Real Arcade Champs of the '80s Size Up 'Pixels'

Listen to Steve Sanders and Billy Mitchell when they say: Fear Donkey Kong most. 


Adam Sandler gets into the ring with Donkey Kong in Pixels this weekend. With the fate of the world resting on his barrel smashing prowess, the supposed ‘80s arcade champ could use some advice.

Enter Steve Sanders (at right in the photo) and Billy Mitchell. Maybe you recognize them from their appearances in the record books — Sanders is the master of Joust; Mitchell has held multiple high scores in Donkey Kong, Burger Time, and Centipede. Maybe you recognize them from The King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters, which turns a feud between two grown men over a 30-year-old arcade game into a coin-op comi-tragedy. And though Pixels director Chris Columbus has denied that these guys inspired the characters in the movie, I don’t believe him: For starters, it’s hard to see Peter Dinklage’s power mullet as anything but an homage to Mitchell.

Either way, when the aliens come — and they will — these are the guys you want in your corner.

INVERSE: It’s 3 a.m., and the phone rings. It’s the president. Aliens are attacking New York City as video game characters. What do you do?

Steve Sanders: I’d call Billy first because he’s the man. But I’d be happy to be on the team.

Billy Mitchell: The first price is I don’t pay income tax anymore. After that, I’d just say send Obama back to the White House to relax. I’ll take care of it.

What’s your strategy?

BM: Someone from another planet, I would not believe in peaceful co-existence. I say kill them all, let God sort them out.

SS: We know the patterns, so we know the strategies. The thing about those games is you have to know the patterns.

So if you were confronted with Donkey Kong?

SS: My advice is to make sure that you take advantage of the hammers on all the billboards and don’t forget the flames can be captured on the board. That can be a dangerous but effective strategy. In the third elevator stage, you have to have precise timing.

Is Donkey Kong the worst?

SS: Donkey Kong is the most threatening. It was the most difficult game back in the day. Guys die on the first screen. That game just gets harder and harder. You know Pac-Man had patterns. You could deal with those patterns. But Donkey Kong has no patterns, just strategies.

Then which game is going to be easiest for Sandler to beat?

SS: Pac-Man. Just because of the patterns. Every kid in the arcade had at least a few down. Donkey Kong, even if you got decent you had problems because it’s so random. Ms. Pac-Man, much harder. But Pac-Man is the easiest.

BM: Qbert. That would not be difficult to manipulate.

You’re confident you could take this.

BM: Thing you learn from video games is whatever obstacles come before you, you don’t allow them to become empowered. There’s always a way to break them down, always.

Peter Dinklage is playing Billy, right?

SS: Totally. You can’t deny that’s him. His looks, his whole persona.

BM: People have said that to me. I can see it in some ways.

What ways? That’s your hair.

BM: He’s obviously a pinch shorter than me. But other than that he certainly has the right attitude and the right outlook.

Were you ever approached about being in the movie?

BM: No. They did ask me to supply them with some game footage. Deep within the game there are certain things that happen and they wanted to use it in the movie. But we did not come to an agreement on a number of things. It was a scheduling thing. I was tied up with other projects.


What advice do you want to leave the team with?

BM: I think it’s always fun how video games of today, how players of today, compare to the players of the early days. And the fact of the matter is games in the early days are extremely difficult. Games of today are easy. You sit at home and it unravels. It’s made with this story to keep your attention and have to carry it all the the way through. Games of yesterday were designed for one reason, and that was to take your money. Old players were forced to be good. Otherwise all you did was run out of money. It was brutal back then.

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