Kill Screens – End of the Line
I started writing this article back in 2006 after seeing an early screening of The King of Kong. The idea of a Kill Screen as introduced in that film intrigued me and my research turned into a stream of somewhat coherent words . However, it was left unpublished and unpolished until I remembered it again in May of 2013. Now revisited, the article has hopefully become something informative and current (bonus 2013 facts included!).
Kill Screen. That’s pretty foreboding, eh? The name, a term that was coined in arcades in the 80′s, is a little misleading. This screen doesn’t necessarily kill the player. In some cases, like Donkey Kong, that is a side effect, but the “kill” in Kill Screen better describes some unavoidable obstacle in gameplay, one that stops progress completely, one that commits the ultimate arcade sin — it “kills” your quarter.
Also, contrary to the name, these murderous screens can be pretty innocuous. Some even fun. There is one common thread among all Kill Screens: they are a mistake. Maybe an error in programming, perhaps an oversight in design, but something left in on accident that causes a game to enter a state in which it will never get past.
Donkey Kong’s Kill Screen has become the poster child of Kill Screens due to the (popular?) documentary film The King of Kong. For the sake of completeness and for those of you that haven’t seen the film (pssst, you really should) we’ll start with it. It’s also fitting since Donkey Kong is likely the first Kill Screen that players discovered.
In 1982, Time Magazine gathered some of the nation’s greatest arcade gamers in the (self-proclaimed) “Gaming Capital of the World,” Ottumwa, Iowa. With a population of just 27,381, you might doubt the legitimacy of the title, but both the Mayor and the Senator agreed so we’ll give it to them. It was at this event that a gauntlet was thrown down over the current high score of Donkey Kong. A young man named Steven Sanders had submitted a score that was so astronomically high that it just seemed too good to be true: 3,165,300.
At that time the recorded high score was barely more than one-sixth of that. Even today the high score is just barely over 1 million points, and in the past 20 years only ten people have been able to do that (and no, spoiler alert, Steven Sanders is not one of those guys)…. but of course, this was all back in 1982 and before anyone knew of the inevitable moment that was going to happen on Level 22….
Back to Ottumwa. Billy Mitchell, another great Donkey Kong player, in order to find out if this Sanders kid was really telling the truth, challenges Steven to a game. Steven accepts and the face-off begins; it’s Billy’s turn, his second life, running across scaffolding, hammering barrels, leaping over fireballs, operandi normalus — until Level 22.
Quick time out for a warning: Donkey Kong’s Kill Screen is not very glamorous. The game graphics do not trip out in some cool way, it does not make any weird noises, you don’t instantly explode when the level begins; in fact, there’s no obvious sign that the level is, in fact, unbeatable.
In Donkey Kong, like a lot of old arcade games, there’s a timer ticking down towards zero: you finish before that and you earn some bonus points or you don’t and perish on the spot. As the levels get harder, the timer gets shorter. A great player rushing to the end needs at least 40 seconds.
Level 22 gives you ten.
The level begins. You earn some points. The timer hits zero. You Die. You repeat this small, sad cycle until you are out of lives, maybe pressing for some extra points in those few remaining seconds, inching your score upwards. But it’s all very finite and final — no one will ever beat Level 22 of Donkey Kong. When Billy Mitchell hit the kill screen that day in Ottomwa he ended with a score of 874,300 and everyone realized that no matter what Steven might be able to do in terms of pure Donkey Kong skill, there was simply not enough time to earn the 3 million plus score he was claiming with. Sander’s score was out, Mitchell’s was in. 
Easily the most recognizable of the bunch, and probably the most well-known, the Pac-Man kill screen, also known as the Split-Screen board (due to the garbled mess that is the final board), comes at a time programmers will be familiar with: the 256th level.
The variable that stores the current level of your Pac-Man game can only store a value between 0 and 255 (you’ve probably encountered this number in many games, perhaps collecting 255 missiles in Metroid?) When a player completes the 255th board they end up rolling the number over, back to zero, (called overflowing) and the game actually loads the “zeroth board”.
This zeroth board has a few problems with it. For one, you can’t beat it. A Pac-Man level is completed when you eat the right amount of dots and the Split-Screen board doesn’t have enough to trigger victory. A second problem, and the one that is much more obvious, is that half the map is garbage. In a fun twist, you can freely run around most of the right-hand side of the board (except for the bits of maze walls, which retain their collision) and you can also collect the few dots which are scattered around that side of the board. 
Pac-Man is a very discrete game. There’s very little randomness in the game and of what there is, none of it directly affects the score. Combine this with the existence of the Split-Screen board and Pac-Man ends up with a maximum score. This aptly named “perfect game” earns you a score of 3,333,360 and was first achieved by Billy Mitchell in a feat to which only six players in the world have “officially” completed. Officially recorded in the Twin Galaxies Hall of Fame, which is about as official as video game scores get.
Oddly, the dots on the garbled side of this final board “respawn” if you die, so to achieve the maximum 3-million plus score you must actually get to the Kill Screen with a full stock of five Pac-dudes and eat all nine of these scattered dots each time, finally earning you a tying spot on the high score charts.
People have talked about getting past the Kill Screen since it was found. Some have claimed scores much higher than what is currently considered to be the maximum score possible. In one of the most public and well known of these claims, President Ronald Reagan mailed an eight-year old kid named Jeffrey R. Yee a signed congratulatory letter for obtaining 6,131,940 points in Pac-Man! (Yeah, almost double what the best players have ever claimed to have earned.)
Eventually, Walter Day, founder of Twin Galaxies, traveled with a group of arcade gamers around the East Coast looking for players that could get past what everyone considered the “Final Level.”
No one was found.
The controversy and debate over whether or not anyone could actually beat the Split-Screen board continued and got to such a point that on November 24, 1999, Billy Mitchell offered $100,000 to anyone who could prove they could pass the Kill Screen by the end of the year.
The bounty went unclaimed. The 3,333,360 high score still stands.
Go for it.
Ms. Pac-Man, the “sequel” to Pac-Man, has one killer follow-up to the original’s Split-Screen level.
Earlier I mentioned the discrete nature of Pac-Man and how it allows (read: forces) a maximum score that can never be overcome. In contrast to this, Pac’s better half has some wicked-evil randomness as part of it’s core design and this pretty much makes the “perfect score” unobtainable. An easy example: the fruit that appears in the original Pac-Man follow a strict pattern: as you progress further in the game, the fruit becomes more valuable. In Ms. Pac-Man, however, once you get past the seventh stage the bonus fruit that spawns comes randomly. You may get a 100-point cherry or you may get a 5,000-point banana! And with over 130 stages before you get to the Kill Screen, that’s a lot of score fluctuation.
And so it’s only fitting, that as discrete and matter-of-fact as Pac-Man’s 256th board is, the Missus’ Kill Screen is as random and difficult to predict as the rest of the game’s rules.
Oh yeah, and it’s upside-down.
Well, some of it is, at least. If you look at the screenshot you may notice that while the maze, the dots, and even the score, are upside-down, Ms. Pac-Man and the ghosts are not. This is because even though the visuals of the board make it appear to be flipped, the player must still travel through it as though it were not!
The occurrence of Kill Screen itself, the board on which your adventure is about to close on, is another one of Ms. Pac-Man’s numerous random factors. It can be one of many boards and there’s no early warning; in fact, you don’t know until that upside-down screen appears which board it is… you just keep hoping that the inevitable is delayed and that you can continue to munch on pellets and bananas.
Due to this randomness the Kill Screen is still a little mysterious. What is known is that there are eight boards, starting at board 134 and ending at 141, that are possible game ending levels. But there’s little to no concrete evidence of which of these screens are in fact Kill Screens. It doesn’t help that Ms. Pac-Man is incredibly difficult on it’s own, and so the amount of times these screens have been hit is very low. However, it is generally excepted that the first four boards are ‘dangerous’ (that is, they may or may not come out upside-down) but if you see the fifth screen (board 138) you are home free until the eight (board 141) which is guaranteed to end your game.
The random nature of Ms. Pac-Man’s Kill Screen makes it unique among these quirks of programming. No other Kill Screen comes even close to being as befuddling or unpredictable, and more so, frustrating to players who attempt high scores.
Okay so maybe I’m cheating. Perhaps Missile Command doesn’t actually have a kill screen… but whatever the hell you want to call it, there are some pretty evil forces out there which cause Missile Command machines to reboot at certain points in the game’s progress.
Missile Command let’s you earn 1-up’s in a way that, theoretically, allows you to play the game forever. Players earn so many 1-ups that they walk away from the machine to use the restroom, eat food or even take 30 minute naps! However, for a game that can theoretically go on forever… that is not reality for Bill Carlton. For him, this game has a very real kill screen: a game ending bug that causes the game to crash.
What keeps it from being a “true” kill screen is that this particular incident doesn’t actually happen every game.
There you are, protecting the world from incoming missiles, driving your score higher and higher into the millions. And then something terrible happens. The machine hesitates for a moment between levels and you know that it’s about to happen… the screen flickers, the board resets, and your game has been flushed from existence.
Let’s check out the high score back in 2006.
1 80,364,995 Victor Ali 2 72,547,630 Kevin Baughan 3 64,696,720 Jeff Steuve 4 63,983,475 Ron Kussman 5 60,506,300 C.R. Ricardo 6 52,454,815 Walt Stewart 7 52,246,260 Joe Fernandes 8 51,957,175 Tim Vargo 9 51,952,110 Geroge Pimms 10 29,788,385 William Carlton
Bill Carlton was stuck at the ~31 million point mark because each time he played it reset. For Carlton, Missile Command had as real a Kill Screen as Pac-Man.
If you look at the four players above him in the rankings, you’ll see four other scores that are nearly identical — this oddity has caused many to believe that these players hit the same exact event (although at a later time) and that they, like Carlton, could have played for much, much longer.
So how about the scores above those? Especially Victor Ali’s 80-million-plus top score! How were these players able to circumvent these various pit traps and keep playing? Well, those “in-the-know” in the arcade community (like those who rewire Missile Command boards so they don’t hardware reset) have narrowed it down to ‘player error’. People, like Carlton, are accidentally playing in such a way that it causes the game to freak-out and kills it.
Two years later, in 2008, Carlton was finally able to break past this limit, but he quickly hit a second one at the 45 million point mark. To make things even more painful, just three months ago, in March of 2013, Victor Sandberg was able to smash the top score and push Carlton out of the top-ten entirely. Apparently his play style safely avoids Carlton’s kill screen nightmare. 
If you’d like to see Bill Carlton’s story, check out the documentary short film High Score, which details his attempts to break the world record. And as opposed to the Man vs. Man plot presented in The King of Kong, High Score is very much a story of Man Vs Machine.
And man, that machine is a bitch.
Donkey Kong Jr: On the same notable weekend that Billy Mitchel first hit the Donkey Kong Kill Screen, Jeff Brandt found a nearly identical game ending situation in Donkey Kong Jr. where (just like in DK) you end up on a stage in which there is just not enough time to finish it. The lone difference is that DKJ’s death knell strikes when you arrive on “Stage F.”
Dig Dug: In Dig Dug the difficulty is slowly increased by having the monsters start closer to the player. Upon reaching 256th stage of the game, the game screws up it’s enemy placement logic. For the Kill Screen all of the enemies actually spawn inside of the players starting tunnel, with a Pooka (those freaky tomato-like dudes with the yellow shades) sitting on exact spot in which Mr. Dug starts on. Needless to say it’s a quick death!
Perhaps the strangest tidbit about this Kill Screen is that there appears to be code on the board that would actually fix the rollover problem — it’s just never used by the game.
Galaga: One of the few games in which a Kill Screen has been successfully bypassed. Originally players would die upon hitting the 256th playfield (you see a pattern in these old games?) but if you play the game on the hardest difficulty (Rank D) the game properly loops and you can marathon it.
2. ^ While no one has actually found a way past Pac-Man’s kill screen in the arcades, through a bit of modern hacking using MAME, people have been able to bypass the zeroth board and continue on. Who knows what the highest score in Pac-Man could have been?