Donkey Kong (video game)

Donkey Kong

Title screen (Arcade version)
Developer(s) Nintendo
Publisher(s) Nintendo
Designer(s) Shigeru Miyamoto
Release date(s) Arcade version
2600, ColecoVision, INTV versions
Atari 8-bit, Apple II, C64, TI-99, MS-DOS versions
NES version
JPN July 15, 1983
NA June, 1986
EU October 15, 1986
FDS version
JPN April 8, 1988
7800 version
NA 1988
NES version on Virtual Console
NA November 19, 2006
JPN December 2, 2006
EU December 8, 2006
Genre(s) Platform
Mode(s) Up to two players, alternating turns
Platform(s) Arcade, Atari 2600, Atari 7800, ColecoVision, Wii Virtual Console, Intellivision, Atari 8-bit family, Apple II, Commodore VIC-20, Commodore 64, TI-99/4A, ZX Spectrum, PC:DOS, MSX, NES, Famicom Disk System
Input 4-way joystick, 1 button
Arcade cabinet Upright, mini and cocktail
Arcade system(s) Main CPU: Zilog Z80 (@ 3.072 MHz)
Sound CPU: I8035 (@ 400 kHz)
Sound Chips: DAC (@ 400 kHz), Samples (@ 400 kHz)
For the Game Boy game, see Donkey Kong (Game Boy).

Donkey Kong (ドンキーコング Donkī Kongu?) is an arcade game released by Nintendo in 1981. The game is an early example of the platform genre as the gameplay focuses on maneuvering the main character across a series of platforms while dodging obstacles. The storyline is thin but well developed for its time. In it, Mario (originally called Jumpman) must rescue a damsel in distress from a giant ape named Donkey Kong. The hero and ape would go on to be two of Nintendo's more popular characters.

The game was the latest of Nintendo's efforts to break into the North American market. Nintendo's president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, assigned the project to a first-time game designer named Shigeru Miyamoto. Drawing from a wide range of inspirations, including Popeye and King Kong, Miyamoto developed the scenario and designed the game alongside Nintendo's chief engineer, Gunpei Yokoi. The two men broke new ground by using graphics as a means of characterization, including cut scenes to advance the game's plot, and integrating multiple stages into the gameplay.

Despite initial misgivings on the part of Nintendo's American staff, Donkey Kong proved a tremendous success in both North America and Japan. Nintendo licensed the game to Coleco, who developed home console versions for numerous platforms. Other companies simply cloned Nintendo's hit and avoided royalties altogether. Miyamoto's characters appeared on cereal boxes, television cartoons, and dozens of other places. A court suit brought on by Universal City Studios, alleging that Donkey Kong violated their trademark of King Kong, ultimately failed. The success of Donkey Kong and Nintendo's win in the courtroom helped position the company to dominate the video game market in the 1980s and early 1990s.



Story and characters

The eponymous Donkey Kong plays the game's de facto villain. He is the pet of a carpenter named Jumpman (along the same lines as Walkman and Pac-Man, later renamed Mario).[1] The carpenter mistreats the ape, so Donkey Kong escapes and kidnaps Jumpman/Mario's girlfriend, originally known as the Lady, but later renamed Pauline. The player must take the role of Jumpman/Mario and rescue the girl. This was the first occurrence of the damsel-in-distress scenario that would provide the template for countless video games to come.[2]

The game uses graphics and animation as vehicles of characterization. Donkey Kong smirks upon Jumpman/Mario's demise. The Lady/Pauline is instantly recognized as female from her pink dress and long hair,[3] and "HELP!" appears frequently beside her. Jumpman/Mario, depicted in red overalls and cap, is an everyman character, a type common in Japan. Graphical limitations forced his design: Drawing a mouth was too difficult, so the character got a mustache;[4] the programmers could not animate hair, so he got a cap; and to make his arm movements visible, he needed white gloves and colored overalls.[5] The artwork used for the cabinets and promotional materials make these cartoon-like character designs even more explicit. The Lady/Pauline, for example, appears as a disheveled Fay Wray in a torn dress and stiletto heels.

Donkey Kong is the first example of a complete narrative told in video game form, and it employs cut scenes to advance its plot. The game opens with the gorilla climbing a pair of ladders to the top of a construction site. He sets the Lady/Pauline down and stamps his feet, causing the steel beams to change shape. He then moves to his final perch and sneers. This brief animation sets the scene and adds background to the gameplay, a first for video games. Upon reaching the end of the stage, another cut scene begins. A heart appears between Jumpman/Mario and the Lady/Pauline, but Donkey Kong grabs the woman and climbs higher, causing the heart to break. The narrative concludes when Jumpman/Mario reaches the end of the final stage. He and the Lady/Pauline are reunited, and a short intermission plays.[6] The game then starts over at a higher level of difficulty.



Donkey Kong is an early example of the platform genre (it is sometimes said to be the first platform game, although it was preceded by Space Panic and Apple Panic).[7] Winning the game requires patience and the ability to accurately time Jumpman's ascent.[2] In addition to presenting the goal of saving the Lady/Pauline, the game also gives the player a score. Points are awarded for finishing screens; leaping over obstacles; destroying objects with a hammer power-up; collecting items such as hats, umbrellas, and purses (presumably belonging to the Lady/Pauline); and completing other tasks. The player receives three lives with a bonus awarded for the first 7500 points.

The game is divided into four different one-screen stages. Each represents 25 meters of the structure Donkey Kong has climbed, one stage being 25 meters higher than the previous. The final screen occurs at 100m. Later ports of the game omitted or changed the sequence of the screens; the original arcade version includes:

These screens combine to form levels, which become progressively harder. For example, Donkey Kong begins to hurl barrels more rapidly and sometimes diagonally, and fireballs get quicker. The victory music alternates between levels 1 and 2. The 22nd level is unofficially known as the kill screen due to an error in the game's programming that starts the clock with far less time than is necessary to complete the stage. At four screens, Donkey Kong at its debut was the biggest video game ever produced. In fact, the only use of multiple levels to precede it was Gorf by Midway Games.



As of the beginning of 1981, Nintendo's efforts to crack the North American video game market had all failed, culminating with the flop Radar Scope in 1980. In order to keep the company afloat, company president Hiroshi Yamauchi decided to convert unsold Radar Scope games into something new. He approached a young industrial designer named Shigeru Miyamoto, who had been working for Nintendo since 1977, to see if Miyamoto thought that he could design an arcade game. Miyamoto said that he could.[8] Yamauchi appointed Nintendo's head engineer, Gunpei Yokoi, to supervise the project.

At the time, Nintendo was pursuing a license to make a game based on the Popeye comic strip. When this fell through, Nintendo decided that it would take the opportunity to create new characters that could then be marketed and used in later games.[5] Miyamoto came up with many characters and plot concepts, but he eventually settled on a gorilla/carpenter/girlfriend love triangle that mirrored the rivalry between Bluto and Popeye for Olive Oyl.[1] Bluto became an ape, who in Miyamoto's words was "nothing too evil or repulsive". He would be the pet of the main character, "a funny, hang-loose kind of guy".[9] Miyamoto has also named "Beauty and the Beast" and the 1933 film King Kong as influences.[10] Although its origin as a comic strip license played a major part, Donkey Kong marked the first time that the storyline for a video game preceded the game's programming rather than simply being appended as an afterthought.[11]

Yamauchi wanted to primarily target the North American market, so he mandated that the game be given an English title. Miyamoto decided to name the game for the ape, whom he felt to be the strongest character.[1] The story of exactly how Miyamoto came up with the name Donkey Kong varies. A popular urban myth says that the name was originally meant to be Monkey Kong but was misspelled or misinterpreted due to a blurred fax or bad telephone connection.[12] Another story claims that Miyamoto looked in a Japanese-English dictionary for something that would mean stubborn gorilla[13] or that Donkey was meant to convey silly and that Kong was common Japanese slang for gorilla.[5] A rival claim is that he worked with Nintendo's export manager to come up with the title, and that Donkey was meant to represent stupid and goofy.[14]

Miyamoto had high hopes for his new project. He lacked the technical background to program it himself, so he instead came up with concepts and ran them by the technicians to see if they were possible. He wanted to make the characters different sizes, move them in different manners, and make them react in various ways. Yokoi declared Miyamoto's original design too complex.[15] Another idea that Yokoi himself suggested was to use see-saws that the hero could use to catapult himself across the screen; this too proved too difficult to program. Miyamoto then came up with the idea to use sloped platforms, barrels, and ladders. When he specified that the game would have multiple stages, the four-man programming team complained that he was essentially asking them to make the game over and over.[16] Nevertheless, they followed Miyamoto's design, creating about 20k of code.[17] Meanwhile, Miyamoto composed the game's music on an electronic keyboard.

Hiroshi Yamauchi knew that Nintendo had a hit on its hands and called up Minoru Arakawa, head of Nintendo's operations in the U.S., to tell him.[18] Nintendo's American distributors, Ron Judy and Al Stone, brought Arakawa to a lawyer named Howard Lincoln to secure a trademark patent.

The game was sent to Nintendo of America for testing. The sales manager hated it for being too different from the maze and shooter games common at the time,[19] and Judy and Lincoln expressed reservations over the strange title. Still, Arakawa swore that it would be big.[18] American staffers pleaded with Yamauchi to at least change the name, but he refused. Resigned, Arakawa and the American staff set about translating the storyline for the cabinet art and naming the other characters. They chose Pauline for the girl, after Polly James, wife of Nintendo's Redmond, Washington, warehouse manager, Don James. Mario was named for Mario Segali, the warehouse landlord.[20] These character names were printed on the American cabinet art and used in promotional materials. Donkey Kong was ready for release.

Stone and Judy convinced the managers of two bars in Seattle, Washington, to set up Donkey Kong machines. The managers initially showed reluctance, but when they saw sales of $30 a day—or 120 plays—for a week straight, they requested more units.[21] In their Redmond headquarters, a skeleton crew composed of Arakawa, his wife Yoko, James, Judy, Phillips, and Stone set about gutting 2,000 surplus Radar Scope machines and converting them with Donkey Kong motherboards and power supplies from Japan. The game officially went on sale in July 1981.

In his 1982 book Video Invaders, Steve Bloom describes Donkey Kong as "another bizarre cartoon game, courtesy of Japan."[22] To American and Canadian gamers, however, Donkey Kong was irresistible. The game's initial 2,000 units sold through, and more orders poured in. Arakawa began manufacturing the electronic components in Redmond because waiting for shipments from Japan was taking too long.[23] By October, Donkey Kong was selling 4,000 units a month, and by late June 1982, Nintendo had sold 60,000 Donkey Kong games overall and earned some $180 million.[24] Judy and Stone, who worked on straight commission, became millionaires.[23] Arakawa used Nintendo's profits to buy 27 acres of land in Redmond in July 1982.[25] The game made another $100 million in its second year of release.[26] It remained Nintendo's top seller even into summer 1983.[27] Donkey Kong sold steadily in Japan, as well.[28]

Its success entrenched the game in American popular culture. In 1982, Buckner and Garcia and R. Cade and the Video Victims both recorded songs based on the game. Artists like DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and Trace Adkins referenced the game in songs, as did episodes of The Simpsons. Even today, sound effects from the Atari 2600 version often serve as generic video game sounds in films and television shows. The Killer List of Videogames ranks Donkey Kong the third most popular arcade game of all time and places it at #25 on the "Top 100 Videogames" list. Today, Donkey Kong is the fifth most popular arcade game among collectors.[29]


Licensing and ports

By late June 1982, Donkey Kong's success had prompted more than 50 parties in the U.S. and Japan to license the game's characters.[30] Mario and his simian nemesis appeared on cereal boxes, board games, pajamas, and manga. In 1983, the animation studio Ruby-Spears produced a Donkey Kong cartoon (as well as Donkey Kong Jr) for the Saturday Supercade program on CBS. In the show, mystery crime-solving plots in the mode of Scooby-Doo are framed around the premise of Mario and Pauline chasing Donkey Kong, who has escaped from the circus. The show lasted two seasons.

Makers of video game consoles were interested, as well. Taito offered a considerable sum to buy all rights to Donkey Kong, but Nintendo turned them down.[31] Rivals Coleco and Atari approached Nintendo in Japan and the United States respectively. In the end, Yamauchi granted Coleco exclusive console and tabletop rights to Donkey Kong because he felt that "It [was] the hungriest company".[32] In addition, Arakawa felt that as a more established company in the U.S., Coleco could better handle marketing. In return, Nintendo would receive an undisclosed lump sum plus $1.40 per game cartridge sold and $1 per tabletop unit. On 24 December 1981, Howard Lincoln drafted the contract. He included language that Coleco would be held liable for anything on the game cartridge, an unusual clause for a licensing agreement.[33] Arakawa signed the document the next day, and on 1 February 1982, Yamauchi persuaded the Coleco representative in Japan to sign without running the document by the company's lawyers.[34]

Coleco did not offer the game stand-alone; instead, they bundled it with their ColecoVision. The units went on sale in July 1982. Coleco's version is very close to the arcade, more so than ports of earlier games that had been done. Six months later, Coleco offered Atari 2600 and Intellivision versions, too. Coleco's sales doubled to $500 million and their earnings quadrupled to $40 million.[35]

Meanwhile, Atari got the rights to the floppy disk version of Donkey Kong and prepared the Atari 800 version of the game. When Coleco unveiled the Adam Computer, playing a port of Donkey Kong at the 1983 Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, Illinois, Atari protested. Yamauchi demanded that Arnold Greenberg, Coleco's president, shelve his Adam port. This version of the game was cartridge-based, and thus not a violation of Nintendo's license with Atari; still, Greenberg complied. Ray Kassar of Atari was fired the next month, and the home PC version of Donkey Kong fell through.[36]

Miyamoto created a greatly simplified version for the Game & Watch multiscreen, and in 1983, Donkey Kong was one of the three launch titles for the Famicom in Japan. This version remained in production until 1988. Other ports include the Apple II, Atari 7800, Commodore 64, Commodore VIC-20, Famicom Disk System, PC, ZX Spectrum, and Mini-Arcade.

In 1994, Nintendo released an enhanced remake of Donkey Kong on the Game Boy, the first game with enhanced Super Game Boy support. This port features many new stages, enhanced graphics and controls. The arcade version of the game appears in the Nintendo 64 game Donkey Kong 64 and another in the GameCube game Animal Crossing (although that is the NES port, not the original arcade version). In 2004, Nintendo released the NES version for the Game Boy Advance Classic NES series and on the e-Reader. It was released on November 19, 2006 on the Wii Virtual Console and is an emulated port of the NES version.[37]


Clones and sequels

Other companies bypassed Nintendo completely. In 1981, O. R. Rissman, president of Tiger Electronics, obtained a license to use the name King Kong from Universal City Studios. Under this title, Tiger created a handheld game with a scenario and gameplay based directly on Nintendo's creation.

Crazy Kong is another example, a clone manufactured by Falcon and licensed for some non-American markets. Nevertheless, Crazy Kong machines found their way into some American arcades during the early 1980s, often installed in cabinets marked as Congorilla. Nintendo was quick to take legal action against those distributing the game in the U.S.[38] Bootleg copies of Donkey Kong also appeared in both North America and France under the Crazy Kong or Donkey King names. In 1983, Sega created its own Donkey Kong clone called Congo Bongo. Despite being in isometric perspective, the gameplay is very similar.

Donkey Kong spawned two direct sequels: Donkey Kong Jr. and Donkey Kong 3. Mario Bros. is a spin-off featuring Mario. Nintendo revived the Donkey Kong license in the 1990s for a series of platform games and spin-offs developed by Rare, beginning with Donkey Kong Country in 1994. Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat (2005) is the latest in this series. In 2004, Nintendo released Mario vs. Donkey Kong, a title much more in the vein of the original arcade game. In it, Mario must chase Donkey Kong to ever greater heights in a toy factory. In 2004 Nintendo released the first of the Donkey Konga games, a series that involves a rhythm-based bongo controller. In 2005, the platform/puzzle game hybrid DK: King of Swing was released.


Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Nintendo Co., Ltd.

Main article: Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Nintendo Co., Ltd.

Nintendo's success with Donkey Kong was not without obstacles. In April 1982, Sid Sheinberg, a seasoned lawyer and president of MCA and Universal City Studios, learned of the game's success and suspected it might be a trademark infringement of Universal's own King Kong.[24] On 27 April, he met with Arnold Greenberg of Coleco and threatened to sue over Coleco's home version of Donkey Kong. Coleco agreed on 5 May to pay royalties to Universal of 3% of their Donkey Kong's net sale price, worth about $4.6 million.[39] Meanwhile, Sheinberg revoked Tiger's license to make its King Kong game, but O. R. Rissman refused to acknowledge Universal's claim to the trademark.[40] When Universal threatened Nintendo, Howard Lincoln and Nintendo refused to cave. In preparation for the court battle ahead, Universal agreed to allow Tiger to continue producing its King Kong game as long as they distinguished it from Donkey Kong.

Universal officially sued Nintendo on 29 June 1982 and announced its license with Coleco. The company sent cease-and-desist letters to Nintendo's licensees, all of which agreed to pay royalties to Universal except Milton Bradley and Ralston Purina.[41]

Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Nintendo, Co., Ltd. was heard in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York by Judge Robert W. Sweet. Over seven days, Universal's counsel, the New York firm Townley & Updike, argued that the names King Kong and Donkey Kong were easily confused and that the plot of the game was an infringement on that of the films.[42] Nintendo's counsel, John Kirby, countered that Universal had themselves argued in a previous case that King Kong's scenario and characters were in the public domain. Judge Sweet ruled in Nintendo's favor, awarding the company Universal's profits from Tiger's game ($56,689.41), damages, and attorney's fees.[43]

Universal appealed, trying to prove consumer confusion by presenting the results of a telephone survey and examples from print media where people had allegedly assumed a connection between the two Kongs.[44] On 4 October 1984, however, the court upheld the previous verdict.

Nintendo and its licensees filed counterclaims against Universal. On 20 May 1985, Judge Sweet awarded Nintendo $1.8 million for legal fees, lost revenues, and other expenses.[45] However, he denied Nintendo's claim of damages from those licensees who had paid royalties to both Nintendo and Universal.[46] Both parties appealed this judgment, but the verdict was upheld on 15 July 1986.[47]

Nintendo thanked John Kirby with a $30,000 sailboat christened the Donkey Kong along with "exclusive worldwide rights to use the name for sailboats."[48] More importantly, the court battle was a rite of passage for the company, teaching Nintendo that they could compete with the giants of the entertainment industry.[49]



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Kohler 39.
  2. 2.0 2.1 De Maria 82.
  3. Ray 19-20.
  4. Kohler 37.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 De Maria 238.
  6. Kohler 40-2.
  7. Crawford 94.
  8. Kent 157.
  9. Both quotes from Sheff 47.
  10. Kohler 36.
  11. Kohler 38.
  12. Mikkelson and Mikkelson.
  13. Kent 158.
  14. Sheff 48-9.
  15. Sheff 47-48.
  16. Kohler 38-39.
  17. Kent 530.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Kent 159.
  19. Sheff 49.
  20. Sheff 109.
  21. Sellers 68.
  22. Quoted in Kohler 5.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Kent 160.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Kent 211.
  25. Sheff 113.
  26. Sheff 111.
  27. Kent 284.
  28. Kohler 46.
  29. McLemore.
  30. Kent 215.
  31. Sheff 110.
  32. Quoted in Sheff 111.
  33. Kent 208-9.
  34. Sheff 112.
  35. Kent 210.
  36. Kent 283-5.
  37. Parish
  38. Second Court of Appeals, 1984, 119.
  39. Sheff 121.
  40. Kent 214.
  41. Second Court of Appeals, 1986, 74-5.
  42. Second Court of Appeals, 1986, 74.
  43. Kent 217.
  44. Second Court of Appeals, 1984, 118.
  45. Kent 218.
  46. Second Court of Appeals, 1986, 72.
  47. Second Court of Appeals, 1986, 77-8.
  48. Quoted in Sheff 126.
  49. Sheff 127.



External links

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