Donkey Kong
  • Genre:
    • Platformer
  • Developer:
    • Nintendo
  • Publisher:
    • Nintendo
  • Released:
    ARC
    • JP 07/09/1981
    • US 07/31/1981
    Intellivision
    • US 03/03/1982
    Game and Watch
    • JP 06/03/1982
    ColecoVision
    • US 12/31/1982
    2600
    • US 1982
    Atari 8-bit family
    • US 06/01/1983
    Apple II
    • US 1983
    NES
    • JP 07/15/1983
    • US 06/01/1986
    • UK 10/15/1986
    TI99/4a
    • US 1983
    IBM
    • US 1983
    C64/VIC20
    • US 1983
    MSX
    • UK 1986
    ZX
    • UK 1986
    CPC
    • UK 1986
    FDS
    • JP 04/08/1988
    7800
    • US 1988
Score: 70%

This review was published on 01/02/2017.

Donkey Kong is a platform video game developed and published by Nintendo for the arcades and various other platforms. The original arcade version came out in Japan on July 9, 1981, and North America on July 31, 1981. Nintendo released a Game and Watch handheld adaptation in Japan on June 3, 1982. In North America, the game got ported to different platforms, like the Intellivision on March 3, 1982, ColecoVision on December 31, 1982, Atari 2600 in 1982, and Atari 8-bit family on June 1, 1983. In 1983, the game got ported to various computers in North America, such as the Apple II, TI-99/4a, IBM PC Booter, Commodore 64, and Commodore VIC-20. Then in 1986, the game was released in Europe on the MSX, ZX Spectrum, and Amstrad CPC. The version of the game most people played is the one on the Nintendo Entertainment System, which got released in Japan on July 15, 1983, North America on June 1, 1986, and Europe on October 15, 1986. Later, the game also got ported to the Famicom Disk System in Japan on April 8, 1988, and the Atari 7800 in North America in 1988. This game's practically on everything.

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Nintendo is now chiefly known as a video game company, but there once was a time when that wasn't the case. The company's name roughly translates to "leave luck to heaven," and it was founded in Japan on September 23, 1889, by Fusajiro Yamauchi, long before video games even existed. Originally, Nintendo made hanafuda playing cards, but they experimented with many different business ventures, such as cab services and even scandalous love hotels. These ventures had varying levels of success, but they all eventually failed. In the 1960s, Nintendo got into the Japanese toy business with a peculiar gadget known as the Ultra Hand, which was developed by Gunpei Yokoi in his spare time, back when he was the company's maintenance engineer. It wasn't until the 1970s that Nintendo got into game development, first by securing the rights to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey console in Japan in 1974. Then, in 1977, Nintendo began producing its own gaming hardware with the Color TV-Game home consoles.

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In 1975, Nintendo began moving into the video arcade game industry with EVR Race, designed by the first game designer to work at the company, Genyo Takeda. Nintendo made several more arcade games, but only saw modest success in the market. From 1980 to 1981, Nintendo attempted to expand into the North American arcade game market by exporting their otherwise successful Radar Scope machine, but failed to generate consumer interest in that region. As a result of that, Nintendo was left with a vast number of unsold Radar Scope machines just sitting there, completely unloved. President of Nintendo at the time, Hiroshi Yamauchi, decided to convert the unsold machines into a new game, as opposed to manufacturing entirely new machines. This cost saving measure led to the beginning of Donkey Kong's creation.

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Enter Shigeru Miyamoto, a young industrial designer hired by Nintendo sometime in 1977. Working under Yokoi, one of Miyamoto's first tasks was to design the casing for a few of the Color TV-Game consoles. Yamauchi approached Miyamoto in 1981 and asked him if he could design the replacement game for the unsold Radar Scope machines. Despite having never designed a video game before this point, Miyamoto stated that he could do it. Wasting little time, Yamauchi gave the job to Miyamoto and appointed Yokoi to supervise the project. The budget for the game's development was a mere $100,000, and a Japanese company named Ikegami Tsushinki assisted with the programming. It was now all up to Miyamoto to come up with the idea for this new game. Nintendo's future in gaming sort of depended on it.

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During this time, Nintendo was also in pursuit of the license to make a game based on Popeye, which is what Donkey Kong was originally meant to be, but that didn't happen. This forced Nintendo to come up with its own original characters instead. Miyamoto came up with many concepts for characters and plots, but ultimately settled on a love triangle between a carpenter, his pet gorilla, and his girlfriend that mimicked the dynamic held by Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl. Popeye became the carpenter, who Miyamoto described as "a funny, hang-loose kind of guy." Bluto was changed into an ape, which Miyamoto remarked was "nothing too evil or repulsive." As for Olive Oyl, she was transformed into the carpenter's girlfriend. Besides the Popeye franchise, Miyamoto was also inspired by the Beauty and the Beast fairytale and the King Kong film from 1933. This marked the first time wherein a video game's storyline was created before it was programmed, elevating it above the status of a mere afterthought.

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To make up for the failure of Radar Scope, Yamauchi wanted to primarily target the North American market, so he instructed Miyamoto to give the game an English name. Miyamoto went with Donkey Kong, because he thought it conveyed the concept of a "stupid ape." Because Miyamoto wasn't much of a coder, he spent most of the game's development coming up with ideas and asking the programmers to see if they were doable. Yokoi felt that Miyamoto's original design was far too complex, though he had some unreasonable demands of his own, such as seesaws that would catapult the hero to new heights. The catapult thing was too difficult to program at the time, but it did appear in a future game. Miyamoto came up with the concept of using sloped platforms, rolling barrels, and climbable ladders. He wanted the game to have multiple stages, which was highly unusual for the time. The game had only four programmers, and they told Miyamoto that creating multiple stages would be akin to creating the game multiple times. Regardless, the programmers managed to pull off Miyamoto's design, coding around 20 kilobytes worth of data. Meanwhile, Yukio Kaneoka handled the music for the game.

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Brimming with confidence, Yamauchi called the head of Nintendo of America at the time, Minoru Arakawa, to tell him all about Donkey Kong. Shortly after that, Ron Judy and Al Stone, distributors for Nintendo of America, secured a trademark with a lawyer named Howard Lincoln. Nintendo of America thought the name was strange and wanted to change it, but Yamauchi refused to do so. The good folk at Nintendo of America then began translating the cabinet art and character names. The carpenter's girlfriend, known in Japan simply as Lady, was named Pauline, after Polly James, the wife of Don James, who was Nintendo's warehouse manager at Redmond, Washington, back then. The carpenter himself was originally known as Jumpman, which was chosen due to its likeness to popular brands like Walkman and Pac-Man. However, Jumpman was eventually renamed Mario, after Mario Segale, the Italian-American landlord of Nintendo of America's original office space. Also, despite this game having a two player mode, Luigi didn't exist yet. Once everything was settled, the game was finally ready for release.

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At first, Judy and Stone had trouble convincing people to set up Donkey Kong machines. They eventually managed to convince the management of two bars in Seattle, Washington, to take in a couple of machines. Much to their surprise, the machines did rather well, prompting the bar managers to order more units. Back at Nintendo of America's headquarters in Redmond, a small crew consisting of Arakawa, Judy, Stone, and a few others began converting the surplus Radar Scope machines into Donkey Kong units. It didn't take long for Nintendo to sell 2,000 units, later averaging to about 4,000 units a month. By June 1982, Nintendo sold around 60,000 units and had made somewhere within the vicinity of $180 million. After two years of being on the market, Donkey Kong made Nintendo over $280 million. In other words, the game was a huge hit. Remember how Nintendo had trouble getting that Popeye license? Well, after this, getting the rights was easy, and Nintendo released a Popeye arcade game in 1983. Donkey Kong was so successful that Universal Studios wanted a piece of the pie, so it attempted to sue Nintendo for infringing on the King Kong trademark, but the lawsuit ultimately failed.

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The reason for Donkey Kong's success is due to how groundbreaking it was at the time. As previously mentioned, the premise to the game is that a huge gorilla named Donkey Kong has kidnapped Mario's girlfriend, Pauline. This is one of the first video games to feature the damsel in distress trope that would become the template of countless future titles. Along with Pac-Man, this is also one of the first video games to feature cutscenes. The first stage opens with Donkey Kong climbing a pair of ladders to the top of a construction site whilst holding Pauline. He then puts her down and stomps around a bit, causing the girders to bend into slopes. Whenever Mario rescues Pauline, a short scene interrupts their reunion to show Donkey Kong carrying her off into the next stage. Upon completing the final stage, there's an ending sequence wherein Mario and Pauline reunite for the last time, while Donkey Kong humorously falls onto his head, defeated. It's cute.

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Back then, a game's graphics were usually done by programmers instead of artists, so things were quite primitive. While the graphics are extremely basic, they're full of personality, like how Donkey Kong constantly smirks and bangs on his chest with his fists, or how Pauline has text that pops up near her saying "HELP!" Mario's character design is one born out of technological limitations. Drawing a mouth was too impractical due to the low pixel resolution of the sprites, so they opted for a mustache instead. Hair was too difficult for the programmers to animate, prompting them to give Mario a cap. Lastly, they wanted the movements of his arms to be easily visible, which resulted in them giving Mario overalls. It's all quite charming, and it's that simple charm that has helped these graphics endure for so many years.

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Besides the Space Panic arcade game in 1980, Donkey Kong is one of the first platform games ever made. The term hadn't even been coined yet, as the U.S. gaming media at the time referred to it as a "climbing game." It's perhaps the very first game to feature the ability to jump, since even Space Panic didn't have that. The goal of most stages is to guide Mario to Donkey Kong and Pauline at the top, jumping over enemies and obstacles along the way. Similar to Space Panic, there are also a lot of ladders to climb. Mario cannot directly harm enemies, but most stages have hammers, and once acquired, they temporarily give him the ability to destroy enemies and objects that come his way. Additionally, he can get bonus points for gathering Pauline's fallen belongings, like parasols, hats, and purses. If Mario touches any enemies or obstacles, falls too great a distance, or runs out of time, he'll instantly die, expending a life. Lose all lives and the game is over, forcing you to insert more coins to continue. Of course, it's unlikely that you're playing the original arcade version.

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After Phoenix in 1980 and Gorf in 1981, this was one of the first arcade games to contain multiple stages. Each stage is represented by a height in meters, with the first stage being 25 meters, the second one being 50, etc. While the basic game play remains the same, each stage has something different going on in it. In the first stage, Donkey Kong is throwing barrels from the top of the construction site, causing them to roll down the slopes toward Mario, eventually igniting an oil drum that spews forth fireball enemies that'll chase him around. Stage two presumably takes place in a cement factory with conveyer belts that transport harmful cement pans which must be avoided. Then there's stage three, which has elevator platforms and bouncing springboards that kill on contact. The fourth stage is the final one, and it's the only one where the objective isn't simply to reach the top. Instead, Mario must remove all the rivets from the girders by walking over them to drop Donkey Kong on his noggin. It's the neatest stage in the game.

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Once all four stages have been cleared, the game loops, getting harder each time. However, this works a little differently depending on whether you're playing the Japanese or North American version. In the Japanese version, you do all four stages before the game loops, but the North American version only lets you play two stages on its first loop: the first and fourth. Then on the second loop, you play stage one, three, and four. The third loop lets you play all stages in the proper order, but additional loops will shuffle them around a bit, even going so far as to extend the loop past four stages. Due to that odd design choice, the Japanese version is actually preferred. On a side note, a programming error kills Mario after the 22nd loop, effectively ending the game there. This is now colloquially known as a kill screen.

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On the subject of versions, the arcade original is still the best. However, the version most people are familiar with is the NES port, which is slightly different. It may appear identical at first glance, but many of the intermission scenes, animations, and sound effects are absent. More importantly, the cement factory stage isn't in the NES release. It does have a new title screen ditty and some additional sound effects, but they don't make up for the removal of the cement factory stage. Most home console versions of the game lack this stage, so if you want the complete experience, stick to the arcade release, preferably the Japanese version.

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Even after all these years, Donkey Kong is still fun to play. It's rather basic and lacks all the bells and whistles of more modern releases, but there's just something alluring about its simple design. That simple, yet insightful design is what made the game a success in the past, and is why it's still endearing today. This is one of the most influential video games of all time, essentially setting the standards for fundamental game design. It's the game that put Shigeru Miyamoto, and Nintendo, on the roadmap to success. There's no denying that Donkey Kong is an important part of video game history. It's on like Donkey Kong.

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