The History of Video Games #16: The Birth of Donkey Kong and Mario

Updated: Feb 26


Donkey Kong
Donkey Kong

In the last article, we looked at the Nintendo Game & Watch series, the first handheld video game devices. Before that, we investigated the birth of Nintendo. In this ‘episode’, we witness how Nintendo finally ‘broke America’. Let’s dive in.



Eyes on America



Nintendo’s success in Japan encouraged Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi to enter the American market. His first target was the rapidly growing video arcade scene.

In 1980 Nintendo founded its subsidiary Nintendo of America, with Yamauchi’s Son-in-Law Minoru Arakawa, (who was living in Vancouver with Yamauchi’s daughter) as president.


Nintendo of America’s first physical presence was a warehouse in New Jersey.

The subsidiaries’ first commercial venture was the 1980 arcade game Radar Scope, a shooter similar to Space Invaders and Galaxian. Some 3000 cabinets were shipped from Japan, in the table, cockpit and upright configurations.


NB – there appears to be some disagreement as to whether the game should be called ‘Radarscope’ or ‘Radar Scope’. I will use Radar Scope for now to avoid confusion with RadarScope - a weather radar app. Confused yet?



RadarScope
RadarScope

The prototype was popular but by the time the unit had entered full production interest in the game had passed. Audiences at the time may have seen it as ‘just another shooter’.


Arcade owners were perhaps wary of purchasing large numbers of cabinets from a relatively unknown company, preferring instead to purchase cabinets from known quantities such as Atari and Namco. Only about 1/3 of the 3000 units were sold, leaving around 2000 unsold units stored in the New Jersey warehouse.



Radar Scope Arcade Game (1980 Nintendo)


An early example of altering sprite sizes to create the illusion of depth

Video by Old Classic Retro Gaming



It was clear that ‘something amazing’ was needed to ‘save the company’. Arakawa asked for help. Perhaps not wishing to pull experienced designers from potentially successful projects to shore up a potentially failing one, Hiroshi Yamauchi sent the young and relatively inexperienced staff artist Shigeru Miyamoto and experienced Product Developer Gunpei Yokoi to America. They planned to use conversion kits to convert existing Radar Scope cabinets into a brand-new game. But what should this new game be?



Popeye



Yamauchi felt that basing their new game on an existing franchise with popular and instantly recognizable characters would benefit them greatly.


As luck would have it, a live-action Popeye film was in the works at exactly the right time. Nintendo was keen to obtain the rights to create a game based on the franchise. Yamauchi felt confident Nintendo could obtain the rights, as they had done so previously for their Spinach Raman line some time ago.



Popeye the sailor man film poster
Popeye the sailor man film poster

However, Nintendo’s bid was unsuccessful. Nintendo would now have to find a different franchise to partner up with or create their own with original characters. They chose the latter option.



Enter Donkey Kong and Mario - The Characters



It seems Nintendo may have started the initial design work on the proposed Popeye tie-in before the rights situation was clarified.


Miyamoto concluded that the simplest thing to do would be to tweak the existing Popeye characters into something new. Olive-Oyl became ‘lady’, the already hirsute Bluto transformed into a Gorilla, whilst Popeye traded his sailor’s outfit for a pair of blue dungarees and a moustache. The ongoing love triangle that was the running theme throughout Popeye was retained, with the Gorilla kidnapping ‘Lady’, who the hero must rescue.


Miyamoto knew that for the game to stand out from the myriad of shooters that were on the market it would have to do something completely different. His solution?

Jumping.


Characters jumping in games has become so common practice that nowadays we raise a questioning eyebrow if a character can’t jump. But back then jumping had never been implemented.


Jumping became a core mechanic of the game, to the extent that the yet unnamed hero was called ‘Jumpman’.


The characters desperately needed better names. Like any good artist, Miyamoto ‘et al drew inspiration from their surroundings. Lady became Pauline, named after the New Jersey warehouse’s manager, Don James,’ wife Polly. Jumpman was allegedly named after the owner of the Wearhouse who was chasing them for missed rent payments, Mario Segal. And the Gorilla? He became Donkey Kong. Why ‘Donkey’? Apparently, Miyamoto chose the name to convey Kong’s stubborn nature, with Donkey Kong meaning ‘Stubborn Ape.'


NB - Across school playgrounds in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s there was a legend surrounding Donkey Kong’s peculiar first name. The legend said that the game was originally called Monkey Kong. However, someone at Nintendo mistranslated it into English as ‘Donkey Kong’. The mistake was not noticed until the game had already hit the arcades so Nintendo decided to roll with it. The legend was believed by many - including my younger and more gullible self. However, it appears this legend was, in fact, an urban myth - i.e. wrong.


Enter Donkey Kong - The Arcade Game



The premise of the game was simple. Donkey Kong (DK) had kidnapped Pauline and taken her to the top of a construction site. Mario - who was a carpenter at this point in his career - had to scale the girders and ladders to rescue her.


Despite its simplicity, Donkey Kong introduced several innovations which would become video game staples. To prevent Mario from reaching Lady DK would roll barrels down the girders. To avoid the barrels Mario could utilise two video game innovations. Firstly, he could jump over them, as discussed earlier. Secondly, he could hit them with the hammer. The hammer was obtained via another video game innovation - a time-limited power up. Some levels featured enemy characters which could also be jumped over or hit with the hammer. Donkey Kong introduced two additional innovations - moving platforms and conveyer belt platforms.


A further innovation was Donkey Kong’s on-screen storytelling and cut-scenes. After Mario reaches Pauline, DK will scoop her up and ascend further up the construction site - i.e. to the next level. Although these cut scenes are extremely primitive compared to the movie like extravaganzas we see today, they were the start from which all others grew.


Donkey Kong was simple, effective, and fun to play - exactly what a coin-op arcade should be.



Donkey Kong Arcade


I don’t think the Health & Safety Executive would be too happy with these construction sites

Video by World of Longplays


Nintendo piloted Donkey Kong in two Seattle bars where they became a huge hit, generating some $30 per day. Additional Donkey Kong cabinets were then installed. These were soon earning Nintendo $200 a week - each. Nintendo of America began converting the remaining 2000(ish) Radar Scope cabinets into Donkey Kongs by hand. Additional Donkey Kong cabinets were created (possibly in both Japan and in the US) to meet demand.


By the end of 1981, there were approximately 60,000 Donkey Kong Cabinets across the US, raking in a cool $180,000,000. In 1982 Nintendo was manufacturing around 50 cabinets per day, which netted them another $100,000,000. Donkey Kong was indeed something amazing and it saved the company. Nintendo of A