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Donkey Kong






Donkey Kong was the first arcade video game to feature multiple playfields. It was released in 1981 by Nintendo. In the game, your character "Mario" had to climb up a series of steel ladders and ramps and rescue his girlfriend "Pauline" from the clutches of the eponymous "Donkey Kong". To keep the insane, love-struck Mario at bay, Donkey Kong rolled barrels down the ramps at your Mario character, hoping to crush him. This was deemed a wise expenditure of pockets full of quarters in the early '80s.


Nintendo was in a previous life a company that made playing cards. When Space Invaders came along, Nintendo tried to create a clone called Radarscope. It was horribly received and Nintendo had a warehouse full of game cabinets. Shigeru Miyamoto was given the job of thinking up a game that could use the surplus cabinets.


Miyamoto was an artist by trade and he started at Nintendo doing art work for game cabinets. Nintendo made an intuitive leap. Games were not only being programmed by programmers but designed by them. However capable a programmer was, they were not always the best designers. Nintendo gave Miyamoto the green light to design his own game. He started working on a game based on Popeye but the deal for the rights fell through. He was then transferred to the Radarscope rescue project. His work on Popeye had him thinking about a game along the lines of the beauty and the beast motif. Miyamoto eventually came up with an idea for a game about a giant gorilla that escaped from his irritating, shrimpy owner. To exact revenge for his years of confinement, the ape kidnaps his owner's girlfriend and climbs a series of buildings, challenging his owner to catch him.

It's been said Donkey Kong was named "Monkey Kong" in Japan but when the name was given over the phone to its State-side manufacturer they heard "Donkey Kong". In truth, the game was, from the outset, called Donkey Kong. Everyone was familiar with "kong" as a name for a giant gorilla and the game designer Miyamoto wanted another name that would imply the creature's stubbornness. Donkey made sense. Sales Reps at Nintendo's New York HQ (Nintendo is in the Seattle area now) thought the name was so stupid gamers would refuse to play the game. They were proven wrong. The game sold 65,000 units (by way of contrast, that was just short of Asteroids' 70,000 units mark).



It's also been said the main character didn't receive the name "Mario" until the release of Donkey Kong Jr. This is partially incorrect. The character was first identified only as "Jumpman". The name Mario appeared later in promotional material for the original game. The name "Mario" came from the name of the landlord of Nintendo's NYC HQ, Mario Segali. He resembled the mustachioed character. The video incarnation of Mario was given a mustache because of the low pixel resolution at the time. Nintendo couldn't make a convincing mouth on the little man but a mustache showed up better. He was given a hat for the same reason. It looked better than blocky hair.

Oddly enough, today Mario's job is given as "plumber" but in the original game he was a carpenter (I suppose to complete the Italian stereotype, he could have been a bricklayer in the beta version). Miyamoto specifically wanted a blue-collar character because he felt the game players would better identify with an everyman sort instead of a super hero.

The game's popularity spawned a lawsuit (of course). Universal Studios, which made the 1929 film version of King Kong, sued Nintendo and Coleco. Although Universal's copyrights had expired a few years previous, Universal felt the game was still damaging to their movie. Maybe expecting a quick, out-of-court settlement, Universal discovered Nintendo was willing and able to go to court. Universal tried to argue its copyright was still valid. A judge dismissed this claim and noted Universal knew full well its rights had expired. The judge viewed the suit as vexatious and ruled in Nintendo's favor. The judge also awarded the video game company $1.8 million for legal expenses.

Miyamoto eventually went on to create the Super Mario series as well as the Legend of Zelda series.


 -- Karl Mamer





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