DEVELOPED: …Ikegami Tsushinki?!
RELEASE DATE: 07/1981 (Arcade, Worldwide), 07/15/1983 (Famicom), 06/1986 (NES), 10/15/1986 (EU)
ALSO ON: Game & Watch, Atari 2600, Intellivision, ColecoVision, Coleco Mini-Arcade, Atari 8-bit computers, TI-99, IBM PC, VIC-20, C64, MSX, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Famicom Disk System, Atari 7800, e-Reader, Game Boy Advance
FEATURED IN: Animal Crossing (Gamecube), Virtual Console (Wii, 3DS, Wii U), Famicom Mini, NES Classic, Nintendo Switch Online, and probably others I’m forgetting.
Donkey Kong is often considered to be Nintendo’s first successful video game, but that’s not entirely true. In June of 1977, Nintendo released their first home consoles in Japan, the Color Game 6 and the Color Game 15. The Color Game 6 featured Light Tennis, or as we Yanks like to call it, Pong. Light Tennis can be played in one of six different modes, including Hockey and Volleyball, otherwise known as Stick Pong and Overhead Pong.
Six versions of Pong, hooray!*
The Color Game 15 featured nine additional variations on Light Tennis because Pong and its many clones were seriously that popular in 1977. These were not the only consoles in the Color Game series, and at some point, one of the Archive’s members will write a separate article about these early Nintendo consoles. What’s important to note here is their success. Nintendo sold over one million units of both the Color Game 6 and the Color Game 15, and while the Color Game 6 supposedly lost the company money, the Color Game 15’s success more than made up for it.
How much Pong does one man need?!*
In fact, Nintendo was quite successful with their pre-Famicom video game ventures, at least in Japan. In addition to the Color TV Game consoles, the Game and Watch handhelds were incredibly popular, going on to sell over forty million units worldwide in their eleven-year run. Even some of Nintendo’s pre-Donkey Kong arcade titles, like Radar Scope and Sheriff appealed to Japanese audiences. But that wasn’t enough for Nintendo’s then-President, Hiroshi Yamauchi. He wanted to crack the American market, and he tasked Shigeru Miyamoto with creating a game that would appeal to the West.
Yamauchi was seeking the Popeye license at the time, with the idea that a Popeye game would prove to be a hit in the States (spoilers: Nintendo would later make a Popeye arcade game – it was only semi-successful). But with the Popeye license in limbo, Miyamoto pressed on with a semi-original idea: a love triangle between a girl, an ape, and a scruffy carpenter.
…is Mario challenging DK to fisticuffs? Unwise, Mario.*
Thus Donkey Kong, or The Angry Ape that Birthed an Empire, was born. Today, Donkey Kong wears an endearing family-friendly smile and a hip tie. In 1981, he was little more than a “King Kong”-ripoff, climbing up high places, damsel in tow. Mario makes his debut here as gaming’s beloved squatty workhorse, huffing and puffing up construction sites to rescue his former lady love Pauline. Notice that Mario’s love for red-and-blue ensembles, extravagant jumping ability, and penchant for collecting items all began here. Mario’s squeak when he walks is also one of gaming’s greatest sound effects.
One of the most iconic first levels in gaming history.
Donkey Kong is groundbreaking, no question. It’s one of the first platforming games ever. It’s one of the first (if not the first) games to be built around a preconceived story. Donkey Kong brought us both the titular ape and Mario, and with them, two long-running franchises that have only gotten better and better with each subsequent game. It’s unlikely that Nintendo was looking to revolutionize the gaming industry with Donkey Kong, but the game’s unbelievable success and influence had to have given them confidence that they were on the right track.
That handbag would go great with Mario’s rarely-seen sherbet wear.
So Donkey Kong for the Famicom/NES breaks all the ground, but it’s also nearly forty years old. It’s an easy game to pick up and play, but the time you put into it depends on how much you enjoy collecting points. The three levels (minus the “Cement Factory” level from the arcade) are replicated well, but they’re also completed quickly, then repeated over and over again. Perfect for an arcade game from the early 1980s, not so great if you want to play something that lasts more than five minutes. Plus, if you’re an older Nintendo fan, you’ve probably experienced Donkey Kong countless times, either with the NES ports, the overpriced GBA port, or one of many Virtual Console re-releases.
Mario girds his loins…
Then there are the Coleco ports, the Apple II port, the C64 port, the British computer ports, among many, many others. So many ports of Donkey Kong, none of them made by Nintendo. This doesn’t mean they’re all bad. In fact, if you’re a scholar of archaic gaming history, they’re each worth looking into. For now, just know that Nintendo’s ports are the best, even if the majority of them don’t include the cement/pie factory level. If you must have that extra level, you can download the original Donkey Kong arcade game for the Switch for $7.99.
“But the animal abuse will return in Donkey Kong Jr.! Good night folks!”
We should all be grateful that Donkey Kong made Nintendo boatloads of money and kickstarted the beloved Mario and Donkey Kong franchises. But like a once-brilliant Beatles song that’s been played to death, overexposure to this revolutionary title has hindered its ability to blow our minds. Donkey Kong is little more than a historical landmark at this point, and while that may sound like a slight, it’s more than enough.
RANDOM (POTENTIALLY HEARTBREAKING) PIECE OF TRIVIA:
As I was researching this article, I discovered something astonishing… mind-blowing… call it what you will. Nintendo didn’t actually develop Donkey Kong. A company named Ikegami Tsushinki did. Not only did Ikegami Tsushinki develop Donkey Kong, they were allegedly contracted out to develop eight titles for the company, with most of them releasing pre-Donkey Kong. Titles like Radar Scope, Sheriff, Heli-Fire, etc.
According to the Game Developer Research Institute, Donkey Kong was developed without a contract. Ikegami sold Nintendo between 8,000 and 20,000 PCBs, with Nintendo allegedly copying 80,000 more without permission. As Donkey Kong became more and more successful, Yamauchi commissioned a sequel, but Nintendo didn’t have the source code. Rather than go back to Ikegami and ask for it/buy it, they disassembled and reverse-engineered Donkey Kong with help from subcontracter Iwasaki Giken. Donkey Kong Jr. emerged shortly thereafter and is (again, allegedly) “noted for being the first game Nintendo developed entirely in-house.”
The story doesn’t end well for Nintendo. Ikegami supposedly found out about all the backdoor shenanigans and sued Nintendo for a staggering ¥580,000,000 in 1982. The court case dragged on for eight long years, and finally, in 1990, Nintendo and Ikegami settled out of court.
My sources: the GDRI and a Nintendo Life article, who also took much of their information from the GDRI. Is any of this true? Possibly! I wouldn’t be surprised if most of it is. Neither Ikegami nor Nintendo seem forthcoming about this debacle, and particularly in Nintendo’s case, I’m not that surprised. Ultimately, Nintendo still went on to make some of the greatest games of all time, and that can never be taken from them. Still, to think that Donkey Kong – the game that helped usher in “modern” Nintendo – wasn’t even developed by Nintendo is very surreal.
The ape himself, in all his glory.