I recently discussed the history of the Nintendo character Mario. However, I did not explore the game in which the character first appeared with much depth, but that is for the best because the 1981 game Donkey Kong is very much worth its own blog post.
After the success of arcade games like Pong and Asteroids in the U.S., the Japanese game company Nintendo had been trying to break into the North American market. One of their first attempts was the 1980 shoot-’em-up arcade game Radar Scope, which was a third-person iteration of the gameplay template established by Taito’s Space Invaders, but it was a large commercial failure despite its success in Japan.
Nintendo’s president Hiroshi Yamauchi entrusted a young designer named Shigeru Miyamoto to convert all the Radar Scope arcade units that had already been built into a new game with supervision from Nintendo’s head engineer Gunpei Yokoi who had previously created Nintendo’s successful handheld Game & Watch. Miyamoto was a creative person who had originally wanted to be a manga artist before entering the video game industry, designing the art for Nintendo’s 1979 arcade game Sheriff before designing the core concept for Donkey Kong.
Miyamoto had actually wanted to use the characters Popeye, Olive Oyl and Bluto for the love triangle at the center of the plot, but with Nintendo unable to license the characters, he created a carpenter, his girlfriend and a gorilla instead (Nintendo actually managed to gain the license to Popeye following the success of Donkey Kong and Shigeru Miyamoto and future Punch-Out!! creator Genyo Takeda made an arcade game based on Popeye in 1982 that was well-received).
The arcade game, for which Miyamoto sited King Kong and Beauty and the Beast as inspirations in addition to Popeye, featured the first appearances of three classic characters: Mario, Donkey Kong and Pauline. Miyamoto decided to name the game for its primary simian antagonist, with “Donkey” and “Kong” being meant to convey the character as a stupid ape. Miyamoto originally called the carpenter character Mr. Video but he was later dubbed Jumpman after the innovative jump mechanic was added to the gameplay before finally being named Mario. Mario is widely believed to have been named after Mario Sagale, Nintendo of America’s warehouse landlord.
The object of the game was to navigate the carpenter up a construction site to save his girlfriend from a gorilla. The challenge comes from the fact that the gorilla is constantly hurling barrels at you and such obstacles as flames and springs are threatening you, however grabbing a hammer will temporarily give you the ability to destroy any obstacles in front of you, similar to the Power Pellet from Pac-Man temporarily letting you devour ghosts.
You start out with three lives, one of which will be lost every time you touch an enemy or a dangerous object, if you fall from too great a height or if the timer reaches zero. You can gain even more points by grabbing Pauline’s fallen objects which include a parasol, a hat and a purse. Every time you reach Pauline, Donkey Kong carries her higher up the building. You start out at 25m and keep advancing another 25m until you reach the fourth and final level at 100m.
25m – a construction site where Donkey Kong relentlessly hurls barrels at you
50m – a cement factory full of conveyor belts that might plunge you into danger if you don’t keep moving
75m – elevators and an annoying series of springs that will continuously bounce along your path to Pauline
100m – a series of platforms held up by rivets which you must loosen to cause Donkey Kong to fall to his doom
Miyamoto’s ambitions for the video game were unprecedented. His lack of technical skills may have been the reason for why his imagination seemed to be unbound by technical limitations. Many of the features Donkey Kong popularized like platforming, jumping, the connection between story and gameplay, and multiple levels in a single game contributed to the game’s success and the evolution of video games in general. There were a few platformers and multi-level games in the early eighties but none were as fun nor did they allow you to jump, which was a game design revelation. And let’s not forget how it introduced the world to two of the most popular and enduring video game characters Mario and Donkey Kong. Even Pauline, for better or worse, was the first damsel-in-distress in video game history.
There were some at Nintendo of America who questioned whether U.S. audiences would like something so radically different from every other arcade game, which at that time consisted mainly of mazes and shooters, but the Japanese team knew they had a great game on their hands and believed it would be successful. The gamble paid off. Donkey Kong was a huge success and American gamers loved its challenging obstacle courses. Across both Japan and America the game received positive reactions and made Nintendo the richest video game company, earning $180 million in 1982 selling 60,000 machines to arcades across the U.S., the Japanese company’s top seller from 1981 to 1983. Plus an extra $4 billion from the multiple console ports of Donkey Kong which have spanned Atari 2600, Atari 7800, Mattel Intellivision, Colecovision, IBM PC, Commodore 64 and MSX.
Nintendo even famously won a legal battle in court when Universal tried to sue them for copyright infringement on King Kong and Nintendo’s attorney John Kirby countered that King Kong was in the public domain. That victory earned Nintendo even more money and it also led to attorney John Kirby obtaining the honor of having a Nintendo character named after him when Kirby’s Dream Land was released for Game Boy in 1992.
All that financial success from Donkey Kong led Nintendo to enter the home console market with its own system the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System or NES in America) with Nintendo’s goal being to match the graphical style of Donkey Kong on television screens, at a time when most console graphics failed to match the quality of arcade graphics. Nintendo even adapted Donkey Kong to the Famicom, albeit with only three levels instead of four, but the fun factor remained.
The game began two long-running series: the Mario series and the Donkey Kong series. Mario went on to star in the arcade game Mario Bros. (1983) and the NES game Super Mario Bros. (1985) which launched him into mega popularity. While Donkey Kong appeared in two sequels, Donkey Kong Junior (1982) in which you played as Donkey Kong’s son and had to save Donkey Kong from captivity in Mario’s cage, and Donkey Kong 3 (1983) in which you played as an exterminator named Stanley who must rid Donkey Kong from his green house.
The spirit of the arcade games lived on in the Game Boy sequel Donkey Kong (1994) and in the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series which spanned Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS and Wii U and brought Mario and Donkey Kong’s rivalry to a toy factory full of fun and challenging puzzles, but Donkey Kong’s most famous post-arcade appearance was in the Donkey Kong Country series developed for Super NES by British game developer Rare who went on to make the Donkey Kong Land series for Game Boy and the Nintendo 64 games Diddy Kong Racing and Donkey Kong 64 (going full circle, the Donkey Kong arcade game can be played in Donkey Kong 64 when you reach the Frantic Factory).
In addition to these games, Donkey Kong and Pauline have appeared alongside Mario in various racing, sports and party games and Pauline was even revealed to be a talented singer in the Nintendo Switch game Super Mario Odyssey, which you will see when you reach New Donk City, a world that pays homage to the Donkey Kong arcade game in spectacular fashion.
Meanwhile the two creative minds behind Donkey Kong, Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi, have reached legendary status in the gaming world for their innovations. Miyamoto would go on to help design or direct other brilliant games like Duck Hunt, Excitebike, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros. 3, Star Fox, Super Mario 64, Star Fox 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Yokoi would go on to design the Game Boy and the NES accessory R.O.B. and produce the popular NES games Metroid and Kid Icarus.
Other video game companies would copy Donkey Kong in the eighties to try to reach Nintendo’s level of success (Crazy Kong, Killer Gorilla, Congo Bongo, etc.) but more significantly it opened up the possibilities for what video games could be. There’s nothing wrong with the abstract appeal of simple games like Pong, Asteroids or Pac-Man but I love how Donkey Kong kept you invested on a different level by turning a fun and challenging game into a story about an underdog defeating a bully. It elevated the art of video games and entertainment in general while holding the key to its longevity in the years since the video game industry crashed in 1983 and was revived by Nintendo with games like Super Mario Bros. which absolutely owe their success to Donkey Kong.