Donkey Kong is an arcade video game released in 1981 by Nintendo. The game was subsequently released on a variety of platforms, all of which can be seen below. The game is among the earliest platforming video games to be released. In the game, the player controls Mario, originally known as Jumpman, across a series of girders in an attempt to rescue his beloved Pauline, originally known as Lady, who was kidnapped by Donkey Kong. In the game, Jumpman is required to jump over barrels and other similar obstacles that Donkey Kong sends down to the hero. This is the first game in which the characters Mario and Donkey Kong appear.
The game is widely considered to be one of the most important arcade games released during the 80s. Creator Shigeru Miyamoto initially wanted the game to feature Popeye characters, though when he were unable to receive the license he resorted to creating his own characters, who would soon grow into lucrative properties and the most successful and noticeable images in the video game industry. Cut-scenes, while included in Pac-Man, were more impressive in this game and had a purpose to the plot. The multiple stages were also an innovation, and were only predated by Gorf.
Nintendo released Donkey Kong in an attempt to replace unused Radar Scope units which proved unsuccessful in America, a territory where Nintendo saw potential in due to their increased interest in the industry. When Radar Scope eventually arrived, it was viewed by the general public as outdated, so when retailers refused to purchase the units, they were sent back to Nintendo. Nintendo needed to create a game that would either make or break them, and so the president of the company, Hiroshi Yamauchi, ordered Miyamoto to create a new game for the cabinet. He decided to do something new, and upon being released it would capture the hearts of millions, start a new franchise, and shoot Nintendo to the top of the industry. This was the beginning of a new start for a nearly 100 year old company. After a continuous stream of failures, Nintendo finally found their saving grace. A new generation started, and it was only the beginning.
Donkey Kong is a challenging game. So challenging, in fact, that a professional player once claimed that the average playtime won't last for more than a minute before the player loses. It's for this very reason that in the first sixty seconds the player is captivated by the gameplay. Nintendo of America founder and then-president Minoru Arakawa noted that, in his journeys through New York, he found that a game must entice a player in thirty seconds if it is to be successful. Upon learning how to play, gamers were hooked immediately. In Donkey Kong the player controls Jumpman who climbs ladders, jumps over barrels and unlocks keys, all to save his girlfriend Pauline. There are four stages, each named by how high up they are on the tower and each substantially different than the last. Multiple stages, a critical component of the game, lead the game's programmers to feel that they were developing four games instead of one. Games such as Gorf previously had multiple stages, but this was still a huge undertaking, especially for a company that had yet to create a true arcade hit.
The four stages include 25m, 50m, 75m, and 100m. On each level Pauline will be stationed on the uppermost girder with her abductor Donkey Kong to the left. The goal is to lead Jumpman up to the very top girder, where Donkey Kong will inevitably always snatch Pauline and move to the next stage. On the last stage, 100m, Donkey Kong will finally be thwarted and the game will start over. On the way Jumpman will be required to avoid obstacles ranging from barrels, fireballs and gaps in the girders while taking advantage of the ladders and elevators that will guide him to the top.
Donkey Kong is largely one of Nintendo's most important video games for various different reasons. In order to fully appreciate the history of the game one must first know of the key players behind the title and their backgrounds. Shigeru Miyamoto, Minoru Arakawa, Hiroshi Yamauchi, Gunepi Yokoi, Jack Kirby and others were all pivotal to the creation and success of the game and this article will examine their roles in-depth. Donkey Kong could have easily destroyed the company in more than one ways but Nintendo managed to succeed when many thought it was impossible. Indeed, the history behind Donkey Kong is one of the most interesting stories the company has to offer.
In order to analyze the history of the game, it is appropriate to first take a look at the employee credited with the creation of it: Shigeru Miyamoto. Shigeru Miyamoto was born in Sonobe, a small town outside the city of Kyoto. As a teenager he was enthralled with Japanese animation. Knowing that he wanted to become an artist, he managed to join Nintendo when he showcased some of his various inventions to then-Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi. Yamauchi was intrigued by Miyamoto's inventions and hired him on the spot. Miyamoto's first order of business at the company was to design the case that would encompass the internal components of the home console game Color TV Racing 112. Impressed by his work, Yamauchi assigned him to several more video games including a few arcade titles. Miyamoto was not a particularly experienced video game designer, but would learn a lot from his mentor Gunpei Yokoi.
Gunpei Yokoi worked at Nintendo far longer than Miyamoto did. He joined the company as an engineer. In his free time Yokoi, like the younger Miyamoto, would create unique inventions. His most important creation was an extending arm that could grab things in hard to reach places. Yamauchi, while visiting the plant Yokoi worked at, saw the invention and immediately promoted him. The arm, which Nintendo would call the Ultra Hand, would become one of Nintendo's biggest successes, selling over one million units during the Christmas season. Today the Ultra Hand is still celebrated by the company, with it making appearances in various games. Yokoi would go on to become one of Nintendo's pioneering video game designers, developing the immensely successful Game & Watch franchise. Yokoi would become Nintendo's first major video game designer and would train several employees at Nintendo, including Miyamoto during the creation of Donkey Kong.
Having solely been a Japanese company since 1889, Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi made the decision to establish a division of Nintendo in the United States. He called upon his son-in-law, Minoru Arakawa, to realize this goal. Arakawa's family owned a prolific textile business for four generations and was well known in Kyoto. Importing material from China and western nations, his family resold them to producers of clothes in Japan. The company, Arakawa Textures, was a thriving business with over 1,000 employees and profits of well over $5 million each year. The key to the company's success was Minoru's father's devotion to the quality of the linens and cotton and the business relations with his customers. The Arakawas had three children, but Minoru was the only one without a course firmly lined out for him. His brother would be put in charge of the company, and his sister would marry a wealthy man. Minoru, on the otherhand, would be free to choose his destiny. Upon meeting and marrying Yoko Yamauchi, Hiroshi Yamauchi's daughter, his future would soon be determined. Minoru and Yoko moved to Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada for several years where he gained invaluable experience in how to work with Western companies. Hiroshi, who had long wanted to infiltrate the American market, had very few people to go to who were already knowledgeable in that sector. Minoru had actually gone to college at MIT in Boston, Massachusetts before moving to Canada and extensively traveled the United States, so he would clearly be his top choice to head this venture. Hiroshi apparently had a dream to move to the United States and become successful there, but was far too old to do so and didn't know how to speak English. Hiroshi eloquently described his plan to Minoru one night when the Arakawas returned to Kyoto. For two hours he explained in-depth what he wanted to do, and how it would be impossible without him. A conundrum arose, though, with the fact that Yoko Yamauchi detested Nintendo and what it did to her father, engulfing his life. She didn't want the same fate for Minoru.
The proposition, however, was irresistible. Video games were a growing business but few companies had succeeded in the industry. Nintendo was one of the few who had managed to develop a successful company around it, and Hiroshi knew he could sculpt a new division internationally and repeat the success he had within his own country. Minoru would be the president of this new division of Nintendo but would be backed completely by his father-in-law. While a failure would not spell the death of the company, it would be a grim sign of things to come. Japanese companies were not particularly lucrative in the West, and how America would respond to strictly Japanese products was unknown and it would be a test for Arakawa to make Nintendo's games successful. Arakawa agreed to Yamauchi's proposal, despite his wife's misgivings, and headed back to America where they would establish the headquarters of the new company in New York. Nintendo of America was created, but it would be a long, hard journey before they would become profitable.
The plan was for Nintendo of America to release an ultra successful arcade video game. The business was booming in America. In fact, it was the largest entertainment sector in the country despite being played mostly by teenagers. Arakawa and his wife would travel to the arcades in New York and leer at players for hours, trying to determine what types of games they liked. He would question them on the titles and would ask what types of games they would want to play. He found that a successful game would have to impress a player in the first thirty seconds. That first quarter was an essential key to a game's profitability because, if the player did not enjoy the game with that first quarter, they would not be so willing to insert more into the machine. Some of the teenagers he met at the arcades he would hire to work at his warehouse. There they would receive arcades directly from Japan. Everyone had to work extremely hard, including Arakawa. The kids seemed to enjoy him as he tried to connect as much as possible. He was a gentle man who appreciated hard workers. Yoko began to change, perhaps for the better. When she first moved to America, she was very depressed and would talk to her mother for hours on the phone. While she disliked Nintendo back in Japan, she became very engrossed in the business in America. In Japan, Yoko's mother felt that she was becoming too distant and felt that she might be depressed, so Hiroshi decided to take his first trip to the new division in America not only to meat with Arakawa but to see Yoko as well. There he found that Yoko had developed into a very independent woman, and was shocked when, at a restaurant, she asked her father if it was okay if she smoked. She had smoked back in Japan, but never in front of him. Immediately, without speaking, he gave her a cigarette an lit it for her. In that moment he saw something he never saw in her before, and liked it very much. It was because of this new gained trust that, when walking down a sidewalk in New York, Hiroshi agreed to let Minoru do things his way when Yoko requested it. If things went awry, however, he knew he would not be able to sit back and do nothing.
Two other key players entered the scene around this time in Nintendo's history. Their names were Al Stone and Ron Judy. Stone and Judy lived in Washington where they would import used arcade games from the state of Hawaii. Stone and Judy had actually imported Nintendo arcade games to America before Nintendo of America was established. The first arcade unit they got was from a friend who guaranteed them that what he would send them would be a huge success. Not knowing what it was, Stone and Judy opened the box to find a cocktail version of the Nintendo arcade game Space Fever. A hotel within Washington agreed to host the game, and the two would split the profits 60-40. The game was successful, so Stone and Judy decided to pursue this business, realizing that Nintendo was the only major Japanese company without representation in the United States. The units would be sent midway to Hawaii and then subsequently brought over to the rest of the country through Judy and Stone. According to the two, the games were insanely profitable, more than enough to convince them that they had made the right decision. Around the time Nintendo of America was established Arakawa contacted the two to meet with him and Hiroshi Yamauchi.
One of the games Nintendo of America received was Radarscope. Thinking that it would be a huge success, Arakawa ordered a couple thousand units of the game. It took several months to arrive, however, and by the time it did it was considered outdated by gamers. Arakawa was sitting on thousands of unsold arcade units and needed a new game chip to insert into the machines that would replace it. There was no other option: the machines needed to be used. He called upon his father-in-law for help, who enlisted Shigeru Miyamoto to direct the task in creating a new game. Miyamoto didn't go into the project alone, however. Yamauchi also assigned the lead engineer Gunpei Yokoi to watch over the project and train Miyamoto. The two became a fantastic team, and together they created what would soon become known as Donkey Kong. The characters, however, would go through a vast transformation before eventually becoming what they are today. Nintendo initially was looking to make the game based on Popeye and its well known characters. They were unable to acquire the license, so Miyamoto decided to create unique characters. While new, these characters would be based slightly off of the character triangle that was present in the Popeye series. After Donkey Kong became so successful, the company received the license to create games based on Popeye.
With the characters intact, they needed a name for them, and perhaps more importantly a name for the game. Because the game was intended for the American audience, the president of the company desired that the name be English. The game would eventually be named after the antagonist of the game, who Miyamoto felt most dear about. How Miyamoto came up with the name of the character, however, isn't exactly clear. There are many legends of how he did this, and they include the following:
- Myth 1: The name of Donkey Kong was initially Monkey Kong, though because of a mistranslation they accidentally changed the name Monkey to Donkey.
- Myth 2: When Miyamoto was looking in a dictionary to find words that meant stubborn, he came upon the word Donkey. The word Kong was used because of its common usage in Japan as an alternate word for gorilla.
- Myth 3: Nintendo's export manager came up with the term Donkey.
Miyamoto has confirmed that he wanted the name Kong in the game, and that Donkey was supposed to mean stupid so he went with that. He said that when he explained the name to those at Nintendo of America, they chuckled at the idea, though he went through with it anyway.
When it actually came to developing the game, Miyamoto found that it was hard to come with a concrete idea. He didn't want the game to be a traditional maze or shooter game that was popular at the time, but rather wanted something unique. He gathered many ideas that employees at Nintendo had, though when Miyamoto came up with the basic concept his supervisor Gunpei Yokoi explained to him that it would be too complicated to program. When the ideas of catapulting were created by Yokoi, they were unable to program it, so Miyamoto had to go back to the drawing board, when he came up with the idea of sloped levels, multiple stages, and barrels that Donkey Kong would hurl at players. The overall code for the game was 20,000 lines long, and the programmers apparently complained that they were essentially making four games instead of one because of the many stages Miyamoto ordered. Reluctantly, they followed through with Miyamoto's requests.
Upon viewing the game, Hiroshi Yamauchi knew that what Miyamoto had created was going to be very successful. Back in America, the branch head Minoru Arakawa was introduced to Howard Lincoln, who would copyright the name Donkey Kong. Howard Lincoln was found by the distributors Ron Judy and Al Stone. Now, with the trademark in place, the Japanese branch sent over the game to America for them to test. Right off the bat, almost everyone at the branch hated it. Even Al, Howard and Ron felt that the game would be unsuccessful. The sales manager didn't understand why it wasn't a maze or shooter game. The only one who was positive was Arakawa, who eventually convinced everyone at Nintendo that the game would become successful. Upon requesting a name change, Yamauchi, being the determined man that he is, refused. After Nintendo of America created all of the promotional material, translated the game, and changed the names of some of the characters, they decided to release two cabinets throughout Seattle in Washington, where the company was based.
The owners of the bars where Nintendo brought the cabinets didn't want the games initially. They didn't think they would appeal to anyone, but were eventually convinced to hold them for a week. After a week, each cabinet found an average of 120 plays per day, equaling out $30, or $210 for the whole week. They were so satisfied with the results that they ordered more units from Nintendo. But, Nintendo didn't expect such fantastic results, and hadn't even started gutting the Radar Scope units and replacing them with Donkey Kong. The branch only had a few employees, and when the game became successful in the bars, everyone at the company started to replace 2,000 Radar Scope units with the new game. In all, there were only six people involved with doing all of this. One of the people, Yoko Arakawa, wasn't actually employed at the company, but rather was the branch head's wife. He himself was even one of the six involved. And, when all was said and done, the game went on sale sometime in July of 1981. Within months, Donkey Kong would become one of the most successful games of that generation. A game that was doubted by so many people both externally and domestically would sell out so quickly that Nintendo of Japan couldn't keep up with the orders Nintendo of America was placing. Eventually they would start to released the game in Canada, where it was just as successful. Selling 4,000 units a month, Nintendo managed to sell over 60,000 cabinets by the end of 1982. Those within Nintendo who doubted the game's success eventually earned themselves millions of dollars once Nintendo received over $280 million by 1983. In Japan, the game wasn't nearly as successful, though it did manage to rake in some cash.
It was an inevitable occurrence. After the game became successful, countless (or rather around 50) companies went to Nintendo, hoping to gain a license to either use their characters in non-game related merchandising, or to translate the game for a console release. Nintendo agreed to many of these, and thus the game's popularity soared even farther. In the early eighties, the characters could be seen on cereal boxes, on Saturday morning television, and on a Miltion Bradley game board. A song called 'Do the Donkey Kong' was released as part of the 'Pac-Man Fever' album, and all of these occurrences led Donkey Kong to become the second best selling arcade game of all time, just behind the Pac-Man game. Many console companies wanted to get a piece of the pie and were given the rights to create Donkey Kong games on their consoles. Nintendo had little to no influence over these new games, and some translated the game well, while others didn't. A few consoles that Donkey Kong appeared on include:
- Colecovision (1981): The Colecovision version includes all of the stages excluding the pie factory. The graphics are incredibly similar to original, though quite a few things were altered. They translated Mario's sprite almost flawlessly, with some minor color alterations. In the 75m stage, the springs are oddly not present.
- Intellivision (1982): The Intellvision is perhaps one of the worst available. The graphics weren't nearly as close to the original as they could've been, and the jumping mechanics are too challenging.
- Atari 2600 (1982): This version of the game had only two of the arcade's stages including 25m and 100m. 25m translates well for the console it appeared on, though 100m wasn't nearly as good as it could've been. The girders were purple instead of red, and while Donkey Kong looked entirely different from his arcade incarnation, Mario and Pauline looked quite similar (though Mario did look overly puffy).
There were a variety of other consoles as well, including Atari 7800, Atari 800, Commodore VIC20, Commodore 64, TI 99/4a, and the Atari XEGS. Of course, when Nintendo started creating their own consoles, they released the ever popular game too. Nintendo's versions were without a doubt the best of the bunch. The consoles Nintendo released their game on include the Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy (an overhaul and not exactly a remake), Nintendo 64 (as an unlockable in Donkey Kong 64), the Game Boy Advance (as part of the NES Classics series), the e-Reader, the Famicom Disk System, and the Wii's Virtual Console. Most of the recent releases were versions of the NES game instead of the arcade game. The NES version omitted the Pie Factory. After the game became so popular Nintendo also released a Game & Watch version of the game as a Multi Screen title. The game was simply titled Donkey Kong. It was remade a variety of times for Game & Watch Gallery 2, Game & Watch Gallery 4, and Game & Watch Collection for the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo DS, respectively. The Game & Watch version only contained the original stage.