Thirty years ago this month, Nintendo released Donkey Kong to arcades across the United States. The game’s American version went on to sell tens of thousands of units, saving the then-struggling US branch of the company and paving the way for Nintendo’s future success on Western shores.
Without Donkey Kong, we would have no Mario, and without Mario, it’s hard to imagine what Nintendo would look like today. That makes Donkey Kong, above all others, the most pivotally important video game Nintendo has ever released.
So it’s time to celebrate–which I did by rounding up a bunch of weird, odd, and interesting stuff about this beloved game.
The Puck Stops Here
Long before the Game Boy, Nintendo released a handheld game series called Game & Watch. The units played one game apiece, and displayed prefabricated LCD graphics that darkened or turned invisible at the right time during game play.
Nintendo created many G&W offshoots, and you're looking at one of them: the "Micro Vs. System." In Donkey Kong Hockey(1984), Mario and Donkey Kong face off in a spirited game of Canada's favorite sport. Two human players can play head-to-head courtesy of puck-shaped controllers that conveniently store in the system's base when not in use.
(Photos: Torsten Lindh)
The Popeye Connection
Few know this, but Mario, Donkey Kong, and Pauline (the girl you rescue) were originally Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl. In the early 1980s, Nintendo manufactured licensed Popeye products like playing cards and a Game & Watch unit, so Donkey Kong designer Shigeru Miyamoto asked to work on a Popeye video game.
At some point during development, the Popeye license fell through and Miyamoto had to come up with unique characters that would fit the same theme: villain abducts damsel, hero rescues damsel while dodging stuff hurled at him. Sounds like every Popeye cartoon, doesn't it? Donkey Kong was born. (Nintendo did end up releasing a completely different Popeye game in 1982.)
Mario, the Norse God of Thunder
In the days when video game pixel counts were low, retail box artists struggled to realistically depict the often abstract situations in which video game characters found themselves. This resulted in a large number of amazingly strange video game box covers in the 1980s, and Donkey Kong for the Mattel Intellivision (1982) is no exception.
Here we see a He-Man-style Mario - no hat - wielding what appears to be Thor's Mjolnir hammer. Donkey Kong is a fearsome monster who has trapped Pauline in a cage. Somewhere in Japan, Miyamoto is laughing.
Not So Cartoony
In 2010, an action figure artist who goes by the name Fugazicreated this set of custom Donkey Kong action figures by modifying existing figures in the Marvel Legends series. He then sold the one-of-a-kind set on eBay (final price unknown).
Fugazi's action figures give us a look at what Donkey Kong characters might have looked like if they were designed by a modern American game development house - say Grand Theft Auto developer Rockstar - in 2010 instead of by Nintendo in 1981.
The True Follow-up of Donkey Kong?
In the early days of Nintendo's video game business, it relied on other companies to do development work. While Nintendo employees Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi designed Donkey Kong, a company called Ikegami Tsushinki actually programmed the game. In those days, copyright issues regarding software hadn't fully been resolved in Japan. Thisled to court battles between the two companies later on.
Ikegami also created arcade games for other companies.Congo Bongo (1983) was long seen as Sega's rip-off of the Donkey Kong concept, but we now know that the same programmers that crafted Donkey Kong could have programmed it as well.
Monster Truck Kong
In 2007, Nintendo commissioned this Donkey Kong-themed monster truck to help promote the release of Donkey Kong: Barrel Blast, a racing game for the Wii. Nintendo released the title a mere two months before this truck's debut as part of the Monster Jam truck tour in December of that year.
James Bond vs. Donkey Kong
When marketing the home versions of Donkey Kong in France and Italy, publisher CBS Video imagined Mario as a suave, tuxedoed gent climbing a spiral staircase while dodging one-million gallon oaken casks (used in a heretofore unknown industry). A King Kong-sized Donkey Kong chucks the barrels as Pauline balances on the precipice of a high-rise building.
I'm going to be honest here: I'm not sure how Mario is going to get her down.
You can see the full ad here.
DK Joins the Circus
As in Donkey Kong Hockey, the ape found himself part of a contrived situation in Donkey Kong Circus (1984), a Game & Watch Panorama Screen title. In it, Donkey Kong juggles pineapples and avoids fireballs while balancing on a barrel. Like the true hero he is, Mario laughs from the sidelines.
Nintendo achieved this colorful screen effect through a combination of (1) ambient light, which enters from the back of a pop-up display (2) an LCD that is normally opaque but becomes clear in some portions when energized, and (3) a colorful overlay that contains the actual graphics. The result was quite impressive for an electronic game at the time.
(Photos: Torsten Lindh)
Donkey Kong on Acid
Since the Atari days, various companies (usually located in Asia) have been creating illicit clones of video games for sale on the black market. Seen here is the box art for an illegally published Taiwanese version of Donkey Kong for the Atari 2600. It vividly illustrates what Mario sees when he scarfs down too many mushrooms.
As Seen on TV
After the amazing arcade success of Donkey Kong, the game received its very own TV cartoon as part of "Saturday Supercade," a collection of video game-related segments that aired from 1983 to 1985 on CBS. In the storyline, Mario is a circus operator and Pauline is his animal trainer assistant. Donkey Kong, the star of Mario's circus, has escaped. Each episode shows Mario and Pauline trying to recapture him.
Famed children's entertainer Soupy Sales provided the voice for Donkey Kong, and Peter Cullen (the voice of Optimus Prime) gave voice to Mario. The series is notable for being Mario's first-ever animated TV appearance.
Birth of Two Icons
Nintendo recently published these rare design sketches of Donkey Kong characters - presumably done by Shigeru Miyamoto - in a booklet provided to Nintendo of Japan employees. Miyamoto was known to hand draw all his game sprites in the early days, so we're likely seeing that process in action.
Here's a screenshot of Donkey Kong for the IBM PC, an officially licensed port of the arcade title from 1983. Notice how, in this version, Donkey Kong looks less like a gorilla and more like a bridge troll that haunts the dreams of children everywhere. Such ghastly character mistranslations were common in an era when third party developers handled platform ports with little oversight from the originating company.
The Dynamic Duo
Comic artist Dean Kotz created this amazing piece of fan artthat imagines Batman facing Donkey Kong as a potential nemesis on a mock-1980s comic book cover. He posted the work on deviantART last year, where it has received considerable attention - and for good reason, because the piece makes me want to read the non-existent book.
(Illustration: Dean Kotz)
Crunchy Barrels of Fun
Ralston Purina created quite a few licensed character cereals in the 1980s, including those based on Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and NES titles. Although I was quite young, I remember that Donkey Kong cereal (1983) tasted a lot like Cap'n Crunch (coincidentally, both products featured barrel-shaped pieces). While unoriginal, I found its flavor far superior to that of the later Nintendo Cereal System (1988).
Happy Birthday, Donkey Kong...and Mario!
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