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In the Making: Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong

In the first of Arcade Sushi’s In the Making series, we’re going to look at the history of one of the greatest arcade games ever made. You know it, you love it, and you wish you owned it. Don’t get chumpatized — check out this edition of In the Making: Donkey Kong.

Nintendo wasn’t doing too well in North America at one time. In 1980, thousands of Radar Scope units were ordered for the States. The early cabinet shooter arcade game did not live up to expectations when it was released, leaving Nintendo with a huge stock of unused units in their warehouses. Nintendo’s CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi turned to Shigeru Miyamoto, a younger employee who worked on industrial designs, for help. Luckily for the company. Miyamoto did just that with the creation of Donkey Kong.

Radar Scope Donkey Kong

At the same time this was all happening, Nintendo was trying to get the rights to make a video game based on Popeye. The efforts were no good, so it was determined that the new game would be based off a set of entirely new characters. With inspiration from Popeye, Beauty and the Beast, and King Kong, Miyamoto created his three characters: Donkey Kong (the villain), Jumpman (the hero), and Lady (the heroine).

Concept Art for Donkey Kong

Since Nintendo’s intentions were to target the North American audience, it was suggested the title of the arcade game be in English. Miyamoto decided that the wisest choice would be to name it after the villain himself. There’s a lot of speculation surrounding the history of the villain’s name from urban myths to more credible sources. Miyamoto himself, however, stated that the name Donkey Kong sounded like “stupid ape”.

Armed with his three characters and a strong title, Miyamoto was ready to make this project stand out. Instead of having all of the characters replicate each other, he wanted to have them all different sizes with different moves. He also thought of the idea of using angled platforms with ladders to climb up and barrels as an obstacle. For the final touch, he wanted the game to not just have one stage but many stages. With a team of four programmers, they created the 20,000 lines of code to make this happen. And what’s a game without music? Yukio Kaneoka (who also composed the music for a lot of early NES games), was responsible for composing the melodies.

Donkey Kong

With the game finished, it was time to test it out. The arcade console was sent to Redmond, Washington where Nintendo of America was located. It was greeted by some critiques from different sides. The sales manager wasn’t pleased with the fact it wasn’t like the more common maze and shooter games. Distributors weren’t too keen on the title, leading to staffers requesting the name to be changed. (As you can see, in the end, the title was not changed.) Now it was time to translate the Japanese system for the American audience. The heroine’s name became Pauline which was inspired by Polly James, the Nintendo of America’s warehouse manager’s wife. Jumpman was renamed to the hero we know today as Mario, inspired by the office landlord Mario Segale. Donkey Kong, as he was originally, kept the name true to his person.

Initial testing started at two bars in Seattle, Washington. After seeing the arcade console bring in $30 a day (equivalent to 120 plays at the time), they asked for more units. 2,000 out of the original 3,000 Radar Scope systems were then striped, replaced with the new Donkey Kong boards, and repainted. With such a successful start-up, Nintendo officially released Donkey Kong in July 1981.

DK Flier

After the release, the profits did not end there. Donkey Kong came to be Nintendo’s top seller for two years, bringing in $180 million its first year and $100 million its second year. The original 2,000 consoles were not enough, making Nintendo change some game plans. Instead of shipping components all the way from Japan, manufacturing began in Redmond for time efficiency. Within its first year, 60,000 machines were built and distributed!

Donkey Kong’s popularity didn’t come without plenty of merchandising opportunities. Mario and Donkey Kong started to appear in more than just arcades. They showed up on boxes of cereal, clothes, comic books, cartoons, board games, and even on other consoles. In total, 50 parties in both North America and Japan licensed the characters to slap them on whatever they could find.

Donkey Kong Cereal

Donkey Kong board game

From here on out, it was only going to get better. For the 1982 Arcade Awards, Donkey Kong was awarded Best Solitaire Video Game as well as the Certificate of Merit for being the runner-up Coin-Op Game of the Year (Tron took home the top honors). It even inspired sequels — Donkey Kong Jr. and Donkey Kong 3. That wasn’t the end of it, though. Ranging from Donkey Kong Country (SNES) to Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii, 3DS), there’s over a dozen games to choose from starring everyone’s favorite ape.

Donkey Kong 1981

Without Donkey Kong, neither Nintendo nor the entire gaming industry would be where it is today. With Miyamoto’s brilliant ideas, Donkey Kong lead the way to Mario’s success and revived an industry that was falling through. The plumber has a lot to owe to our lovable ape, and as gamers, so do we.

next: 10 best classic arcade games

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