Donkey Kong arcade game by Nintendo

Donkey Kong arcade game, 1981

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 Color TV-Game 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.  

Space Firebird designed by Shigeru Miyamoto creator of Donkey Kong

Space Firebird, 1980 arcade game by Nintendo, with sprites created by Shigeru Miyamoto of Donkey Kong fame

Click the button to play the arcade version of Space Firebird, featuring graphics by Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto

Nintendo also moves into the arcade video game arena around this time, with such entries as Computer Othello in 1978. 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. 1979’s Radar Scope, 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 the Radar Scope cabinet, and considering its immense popularity in Japan, a large run of the game is made and sent off to America in 1980. While operators initially snap up the Japanese import, gamers are saturated with the shooter style of arcade games. Coin intake for Radar Scope quickly slacks off and sales of the cabinet slow, leaving thousands of circuit boards for the game sitting around unused.

Gameplay image of Radarscope, an arcade video game by Nintendo 1981

The flaccid Radarscope

Doing the Donkey Kong

The company’s U.S. subsidiary is Nintendo of America, founded in New York in February 1981 by Nintendo, Co., Ltd. President Hiroshi Yamauchi’s son-in-law, Minoru Arakawa. Arakawa is in a desperate position: none of the games coming down the pike from Japan are meeting with much success in America. He is pleading for the mother corporation to send along a new, hit game. Miyamoto is tasked by Yamauchi to design a video game into which unsold Radar Scope 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. 

Nintendo employees Gunpei Yokoi and Shigeru Miyamoto together in 1994 photo

Gunpei Yokoi and Shigeru Miyamoto together in 1994 photo

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; Nintendo won’t land the agreement with King Features Syndicate to produce an arcade game based on the character until a year later in 1982. So Miyamoto must head back to the drawing board to create original characters.  For his redesign of the game, Miyamoto has in his mind the classic story of Beauty and the Beast, as well as the 1933 movie King Kong. He starts with a drawing of a rotund little man, dressed in blue overalls and a red shirt to emphasize his moving arms as he is running, as well as 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 Yokoi’s 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 wooden 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. This action also motivates Miyamoto to add a red cap to the character, hiding the fact that due to limited memory resources, his hairs cannot be animated when jumping.

The big ape’s last name is taken from Shigeru’s movie inspiration King Kong, with the first name evolving from the marketed title for the game in Japan: Krazy Kong. The Japanese ideogram for ‘crazy’ can also mean ‘horse’, ‘ass’ or ‘donkey’, and since Ass Kong doesn’t really fly, the translation of the game to English become Donkey Kong.

Working alongside Miyamoto, the hardware is put together by Yokoi. Yukio Kaneoka is responsible for composing the small snippets of music throughout the game. 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. Just the name of the game causes a lot of consternation, with employees coming up with such colourful sobriquets for the game as ‘Donkey Dong’. Their protests for a title change are met with the response from Kyoto that it cannot be done, as copyrights and trademarks have already been filed. Head-honcho Yamauchi insists that Donkey Kong will be the game to beat in America, and so the remaining 2000 units of Radar Scope sitting unsold in the NOA warehouse are converted to the new product. Still unsure of the strangely-named game, it is put into testing in a local watering hole in Seattle called Spot Tavern. When the total is tallied the next day, Donkey Kong has pulled in $30 in quarters, which equals 120 plays over one evening. Not a bad haul for a stubborn donkey! With a perceptible dip in coin-collection levels only occurring after 20 weeks of location testing, it becomes clear to all that Yamauchi is right!

Let There Be Mario

Donkey Kong goes on to become the biggest selling arcade game of 1981, moving 65,000 units in North America alone and even stealing the thunder of Pac-Man himself. It is Nintendo of America that eventually gives the rising star of Donkey Kong his permanent name. It 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.

Click the button to play the arcade version of Donkey Kong

Speaking of stubborn donkeys, the purported owners of the original movie inspiration for Miyamoto’s creation, King Kong, hurl an obligatory lawsuit against Nintendo over Donkey Kong. In 1982, lawsuits are filed against both Nintendo and Coleco, makers of the excellent home conversion of the game,  by Universal Studios, claiming Donkey Kong and its various ports infringe on their King Kong movie copyright and demand royalties from their sales. This suit is probably helped along by such references in the media of Donkey Kong being “loosely based” on King Kong. A trademark infringement action is also filed, to the tune of over a $100,000,000. With the large sum of money already invested in the license looming in their minds, Coleco cuts a deal with Universal, giving them 3 percent of Donkey Kong sales. Nintendo, however, fights the lawsuit, offering numerous in-court demonstrations of gameplay vs. movie plot. In 1983, Manhattan District Court Judge D. J. Sweet eventually finds for Nintendo, ruling that Donkey Kong has “a totally different concept and feel from the drama” and that “no reasonable jury could find likelihood of confusion”. It is also discovered the fact that MCA Universal themselves had argued in court in 1975 that the King Kong copyright had lapsed into the public domain, and that a federal court judge had ruled as such the same year. This in a lead-up for Universal producing a remake of the movie, which is eventually made by the Dino DiLaurentis Corp. as King Kong in 1976. Appeals by Universal continue to fall in Nintendo’s favour, from the Federal Court of Appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Second District Court of Appeals unanimously upholds the District Court decision in 1984, stating “the two properties have nothing in common but a gorilla, captive woman, a mere rescuer and a building scenario,” and that “the two characters are so different that no question of fact was presented on the likelihood of consumer confusion.”. When Nintendo countersues claiming tortious interference with licensees and unjust enrichment, in 1985 Judge Sweet finds that Universal has operated in bad faith with spurious litigation and rules that the media company must pay Nintendo $1.8 million in damages and legal fees. The Supreme Court, without comment, refuses to hear an appeal against this judgement on Monday, December 1, 1986, so the penalties against Universal stand. These rock-solid legal outcomes prompt Coleco to eventually file suit and receive a portion of their lost royalties.

Two direct arcade sequels follow the original Donkey Kong, 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 in the coin-op 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. Mario enjoys further spin-offs 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 a similar game by Namco featuring their big mascot Pac-Man, called Pac-Land. Nintendo also releases a plethora of hand-helds, console translations and sequels to Donkey Kong, some of which drive the sales of both the ColecoVision and Nintendo’s own NES. The titular gorilla enjoys his own run of spin-off games, launching with the startling 3D graphics of Donkey Kong Country on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

Donkey Kong Jr. arcade game by nintendo

Mario is the bad guy in 1982’s Donkey Kong Jr. arcade game

Mario, Elvira and Luigi on the Super Mario Bros. Super Show

Elvira twirls the ‘staches of the TV Mario Bros., on the set of the Super Mario Bros. Super Show, 1989

Barrelling Onto Screens, Small and Large

Mario, Donkey Kong and little Jr. make their TV debut on CBS’s Saturday Supercade, a block of animation programming produced by animation house Ruby Spears. The show airs for two years from 1983-1985, and features 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 or the wonderful characters he created. logo_stop


Sources (Click to view)

Page 1 – Success Is in the Cards
Early History of Nintendo
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Image of Ultra Hand and box courtesy of beforemario
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Associate-manuel-dennis. “California Clippings.” Cash Box, 24 April. 1976, p. 50. Internet Archive, Among the new games making their official debut were…SEGA’s ‘Wild Gunman.’ and ‘Shooting Trainer’….
beforemario, “Nintendo EVR Race (1975)” –
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Page 2 – Getting Shiggy With It
Early Nintendo Consoles Worked on by Miyamoto
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(photo by Vonguard)

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Page 2 – Doing the Donkey Kong
Associate-manuel-dennis, comp. “California Clippings.” Cash Box 7 Feb. 1981: 36+. Internet Archive. Web. 28 Jan. 1984. Robins [Oscar] went on to say that the distributor is getting a steady flood of re-orders on Nintendo’s “Radar Scope”, which sold out as soon as it came in.
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Gilbert, Greg. Minoru Arakawa. 1992. Seattle Times, Seattle. B&W image of Minoru Arakawa
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“Shiver Me Timbers.” Cash Box, 19 Feb. 1983, pp. 36–37. Internet Archive, Nintendo of America, Inc. under a 1982 licensing agreement with King Features Syndicate, recently introduced a new coin operated electronic video game based on the famous cartoon character, “Popeye.”
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Page 2 – Let There Be Mario
Lasting Popularity of Donkey Kong
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Donkey Kong Collector’s Edition Jenga Game – –

Unannotated, Uncategorized or I Just Don’t Damn Remember!
Nintendo Direct 2.14.2013

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