Twin Galaxies: The triumph of a video arcade

James Matson – an unashamed member of team “Wiebe” – takes a look back at the history of the Twin Galaxies phenomenon and forwards to the almighty Kong Off 3.

Video gaming – in so far as “things to do” go – is a pretty awesome past time. It’s fun, interactive and allows the player to (hopefully) fall into a clever or powerful narrative.  It’s a great hobby and a great way to spend time. One thing video gaming has struggled with however, is widespread legitimacy. Whether it’s retro or modern, video gaming has struggled with a largely redundant attitude that the whole gig is for kids, the jobless, time wasters or a combination of all three.

Whatever your personal feelings about gaming are, it’s clear that the whole entertainment medium has fought for a long time to be considered serious, on the level of a sport like Soccer or something that could inspire professional competition at any level.  The rise of Electronic Sports (e-sports) surrounding titles like Starcraft has helped immensely to dispel the myth of gaming as just for fun and emphasize the skill and finesse required to really be good at a title, but anyone who can cast their minds back to the 80s and 90s will know that the gaming landscape used to be wholly different.

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Arcade machines lived in Arcades, Arcades were built for kids to blow their pocket money in, and that was that.

Simple really.

The opening of one arcade back in November of 1981 however, would become a shining catalyst to change all that.  In the otherwise unremarkable small town of Ottumwa, Iowa (where a fair chunk of the population head off to work every day at “Cargill Meat Solutions”) the Twin Galaxies Arcade opened its doors.  Three months later, the concept of the Twin Galaxies ‘Intergalactic Scoreboard’ was born as a way to solidify a common rule set for high score competitions on arcade games, and a central location to record the best of the best at titles like Defender, Pac Man and Donkey Kong.  The air of competitive spirit and unique energy that surrounded Twin Galaxies and its activities led to the Mayor of Ottumwa – Jerry Parker – to label the town as the ‘Videogame capital of the world’. An ambitious title? Maybe, but as you pour over the history of Twin Galaxies as both an arcade and an organisation that underpins the sport of arcade gaming, it’s hard not to get swept up in the enthusiasm.

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The man at the center of this seed of something ‘more’ for the world of gaming is an enigmatic fellow you might have heard of; Walter Day.  The man who cannot be separated from his referees jersey has presided as head scorekeeper of Twin Galaxies for over 27 years, and when asked will tell you that the world of video games is far from child’s play. “This is not just fun anymore for a lot of people -it’s serious business to them” Walter says,  “We’re making superstars here”.

Superstars indeed.

The resurgence of arcade gaming combined with documentaries like ‘King of Kong’ thrusting professional gaming into the spotlight has transformed the genre and its characters into big ticket items. People walk the streets adorned in ‘Team Wiebe’ t-shirts, Donkey Kong arcade machines become the ‘in thing’ to have in your garage and the world record holders at www.twingalaxies.com become the people to beat.  Professional arcade gaming – backed by the Twin Galaxies score standards and referees vigilance – has spawned all the right ingredients for a killer competitive sport. There’s intrigue, controversy, hated villains and celebrated heroes, and it all comes crashing together in a splendorous wash of 8-bit graphics at events like the almighty Kong Off.

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Kong Off began in 2011 as a way to bring together some of arcade gaming’s most talented and prolific players of that most iconic arcade cab; Donkey Kong. The stars of ‘King of Kong’ – Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe – along with several other pro players, came together at Kong Off to test their skills at dodging barrels, fireballs and each others egos.  Hank Chien took out top spot in the first Kong Off with a crazy 994,400 point victory, but the buzz and excitement generated out of the event led to the inevitable Kong Off 2 and on November 15th this year with preliminary qualifications complete (yes, they do take it that seriously) Kong Off 3.

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To use the term explosive wouldn’t even begin to do Kong Off 3 justice. Hank Chien – world record holder in Donkey Kong high score since 2012 – will be back in the ring, but faces an impressive array of competition in the likes of Wiebe, Mitchell, defending champion Jeff Willms and several other contenders. To add to the awesomeness, a tasty lineup of other arcade games will feature in tournament events during Kong Off 3 including Burgertime, Puzzle Fighter, Ms. Pac-Man Turbo, Frogger and Dig Dug and an epic “surely that’s not legal?” 24 hour Tron ‘marathon’ game.

Yes, we’re aware that list of games reads like every retro gaming fans ultimate wish-list of arcade cabs, which is exactly why we’re so damned excited about the event. Actually, we’re excited about more than just the event. Kong Off 3 is but a single representation of a much larger phenomenon; a modern world that has a total and unbridled love of gaming.

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Old gaming, new gaming, hobby gaming or professional gaming – we’re fortunate beyond belief to be in there here and now, reaping the rewards of the tireless work and pioneering effort of entities like Twin Galaxies and the people behind it. So, start counting down the hours until Kong Off 3 boys and girls, because if you have even the tiniest smidgen of love in your heart for arcade gaming you’re about to witness an event that promises to heartily knock your teeth into your underpants.