Celebrating Donkey Kong: The Cornerstone of an Empire
When it comes to an iconic game, popularity is certainly a factor and sales are the bottom line, but those translate to far more beyond the game itself. There is, perhaps, no greater example of this than the Donkey Kong arcade game. Donkey Kong came to us in a time when Nintendo was still largely uncared for outside of its native borders of Japan. The vibrant cast of characters that would help to define Nintendo’s success was still far off and the company was scrambling to find the key that would crack sales in North American markets open for the taking. When Donkey Kong came out worldwide, everything started to change not just for Nintendo, but for the industry as a whole.
Nintendo had attempted to find audiences in North American arcades several times before. The company had produced several games and arcade machines that, while popular in Japan, never captured the same success overseas. The original development of Donkey Kong actually began as a result of another failed export: Radar Scope. The surplus of unused and unbought Radar Scope arcade machines prompted then-Nintendo of Japan company president to approach a young Shigeru Miyamoto to design a game that would use converted Radar Scope machines.
At the time, Nintendo was seeking licenses to the popular Popeye comic strip for use in new games. Miyamoto original designed his new game with this in mind, but when the dealings failed, he was forced to create new characters. He came up with the love triangle of an ape, carpenter and girlfriend that would take the place of Bluto, Popeye and Olive Oyl. The carpenter’s original name was Mr. Video, but would be changed to Jumpman in an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of other similarly named brands like Diskman and Pac-Man. He would, of course, eventually come to be known as by the name fans worldwide know him: Mario. Donkey Kong was named from inspiration by King Kong, as well as a wish to convey a stubbornness in his character.
Donkey Kong was thought to be a risk when the time came to seek trademarks in North America. As one of the earliest forms of platformers, Nintendo of America staff were worried about inserting it among the maze and shooter arcades that took up a majority of arcades at the time. They also had doubts about the name of the game and its ability to draw interest. Nonetheless, head of US operations Minoru Arakawa believed in the game’s ability to garner success and attention and pushed for its release as was.
When Donkey Kong finally reached local spaces, the effect was immediate. Players lined up to dump quarter after quarter into the machines at initial testing sites. When establishment owners saw the rapid rise in business, they immediately called for more machines and Nintendo of America immediately set to work on converting Radar Scope machines into what was already set to become a hot new product. When Donkey Kong machines went on sale to the general public, the Radar Scope conversions were immediately bought up and new machines had to be rapidly created. Less than a year after the release of the game, it had sold around 60,000 machines and made over $180 million.
The conversation about what popular games do for the industry is an enormous one. A good game can turn massive audience attention not just to itself, but games like it. It can launch or relaunch a genre or even a concept. For Donkey Kong, it was even still far more than that. Donkey Kong can be single-handedly traced as the game that launched Nintendo’s presence in North America, positioned the company for dominance over the video game industry through the ‘80s and ‘90s, and introducing players to two of the video game industry’s most beloved characters. Donkey Kong was more than just a popular game. It was, in almost every way, the foundation on which Nintendo built its most prolific era of popularity.