Hank Chien is an affable 39-year-old Harvard graduate with his own plastic surgery practice in Queens, NY. He also holds the Guinness World Record for the original arcade version of Donkey Kong, with an astronomical score of 1,138,600 points. Being at the top has put a target on Chien, whose fiercest adversary is 22-year-old Vincent Lemay, a self-described "meathead" who currently hold the third-highest score in the world, and who's fueled by an outlook on gaming that can only be summed up as brawn over brains.
Ever since Chien won the inaugural Kong Off at Richie Knucklez Arcade Games in Flemington, NJ back in 2011, Lemay has been nipping at Chien's heels. His guiding mission in life now, other than getting Hulked out at the gym, is annihilating Hank Chien at Donkey Kong.
Last month, Motherboard traveled to Denver, Colorado, to attend The Kong Off 3, the highly anticipated and near-capacity Donkey Kong world championship, held at the 1UP arcade and bar. During four loopy days of shooting inside a subterranean cave of amusement, which assaulted our senses with flashing lights, blippity bloops, and killscreens, we witnessed first-hand the drama of a showdown between a video game's top contenders.
Chien in the zone at the Kong Off 3. Photos by Michael James Murray
If you aren't familiar with the original Donkey Kong arcade game, we won't judge, as the 32-year-old platformer has long given way to more modern interpretations of its main characters. The game tells the story of Mario, whose mission is to save his damsel in distress, Pauline, while attempting to dodge a series of obstacles that's hurled at him by the de facto villain, Donkey Kong, the giant ape we know and love.
At one point, I glanced at the fresh faces of the tournament's top players of the Kong Off and realized that Donkey Kong was not a game of their generation. The top three players of the tournament were all under 40 years old and together they averaged 28 years of age, which is younger than the game itself.
Following the cultural success of 2007's King of Kong documentary, which chronicled the joystick jousting between former reigning champ Billy Mitchell and family man contender Steve Wiebe, a second generation of DK challengers has appeared.
The Kong Off championship was inspired by the documentary's popularity, and was born as a way to cater to DK's increased visibility in pop culture for an otherwise niche retro game. Since the growing popularity of the competition and the crowning of Chien as a new champion at the first Kong Off, a third generation of relatively young gamers have emerged to come into the competitive fray and dominate the standings.
Lemay and Chien chill out, away from the falling barrels
In the end, Chien wasn't able to retake his crown. Kong Off 2 champion Jeff Willms won for a consecutive year, with the 23-year-old putting up a score of 1,096,200. Chien's score of 1,056,900 was good for third place—his record stands—while Lemay landed back in tenth with 989,700.
Regardless, the rivalry between Chien and Lemay endures. Chien told us that, because of the incredible amount of practice and luck required to set a world record score, if another player beats his top mark, he may not try to retake it. But if Lemay beats him, Chien said he'd spend every waking moment to regain his title. And for Lemay, taking on Chien is his number one goal, even if it's just for bragging rights. It's rivalries like theirs, or that of Mitchell and Wiebe, that have helped Donkey Kong endure.