Donkey Kong | Early Arcade History

Nintendo’s Donkey Kong is possibly one of the most influential games ever released in the video game history, kick-starting the famed ‘Mario’ franchise that is still one of the most renowned and recognisable franchises around today.

Donkey Kong is also famed for being the platform game to popularise the genre, as previous titles such as Space Panic (1980) had failed to impress audiences. Although the hit game may have been very different to what we know it as today, as early drafts have shown that it could have been in a Pac-Man maze style game or even a scrolling platformer.

Shigeru Miyamoto, the director and designer of the classic title, claims that he originally designed Donkey Kong to be a Popeye game. Popeye would take the role of Mario, the protagonist who is controlled by the player, trying to save Olive Oyl (Pauline) against the wrath of the arch rival Bluto (Donkey Kong). However, with Nintendo not being able to obtain the rights for Popeye, Miyamoto redesigned the story and adapted the characters to what we know and love today.

It has also been revealed that Mario and Pauline had other names during development and Japanese release. Original plans show Mario to being called Mr Video, which was then changed to be named Jumpman, with his character having the occupation of a carpenter rather than a plumber. Furthermore, in the Japanese release, Pauline was referred to as Lady. The name of Donkey Kong is famously known for causing a disagreement with Universal, as they claimed that Nintendo had breached copyright of the name ‘King Kong’. However, after a lengthy legal battle, Nintendo won the case, also winning $1.8 million in expenses.

The player controlled Mario, whose aim was to climb to the top of the platforms whilst gaining points for jumping over barrels or hitting them with special items such as the hammer. Extra points could be gained from picking up items that belong to Pauline, such as an umbrella, a purse…

Donkey Kong held Pauling captive at the top of the platforms and threw barrels down so that they would roll down the slope or ladders to try and stop the hero. The player controlled the protagonist through a joystick (to move left, right and climb up ladders), and the jump button to avoid barrels.

The classic title is prided for the fact that it was the most complex arcade game at the time of its release, due to the four varying stages that were included in the gameplay. Each of the stages represents another 25 metres that Donkey Kong had climbed (stage 1 being 25, and stage 4 being 100 metres). Each stage also had different tasks and features to it. Stage one being alike a construction site, made of girders and ladders. In this stage Donkey Kong threw barrels at the player. The second stage of the game was set on conveyor belts, with cement pans being the main obstacle. The third-most stage of Donkey Kong involved riding elevators while avoiding the bouncing springs. Finally, stage four comprised of the player removing eight rivets which are supporting Donkey Kong. Through the removal of these, Donkey Kong would fall and Mario is reunited with Pauline. This would then consequently restart the game, increasing difficulty at every loop. However, when the 22nd level is reached it is infamously known as the kill screen; wherein, due to an error in the games programming, Mario is killed within a number of seconds which effectively ends the game.

Unsure about the reception of the game, Miyamoto’s classic was originally sold from adapted Radar Scope (1979) cabinets. Because of this, Donkey Kong cabinets were released in both red and blue cabinets. Nonetheless, the success of Donkey Kong was evident, as by October 1981 the game was selling 4,000 units a month. Even further, by late June 1982, Nintendo had sold 60,000 Donkey Kong machines overall and had made $180 million. Additionally, Nintendo earned a further $100 million in the second year of release. Totalling at a $280 million profit.