcades, but when you did, there was this community. I always missed that sense of community, and I wanted to re-create it for adults."
As he continued to collect games, Adler started researching adult arcades, which had begun to crop up around the country. He drew particular inspiration from Ground Kontrol, Clay Cowgill's arcade in Portland, and Barcade, the concept from Kevin Beard, Scott Beard, Pete Langway and Paul Kermizian that merged games and craft beer; from Brooklyn, it soon expanded to Jersey City and Philadelphia. Adler decided the time was right to bring a variation on the theme to Austin.
Past time, actually. Adler had finally collected the number of games he thought he needed to put his plan into action when he noticed a sign across the street from his Wahoo's location boasting "Vintage arcade bar coming soon." It turned out to be the Kung Fu Saloon, which still thrives in Austin and has expanded to Dallas and Houston. "It was devastating," he remembers. "I felt so close to my own arcade." But he didn't see enough room for two adult arcades in the area. So he sold his games to his competitors and cut his ties to Wahoo's. And he didn't stop making changes there: He also ended a failing marriage and decided to return to Colorado.
One thing didn't change, however: He was still obsessed with games. So before he started packing, he Googled "Denver bar arcade" and found a comforting zilch online. That inspired him to start collecting arcade games all over again, searching Craigslist and eBay and scouring rare warehouse sales for both popular and obscure titles. Adler made a wish list of games he'd played as a child, and he found them all. And when he moved to Denver in July 2010, so did 23 games, packed into an enormous Penske truck and then stored in his father's garage while they awaited a permanent home.
They didn't have to wait for long. Adler knew that he'd have to move fast if he wanted to open Denver's first adult arcade. Fortunately, an ideal space was available: the subterranean spot at 1925 Blake Street that had swallowed up many other entertainment concepts, everything from a supper club to a blues bar. Adler's concept for what he decided to call the 1UP looked like a much better fit. "Because LoDo needs one," he explains. "It needed something different." Different from what other entrepreneurs had tried with the space, and different from what other arcades around the country were offering. He envisioned a real-life, modern-day version of the arcade of his youth, one that not only attracted devoted gamers, but created a community that would welcome more casual players, too. So instead of focusing on highly specialized games, like Ground Kontrol, or a variety of craft beers, like Barcade, Adler broadened the scope of his business to include a photo booth, three Skee-ball games, fifteen pinball games and a life-sized Jenga. He lined the walls with dozens of classic arcade games — Tron, Ms. Pac-Man, his beloved Mortal Kombat and its siblings, as well as harder-to-find titles. And he hired a full-time technician to make sure that all of the games were always fully functional: Jon Jamshid, one of the country's most respected arcade collectors.
The 1UP opened its doors on March 23, 2011, right before the baseball season began. And it was an immediate hit.
The most significant compliment ever paid to the 1UP came from a twenty-something not much older than Adler was when he became obsessed with arcade gaming. "He said, 'I can't believe it, you guys,'" Adler laughs. "'There's an arcade with both games and women in it!'"
Adler's business boomed so fast that within a year, he had a second outpost at 717 East Colfax, the 2UP. Between them, the two locations feature more than ninety games, all of which run on original parts. That number doesn't include the extras waiting in Adler's office or in the personal collections both he and Jamshid maintain, which add another 200 machines to the total. And Adler's enthusiasm for gaming has spilled over to many of his approximately forty employees, some of whom have started purchasing their own games and moving them into living rooms across the city.
"A lot of people don't get this, especially younger people, but you couldn't play games on your screen when I was a kid," Jamshid says. "That feeling of walking into a place for the first time and being able to control this world on a screen was this overwhelming experience, and we want it to stay that way even now. You can't really compare Halo and all these new games to that retro-gaming experience."
He and Adler work hard to make sure those old games are in peak condition. Broken games do not stay on the floor while they're awaiting repairs, and the selection of featured machines rotates regularly based on customer demand.
That attention to detail recently helped Adler win a place in another big game.
"When I walked into the 1UP, I saw the quality and lineup of the games are incredible, and the staff, every single person I've met there, treats me like I'm famous," says Richie Knucklez. In the world of arcade gaming, he is: Knucklez is both a well-known purveyor of games and the creator of the Kong Off world championship. But when Adler first called him, he almost refused to answer the phone.
"Another arcade bar?" he remembers thinking. "What's different this time?"
Adult arcades were already starting to revive interest in vintage games when the industry scored with a documentary: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.
Across 79 minutes — less time than it takes to complete a competitive kill-screen round of its title game — King of Kong chronicles a mid-2000s battle between two champions for the top title in a game created in the 1980s.
"In the late '90s, the hobby of collecting almost died, and when the The King of Kong came out in 2007, it became almost a normal, mainstream thing," explains Jamshid, whose collection of arcade games earned him a spot in the documentary. "Thanks to it, the hobby has become pretty massive, and Donkey Kong's become a household name, this Americana thing. Before you knew it, tons of regular people were buying machines and doing man caves in their basements."
Much of the film focuses on two gamers, Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, who are both Donkey Kong fanatics but lead distinctly different lives and have very different on-screen personalities. Having claimed the world's then-highest scores on both Donkey Kong and Centipede as a teen in the 1980s, Mitchell was already a star when filmmakers started documenting his play. In addition to having earned a perfect score on Pac-Man, he owns a restaurant chain and a line of hot sauces in his native Florida; he talks big and he wins big. Wiebe, Mitchell's challenger in the film and many times since, is four years younger and more restrained. He lives in Redmond, Washington, where he recorded a Christian album and continues to play. But today, neither man holds the top score for Donkey Kong. Hank Chien set a new world record on November 5 with 1,138,600 points. (That score has yet to be verified by Twin Galaxies.)
"It's about more than just the game; it's about the community," Wiebe says of the movie, adding that he's pleasantly surprised that the fever created by the film has lasted as long as it has. "I had no idea it was going to revitalize the gaming industry. Today we're keeping the hobby alive by having championships like these. We're keeping it from dying and becoming just people playing in their basement."
In fact, this weekend the 1UP will be entirely devoted to Donkey Kong, with sixteen Kong consoles and hundreds of spectators flooding the place for the Kong Off II, one of the world's largest Donkey Kong championships and the largest event in the 1UP's relatively short history.
After the movie revived interest in Donkey Kong, Knucklez decided to find a way to keep the momentum going at the national level. So last year, he launched the first Kong Off, a championship to determine the best player in the world. And like the movie itself, it was a big hit.
Around the same time, Adler began strategizing how to connect the burgeoning success of the 1UP to the larger gaming community. Like most members of that community, he had watched The King of Kong several times (all of his employees have seen it, too). In April 2011, he invited Wiebe to visit the venue, where the latter played a public game and led a master class in Donkey Kong. Both were surprised when approximately 200 people showed up to see Wiebe reach a kill screen in Denver, many of them toting copies of The King of Kong for its hero to autograph.
"Jourdan recognizes that there's a culture out there that still has a nostalgia for the game," Wiebe says. "Even the newer crowd, once exposed to it, would enjoy it now through places like his. He has the drive and knowledge and foresight to know what's going to click."
That visit from Wiebe inspired Adler to continue expanding the 1UP's reach. Through Wiebe, he got in touch with Knucklez and said he'd like to be involved with the next Kong Off. "I was very negative about it," admits Knucklez, who's been followed for the last few years by cameras filming The King of Arcades, a philosophical followup to The King of Kong. "Absolutely not. No. This is my project, and I don't want it in the hands of a stranger."
But an Adler-funded visit to Denver changed Knucklez's mind. The quality and selection of games at the 1UP, as well as the staff's knowledge, quickly convinced him to allow the 1UP to be the host of this year's world championship. And so on November 16, twelve of the world's top players — eleven of whom have achieved scores of 1 million points or higher — will meet in Denver to battle against their own high scores and a slew of wild-card players who hope to claim their retro-gaming notoriety.
Record-holding Donkey Kong players do not just play Donkey Kong. They perfect it. For this elite segment of the gaming community, playing involves more than just avoiding death. Players like Mitchell and Wiebe and Chien battle barrels, climb ladders, escape the factory and deftly avoid fireballs in order to pass through the game's four boards and reach the rarely seen kill screen without dying — but their dominant goal is to collect as many points as possible along the way. This is called point-pressing, and players who do it have perfected even minor, in-game minutiae — grouping barrels together, jumping a certain way, etc. — to reach the million-point level.
Organizing the competition has involved endless, excruciating detail. Thousands are expected to pass through the 1UP's doors this weekend; they will be given wristbands and must be respectful during play. The games will be broadcast live online, and every player will be monitored to maintain performances within strict world-record standards.
And who's the ultimate arbiter? That could well be up to Adler. Not content with opening the town's first adult arcade and hosting the world Donkey Kong competition, he's now made a bid for Denver to become video-gaming's official governing body.
For decades, video-game standards have been dictated by Twin Galaxies, the official scorekeeping entity that featured heavily in The King of Kong. Walter Day founded the company in 1981 through very simple means: Over the course of a few months, he traveled from state to state to record scores at more than a hundred sites, and the results became Twin Galaxies' first record database. In the intervening years, those records have expanded to include hundreds of Guinness Book of World Records titles documented by Twin Galaxies each year. But during that same time, Twin Galaxies had come under considerable scrutiny for its scorekeeping system.
Under the most recent model of Twin Galaxies, score-seekers were required to both record their game-playing performances and prove that they were legitimate. As documented in The King of Kong, players had to videotape their entire game, and then, without turning off the camera, film the insides of the machines on which they'd played in order to prove that they adhered to Twin Galaxies' insistence on original equipment without any tampering or adaptation. A volunteer-only staff would then watch the videos to determine whether the claim was legitimate — but those volunteers were regularly accused of both delaying their findings and indulging in favoritism. Ultimately, Walter Day quit operating Twin Galaxies and the service became dormant.
But today it has new owners. Six months ago, Knucklez, Jamshid and Adler combined resources to purchase the company, shutting down the service while they relocated the company to Denver and prepared to reboot it. Adler's failed attempts to reach Twin Galaxies when he wanted to become involved in competitive gaming are still a sore spot with him, and he hopes that the new owners can make the company both more reliable and more respectable. Getting Jamshid and Knucklez to bring their considerable reputations to the effort was a major step.
"I want Denver to become this hub of the gaming world, more so even than the 1UP, the 2UP and the Kong Off," Adler says. "It's impossible to ignore how much vitality is returning to the arcade gaming world, and I want Denver to be a huge part of it. So I decided to get my hands in at the ground level."
When it is officially re-established, Twin Galaxies will be housed in the upstairs annex of the 1UP, immediately between Adler's office and the space where Jamshid is preparing sixteen Donkey Kong consoles for competitive play this week. (Their search for Donkey Kong consoles has been so intense that it effectively raised the price of Donkey Kong boards: Those that previously could be found online for $150 are costing Adler at least $270 each.)
With new management in place, the Twin Galaxies procedure will change drastically. The online database will be revitalized, and instead of relying on a rotating cast of volunteers positioned across the country, the company will employ a much smaller staff to handle videos quickly and efficiently. But the true test will come from the gaming community itself: Only scores with the potential to break a world record will be accepted, and each video will be posted on the Twin Galaxies website for public view. "There's that community aspect again," Adler says. "You can never underestimate a gamer and how much he cares about the games."
If a player attempts to cheat the system or submit a faulty video, he or she will inevitably be caught by viewers and banned from all future submissions. Cheaters will also find all of their previous records erased, wiping them clean of any Twin Galaxies titles. This honor system is just the start of the changes. In the months ahead, Knucklez, Adler and Jamshid also hope to establish Twin Galaxies masters tournaments, bringing public attention to the stereotypically lonely world of gaming. The events will try to replicate the popularity of the Kong Off with varying games, with one hosted every two months or so at different arcades across the country.
"The King of Kong really set off the Donkey Kong side of things, but there's more room out there for revitalization," Wiebe says. "I thought maybe it would only last a few years, but it looks like there's no end in sight."
Growing up in Lake Tahoe in the early '80s, Jamshid hung out in an arcade every day. But he says nothing has affected the industry more than The King of Kong. "There's a huge difference between playing a game at your home and playing one at an arcade," Jamshid notes. "This hobby has become pretty massive, and Denver is now considered a big city for the hobby. I hope this eventually becomes a Comic Con sort of thing."
Most important, however, the new owners of Twin Galaxies hope to move the process of setting a record into live game play. Instead of requiring gamers to verify, on video, that the settings of their systems adhere to the Twin Galaxies standards, they'll be able to simply use a machine that has already been verified by Twin Galaxies. The first city to make this an option? Denver. Knucklez, Adler and Jamshid have already re-calibrated every machine at the 1UP, and they will soon do the same at the 2UP, so that any one of its machines will be capable of documenting a new world record. "The next Steve Wiebe or Billy Mitchell will be able to hang out at our bar in Denver and set the world record," Adler says. "That's a very cool thing."
But he doesn't plan to limit it to Denver. Within the next few years, Adler wants to extend that option to at least one arcade in every state. The next verified sites for Twin Galaxies will be all three Barcade locations, as well as the Insert Coins spots in Las Vegas and Minneapolis. And more are opening all the time, including Supernova in Colorado Springs and Press Play in Boulder. Knucklez, Jamshid and Wiebe all admit that they've considered opening their own bar-arcade concepts, and though none of them have put those plans into practice, plenty of other ventures are in the works.
And this week's Kong Off II could propel the industry here to record heights. The next live champion of Donkey Kong, with a list of hopefuls including both Mitchell and Wiebe, will be crowned on Colorado soil, and the people who'll be on hand to watch are a perfect group to impress with the possibilities of video-gaming in general and Twin Galaxies in particular. This is one game the 1UP plans to win.
Tucked behind a labyrinthine arrangement of pinball machines and arcade games in the dark series of rooms he calls his "headquarters," Adler's professional world looks a lot like a teenager's dream. Sitting in his office in jeans and a baseball cap, between a collection of decorative garden gnomes and a stack full of rolled quarters — both the literal and the figurative currency of the small gaming empire he's crafted out of his childhood hobby — he acknowledges this. "I can play games whenever I want," Adler says, and grins.
And the biggest game of all is about to begin. "If we do it right — which we will — that's a huge step," he vows. "I've grown from an arcade kid into an arcade adult, and I want to make this an arcade city. But it's the kid back there at the McDonald's that still guides me."