This year marks the 30th Anniversary of the release of everyone’s favorite chest beating, barrel tossing primate, Donkey Kong. The game also introduced a secondary character, who almost by accident became the biggest gaming icon of all time.
A very select group of people are instantly identifiable by a single name: Cher, Madonna or Dave (of Chas and Dave) all share this distinction but a certain Italian plumber leaves them all in the dust... ‘Mario’ is all Nintendo need to mumble to cause a reaction by a million fanboys that would make Pavlov’s dogs look positively cotton mouthed at lunch time. Bookend ‘Mario’ with ‘New’ and ‘Game’ and you’ve got all the ingredients for a full scale geek riot.
But I’m getting ahead of myself...
1981 was a good year. No, 1981 was a GREAT year. In fact, until I started researching this article, I’d forgotten what a peach it was: Adam and the Ants were dominating the charts with ‘Prince Charming’ (ask your Mum), Samantha Fox was doing her plucky best to struggle through a shirt shortage (ask your Dad) and Roger Moore was raising a single eyebrow for Queen & country (ask the Ed). On TV, Peter Davidson succeeded Tom Baker as the new Doctor (OK, Davidson brings the curve down, but still a damn good year). I checked if Chocky was released in ’81 but it turns out that was 1984. Danger Mouse was on though, so that’s something.
I was a young man in my mid 30’s struggling to put my life back together after a messy divorce. I’d lay in bed for weeks, too depressed to move. One day I decided: Enough was enough! I got up and pulled on my fingerless gloves and Crackerjack T-shirt and set off to my local arcade.
‘Dave’s Digital Dungeon’ had been a favorite haunt of mine for years. I spent most of my free time & money there, bathed in the 8-bit glow of whatever new game was available, struggling on obsessively, until I’d mastered it. This had been the cause of many arguments and nights on the sofa and was cited in the legal paperwork as a contributing factor in the break up.
I was about to settle in to my usual routine; 8 hours of Pac-Man followed by pizza and Quincy reruns, when something in the corner caught my eye, a new game? I stepped away from my old favourite, I had the top three high scores anyway (Who’s the ‘loser’ now, Rebecca?), and made my way over to the new cabinet. I looked it up & down. Emblazoned on the side were the words ‘Donkey Kong’. I’d not heard of it and was excited and confused by the name, what could it mean?. My stomach turned over. It might have been the Wham bar I ate on the way over, but I didn’t think so.
I stood there staring for a little while; I wanted to take it all in. The artwork was bright & vivid. An empty High Score screen seemed to beckon me, a siren’s cry as plaintive and irresistible as Subway on payday. My senses were on fire. I took a deep breath; it still had that ‘new cabinet’ smell. My Magnum P.I. rucksack dropped to the floor (on purpose) and I settled in. I knew I’d be there for some time.
After forking over 10p, I watched as an ape grabbed a woman and carried her to the top of a screen full of horizontal girders, the ladders disappearing as he went. On reaching the top, he stamped a foot causing the platforms to skew to slightly less horizontal angles. I played a nameless carpenter (who I later discovered was called ‘jumpman’), tasked with rescuing the girl. How hard could it be? What followed was an blur of barrels (some ablaze!) and the most random rogues gallery I’d ever seen.
I fought on for hours, smashing stuff with my hammer, dodging pans, springs and barrels. It was a truly epic battle. Before I knew it the arcade was empty apart from me and my new obsession. Dave was locking up. I begged for 10 more minutes but Dave was unmoved. He motioned towards the exit with his ‘good’ thumb (long story) and yanked the plug from the wall.
Dave was always a bit of a dick.
I’ve been playing games most of my life and have many fond memories. This is up there with the best.
Created by gaming legend Shigeru Miyamoto (pictured below) after Nintendo tasked him with revamping the failed game ‘Radarscope’. Miyamoto, realising, if you try to polish a turd all you do is ruin a perfectly good duster, decided to build a new game from scratch. It was to be a love triangle between a girl, an ape and a handyman, influenced in roughly equal parts by Popeye, Beauty & the Beast and King Kong.
Donkey Kong, considered by some as the first true platform game, was certainly the first game where a character could jump (The name ‘Jumpman’ was intended to cash in on the popularity of the Walkman & Pac-man). In 1981 jumping was all the rage and Donkey Kong became a worldwide sensation and Nintendo’s biggest selling game to that point. It made over $100,000,000 in the first year alone, making Pac-Man look like Ms. Pac-Man. Shockingly, Donkey Kong was the first game Miyamoto ever designed.
Even the name, ‘Donkey Kong’ was a source of furious debate; there are many legends as to how the name came about, from the mistranslation of ‘Monkey’ as ‘Donkey’ to a misunderstanding resulting from a blurred fax. Miyamoto, sick of the fan boy flame war cleared up the confusion, stating that he used the word ‘Donkey’ to convey a sense of stubbornness and ‘Kong’ to invoke the image of a gorilla.
The ‘Kong’ part was of special interest to MCA Universal, who sued Nintendo soon after the game’s release for copyright infringement of the movie classic King Kong. The similarities were blatant. I imagine Universal’s lawyers were nudging each other in the ribs and giggling in court when they unveiled exhibit ‘A’: a picture of King Kong, then with a cry of “Ta-Dah!" they whipped the sheet off Exhibit ‘B’: a picture of Donkey Kong with an arrow pointing to the ape and the ‘Kong’ bit underlined. Surely the most barefaced copyright infringement of all time.
The prosecution were in mid ‘chest bump’ while shouting ‘BOOM!’ when the judge glanced at the paperwork and pointed out that MCA Universal didn’t in fact hold the rights to King Kong. MCA Universal’s ‘face palm’ for a blunder this colossal probably resulted in a trip to A&E.
Miyamoto didn’t stop with Donkey Kong, in fact, he was just getting started. In addition and by extension, Miyamoto created Donkey Kong Jr (a chimp of the old block… what?!) & Mario. He went on to create The Legend of Zelda, Star Fox and many more seminal, genre defining titles. It’s an impressive resume that continues to grow to this day.
I would be difficult to overestimate the effect Donkey Kong had on the industry, not only by popularising the ‘platform’ game, but also it was the first game to have a real narrative & cut-scenes and a character that, over the years has matured and aged.
Ageing in video games is pretty rare, but there are a few examples. Solid Snake's a bit long in the tooth now, while Sam Fisher (Splinter Cell) favours the Benjamin Button approach and has been getting steadily younger with each new instalment.
Donkey Kong was the first character to show real signs of age and and hint at a life off screen. I'm not talking a middle age spread or some greying around the temples either. Since 1981 he got married (to Wrinkly Kong), had a son (Donkey Kong Jr), a grandson (Donkey Kong in Donkey Kong Country) and is now a bitter, old bearded curmudgeon Called Cranky Kong, who dispenses sarcastic game play advice. (If Namco tried this with Pac-Man he'd look like a jaundiced testicle by this point).
We don’t know what happened between the girl & Jumpman but it had a massive effect on his ego. He changed his profession from carpenter to plumber and changed his name from Jumpman to ‘Mario’. That seemed to work out pretty well, though if I were him, I’d ditch Princess Peach. Tease.
To properly understand how obsessed people can get with this title, I’d recommend watching King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007). An amazing documentary that chronicles the epic battle between two fanatical players; Steve Wiebe (a likeable ‘everyman’) and Billy Mitchell (mulleted, obnoxious loud mouth who dresses like America just threw up on him). Compulsive viewing.
Happy Birthday Donkey Kong!