Hall of Fame Inductee
Original Release: 1981
Designers: Shigeru Miyamoto
While there were games that were more popular during their time in the arcades and games that made more of an impact in the world of gaming, Nintendo’s Donkey Kong is important for a variety of reasons. The first is that, while it didn’t become as big a mass market icon like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong was still plenty popular and was a staple of any arcade worth going to. Another reason is that the battle over Donkey Kong between Nintendo and Universal was the first example of a small video game company not bowing down to the movie industry and coming out on top. Most importantly, though, it introduced the public into the most popular video game icon of all time.
Drawing from a myriad of ideas, legendary video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto came up with the idea for Donkey Kong. It’s your standard princess-in-peril game where the player is the guy with the task of being a hero. And while the general gameplay design wasn’t exactly ingenious, the visuals were clever. Even though wasn’t the flashiest thing on the market, Miyamoto had some tricks up his sleeve that enabled him to show off some really detailed sprites. Mario’s iconic moustache and hat were created because of difficulties Miyamoto had creating a mouth and animating hair. In fact, the end result was probably better than anything that could have been created with the given hardware.
Another interesting thing about the game itself is that the game offered different modes of play which was a novel concept in arcade games at the time. There were only four levels but they offered varying gameplay options. The first level was basically Mario rushing towards Donkey Kong to save Pauline. Mario had to ascend platforms and deal with broken ladders while Donkey Kong threw barrels to squash Mario. If Mario wasn’t quick enough, flames would rush up behind him and take him down. Mario only had two modes of defense; jump over these objects or obliterate the barrels with a conveniently placed hammer within the level. Once Mario finally made it to the top, he made it just in time to see Donkey Kong climb up to the next level with a screaming Pauline. Each level modified the game. Conveyor belts, moving platforms, and different enemy types brought some interesting variety to the different levels. Although the goal remained the same for the first three levels, the last level required Mario to pass over eight fasteners to remove them. Once they all had been removed, the level would collapse on itself, sending the big ape down to the ground with Mario and Pauline reuniting.
The game was notable for its impact outside of the arcade. In 1982, MCA and Universal began legal proceedings against Nintendo for copyright infringement. They believed that Donkey Kong too closely resembled King Kong. The legal team for MCA and Universal went so far as to threaten to go after Coleco, who had their own home version of Donkey Kong licensed by Nintendo for the Colecovision. Coleco wavered and agreed to give royalties to Universal, but Nintendo refused to budge. Other licensees followed suit and caved in to Universal’s threats for fear of legal repercussions.
Universal had a problem, though. Seven years earlier, Universal had to prove in court that King Kong was part of the public domain. Nintendo’s lawyer, John Kirby, used this against Universal and ultimately won the case. This was first case where the video game industry–which was still relatively meager compared to the film industry–was no longer small potatoes. It also proved that a unknown Japanese company could hang in there in the cutthroat American market. There is some evidence to support that Nintendo was so appreciative of Kirby’s help in this case that they later created a popular video game franchise with Kirby being the main character’s name, but this is not confirmed.
But even more important than the game itself, this was the vehicle that launched the most successful game character in video game history (and there could be an argument made for all of visual media). Mario started off as Jumpman, a plumber from Brooklyn. If you suggested in 1981 that Jumpman would become the key player for the most dominate video game company in history, you might have been committed.
It’s not though as if Donkey Kong made Mario a star overnight. It was Nintendo’s decision to keep Jumpman as a character in a bunch of games even before they entered the home console market. And, while Donkey Kong remained a popular (although the more appropriate word would be prolific) franchise for Nintendo, the character failed to even come close to emulating the same amount of success as Mario.
But Donkey Kong has stuck around and has had a better legacy than some of its arcade brethren. There were a few arcade sequels and ports to home consoles but nothing set the world on fire. 1994 was a kind year to the giant ape as two games were released that brought Donkey Kong, the character, to a new generation of players. A new game titled Donkey Kong was released for the Game Boy and promoted heavily with the new Super Game Boy attachment for the Super Nintendo which allowed people to play Game Boy games through their SNES. The game took the original formula and expanded on it immensely to provide an amazing mix between puzzle solving and platforming.
Donkey Kong Country was revolutionary for a bunch of reasons. The most important was that it revitalized both 2-D platforming and the aging 16-bit Super Nintendo. Another thing was that the Donkey Kong starring in this adventure was not the same ape from the 1981 game. It was a new Donkey Kong for a new era (although the original had a role as Cranky Kong; who longed for the days of simpler graphics and wanted less nonsense than his top-billing grandson). Although the main character was recognizable to those who had grown up on Nintendo through the 80s, the game was completely different from the original arcade game. Donkey Kong Country played more like a Mario adventure.
The original Donkey Kong format is still alive to a certain extent. The original game (in its NES form) was released on the Wii’s Virtual Console and, at the time of its release, it was one of the most popular titles on the service. Nintendo has also revitalized the rivalry between Mario and Donkey Kong with the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series which has had several editions; the most recent being distributed through the DSiWare service. Donkey Kong is still considered one of Nintendo’s most precious franchises and will be well taken care of for a long time.
As for the arcade game that started it all: you could argue either way whether or not it has aged well but it hasn’t been forgotten. The opening theme music, the first level, and Donkey Kong’s growl are still iconic in the video game world. In many ways, Nintendo’s Donkey Kong changed the face of the entire video game industry.