Donkey Kong, [1981] |Arcade|

“Invitation to Reclusion at Jingxi,” 1611

Dǒng Qíchāng was perhaps the most prolific and well-known painter of the Ming Dynasty. His style favored expression over accuracy, best typified by his many landscape paintings such as “Autumn Mountains.” Dǒng Qíchāng was also a noted calligrapher and his cursive/semi-cursive style is instantly recognizable even to non-Chinese readers. As with many renowned artists, however, his private life was not without public outcry. Dǒng Qíchāng often fought with his students and beat women, for which offenses his house was burned down by an angry mob. It is with great blessing that Dǒng Qíchāng’s works were allowed to survive and continue to inspire artists today. Legend has it that Miyamoto Shigeru was so enamored with the works of Dǒng Qíchāng that he decided to name his first arcade game after the famous artist, but was forced to rename the game Donkey Kong so as to avoid controversy in China. Everything in this paragraph is true

except for the part about Miyamoto. Anyhoo, Nintendo, like many other companies such as Coleco and Sega, made the transition from toy company to arcade game company in the 1970s. It had been struggling since 1963 to gain a foothold in any of the markets it tested out. Finally they found marginal success in making home games including the こうせんじゅう (Kousenjyuu) series of light gun games. Eventually Nintendo was in dire straits and was depending on a licensing deal for a game based on Popeye, which then fell through. Nintendo’s previous efforts to break into the North American market culminated in Radar Scope, which was a massive flop. They needed a hit to stay alive. That hit came in Donkey Kong.

Donkey Kong was the first true platformer and the game that would ensure Nintendo’s continued survival in the industry. Putting the company’s future on the line, the president asked a young industrial engineer named Miyamoto Shigeru (mirror) to develop a successful arcade title. He reskinned the project that was to be a Popeye adaptation. Miyamoto changed Bluto to Donkey Kong, who was the abused pet of the careless hero. The protagonist was made into a carpenter named “Jumpman,” a reflection of his jumping abilities. His role in the game was to save his kidnapped girlfriend Pauline. This was the first time a video game’s story was thought out before the programming commenced. Since the ape was the strongest character, Miyamoto decided to name the game after him. The explanations behind the name vary, but the most popular assertion is that “donkey” appeared in a Japanese-English dictionary as a synonym for “foolish,” i.e. asinine. “Kong” is slang for “gorilla,” like in “King Kong.”As with a great many works of fiction the bad guy was the star of the show. Oh yes, the show. You see, licensing has always been hot and the folks at Hanna-Barbera saw fit to adapt several game properties for animation.

Several horrible, horrible animations.


The story of Donkey Kong is utterly simple by today’s standards, but back in 1981 having any story at all was seen as a bonus. Jumpman, renamed Mario by Nintendo of America after their landlord, kicked off the story by mistreating his pet ape DK, who then kidnapped Jumpman’s girlfriend Pauline. This was the first instance of the “Damsel in Distress” story arc in gaming, which would serve as the plot setup for dozens of games and give Anita Sarkeesian (mirror) a reason to live. (By the way, the discussion on sexual politics in games is a different… entire warehouse full of cans of worms. We’ll get to that in a couple of decades when there’s plenty to go on.) The plot of DK was illustrated with cutscenes just as with Pac-Man. What it added to the tradition, though, was the first opening cutscene. Right from the start the player’s attention was grabbed. Subsequent cutscenes would then move along the plot, provided you survived to see them.

“How high can you get?” the opening screen asks you. Usually the answer is “Not very far,” since DK is probably the most difficult game ever made. Among non-experienced players, the average life lasts about thirty seconds. Despite the crushing difficulty, however, DK quickly became a much-loved game and even a gaming icon in the vein of Pac-Man. So, just how difficult is it? Observe.

 I’m coming for you, Billy Mitchell!

A score of 12,100 ought to seem respectable, especially considering the insanely high difficulty of the game (Why do Mario’s jumps have to be physically accurate? Why!?). That is, until you consider that the high score is currently at 1,138,600 set by Hank Chien. The original high score was held for 23 years by Billy Mitchell of Twin Galaxies. There is a very interesting documentary called “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” which shows the rivalry between Mitchell and newcomer Steve Wiebe.

The documentary was quite controversial when it came out and there is a bit of clever editing to make it more entertaining to watch, but it’s good nonetheless. I recommend watching “King of Kong” if you have a couple of hours to spare. (UPDATE: As it turns out, Billy Mitchell used MAME to cheat. The score he submitted in the documentary was fake–that’s why he sent in a tape instead of doing it live. His high scores have since been removed from Twin Galaxies.)

Let’s get back to the game itself, though. Nintendo’s senior engineer Yokoi Gumpei  (よこいぐんぺい)was assigned to program the game because Miyamoto was not a programmer; he was a janitor. Seriously. What Miyamoto had was the imagination to conceive a true classic. Yokoi had to tone down his initial ideas because they were too complex. As it is, DK was the most complexly constructed game of the time, with its levels being various combinations of the first four screens for a richly diverse environment. Because of its many contributions to the medium, DK can be thought of as gaming’s first “Citizen Kane.”

The Nintendo boss Yamauchi liked the game but Nintendo of America wasn’t as enthusiastic. They thought that the game was undesirable because it was different from other games of the time. The NoA boss Arakawa Minoru (あらかわみのる) liked it and convinced them to give the game a shot. The staff then translated the game and Americanized the names. When the game was released it proved to be so popular that NoA had to order motherboards from Japan and put them in Radar Scope cabinets in order to ship them out. Eventually NoA had to manufacture the boards themselves in order to keep up with demand. Soon DK broke out of arcades and into the home.

Donkey Kong was licensed to more than 50 parties. It was on the Colecovision. It was on the Atari 2600 (and it looked every bit as glorious (mirror) as you could imagine a licensed Atari port from 1981 to look). Everyone was starting to take notice. And I mean everyone, including Universal Pictures, who took them to court. Universal Studios president Sid Sheinberg wanted to get into the video game market because that’s what all the cool kids were doing. He thought that DK infringed on “King Kong” and sent Nintendo as well as their licensees cease-and-desist letters. All except for Nintendo, Milton Bradley, and Ralston Purina agreed to pay royalties. Nintendo was represented in court by John Kirby who pointed out that Universal stated in a previous case that “King Kong” was in the public domain.

Kirby, Esq., artist’s rendering

The judge ruled in Nintendo’s favor, saying that there’s no way anyone could confuse DK with KK. This was an important victory for Nintendo, especially since by this point they had already made Donkey Kong, Jr.; Mario Bros, and the nebulous Donkey Kong Jr. Math. If not for such a victory, how would we get along? I don’t think that I could live in a world without the educational yet allegedly fun gameplay that DKJM has to offer. See for yourself.


And that, children, is why we are able to go on living. Could you imagine a world wherein you would wake up every morning knowing that DKJM didn’t exist? I know I couldn’t.

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