The long and twisted tale of the Nibbler arcade game

Never heard of Nibbler? You’re not alone. Nibbler was one of a handful of arcade games produced in the early 80’s by Rock-Ola Manufacturing Company, a company better known for its stylish jukeboxes. Designed by programmers Joe Ulowetz and John Jaugilas, Nibbler is the bastard lovechild of the Pac-Man and the cell phone game Snake, which you may remember playing on your 2001 Nokia handheld. Oft-maligned by classic arcade gamers as less worthy than games like Donkey Kong, Dig Dug or Defender, Nibbler is actually a fun and fairly addictive game which starts out easy and steadily ramps up difficulty as the player advances through levels of mazes. Since only about 1,500 Nibblers rolled off of the assembly line, it was a somewhat rare find in the arcade scene of the day, especially when compared to the hundreds of thousands of Pac-Man cabinets that proliferated, yet interest in Nibbler has endured into the modern era, spearheaded by a coterie of die-hard Nibbler fanatics. You see, what made Nibbler special is that it held a secret, it was the first game of its era that could be played to one billion points and beyond.

The secret was discovered by Tom Asaki, who at the time was an undergraduate at Montana State University studying physics. The founding member of the “Bozeman Think Tank,” Tom had been one of the early arcade pioneers who cracked Ms. Pac-Man (on which he held world records) and he quickly mastered Nibbler. Tom soon noticed that the score counter kept adding places and noticed that the game could hold at least nine digits. This meant that a score of 999,999,999 (or more) would be possible on Nibbler. Tom decided to see how high he could get on the game and realized that reaching the billion point mark on Nibbler would require a nearly two day, non-stop marathon (on a single quarter of course). Tom embarked on a quest to become the first player to score one billion points on a video game and made several grueling attempts at the billion. Unlike today’s console games, the arcade games of yore could not be paused, so in order to take a bathroom break he had to build up a large reserve of extra lives and then dash off and return to the controls before his last man died off. Because of the pain in his elbows, Tom was forced to soak his arms in ice buckets to help reduce the swelling and discomfort that came with his billion point attempts.

During one such record attempt, while playing at the famous Twin Galaxies arcade in Ottumwa Iowa, a sixteen-year-old local farm boy named Tim McVey noticed a crowd gathered around Tom and the Nibbler cabinet. Curious as to why Tom was receiving all the attention, he soon learned that Tom was going for a billion points on Nibbler. Though Tom failed that day, Tim decided to stick a quarter in the game that everyone was making a fuss about. Soon, he too was hooked and realized that he had a talent for playing Nibbler. With some tips from Tom and encouragement from arcade owner Walter Day, Tim decided to go for the billion points himself. The prize for such an achievement? Life-long bragging rights and a Nibbler arcade game of his very own….

***

I discovered Nibbler around 2007, it was one of a trove of games housed in a MAME (arcade emulation) cabinet, dubbed “the Ultracade” that I built from scratch and then surreptitiously smuggled onto the lot at Universal Studios where I was editing Battlestar Galactica. Working late into the evenings, doing my part to help a rag tag fleet of humans find a mythical planet known as “Earth,” arcade gaming turned out to be a perfect way to blow off steam for 10 or 15 minutes at a time. I soon learned that everybody of certain age has “their game." It could be Asteroids, or Joust, Space Invaders or Pac-Man, Centipede or Dragon’s Lair, but everyone has a game they remember and enjoy playing. For me that game was Robotron, an action packed frenzy of a game in which robots rise up to destroy the human race, very fitting for the show I was working on.

During season three, when editor Tim Kinzy joined our team, I found a kindred spirit who, like myself, had a come of age in the 80s and had a nostalgia for retro gaming and 8-bit graphics. We soon started to plumb the depths of the Ultracade, seeking out lost classics and having weekly high score competitions on various games. Then one day, while scrolling through the list of rom titles, we stumbled upon Nibbler. There was something about the 8-bit snake, slithering through a Pac-Man style maze that caught our eye and we soon found ourselves competing for the Nibbler title during lunch breaks.

Our wrists and shoulders ached as we traded high scores, struggling to crest the 100,000 point mark. A few days later, returning to my editing room, I discovered a strange flyer taped to my door. It was a grainy black and white poster of a sullen looking teenager standing next to a Nibbler game with the text “Tim McVey Day” in a large type and below “congratulations for scoring 1,000,000,000 points.” The whole thing looked utterly preposterous, but a quick Google search revealed some startling details. It turned out that in 1984, a Tim McVey of Ottumwa, Iowa had in fact earned over one billion points on the game we were struggling to get one hundred thousand on. Snatching the poster off the door, I walked into our break room, where Tim Kinzy was sweating away, trying to break my Nibbler high score. Tim admitted that, in an act of desperation, he had turned to the internet looking for Nibblergame play tips and had stumbled upon the Tim McVey Day poster.

So there it was, the first-billion point game. It had all hallmarks of a classic coming of age story, of the small town local kid achieving the seemingly impossible and I wanted to know more. What had become of Tim McVey, the stalwart teenager who battled Nibbler for two days in an effort to reach the pantheon of video achievement? With all that drive and determination, what had he gone on to do; who had he become? We decided to see if we could track him down. Surprisingly, a Google search turned up quite a few Timothy McVey’s in Iowa and we proceeded to call them all — it felt kind of like the Terminator searching for the right Sarah Connor. Eventually we located Tim, the Nibbler God, and found that he was an ordinary, all-American, humble, blue collar guy, still living in Iowa, just one town over from where he grew up. We hatched a plan to fly out to Iowa and conduct a round of interviews with Tim, arcade owner Walter Day and Tim’s childhood friend (and billion-point witness) Mark Hoff, with the intention of gathering material to tell the story of the first-billion point game. We figured, one weekend, a little bit of editing and a 5-10 minute video documenting the first billion-point game for YouTube.

Footage in hand, we returned to Los Angeles and our busy day jobs, filing away the tapes until we had a free moment to edit them. Several months later, Tim called us to let us know that he intended to go for the record again. You see, at some point in the late 80s, a rumor of a higher Nibbler score had surfaced in Italy, though never officially verified, the rumor had cast doubt on Tim’s epic achievement and had always troubled him. So now, despite the passing of twenty-five years, an older, less fit Tim McVey was going to embark on a quest to once and for all lay claim to the Nibbler world record title and dispel all doubt. It struck us that there’s something universal about the story of man attempting to recapture the glory of his youth and there would be inherent drama in the two days of grueling game play that setting a new record would require. So we decided to grab our cameras and document Tim’s quest. Little did we realize that we were about to embark on a multi-year filmmaking odyssey during which we would discover other die-hard Nibbler players, including the long lost Italian and learn more about Nibbler than we ever thought possible. In the end, Tim’s journey would take him down a long and twisting road full of ups and downs and surprises and along the way we became what I like to call “accidental documentarians.” I don’t want to spoil the film for you, but the end result is a lot of fun and surprisingly inspirational, so if your interested in learning more check out the full-length film, MAN VS SNAKE.

Andrew Seklir is a producer, director and Emmy-nominated editor whose credits include WESTWORLD/HBO, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA/SyFy and ATARI: GAME OVER/Xbox Studios.

Notable Replies

  1. this was my game--

    i was really good at this game. the video shows it at its hardest levels. i competed in the first annual 7-11 video game contest which turned out to be the only contest they ever did. i got a third place trophy at the finals in dallas, a t-shirt, and a voucher for 1000 tokens at any aladdin's castle video arcade. it was a beautiful game with a sophisticated controller.

  2. My game was Elevator Action.

  3. Mine was relatively obscure: Gravitar. Asteroids ship traveling through caverns with weird gravity shooting back at gun bunkers and picking up fuel. Can be played in Mame but not many are in existence because it's cabinet was a generic design easily upgraded to newer games.

    What I hated was the algorithm games, that you could win by remembering their patterns. I have a crank theory about all video games evolving from the UR games, Asteroids and Space Invaders. Space Invaders involved patterns, but Asteroids was all improv. You could have style at Asteroids. To me it was a little like the difference between pool and bowling.

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