A screenshot from Donkey Kong, a video arcade game by Nintendo, 1981.

Over the barrel in Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong & Nintendo - Let There Be Mario

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Nintendo 1981


Getting Shiggy With It

Starting in 1977, Nintendo produces a line of home video game consoles featuring built-in games inspired by Atari’s PONG, called Color TV-Game.  The series starts with Color TV-Game 6 and 15 that year, followed by Color TV-Game Racing 112 in 1978.  Designing the outer casing of this racing game is the first project for junior employee Shigeru Miyamoto.  Holding a B.A. in Industrial Design from Kanazawa Municipal College of Arts and Crafts, he is hired by the company in 1977  and assigned to the Planning Department. The final entry in the series is Color TV-Game Block Kusure (Breaker) in 1979.  This game, a knock-off of Atari’s arcade game hit Breakout, also has its case designed by Miyamoto.  


Nintendo also moves into the arcade video game arena around this time, with such entries as Computer Othello in 1978, commonly regarded as Nintendo’s first true arcade video game. Block Fever, a version of Color TV Game Block Kusure in coin-op form, is also released this year. Programming for this game is done by Ikegami Tsushinki Co., Ltd. While Ikegami is more well known as a pioneer in the development of portable video cameras, they also do subcontract work as arcade game programmers for various companies, including Nintendo and Sega. Other games programmed for Nintendo by Ikegami include Space Fever and Helifire, as well as Space Firebird, for which Miyamoto designs the in-game sprites. 1981′s Radarscope, another Ikegami programmed game, is a knock-off of competitor Taito’s Galaxian, an interesting but derivative take on the new genre. Miyamoto works on the panel artwork for Radarscope’s cabinet, but the game’s popularity is fading by the time it hits America’s shores, leaving thousands of circuit boards for the game sitting around unused. The failure of the game also leaves already floundering U.S. subsidiary Nintendo of America desperate for the mother corporation to send along a new, hit game. Miyamoto is tasked by company president Yamauchi to design a video game into which unsold Radarscope boards and cabinets can be converted. With the dire situation faced by NoA in his mind, Yamauchi instructs seasoned Nintendo veteran Gunpei Yokoi to oversee the younger designer’s work. 

The game is first planned to use characters from Popeye the Sailor, with Nintendo negotiating with King Features for the rights.  The hope is that a bright, cartoony feel will separate the game from the current rash of Space Invaders-type shooting games. Miyamoto and Yokoi begin formulating the idea of having Popeye appear at the bottom of the screen, separated from his love Olive Oyl by his eternal nemesis, Bluto, placed at the top. Yokoi determines the setting; the idea for the action taking place on the frame of a partially constructed building comes from his memories of a Popeye the Sailor cartoon, made in 1934.  In the animated short A Dream Walking, Olive Oyl is sleepwalking and wanders aimlessly through a construction site, where hanging girders appear just in time to keep her from falling.  Within this framework, Popeye could have a wide variety of obstacles put in his way that he would have to avoid in order to reunite with his kidnapped girlfriend.


The negotiations for the Popeye licensing agreement eventually stall, so Miyamoto must head back to the drawing board to create original characters.  The impetus for a new game idea Miyamoto has is the classic story of Beauty and the Beast, as well as the movie King Kong. He starts with a drawing of a rotund little man, dressed in overalls to match the venue of a construction site. A bulbous nose and bushy mustache are added, mainly to avoid having to detail any facial features. The character’s informal name moves through several permutations, including Mr. Video, Ossan (slightly derogatory Japanese slang for a middle-aged man, the equivalent of “Pops” in English), and simply Jumpman. The game he designs around the character is Donkey Kong, which has Shigeru’s Jumpman running to and fro across four different screens of metal girders comprising a high-rise construction site, avoiding various obstacles by climbing up and down ladders. Oil drums are first considered as the objects to avoid, but this is later changed to barrels, the rolling animation of which is easier to draw.  The oil drum art is later relegated to a static object from which fireballs erupt and chase the player, keeping them on an ever-higher trajectory as they make their way up the structure in a bid to save damsel-in-distress Pauline from the clutches of the evil gorilla Donkey Kong. When it is determined that having to climb ladders every time a player wants to avoid something is a bit bothersome, the two designers add a jump button to give another option.  

The big ape’s last name is taken from Shigeru’s movie inspiration, with the first name evolving from the marketed title for the game in Japan: Krazy Kong. Since the Japanese ideogram for crazy can also mean ‘horse’, ‘ass’ or ‘donkey’, so does the translation of the game to English become Donkey Kong.

Working alongside Miyamoto, the hardware is put together by Yokoi. Programming is handled by subcontractor Ikegami Tsushinki, Co., Ltd.. In an arcade market that consists almost solely of space-based shoot-em-ups, Donkey Kong is greeted with a response from the employees of Nintendo of America ranging from apathy to downright hostility.  Head-honcho Yamauchi, however, insists that Donkey Kong will be the game to beat in America, and so the remaining 2000 units of Radarscope sitting unsold in the NOA warehouse are converted to the new, strangely-named game.


Let There Be Mario

Donkey Kong becomes the biggest selling arcade game of 1981, selling 65,000 units in North America alone and steals the thunder of Pac-Man himself. Nintendo of America gives Jumpman his new moniker. The name is taken from Mario Segale,  who rents warehouse space to the Seattle company and makes an impression one day when he comes around to demand a late payment. Donkey Kong gives birth to videogamedom’s next merchandising blitz, with Mario and company hawking every type of cheesy tie-in product imaginable.

Two direct arcade sequels follow, starting with 1982′s Donkey Kong Jr. An abrupt role-reversal occurs here with Mario as the evil kidnapper, holding poor monkey Kong in a cage, his only hope being the plucky young Junior Kong. When Nintendo lifts assets from the code for the original Donkey Kong for this sequel, original programmers Ikegami Tsushinki Co., Ltd. sue the company. The suit is eventually settled a decade later under undisclosed terms. Mario doesn’t even bother to show up for the rather horrible Donkey Kong 3, released in 1983. Being a loose arcade adaptation of a 1982 Game & Watch game called Green House, the protagonist is Stanley the Bug Man.  He is attempting to protect his prize plants from a rampaging Kong, back in the villain’s role and accompanied by some buzzing bee cronies. Further spin-offs occur as Mario’s twin brother Luigi (named after the owner of a pizza joint near NOA headquarters in Seattle) makes his debut in Mario Bros., released to the arcades on July 14, 1983. Utilizing simultaneous two-player action, players can either work together or against each other for points at Mario’s new job; a plumber trying to avoid the dangerous critters pouring out of the drains. This is followed by Super Mario Bros. in 1985, a side-scrolling platformer coming a full year behind Pac-Land. Along with these come a plethora of hand-helds, console translations and sequels, some of which drive the sales of both the ColecoVision and Nintendo’s own NES.


Barrelling Onto Screens, Small and Large

Mario, Donkey Kong and little Jr. make their TV debut on CBS’s Saturday Supercade, lasting two years from 1983-1985, along with a rogue’s gallery of other video game characters such as Pitfall Harry, Frogger and potty-mouth Q*Bert. And in 1989, Mario and Luigi go solo in The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, an animated series with live-action segments featuring WWF wrestler “Captain” Lou Albano as America’s favourite plumber. 52 episodes are produced, with Mario and Luigi constantly rescuing Princess Toadstool from King Koopa and his Koopa stooges. In 1993, Disney production label Hollywood Pictures think they have a sure thing with the $48 million, live-action movie Super Mario Bros. While Danny Devito is initially floated as the diminutive plumber, the loose adaptation ends up with Bob Hoskins as Mario, John Leguizamo as Luigi, and standard Hollywood bad-guy Dennis Hopper as King Koopa. Despite heavy cash sunk into wild set-design and intensive CGI, the film flops miserably, disappearing down the drain quickly after release. But Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto remains the lynch-pin to Nintendo’s success through the 80′s and 90′s, with his involvement in every Mario game more successful than the last. Along with his immensely popular Legend of Zelda series of RPG games, it’s a safe bet Nintendo wouldn’t have been been the huge force in video games they still are today without him. logo_stop


Sources (Click to view; inert links kept for historical purposes)

“Inside the Mind of Shigeru Miyamoto.” GamePro, Mar. 1998, pp. 54–55. Image of Shigeru Miyamoto with N64
“There’s More to Life Than Pac-Man.” Playboy’s Electronic Entertainment Fall 1982: 46 . Print. Image of Donkey Kong grabbing Pauline, photo by Marco Glaviano
Iwata Asks, Game & Watch, “When Developers Did Everything” – iwataasks.nintendo.com/interviews/#/clubn/game-and-watch-ball-reward/0/0
beforemario, “Nintendo EVR Race (1975)” – blog.beforemario.com/2012/06/nintendo-evr-race-evr-1975.html?spref=tw
Retro Junk, “Nintendo History Part 1″ – www.retrojunk.com/article/show/1342/nintendo-history-part-1
Kyoto Report, “The History of Research and Development 1″ – kyoto-report.wikidot.com/feature-profie:the-history-of-research-development-1
Archie McPhee’s Monkey Goggles, “Nintendo’s Backroom Genius: Gung-ho for Gunpei Yokoi” – monkeygoggles.com/?p=2206

Wikipedia – en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shigeru_Miyamoto
(photo by Vonguard)

Hanafuda Playing Cards – Aobo Game Store – en.aobo-shop.com/691-hanafuda-playing-cards-store.html
gamester81.com, “History of Consoles: Nintendo’s Color TV Game Consoles (1977-1979) – gamester81.com/history-of-consoles-nintendos-color-tv-game-consoles-1977-1979/
Kotaku, “Nintendo’s First Console Is One You’ve Never Played” – kotaku.com/5785568/nintendos-first-console-is-one-youve-never-played
Nintendo Direct 2.14.2013
Howard Phillips interview, GeekWire – http://www.geekwire.com/2012/nintendo-americas-startup-story-eyes-gamemaster-howard/
ninDB, “Color TV Game” – www.nindb.net/system/color-tv-game/index.html
The Nintendo Wiki, “Color TV Block Kusure” – nintendo.wikia.com/wiki/Color_TV_Block_Kusure
Image of Shigeru Miyamoto in 1989 from The Stars of Famicom Games, Game Software Production and Distribution, pg. 7, PHP Institute 1989
One Hit Wonders Of The Cereal World | So Good – www.sogoodblog.com/2012/09/20/cereal-killers-soggy-product-ideas/
The End of Deep Layer, Gunpei Yokoi talks Donkey Kong, a translation of a section from the book Gunpei Yokoi’s House of Games – http://endofdeeplayer.blogspot.ca/2010/12/2010125-gunpei-yokoi-talks-donkey-kong.html”
“Super Mario, Double Dragon Hit Silver Screen.” GamePro July 1992: 106. Internet Archive. Web. 30 Aug. 2016. Danny Devito was mentioned as a Mario candidate.Wikipedia, “Super Mario Bros. (film)” - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Super_Mario_Bros._(film)
Donkey Kong Collector’s Edition Jenga Game – Spencers – www.spencersonline.com/product/us-jenga-donkey-kong/
The History of Nintendo Vol. 1, by Florent Gorges and Isao Yamazaki, “Nintendo and Arcade Games”, pgs. 196 – 206, Pix’n Love Publishing, 2010
A Board Game A Day: Donkey Kong Game – aboardgameaday.blogspot.ca/2011/09/day-one-donkey-kong-game.html
Building a Donkey Kong arcade cabinet! – donkeykongarcade.blogspot.ca/
Image of Ultra Hand and box courtesy of beforemario
Image of Shigeru Miyamoto wielding sword and shield from the Zelda games from Pop Culture Geek’s Flickr photostream

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