40 years of Donkey Kong: This is how the cult classic was born!

40 years of Donkey Kong: This is how the cult classic was born!

40 years of Donkey Kong

A carpenter, his girlfriend and a jealous gorilla: What sounds like a bad joke is actually the quintessence of one of the most influential and important games in gaming history - Donkey Kong. In 1981 the barrel-throwing primate and his antagonist Jumpman alias Mario saw the light of day. 40 years later, both are among the most popular video game characters ever and meet again and again in titles like Mario Kart or Super Smash Bros. Donkey Kong and Mario are simply cult today!

Table of contents

1 Nintendo initially fails in the USA 2 Globalization plans! 3 Miyamoto's apprenticeship years 4 Donkey King Kong 5 All's well that ends well? A little over 40 years ago, however, things looked very different. Back then, the future of Nintendo depended on Donkey Kong. Incorrect strategic decisions on the way to becoming a global company brought the company, previously known for playing cards and toys, to the brink of bankruptcy. Why a young Shigeru Miyamoto with little programming knowledge and professional experience should bring about the turning point is part of the history of Donkey Kong.

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Nintendo fails initially in the USA

Shigeru Miyamoto was born on November 16, 1952 in Nantan, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan. He joined Nintendo in 1977 and is responsible for the development of brands such as Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario. Source: Nintendo / Gamespress So we're traveling back to the late 1970s. The entertainment industry is changing; Arcade machines are enjoying growing popularity and are considered the market of the future. This does not go unnoticed by the long-established company Nintendo, and so they go in search of young, creative employees. One of them: Shigeru Miyamoto. After completing his studies in industrial design, he is looking for a new field of activity. Miyamoto has a clever and, above all, imaginative head: He likes to draw, play instruments and hang around in Japanese arcade halls. His father has connections to the then Nintendo boss Hiroshi Yamauchi and organizes such an interview for Shigeru. He got the job in 1977 with the expectation that he would design toys.

But Nintendo has other plans. His first job was to draw promo graphics and design the corpus of the machine for titles like Sheriff, Space Firebird and Radar Scope. At this point in time, Nintendo was not yet an independent game developer, but hired Ikegami Tsushinki as a studio for the production of the games mentioned. The team not only programs the software, but also manufactures the machine hardware required for it. Nintendo, on the other hand, takes care of the marketing and the machine lockers themselves.


The title screen already shows two things well: Donkey Kong as an oversized character and the building blocks that are reminiscent of steel girders, the also appear in the levels. Source: Moby Games The collaboration is bearing fruit: Sheriff and Radar Scope are sales successes in Japan. But at this point Nintendo was already looking at Taito and Namco, who had established themselves in the United States. To this end, Yamauchi has entrusted Minoru Arakawa with building the first Nintendo office in North America. The first title to go on sale is the Space Invaders clone Radar Scope. Full of euphoria about its success in Japan, Nintendo produces 3,000 machines in advance and offers them. But the response is devastating. Nintendo sells just 1,000 units, 2,000 remain in stock. A financial flop that puts the company in trouble.

Globalization plans!

At the beginning of the game, Donkey Kong grabs Lady and carries her up to the top of the level. The lady even yells "Help" - and thus motivates to play. Source: Moby Games There are two options at this point: go under - or convert the machines that have already been manufactured and add a new game. This is where Shigeru Miyamoto comes in. Nintendo entrusts him with this project. Miyamoto drew little pictures throughout his time at Nintendo and had drawn attention to himself with his creativity and alternative approach. He should set the direction and direct the work of Ikegami Tsushinki. Gunpei Yokoi - the future inventor of the Game Boy - is at his side for technical questions.

While Donkey Kong 40 years later looks like a normal platformer, it was pioneering at the time. It starts with the scenario: Many machines pick up Hollywood action at this time - space battles, car races or other motifs. Miyamoto, on the other hand, designed a playable comic. Originally, Donkey Kong should have been a licensed game based on the cartoon series Popeye. There, villain Brutus (in English: Bluto) kidnaps Popeye's friend Olivia Öl (in English: Olive Oyl) again and again. The license deal fails, but the basic idea remains. Jumpman acts as Popeye - a carpenter who works on a construction site. The rescuer was given the name Mario later in an emergency. This goes back to Mario Segale, the then owner of the offices of Nintendo of America.

What is special: Jumpman is immediately recognizable as a person - despite the pixel graphics. The guy is agile and fights his way through four levels in the slot machine game. Each of them stands for a floor with a height of 25 meters. The goal is always to rescue the lady later named Pauline. Jumpman has to reach it and overcome the buildings destroyed by Donkey Kong. The monkey, in turn, throws barrels and obstacles such as gaps in the structures and treadmills make life difficult for the carpenter. Because you can see Lady at all times in the first levels, Miyamoto wants to motivate players to continue playing and thus to pay.

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Miyamoto's apprenticeship years

A classic: Jumpman smashes boxes with a hammer and can easily fight his way through the course. Source: Moby Games The development time of Donkey Kong extends over an intensive five months. A time of hardship for the young and ambitious Miyamoto. In an official interview on the occasion of the NES Classic Mini, he explained his situation at the time.

He lives in a Nintendo company apartment, which is directly opposite the office. "I walked back and forth between my apartment and office every day. Fortunately, the company had a bathtub." Wait a minute, a bathtub? In the office building in Toba-kaido there is also a factory for Hanafuda. These are traditional Japanese playing cards that Nintendo had been making since 1889. The workers use the baths after work to refresh themselves. Miyamoto often works longer and then sneaks in unnoticed. "Every evening, when everyone was gone, I was able to spend a lot of time there. (...) That saved me back then! The quiet helped me to sort my thoughts," explains Miyamoto in an interview.

Quite nice nasty: If Jumpman reaches Pauline in the first levels, there will only be a short reunion. Then Donkey Kong grabs the lady and climbs away with her. Source: Moby Games He subordinates his private life to his job. In the hot phase of development, he even signs off from his friends: "I contacted some of them and announced that we probably won't see each other for two to three months." At this point, Miyamoto's special position at the time and the pressure that weighs on him must be emphasized again: As an inexperienced career changer with little programming knowledge, he slips into this job and his production should be largely responsible for whether Nintendo would continue to exist. When asked what he paid attention to when developing Donkey Kong, his answer was dry: "We had to develop the game so that it would sell in the US." Nintendo's future and also the plans of globalization depend on this one game. "Donkey Kong was my starting point for a global perspective. Since then we have expanded our field of vision more and more. When Mario appears today at the ceremony of the Olympic Games, people all over the world will recognize him."

Donkey King Kong

The second section takes place in a cake factory. Here Jumpman has to watch out for fire on conveyor belts. Source: Moby Games The title Donkey Kong is partly to blame for Shigeru Miyamoto's poor knowledge of English: "We wanted a name that means something like 'stupid gorilla'. Donkey means 'donkey' in English, but according to the dictionary, too "Stupid." So Nintendo of America refused the name. They said it didn't make any sense, but at least it was very conspicuous. I still punched the name Donkey Kong through. A year later no one said a word about it. Everyone had I got used to it. That's when I realized how important it is to make a direct impression. That's what Donkey Kong taught me. "

Today we know: Donkey Kong is a hit! How close Nintendo has missed a bankruptcy can be seen in the fact that three employees of Nintendo of America had to retrofit the 2,000 remaining radar scope machines. However, the name also brings with it legal problems. The US media group MCA Universal files a lawsuit against Nintendo. In their opinion, the Japanese had copied the title from the 1976 film King Kong. MCA Universal is demanding all revenue and is also threatening to sue licensees as well. Nintendo of America boss Minoru Arakawa hires attorneys Howard Lincoln and John Kirby to handle the case. They find out that MCA Universal itself had been sued just a year earlier on similar allegations. At that time, the lawsuit was dismissed and King Kong was declared a contemporary figure. Accordingly, Nintendo also wins the process and hired Kirby and Lincoln on a permanent basis. Howard Lincoln rose to the position of President of Nintendo of America in the course of his career. As a thank you, Kirby receives a yacht named Donkey Kong ... and of course Nintendo's kissable ball Kirby still bears his name.

All's well that ends well?

The levels are getting more and more complex and offer more possibilities. In the third section, for example, there are even lifts. Collecting Pauline's lost items such as the umbrella earns you bonus points. Source: Moby Games However, this is not the only legal battle that Nintendo is entering in the wake of the success of Donkey Kong. There are also problems with the former partner Ikegami Tsushinki: Nintendo owns the rights to the game, the characters and the name. However, the rights to manufacture the circuit boards lie with Ikegami, who in turn sells them to Nintendo for 70,000 yen each. After Nintendo purchases another 8,000 units under these conditions, the connection is cut. Nintendo produces around 80,000 additional units on its own and sells them successfully. Donkey Kong is still the second most successful arcade title after the Namco classic Pac-Man (1980).

The problem: Ikegami owns the program data. After all, it was programmed there. Nintendo hires Iwasaki Engineering to dismantle the machines and reassemble the codes "backwards". Iwasaki Engineering will later become Nintendo's internal R&D department. They are correspondingly satisfied with this first collaboration.

Without the success of Donkey Kong, Nintendo would no longer exist today and the masterpieces created under Shigeru Miyamoto would probably never have been created in this form. Sometimes it's the small decisions that make a difference. With Donkey Kong, Miyamoto-san laid the foundation for an unprecedented career and has given us endless hours of fun with his works to this day!

In case you have more information about Donkey Kong and especially about the games after the first part want to know, then we recommend our big special about the Donkey Kong series.

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