1. In 1980 Nintendo were struggling to make it into the lucrative North American arcade game market. They had developed a game called Radar Scope...
...which was (fact fans) the very first game that legendary Nintendo game designer and producer Shigeru Miyamoto helped develop. It had proved to be hugely popular in Japan, second only to Pac-Man at the time, so the president of newly founded Nintendo of America, Minoru Arakawa, placed a large order for it.
By the time the game arrived in New York many months had passed and, even in the early days of arcade gaming, tastes in game play had changed. US test audiences hated it, their main gripe being that the game's sounds were too high pitched and annoying. American arcade operators were also unimpressed and so Arakawa was left with both thousands of units sat in a warehouse and the prospect of financial disaster for the newly formed Nintendo of America.
Fortunately, it's not always what you know but who you know. Arakawa's father-in-law just happened to be Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi! So he pleaded with him to provide him with a new game which would appeal to the American market which he could then install as a replacement in the Radar Scope arcade machines. Yamauchi tasked Shigeru Miyamoto and a small team of programmers to make the new game that would later become Donkey Kong.
2. Miyamoto originally attempted to license the rights to Popeye to make a game based upon the characters. When the license attempt failed Miyamoto decided to create his own characters which could also potentially be marketed and used in later games. He took inspiration from Popeye, and the 'love triangle' between the Spinach-eating Sailor Man, Olive Oyl and Bluto. Jumpman (later to be renamed Mario) would take the role of Popeye, Pauline (referred to as simply the damsel-in-distress or female character during development) as Olive and Donkey Kong as Bluto.
Nintendo did eventually acquire the rights to Popeye, releasing their arcade game in 1982.
3. The development of Donkey Kong marked the first known time that the storyline for a video game preceded the game's actual programming, rather than simply being appended as an afterthought. Full backstories and motives were developed for the main characters before a single item of code was written. Miyomoto had written that Donkey Kong was originally the pet of Jumpman, and "a funny, hang-loose kind of guy."
In 1984, three years after Donkey Kong's arcade release, The Game & Watch title Donkey Kong Circus dipped into this backstory. The game itself was a simple reworking of a Mickey Mouse title (which itself was a reworking of Egg), but the relationship between Kong and Mario prior to 1981's Donkey Kong is what is on show.
Here he is, as that "funny, hang-loose kind of guy", balancing on a barrel while juggling pineapples and avoiding the flaming torches. Mario (Jumpman) watches his performance. If Donkey Kong loses a pineapple, Mario laughs at him. If Donkey Kong manages to grasp a fireball, he will flail.
Returning to Miyamoto's notes, it is said that it was Jumpman (Mario) who unwittingly started the conflict by mistreating his pet, and Donkey Kong Circus appears to be an example of this. Setting the conflict in motion and causing Donkey Kong to rebel against his master.
4. When it came to coming up with a name for the game and it's gorilla character, it's over to Miyamoto again. "Kong" was a common Japanese slang term for "gorilla", but Miyamoto wanted to connect it with something that would convey the character was both "dumb and stubborn". There are conflicting reports on how the final name came about but the most credible is that, not knowing much English, Miyamoto looked in a Japanese-English dictionary and linked "dumb and stubborn" to "donkey", and thus Donkey Kong was born.
When Minoru Arakawa (still sat in his warehouse in New York, no doubt) heard the name he hated it and asked for it to be changed. It's not too far fetched to speculate that at this time Arakawa's father-in-law may have reminded him he'd bought great shame and dishonor on his family by not shifting all those Radar Scope arcade machines he'd ordered. And so the name remained.
However, in Arakawa's defense it should be noted that after he got his hands on the finished product he was pretty much the only one at Nintendo of America who thought it would be a hit, most executives believing it was just too different from the the maze and shooter games common at the time.
5. It was Nintendo of America who named the female character "Pauline". They called her that after Polly James, wife of Nintendo's Redmond, Washington, warehouse manager, Don James.
6. During development Jumpman (Mario) was originally referred to as Mr. Video, and it was Miyamoto's plan to use this character in many of the future video games he developed. The moniker, Mr. Video, was never meant to stick, but was just used until something better rolled along. And roll along it did!
In the early stages of programming the game did not feature a jump ability, but Miyamoto reasoned that "If you had a barrel rolling towards you, what would you do?", and so he had a jump maneuver implemented, and thus Jumpman was born. A name chose by Miyamoto because of its similarities to the popular "Pac-Man" and "Walkman".
7. Let's go back to poor Minoru Arakawa, still sat there in his New York warehouse, facing potential bankruptcy and surrounded by Radar Scope arcade units. Imagine how pleased he was when the conversion kits for Donkey Kong finally arrived in North America. But with money so tight for the newly founded and floundering Nintendo of America, Arakawa, his wife and a small team had to do all the conversions themselves. Just how much work was that? Well out of the 3000 Radar Scope arcade units originally manufactured for North America, around 2000 of them were converted by 'Team Arakawa' to Donkey Kong, before rolling out to arcades on July 9th 1981.
After Donkey Kong proved to be a huge success many many more arcade units were shipped to the US, but if you ever find one and want to know if you're playing on a 'Team Arakawa' conversion or an original produced unit then simply look at the casing. Red case is usually a conversion, blue case is most likely an original.
8. So how did Jumpman become Mario? That's another contribution by Nintendo of America. The story goes that whilst 'Team Arakawa' were re-branding the Radar Scope arcade machines the New York warehouse landlord Mario Segale confronted Minoru Arakawa, demanding back rent. Following a heated argument in which the landlord was eventually convinced he would be paid soon, they started to call the character in the game Mario after him. Eventually it kinda stuck!
9. After Donkey Kong became an arcade phenomenon Universal Pictures tried to sue Nintendo over Donkey Kong’s similarities to King Kong. The case came to court in 1982, Universal's legal team spent seven days arguing that the names King Kong and Donkey Kong were very easily confused, and that the plot of the game was an infringement on that of the films.
When Nintendo's counsel, John Kirby (nice name for Nintendo!), began his counter-argument he presented a previous court case that Universal had won as evidence. In it they themselves had argued that King Kong 's scenario and characters were in the public domain! Whoops!!
Universal lost the suit and had to pay all of Nintendo’s legal fees, but if they had have won it's quite possible that Nintendo wouldn't exist today.
10. As well as featuring Mario's humble beginnings as Jumpman, Donkey Kong went on to spawn a huge series of sequels, from 1982's Donkey Kong Jr to 2014's Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.
You might not know that in the Donkey Kong Country series the Kong character you control is not the original arcade Donkey Kong character, he's actually his grandson. Which makes Cranky Kong the original 1981 Donkey Kong! Meaning that the Donkey Kong of all the DK Country games is also Donkey Kong Jr’s son.
Well, Nintendo do like to keep it in the family!
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