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Pac-Maniac finds his holy grail

It's hard to believe any man or woman or child could play Pac-Man for six hours, let alone score a perfect game. Believe.

Don't say it. Don't even think it.

It's not just some stupid video game. And people do care; a lot of people. And it took ungodly concentration and nerves of steel to pull off what Billy Mitchell did.

(pause)

Okay, so it won't exactly dress up a resume, and a lot of people will think that what he did was a colossal waste of time.

But to the people who monitor and play video games _ and there are far more of them than you think _ this is akin to finding the Holy Grail.

It's like pitching a perfect game against the Yankees _ and striking out every batter you face.

Late on the afternoon of July 3, at the Funspot Family Fun Center in Weirs Beach, N.H., dropping just one quarter in the slot and playing for a stretch of nearly six hours, 34-year-old Billy Mitchell of Cooper City, near Fort Lauderdale, became the only person in the world to play a perfect game of Pac-Man.

You remember Pac-Man. Cute little circle eats dots while bad guys chase it around a maze. Nobody plays it anymore.

No, there won't be a Nobel Prize in this. Not even a state grant to study the effects of spending too much time in an arcade.

Still, this is a story filled with patriotism. It even has a dopey kid who nearly ruined everything.

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In the past few months, Mitchell and a handful of others were closing in on Pac-Man perfection. At a tournament in May, Rick Fothergill of Hamilton, Ontario, fell just 90 points short of a perfect score.

When Mitchell found out that Fothergill and some compatriots were going for it again, at the official Pac-Man competition in New Hampshire, he packed his Star-Spangled Banner tie and flew north to fight for America.

"It's a friendly rivalry," Mitchell said by phone. "But I was thinking, "You're Canadian. You can't have the title.' "

He arrived in New Hampshire on July 1 _ Canada Day.

"I walked up to the game and started playing just to get a feel for it. Then things . . . well, things started falling into place. Before I realized it, I was more than an hour into the game and I hadn't missed a point."

Alerted to history in the making, arcade officials began to videotape Mitchell and a crowd formed. One hour became two.

A boy of about 12 who was playing another video game nearby had a problem with his screen. He crawled under the machine and jiggled the wires.

"He pulled the master plug, knocked out power on the whole row, and I lost everything," said Mitchell, who somehow managed not to strangle the young man.

"The kid said it was an accident, and I know it was . . . but he sure sounded Canadian to me."

Mitchell went back to his hotel room, pulled himself together and tried again two days later. This time, there were no 12-year-olds nearby.

It took him nearly six hours to safely steer his hungry little sphere through all 256 levels of the game. His Pac-Man gobbled every dot, every fruit, every blue bad guy. He scored the maximum possible points (3,333,360), and he finished the game with the same Pac Man he started with.

When the last dot was eaten and the perfect game ended, there were no bells, no whistles, no flashing lights.

The screen simply blinked, Game Over.

Walter Day is the chief scorekeeper at the Twin Galaxies Scoreboard, an Iowa-based organization that tracks high scores for video and pinball games. What did Walter Day think of what Mitchell had done? "This is, possibly, the most difficult feat to accomplish in the world of video game playing."

You might say Walter Day was impressed.

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Pac-Man used to be somebody. In the early '80s, it was the game to play in the video arcades. It originally was called Puck Man, but the game was retitled when somebody at NAMCO realized it would be crazy to give graffiti artists such an easy shot _ just scratching out part of the first letter.

Pac-Man quickly outpaced Pong, the Ford Model A of video games, and became the most popular game of all time.

It has been estimated that Pac-Man has been played more than 10-billion times worldwide since 1980.

Pac-Man had his own cereal, toothbrush and night light. You could call someone on your Pac-phone or groove to the tunes on your Pac-Man portable radio. What would you listen to? How about Pac-Man Fever by Buckner & Garcia. In 1982, the song made it to No. 9 on the charts.

The golden age of arcade games ended in the mid-1980s, mostly because video aces grew up and moved on to more sophisticated games. But Day and his Twin Galaxies group continued to keep records of high scores, and when a book about the records was published last year, interest grew.

Billy Mitchell is married now, a father of three. But back in the old days, when he was a hotshot teenager, Mitchell was an arcade legend. He owns or has owned world records in four of the most popular video games of all time, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Centipede.

Mitchell would spend up to 20 hours a day in the arcade at the Grand Prix Race-O-Rama in Dania Beach, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale.

"It's almost embarrassing to say this, but in 1982, I played Centipede for a charity event. On a single quarter, I set a world record of 47 hours on one quarter. It's very, very addictive, this passion to be perfect. It'll drive you nuts and spin your head at times."

When he reached his early 20s, he got out. He stayed out until he heard that the Canadians were closing in on the record. He practiced for two months, and his old moves came rushing back.

When the last dot was eaten and the game ended, Mitchell slowly backed away from the machine and announced his permanent retirement.

"I never have to play that darn game again," he said. "There's nothing more I can accomplish."

It's only a video game, right? Nobody cares if he broke the record.

"Since it happened," he said, "it's been difficult to go anywhere. I'll have people ask to take a picture of me with their kid, which of course I do. It's flattering."

He has been interviewed by radio stations from the BBC in London, to a station in New Zealand. Der Spiegel ran a full page story with a photo, and Der Stern is sending someone to Florida.

Mitchell's business is marketing the hot sauce he developed, Rickey's World Famous Hot Sauce. The company did about $5-million in business last year, sold in every state and 20 countries. All the attention can only help.

Maybe somebody else will get a perfect Pac-Man score some day. But what's important to Mitchell is that he'll always be first.

"Charles Lindbergh was the first to cross the Atlantic in an airplane," he said. "Can you tell me who was second? Or third?

"See?

And when he's in his 80s and sits back and takes an accounting of his life, how will he remember all this?

"I'd like to know that at a time and place in my life, I gave 100 percent and had that burning passion.

"I really hope this is going to be just another notch on my belt. I hope this isn't all I achieve."

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