Donkey Kong is an arcade game that was released by Nintendo in 1981. The game is an early example of the platform genre, as the gameplay focuses on maneuvering the main character across a series of platforms while dodging obstacles. The storyline is thin but well-developed for its time. In it, Mario (originally called Jumpman) must rescue a damsel in distress, Pauline (originally called Lady), from a giant ape named Donkey Kong. The hero and ape went on to become two of Nintendo's most popular characters.
The game was the latest in a series of efforts by Nintendo to break into the North American market. Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo's president at the time, assigned the project to a first-time game designer named Shigeru Miyamoto. Drawing from a wide range of inspirations, including Popeye and King Kong, Miyamoto developed the scenario and designed the game alongside Nintendo's chief engineer, Gunpei Yokoi. The two men broke new ground by using graphics as a means of characterization, including cutscenes to advance the game's plot, and integrating multiple stages into the gameplay.
Despite initial misgivings on the part of Nintendo's American staff, Donkey Kong proved a tremendous success in both North America and Japan. Nintendo licensed the game to Coleco, who developed home console versions for numerous platforms. Other companies simply cloned Nintendo's hit and avoided royalties altogether. Miyamoto's characters appeared on cereal boxes, television cartoons, and dozens of other places. A court suit brought on by Universal City Studios, alleging that Donkey Kong violated their trademark of King Kong, ultimately failed. The success of Donkey Kong and Nintendo's win in the courtroom helped position the company to dominate the video game market in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Story and characters
The eponymous Donkey Kong is the game's de-facto villain. He is the pet of a carpenter named Jumpman (a name chosen for its similarity to "Walkman" and "Pac-Man"; the character was later renamed Mario, and made a plumber, not a carpenter). The carpenter mistreats the ape, so Donkey Kong escapes and kidnaps Jumpman/Mario's girlfriend, originally known as the Lady, but later named Pauline. The player must take the role of Jumpman/Mario and rescue the girl. This was the first occurrence of the damsel-in-distress scenario that would provide the template for countless video games to come.
The game uses graphics and animation as vehicles of characterization. Donkey Kong smirks upon Jumpman/Mario's demise. The Lady/Pauline is instantly recognized as female from her pink dress and long hair, and "HELP!" appears frequently beside her. Jumpman/Mario, depicted in red overalls and cap, is an everyman character, a type common in Japan. Graphical limitations forced his design: Drawing a mouth was too difficult, so the character got a mustache; the programmers could not animate hair, so he got a cap; and to make his arm movements visible, he needed colored overalls. The artwork used for the cabinets and promotional materials make these cartoon-like character designs even more explicit. The Lady/Pauline, for example, appears as a disheveled Fay Wray in a torn dress and stiletto heels.
Donkey Kong is the first example of a complete narrative told in video game form, and it employs cut scenes to advance its plot. The game opens with the gorilla climbing a pair of ladders to the top of a construction site. He sets the Lady/Pauline down and stamps his feet, causing the steel beams to change shape. He then moves to his final perch and sneers. This brief animation sets the scene and adds background to the gameplay, a first for video games. Upon reaching the end of the stage, another cut scene begins. A heart appears between Jumpman/Mario and the Lady/Pauline, but Donkey Kong grabs the woman and climbs higher, causing the heart to break. The narrative concludes when Jumpman/Mario reaches the end of the final stage. He and the Lady/Pauline are reunited, and a short intermission plays. The game then starts over at a higher level of difficulty.
Donkey Kong is an early example of the platform genre (it is sometimes said to be the first platform game, although it was preceded by Space Panic and Apple Panic). Competitive video gamers and referees stress the game's high level of difficulty compared to other classic arcade games; the average game lasts less than a minute. Winning the game requires patience and the ability to accurately time Jumpman's ascent. In addition to presenting the goal of saving the Lady/Pauline, the game also gives the player a score. Points are awarded for finishing screens; leaping over obstacles; destroying objects with a hammer power-up; collecting items such as hats, parasols, and purses (presumably belonging to the Lady/Pauline); and completing other tasks. The player receives three lives with a bonus awarded for the first 7,500 points. The highest recorded score was set by Billy Mitchell on June 26, 2007; he achieved 1,050,200 points.
The game is divided into four different one-screen stages. Each represents 25 meters of the structure Donkey Kong has climbed, one stage being 25 meters higher than the previous. The final screen occurs at 100m. Later ports of the game omit or change the sequence of the screens; the original arcade version includes:
Screen 1 (25m)—Jumpman/Mario must scale a seven-story construction site made of crooked girders and ladders while jumping over or hammering barrels and oil barrels tossed by Donkey Kong. The hero must also avoid flaming balls, which generate when an oil barrel collides with an oil drum. Players routinely call this screen "Barrels."
Screen 2 (50m)—Jumpman/Mario must climb a five-story structure of conveyor belts, each of which transports pans of cement. The fireballs also make another appearance. This screen is sometimes referred to as the "Factory" or "Pie Factory" due to the resemblance of the cement pans to pies.
Screen 3 (75m)—Jumpman/Mario rides up and down elevators while avoiding fireballs and bouncing objects, presumably spring-weights. The bouncing weights (the hero's greatest danger in this screen) emerge on the top level and drop near the rightmost elevator. The screen's common name is "Elevators." This stage went on to be a playable stage in the Wii game Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
Screen 4 (100m)—Jumpman/Mario must remove eight rivets, which support Donkey Kong. The fireballs remain the primary obstacle. Removing the final rivet causes Donkey Kong to fall and the hero to be reunited with the Lady/Pauline. This is the final screen of each level. Players refer to this screen as "Rivets."
These screens combine to form levels, which become progressively harder. For example, Donkey Kong begins to hurl barrels more rapidly and sometimes diagonally, and fireballs get quicker. The victory music alternates between levels 1 and 2. The 22nd level is unofficially known as the kill screen due to an error in the game's programming that kills Jumpman after a few seconds, effectively ending the game. With its four unique levels, Donkey Kong was the most complex video game at the time of its release, and only the second game to feature multiple levels. (The first was Gorf by Midway Games.)
As of the beginning of 1981, Nintendo's efforts to crack the North American video game market had all failed, culminating with the flop Radar Scope in 1980. In order to keep the company afloat, company president Hiroshi Yamauchi decided to convert unsold Radar Scope games into something new. He approached a young industrial designer named Shigeru Miyamoto, who had been working for Nintendo since 1977, to see if Miyamoto thought that he could design an arcade game. Miyamoto said that he could. Yamauchi appointed Nintendo's head engineer, Gunpei Yokoi, to supervise the project.
At the time, Nintendo was pursuing a license to make a game based on the Popeye comic strip. When this fell through, Nintendo decided that it would take the opportunity to create new characters that could then be marketed and used in later games. Miyamoto came up with many characters and plot concepts, but he eventually settled on a gorilla/carpenter/girlfriend love triangle that mirrored the rivalry between Bluto and Popeye for Olive Oyl. Bluto became an ape, who in Miyamoto's words was "nothing too evil or repulsive". He would be the pet of the main character, "a funny, hang-loose kind of guy". Miyamoto has also named "Beauty and the Beast" and the 1933 film King Kong as influences. Although its origin as a comic strip license played a major part, Donkey Kong marked the first time that the storyline for a video game preceded the game's programming rather than simply being appended as an afterthought.
Yamauchi wanted to primarily target the North American market, so he mandated that the game be given an English title. Miyamoto decided to name the game for the ape, whom he felt to be the strongest character. The story of exactly how Miyamoto came up with the name Donkey Kong varies. A popular urban myth says that the name was originally meant to be Monkey Kong but was misspelled or misinterpreted due to a blurred fax or bad telephone connection. Another story claims that Miyamoto looked in a Japanese-English dictionary for something that would mean stubborn gorilla or that Donkey was meant to convey silly and that Kong was common Japanese slang for gorilla. A rival claim is that he worked with Nintendo's export manager to come up with the title, and that Donkey was meant to represent stupid and goofy.
Miyamoto had high hopes for his new project. He lacked the technical background to program it himself, so he instead came up with concepts and ran them by the technicians to see if they were possible. He wanted to make the characters different sizes, move them in different manners, and make them react in various ways. Yokoi declared Miyamoto's original design too complex. Another idea that Yokoi himself suggested was to use see-saws that the hero could use to catapult himself across the screen; this too proved too difficult to program. Miyamoto then came up with the idea to use sloped platforms, barrels, and ladders. When he specified that the game would have multiple stages, the four-man programming team complained that he was essentially asking them to make the game over and over. Nevertheless, they followed Miyamoto's design, creating about 20k of code. Meanwhile, Miyamoto composed the game's music on an electronic keyboard.
Hiroshi Yamauchi knew that Nintendo had a hit on its hands and called up Minoru Arakawa, head of Nintendo's operations in the U.S., to tell him. Nintendo's American distributors, Ron Judy and Al Stone, brought Arakawa to a lawyer named Howard Lincoln to secure a trademark.
The game was sent to Nintendo of America for testing. The sales manager hated it for being too different from the maze and shooter games common at the time, and Judy and Lincoln expressed reservations over the strange title. Still, Arakawa swore that it would be big. American staffers pleaded with Yamauchi to at least change the name, but he refused. Resigned, Arakawa and the American staff set about translating the storyline for the cabinet art and naming the other characters. They chose Pauline for the girl, after Polly James, wife of Nintendo's Redmond, Washington, warehouse manager, Don James. Mario was named for Mario Segali, the warehouse landlord. These character names were printed on the American cabinet art and used in promotional materials. Donkey Kong was ready for release.
Stone and Judy convinced the managers of two bars in Seattle, Washington, to set up Donkey Kong machines. The managers initially showed reluctance, but when they saw sales of $30 a day—or 120 plays—for a week straight, they requested more units. In their Redmond headquarters, a skeleton crew composed of Arakawa, his wife Yoko, James, Judy, Phillips, and Stone set about gutting 2,000 surplus Radar Scope machines and converting them with Donkey Kong motherboards and power supplies from Japan. The game officially went on sale in July 1981.
In his 1982 book Video Invaders, Steve Bloom describes Donkey Kong as "another bizarre cartoon game, courtesy of Japan." To American and Canadian gamers, however, Donkey Kong was irresistible. The game's initial 2,000 units sold through, and more orders poured in. Arakawa began manufacturing the electronic components in Redmond because waiting for shipments from Japan was taking too long. By October, Donkey Kong was selling 4,000 units a month, and by late June 1982, Nintendo had sold 60,000 Donkey Kong games overall and earned some $180 million. Judy and Stone, who worked on straight commission, became millionaires. Arakawa used Nintendo's profits to buy 27 acres of land in Redmond in July 1982. The game made another $100 million in its second year of release. It remained Nintendo's top seller even into summer 1983. Donkey Kong sold steadily in Japan, as well.
Licensing and ports
By late June 1982, Donkey Kong's success had prompted more than 50 parties in the U.S. and Japan to license the game's characters. Mario and his simian nemesis appeared on cereal boxes, board games, pajamas, and manga. In 1983, the animation studio Ruby-Spears produced a Donkey Kong cartoon (as well as Donkey Kong Jr.) for the Saturday Supercade program on CBS. In the show, mystery crime-solving plots in the mode of Scooby-Doo are framed around the premise of Mario and Pauline chasing Donkey Kong, who has escaped from the circus. The show lasted two seasons.
Makers of video game consoles were interested, as well. Taito offered a considerable sum to buy all rights to Donkey Kong, but Nintendo turned them down. Rivals Coleco and Atari approached Nintendo in Japan and the United States respectively. In the end, Yamauchi granted Coleco exclusive console and tabletop rights to Donkey Kong because he felt that "It [was] the hungriest company". In addition, Arakawa felt that as a more established company in the U.S., Coleco could better handle marketing. In return, Nintendo would receive an undisclosed lump sum plus $1.40 per game cartridge sold and $1 per tabletop unit. On 24 December 1981, Howard Lincoln drafted the contract. He included language that Coleco would be held liable for anything on the game cartridge, an unusual clause for a licensing agreement. Arakawa signed the document the next day, and on 1 February 1982, Yamauchi persuaded the Coleco representative in Japan to sign without running the document by the company's lawyers.
Coleco did not offer the game stand-alone; instead, they bundled it with their ColecoVision. The units went on sale in July 1982. Coleco's version is very close to the arcade, more so than ports of earlier games that had been done. Six months later, Coleco offered Atari 2600 and Intellivision versions, too. Coleco's sales doubled to $500 million and their earnings quadrupled to $40 million.
Meanwhile, Atari got the rights to the floppy disk version of Donkey Kong and prepared the Atari 800 version of the game. When Coleco unveiled the Adam Computer, playing a port of Donkey Kong at the 1983 Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, Illinois, Atari protested. Yamauchi demanded that Arnold Greenberg, Coleco's president, shelve his Adam port. This version of the game was cartridge-based, and thus not a violation of Nintendo's license with Atari; still, Greenberg complied. Ray Kassar of Atari was fired the next month, and the home PC version of Donkey Kong fell through.
The Atari Computer console versions include all four levels of the original arcade game. Most console releases omit the conveyor belt level and make other changes. For example, the ColecoVision release lacks projectile springboards on the elevator level. The Atari 2600 and Intellivision releases omit the elevator level entirely.
Miyamoto created a greatly simplified version for the Game & Watch multiscreen, and in 1983, Donkey Kong was one of the three launch titles for the Famicom in Japan. This version remained in production until 1988. Other ports include the Apple II, Atari 7800, Commodore 64, Commodore VIC-20, Famicom Disk System, PC, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC and Mini-Arcade.
The game was ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) as one of that console's first games. However, the cement factory level is not included, mainly due to storage limitations. At the title screen, this port includes a new song composed by Yukio Kaneoka; an arrangement of the tune called "Simian Segue" appears in Donkey Kong Country for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The NES version was re-released as an unlockable game in Animal Crossing for the GameCube and as an item for purchase on the Wii's Virtual Console. The original arcade version of the game appears in the Nintendo 64 game Donkey Kong 64. In 2004, Nintendo released the NES version for the Game Boy Advance Classic NES series and on the e-Reader.