Nintendo had tried unsuccessfully to expand into the North American market with their arcade games; never landing what would be considered a surefire hit. Their third attempt, Radar Scope, had exhibited a brief period of popularity in Japan and received a large order by the newly-founded Nintendo of America’s president, Minoru Arakawa, to be placed into American arcades. Unfortunately for Arakawa, by the time the machines were delivered the hype surrounding the game had died down and American audiences found its sound effects annoying. The game was a complete failure. Facing a financial disaster, Arakawa pleaded with his father-in-law, Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi, to give him a new game he could use in refurbished leftover Radar Scope cabinets.
|Ad for the Radar Scope tabletop machine.|
Yamauchi had asked all of his employees to come up with a new game that could be made with Radar Scope’s hardware, and ultimately selected the idea proposed by designer Shigeru Miyamoto that made use of Nintendo’s current access to the Popeye comic strip license. Unfortunately, Nintendo soon lost that license, leaving Miyamoto without a cast for his game. It was decided to continue on by creating original characters that fulfilled the same roles as the Popeye ones would have. He eventually devised a love triangle between a carpenter, a girl and an ape, mimicking the love triangle in Popeye between the titular character, Olive Oyl and Bluto. The fact they were all-new characters meant that they could be marketed and reused later on. King Kong and Beauty and the Beast also served as influences for the basic storyline. The ape was named Donkey Kong (based on American slang for “stubborn” or “dopey” and Japanese slang for “gorilla”), the hero was Jumpman (after his ability to jump over obstacles and for its similarity to popular brands like Walkman and Pac-Man), and the girlfriend simply called Lady. Jumpman’s red overalls and blue shirt, hat and mustache came about due to graphical limitations, allowing his clothing to contrast against each other and the background and prevent them from needing to animate a mouth, hair and eyebrows. His big nose was meant to emphasize that he was human in comparison to his foe. The game was developed under the supervision of head engineer Gunpei Yokoi.
|Mario closes in on rescuing Pauline from Donkey Kong...or so he thinks.|
Speaking of the storyline, the game became one of the first to feature one that played out visually on screen; both in gameplay and through the use of cutscenes (the second to do so after Pac-Man). Donkey Kong kidnapped Jumpman’s girlfriend and took her to a construction site to fend off the hero, stomping to cause the girders to go on a slant and breaking some of the shortcut ladders. One of the earliest examples of the platforming genre, Jumpman would have to traverse several levels while jumping over barrels thrown by Kong or smashing them with a hammer power-up in order to reach the top. Undaunted, Kong would snatch Lady away and climb further up the site. The game became the first with multiple levels, with four unique ones designed in total and each representing 25 meters of the construction site. The game had no true ending as at the end of the 4th level the levels would reset at a greater difficulty until a programming glitch on level 22 caused Jumpman to die after a few seconds. Miryamoto named the game after who he felt was the strongest character, and it officially became Donkey Kong.
|Original Japanese Donkey Kong cabinet art.|
Believing in the game, Yamauchi told Arakawa to secure the trademark and the game was sent to Nintendo of America for testing. Despite some reservations over the game’s differences from the popular genres at the time and the strange name, the American staff began translating the storyline into cabinet art done by Zavier Leslie Cabarga. They changed Jumpman’s name to “Mario” after Mario Segale, the generously lenient landlord of Nintendo of America’s original office space, and Lady became “Pauline” after Polly James, wife of Nintendo’s Redmond, Washington warehouse manager Don James. Distributors Ron Judy and Al Stone tested the game out in two bars in Seattle, and the bars ended up ordering more units after they became a hit. A skeleton crew proceeded to convert 2,000 more Radar Scope machines into Donkey Kong and the game made its official debut on July 9, 1981.
|Coleco's mini-arcade version of Donkey Kong.|
Donkey Kong became extremely popular in North America, with Nintendo selling through the initial 2,000 units with more orders in the pipeline. Orders increased to 4,000 machines per month until Nintendo had sold over 60,000 machines by June of 1982. The game was also doing well in Japan, and would become one of the top-grossing arcade games of all time. Coleco won the rights to produce the game for home consoles, as well as make a tabletop version. Within the first year of the game’s release, clones began to emerge, including Tiger Electronics’ licensed King Kong game which copied Nintendo’s gameplay while using Universal City Studios’ name. When Universal attempted to sue Nintendo for copyright infringement, Nintendo won the case and the profits from Tiger’s game, and revealed itself able to stand up to other industry giants.
Donkey Kong’s popularity held strong through 1983, with some speculating that the home console versions contributed to its extended popularity. The game also became the subject of a merchandising frenzy, yielding board games, figurines, candy, cereal, clothing, stickers and more. It also spawned two arcade sequels: Donkey Kong Jr. in 1982, in which Kong’s son had to rescue his father from Mario (the only time he was portrayed as a villain in gaming history), and Donkey Kong 3 in 1983, which had new hero Stanley try to remove Kong from his greenhouse as he caused bugs to attack Stanley’s flowers. Donkey Kong II was also released in 1983 as part of the Game & Watch Multi Screen series of handheld games, where Jr. had to free Kong from four bindings.
|1983 CBS ad.|
CBS was looking to get in on the video game craze and to combat ABC’s Pac-Man produced by Hanna-Barbera. Figuring to hedge their bets, they licensed several gaming properties and commissioned former Hanna-Barbera employees Joe Ruby and Ken Spears to handle it through their company Ruby-Spears Productions. The resulting series was Saturday Supercade. Making up the Supercade every week were segments based on Frogger, Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr., while Q*bert and Pitfall! rotated weekly.
|The animated Donkey Kong.|
Donkey Kong saw the giant ape (Soupy Sales, who received top-billing of the Supercade) as a circus performer who finally escaped his captivity and went on the run. Charged with bringing him back was Mario (Peter Cullen) and Kong’s trainer, Pauline (Judy Strangis), who was changed from Mario’s girlfriend to his niece. Ken Boyer and Patrick A. Ventura created the character models that adapted the American cabinet artwork into easily animated television stars.
|Mario and Pauline on the endless quest.|
Kong was portrayed as both being intelligent enough to avoid Mario’s traps, causing them to backfire on him constantly, but yet also dumb enough to display limited speech (typically his name) and constantly fall into the schemes of criminals who wanted to use him. Often, Mario and Pauline would find themselves having to simultaneously rescue Kong and thwart the criminals while preventing the big ape from escaping their grasp. Likewise, despite their always trying to capture him, Kong never hesitated to stop and rescue the pair from any danger they end up in. In keeping with the game, Pauline would be most often the one in need of saving (although Mario got the occasional rescue as well). In the second season, Stanley made an appearance in the episode “Greenhouse Gorilla.”
|Stanley the exterminator with Pauline.|
Saturday Supercade debuted on CBS on September 17, 1983. Donkey Kong ran as a feature during both seasons; however, the second season only featured 6 new episodes intermixed with reruns from the previous. The first season’s introduction featured a visual telling of the backstory; from Kong’s escape to his constant eluding of Mario and Pauline in various places and situations. The second season was more generic and featured clips from that season’s episodes. Donkey Kong was written by Duane Poole, Tom Swale, Gary Greenfield, Michael Maurer, Mark Jones, Richard Merwin, Cliff Ruby, Elana Lesser, Gordon Kent, Jack Enyart, Michael Ray Brown, Matt Uitz, Janis Diamond and Sheryl Scarborough. The theme music was composed by Shuki Levy and Haim Saban.
|Nintendo's warranty logo featuring Mario.|
Probably the game franchise’s lasting contribution was giving the world Mario. After his appearance in Jr., Mario was changed to a plumber, given a brother named Luigi, and spun off into his own video game series starting with 1983’s Mario Bros. created by Miyamoto and Yokoi. Mario’s popularity would lead to him becoming Nintendo’s mascot, appearing on various merchandise and in games outside of his own series. Donkey Kong, however, was relegated to continued ports of the original onto new home systems as they came out, with one more game, Donkey Kong Circus, made for the Game & Watch Panorama series in 1984.
|Super Game Boy title screen for Donkey Kong '94.|
A decade later, a new Donkey Kong (also known as Donkey Kong ’94) was released for Game Boy. It started off like the original arcade featuring the same four levels, but then continued on into additional levels that combined elements of Jr. and Super Mario Bros. 2. That was also the year that Kong received a revival in the form of the Donkey Kong Country franchise, later adapted into its own animated series. The original Donkey Kong made a return to games beginning in 2004 with the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series and has an appearance in the 2015 movie Pixels as a form alien invaders took on to attack the Earth.
Originally posted in 2015. Updated in 2022.