Donkey Kong
Nintendo Co. Limited
Ikegami Tsushinki Co., Ltd.

Shigeru Miyamoto, Gunpei Yokoi, Masao Yamamoto, Kenji Nishizawa,
Masayoshi O., H. Hoshino, Yukio Kaneoka, Hirokazu Tanaka

Arcade, Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System), Famicom Disk
System, e-Reader, Game Boy Advance, Wii Virtual Console
Credits - Interviews

Donkey Kong is an arcade video game released in 1981 by Nintendo. The game was subsequently released on a variety of platforms, all of which can be seen below. The game is among the earliest platforming video games to be released. In the game, the player controls Mario, originally known as Jumpman, across a series of girders in an attempt to rescue his beloved Pauline, originally known as Lady, who was kidnapped by Donkey Kong. In the game, Jumpman is required to jump over barrels and other similar obstacles that Donkey Kong sends down to the hero. This is the first game in which the characters Mario and Donkey Kong appear.

The game is widely considered to be one of the most important arcade games released during the 80s. Creator Shigeru Miyamoto initially wanted the game to feature Popeye characters, though when he were unable to receive the license he resorted to creating his own characters, who would soon grow into lucrative properties and the most successful and noticeable images in the video game industry. Cut-scenes, while included in Pac-Man, were more impressive in this game and had a purpose to the plot. The multiple stages were also an innovation, and were only predated by Gorf.

Nintendo released Donkey Kong in an attempt to replace unused Radar Scope units which proved unsuccessful in America, a territory where Nintendo saw potential in due to their increased interest in the industry. When Radar Scope eventually arrived, it was viewed by the general public as outdated, so when retailers refused to purchase the units, they were sent back to Nintendo. Nintendo needed to create a game that would either make or break them, and so the president of the company, Hiroshi Yamauchi, ordered Miyamoto to create a new game for the cabinet. He decided to do something new, and upon being released it would capture the hearts of millions, start a new franchise, and shoot Nintendo to the top of the industry. This was the beginning of a new start for a nearly 100 year old company. After a continuous stream of failures, Nintendo finally found their saving grace. A new generation started, and it was only the beginning.


Donkey Kong is a challenging game. So challenging, in fact, that a professional player once claimed that the average playtime won't last for more than a minute before the player loses. It's for this very reason that in the first sixty seconds the player is captivated by the gameplay. Nintendo of America founder and then-president Minoru Arakawa noted that, in his journeys through New York, he found that a game must entice a player in thirty seconds if it is to be successful. Upon learning how to play, gamers were hooked immediately. In Donkey Kong the player controls Jumpman who climbs ladders, jumps over barrels and unlocks keys, all to save his girlfriend Pauline. There are four stages, each named by how high up they are on the tower and each substantially different than the last. Multiple stages, a critical component of the game, lead the game's programmers to feel that they were developing four games instead of one. Games such as Gorf previously had multiple stages, but this was still a huge undertaking, especially for a company that had yet to create a true arcade hit.


From left to right: 25m, 50m, 75m, and 100m

The four stages include 25m, 50m, 75m, and 100m. On each level Pauline will be stationed on the uppermost girder with her abductor Donkey Kong to the left. The goal is to lead Jumpman up to the very top girder, where Donkey Kong will inevitably always snatch Pauline and move to the next stage. On the last stage, 100m, Donkey Kong will finally be thwarted and the game will start over. On the way Jumpman will be required to avoid obstacles ranging from barrels, fireballs and gaps in the girders while taking advantage of the ladders and elevators that will guide him to the top.


25m is the game's most memorable and famous stage. Most new players will die on the first stage without even being able to progress to the next level. It is a level that introduces the basics to the player including jumping and climbing. A hammer that can be found near the top can be used to annihilate oncoming obstacles though has a primary purpose of increasing the player's score. With the hammer the player is unable to jump and thus cannot progress any further until it disappears after a short time period. Among players 25m is sometimes called, appropriately so, the ramp stage. The ramp stage features several slanted girders, each with a ladder or two leading to the next one. On the first girder the ladder is stationed at the very end and this is where players will first learn to navigate the stages by simply moving the joystick on the arcade machine or the d-pad on the Famicom controller. Pressing it left moves Jumpman left and pressing it right moves him right. Pressing the button on the machine will cause him to jump. Designer Miyamoto mentioned that they were lucky the Radarscope machines had a button, or else Jumpman would probably only be able to climb ladders (which is performed by pressing up on the joystick when underneath one).


50m is one of the more interesting levels. Stationed in what appears to be a cement factory, this stage was omitted from the Famicom release of the game for unknown reasons. For the 25th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., Nintendo included the Famicom version of the game in with a special edition of the Wii. It surprisingly featured 50m. In-game the cement resembles pie which has lead players to label it the pie factory. 50m features five different levels excluding the uppermost one where Pauline stands. The girders are yellow this time around and perfectly straight. Three of the levels are actually conveyor belts and when Jumpman is flat on top of one he will move. He must jump over the cement or else lose a life. The ladders at the very top occasionally retract, and the player must time it so that they can continue moving when they are connected with the top platform. Obstacles to avoid include the fireballs and an oil barrel that is flaming hot in the center of the stage.


75m, also sometimes known as the elevator stage, is the third level in Donkey Kong. 75m is the only stage in the game that has no music. There are two sets of platforms that move up (left) and down (right). They are only present in the first portion of the stage, though can be hard to maneuver. A platform with two ladders and a fireball is in between the two elevators. The player will begin the stage on the bottom of the left most platforms. After the player is finished with the elevators, he will move on to a series of platforms that move upwards to Donkey Kong. The platforms can be jumped to, though some require the use of a ladder. The fireballs will become the primary obstacle here, though can be avoided with careful maneuvering. The telephone at the top of the platforms will give the player extra points. Once the player reaches the platform where Donkey Kong is positioned, the player will face a new threat that wasn't present in the previous stages. The new obstacle is a spring board. Instead of barrels, Donkey Kong will start to hurl spring boards at Mario that jump up and down. These spring boards cannot be jumped over, and you must find a space where the spring board is in the air at the time and go there. It's a pattern that never changes, so once you find the unoccupied space where the springboard never lands but rather soars in the air, go there. After the springboard passes, the player will be given access to Pauline. This is still not the final stage, however.

Fans of Super Smash Bros. Brawl on the Wii may recognize this stage. It was an unlockable stage in the game, and was replicated almost flawlessly. The sides were expanded, though the graphics remained almost untouched. When the player tries out Donkey Kong in the Masterpiece mode of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, this is the stage that they will be able to play. It should be noted that the Masterpiece version of Donkey Kong is the NES version rather than the arcade version.


The final stage of the game, 100m has blue girders and yellow ladders. There are five levels in this stage. The upper four levels each have two locks on them, with a total of eight locks altogether. The first level has three ladders the player can climb, the second four, the third three, and the fourth four. Fireballs litter the entire stage, and can be destroyed via the two hammers.The main goal of this stage is to get rid of all of the rivets that connect the girders together. This is done simply by walking over them. Once the player walks over a lock, it'll disappear, leaving a gab in between the two ramps. If the player falls through the gap, he will loose a life. He or she can, however, jump over them or plan a way where he or she doesn't have to go over the gap. The two locks where Donkey Kong is are the hardest to get because you can't go from one lock to the other since Donkey Kong sits between the two. So, what you have to do here is destroy one lock, go back down the ladder, head over to where the other lock is, and climb up the ladder to destroy that lock, all while avoiding the many fireballs on the stage. After all of the plugs have been destroyed, the entire structure will collapse and Donkey Kong will be knocked out. Mario will climb up to his girlfriend and a huge heart will loom over them and encompass the screen. While the story is over, the player will have to play again and again until he loses all of his lives.


Donkey Kong is largely one of Nintendo's most important video games for various different reasons. In order to fully appreciate the history of the game one must first know of the key players behind the title and their backgrounds. Shigeru Miyamoto, Minoru Arakawa, Hiroshi Yamauchi, Gunepi Yokoi, Jack Kirby and others were all pivotal to the creation and success of the game and this article will examine their roles in-depth. Donkey Kong could have easily destroyed the company in more than one ways but Nintendo managed to succeed when many thought it was impossible. Indeed, the history behind Donkey Kong is one of the most interesting stories the company has to offer.

In order to analyze the history of the game, it is appropriate to first take a look at the employee credited with the creation of it: Shigeru Miyamoto. Shigeru Miyamoto was born in Sonobe, a small town outside the city of Kyoto. As a teenager he was enthralled with Japanese animation. Knowing that he wanted to become an artist, he managed to join Nintendo when he showcased some of his various inventions to then-Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi. Yamauchi was intrigued by Miyamoto's inventions and hired him on the spot. Miyamoto's first order of business at the company was to design the case that would encompass the internal components of the home console game Color TV Racing 112. Impressed by his work, Yamauchi assigned him to several more video games including a few arcade titles. Miyamoto was not a particularly experienced video game designer, but would learn a lot from his mentor Gunpei Yokoi.

Gunpei Yokoi worked at Nintendo far longer than Miyamoto did. He joined the company as an engineer. In his free time Yokoi, like the younger Miyamoto, would create unique inventions. His most important creation was an extending arm that could grab things in hard to reach places. Yamauchi, while visiting the plant Yokoi worked at, saw the invention and immediately promoted him. The arm, which Nintendo would call the Ultra Hand, would become one of Nintendo's biggest successes, selling over one million units during the Christmas season. Today the Ultra Hand is still celebrated by the company, with it making appearances in various games. Yokoi would go on to become one of Nintendo's pioneering video game designers, developing the immensely successful Game & Watch franchise. Yokoi would become Nintendo's first major video game designer and would train several employees at Nintendo, including Miyamoto during the creation of Donkey Kong.

Having solely been a Japanese company since 1889, Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi made the decision to establish a division of Nintendo in the United States. He called upon his son-in-law, Minoru Arakawa, to realize this goal. Arakawa's family owned a prolific textile business for four generations and was well known in Kyoto. Importing material from China and western nations, his family resold them to producers of clothes in Japan. The company, Arakawa Textures, was a thriving business with over 1,000 employees and profits of well over $5 million each year. The key to the company's success was Minoru's father's devotion to the quality of the linens and cotton and the business relations with his customers. The Arakawas had three children, but Minoru was the only one without a course firmly lined out for him. His brother would be put in charge of the company, and his sister would marry a wealthy man. Minoru, on the otherhand, would be free to choose his destiny. Upon meeting and marrying Yoko Yamauchi, Hiroshi Yamauchi's daughter, his future would soon be determined. Minoru and Yoko moved to Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada for several years where he gained invaluable experience in how to work with Western companies. Hiroshi, who had long wanted to infiltrate the American market, had very few people to go to who were already knowledgeable in that sector. Minoru had actually gone to college at MIT in Boston, Massachusetts before moving to Canada and extensively traveled the United States, so he would clearly be his top choice to head this venture. Hiroshi apparently had a dream to move to the United States and become successful there, but was far too old to do so and didn't know how to speak English. Hiroshi eloquently described his plan to Minoru one night when the Arakawas returned to Kyoto. For two hours he explained in-depth what he wanted to do, and how it would be impossible without him. A conundrum arose, though, with the fact that Yoko Yamauchi detested Nintendo and what it did to her father, engulfing his life. She didn't want the same fate for Minoru.

The proposition, however, was irresistible. Video games were a growing business but few companies had succeeded in the industry. Nintendo was one of the few who had managed to develop a successful company around it, and Hiroshi knew he could sculpt a new division internationally and repeat the success he had within his own country. Minoru would be the president of this new division of Nintendo but would be backed completely by his father-in-law. While a failure would not spell the death of the company, it would be a grim sign of things to come. Japanese companies were not particularly lucrative in the West, and how America would respond to strictly Japanese products was unknown and it would be a test for Arakawa to make Nintendo's games successful. Arakawa agreed to Yamauchi's proposal, despite his wife's misgivings, and headed back to America where they would establish the headquarters of the new company in New York. Nintendo of America was created, but it would be a long, hard journey before they would become profitable.

The plan was for Nintendo of America to release an ultra successful arcade video game. The business was booming in America. In fact, it was the largest entertainment sector in the country despite being played mostly by teenagers. Arakawa and his wife would travel to the arcades in New York and leer at players for hours, trying to determine what types of games they liked. He would question them on the titles and would ask what types of games they would want to play. He found that a successful game would have to impress a player in the first thirty seconds. That first quarter was an essential key to a game's profitability because, if the player did not enjoy the game with that first quarter, they would not be so willing to insert more into the machine. Some of the teenagers he met at the arcades he would hire to work at his warehouse. There they would receive arcades directly from Japan. Everyone had to work extremely hard, including Arakawa. The kids seemed to enjoy him as he tried to connect as much as possible. He was a gentle man who appreciated hard workers. Yoko began to change, perhaps for the better. When she first moved to America, she was very depressed and would talk to her mother for hours on the phone. While she disliked Nintendo back in Japan, she became very engrossed in the business in America. In Japan, Yoko's mother felt that she was becoming too distant and felt that she might be depressed, so Hiroshi decided to take his first trip to the new division in America not only to meat with Arakawa but to see Yoko as well. There he found that Yoko had developed into a very independent woman, and was shocked when, at a restaurant, she asked her father if it was okay if she smoked. She had smoked back in Japan, but never in front of him. Immediately, without speaking, he gave her a cigarette an lit it for her. In that moment he saw something he never saw in her before, and liked it very much. It was because of this new gained trust that, when walking down a sidewalk in New York, Hiroshi agreed to let Minoru do things his way when Yoko requested it. If things went awry, however, he knew he would not be able to sit back and do nothing.

Two other key players entered the scene around this time in Nintendo's history. Their names were Al Stone and Ron Judy. Stone and Judy lived in Washington where they would import used arcade games from the state of Hawaii. Stone and Judy had actually imported Nintendo arcade games to America before Nintendo of America was established. The first arcade unit they got was from a friend who guaranteed them that what he would send them would be a huge success. Not knowing what it was, Stone and Judy opened the box to find a cocktail version of the Nintendo arcade game Space Fever. A hotel within Washington agreed to host the game, and the two would split the profits 60-40. The game was successful, so Stone and Judy decided to pursue this business, realizing that Nintendo was the only major Japanese company without representation in the United States. The units would be sent midway to Hawaii and then subsequently brought over to the rest of the country through Judy and Stone. According to the two, the games were insanely profitable, more than enough to convince them that they had made the right decision. Around the time Nintendo of America was established Arakawa contacted the two to meet with him and Hiroshi Yamauchi.

One of the games Nintendo of America received was Radarscope. Thinking that it would be a huge success, Arakawa ordered a couple thousand units of the game. It took several months to arrive, however, and by the time it did it was considered outdated by gamers. Arakawa was sitting on thousands of unsold arcade units and needed a new game chip to insert into the machines that would replace it. There was no other option: the machines needed to be used. He called upon his father-in-law for help, who enlisted Shigeru Miyamoto to direct the task in creating a new game. Miyamoto didn't go into the project alone, however. Yamauchi also assigned the lead engineer Gunpei Yokoi to watch over the project and train Miyamoto. The two became a fantastic team, and together they created what would soon become known as Donkey Kong. The characters, however, would go through a vast transformation before eventually becoming what they are today. Nintendo initially was looking to make the game based on Popeye and its well known characters. They were unable to acquire the license, so Miyamoto decided to create unique characters. While new, these characters would be based slightly off of the character triangle that was present in the Popeye series. After Donkey Kong became so successful, the company received the license to create games based on Popeye.


With the characters intact, they needed a name for them, and perhaps more importantly a name for the game. Because the game was intended for the American audience, the president of the company desired that the name be English. The game would eventually be named after the antagonist of the game, who Miyamoto felt most dear about. How Miyamoto came up with the name of the character, however, isn't exactly clear. There are many legends of how he did this, and they include the following:

  • Myth 1: The name of Donkey Kong was initially Monkey Kong, though because of a mistranslation they accidentally changed the name Monkey to Donkey.
  • Myth 2: When Miyamoto was looking in a dictionary to find words that meant stubborn, he came upon the word Donkey. The word Kong was used because of its common usage in Japan as an alternate word for gorilla.
  • Myth 3: Nintendo's export manager came up with the term Donkey.

Miyamoto has confirmed that he wanted the name Kong in the game, and that Donkey was supposed to mean stupid so he went with that. He said that when he explained the name to those at Nintendo of America, they chuckled at the idea, though he went through with it anyway.

When it actually came to developing the game, Miyamoto found that it was hard to come with a concrete idea. He didn't want the game to be a traditional maze or shooter game that was popular at the time, but rather wanted something unique. He gathered many ideas that employees at Nintendo had, though when Miyamoto came up with the basic concept his supervisor Gunpei Yokoi explained to him that it would be too complicated to program. When the ideas of catapulting were created by Yokoi, they were unable to program it, so Miyamoto had to go back to the drawing board, when he came up with the idea of sloped levels, multiple stages, and barrels that Donkey Kong would hurl at players. The overall code for the game was 20,000 lines long, and the programmers apparently complained that they were essentially making four games instead of one because of the many stages Miyamoto ordered. Reluctantly, they followed through with Miyamoto's requests.

Upon viewing the game, Hiroshi Yamauchi knew that what Miyamoto had created was going to be very successful. Back in America, the branch head Minoru Arakawa was introduced to Howard Lincoln, who would copyright the name Donkey Kong. Howard Lincoln was found by the distributors Ron Judy and Al Stone. Now, with the trademark in place, the Japanese branch sent over the game to America for them to test. Right off the bat, almost everyone at the branch hated it. Even Al, Howard and Ron felt that the game would be unsuccessful. The sales manager didn't understand why it wasn't a maze or shooter game. The only one who was positive was Arakawa, who eventually convinced everyone at Nintendo that the game would become successful. Upon requesting a name change, Yamauchi, being the determined man that he is, refused. After Nintendo of America created all of the promotional material, translated the game, and changed the names of some of the characters, they decided to release two cabinets throughout Seattle in Washington, where the company was based.

The owners of the bars where Nintendo brought the cabinets didn't want the games initially. They didn't think they would appeal to anyone, but were eventually convinced to hold them for a week. After a week, each cabinet found an average of 120 plays per day, equaling out $30, or $210 for the whole week. They were so satisfied with the results that they ordered more units from Nintendo. But, Nintendo didn't expect such fantastic results, and hadn't even started gutting the Radar Scope units and replacing them with Donkey Kong. The branch only had a few employees, and when the game became successful in the bars, everyone at the company started to replace 2,000 Radar Scope units with the new game. In all, there were only six people involved with doing all of this. One of the people, Yoko Arakawa, wasn't actually employed at the company, but rather was the branch head's wife. He himself was even one of the six involved. And, when all was said and done, the game went on sale sometime in July of 1981. Within months, Donkey Kong would become one of the most successful games of that generation. A game that was doubted by so many people both externally and domestically would sell out so quickly that Nintendo of Japan couldn't keep up with the orders Nintendo of America was placing. Eventually they would start to released the game in Canada, where it was just as successful. Selling 4,000 units a month, Nintendo managed to sell over 60,000 cabinets by the end of 1982. Those within Nintendo who doubted the game's success eventually earned themselves millions of dollars once Nintendo received over $280 million by 1983. In Japan, the game wasn't nearly as successful, though it did manage to rake in some cash.

It was an inevitable occurrence. After the game became successful, countless (or rather around 50) companies went to Nintendo, hoping to gain a license to either use their characters in non-game related merchandising, or to translate the game for a console release. Nintendo agreed to many of these, and thus the game's popularity soared even farther. In the early eighties, the characters could be seen on cereal boxes, on Saturday morning television, and on a Miltion Bradley game board. A song called 'Do the Donkey Kong' was released as part of the 'Pac-Man Fever' album, and all of these occurrences led Donkey Kong to become the second best selling arcade game of all time, just behind the Pac-Man game. Many console companies wanted to get a piece of the pie and were given the rights to create Donkey Kong games on their consoles. Nintendo had little to no influence over these new games, and some translated the game well, while others didn't. A few consoles that Donkey Kong appeared on include:

  • Colecovision (1981): The Colecovision version includes all of the stages excluding the pie factory. The graphics are incredibly similar to original, though quite a few things were altered. They translated Mario's sprite almost flawlessly, with some minor color alterations. In the 75m stage, the springs are oddly not present.
  • Intellivision (1982): The Intellvision is perhaps one of the worst available. The graphics weren't nearly as close to the original as they could've been, and the jumping mechanics are too challenging.
  • Atari 2600 (1982): This version of the game had only two of the arcade's stages including 25m and 100m. 25m translates well for the console it appeared on, though 100m wasn't nearly as good as it could've been. The girders were purple instead of red, and while Donkey Kong looked entirely different from his arcade incarnation, Mario and Pauline looked quite similar (though Mario did look overly puffy).

There were a variety of other consoles as well, including Atari 7800, Atari 800, Commodore VIC20, Commodore 64, TI 99/4a, and the Atari XEGS. Of course, when Nintendo started creating their own consoles, they released the ever popular game too. Nintendo's versions were without a doubt the best of the bunch. The consoles Nintendo released their game on include the Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy (an overhaul and not exactly a remake), Nintendo 64 (as an unlockable in Donkey Kong 64), the Game Boy Advance (as part of the NES Classics series), the e-Reader, the Famicom Disk System, and the Wii's Virtual Console. Most of the recent releases were versions of the NES game instead of the arcade game. The NES version omitted the Pie Factory. After the game became so popular Nintendo also released a Game & Watch version of the game as a Multi Screen title. The game was simply titled Donkey Kong. It was remade a variety of times for Game & Watch Gallery 2, Game & Watch Gallery 4, and Game & Watch Collection for the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo DS, respectively. The Game & Watch version only contained the original stage.

Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Nintendo Co., Ltd.

All good things come to an end, and in 1982 after the game had become so successful, Universal Studios and MCA learned of the game and assumed that it may have infringed on Universal Studio's successful King Kong license. Donkey Kong's basic plot was similar to that of King Kong's, and the fact that both of the title characters had the word Kong in their name may have raised some eyebrows within Universal. Universal initially started small by threatening Coleco, who had earned the license from Nintendo to create a game based on Donkey Kong. Coleco gave in and gave Universal 3% of the earned revenue that their game had received. Winning the first battle, Universal moved onto the source of the original game, Nintendo. Nintendo and their lawyer Howard Lincoln mutually decided not to pay Universal any royalties as Coleco had done. Inevitably a heated battle would ensue, and when a company with but a few employees goes against the juggernaut that is Universal Studios, the end result would usually never end up on the positive side for the smaller company. Universal planned to attack, and they hit Nintendo hard. The lawsuit, which was initiated on June 29, 1982, seemed like it could potentially destroy this company.

Universal had a good case. They claimed that Nintendo had infringed on their King Kong plot, and that the name of the two characters could be a cause for confusion among people. They said that Nintendo chose the name to cash in on the film series' success. However, a little research would propel Nintendo to the top when Universal's claims bit them back. Nintendo appointed John Kirby as their council, who found that previously in an unrelated case, Universal had claimed that the King Kong brand was of public domain. With this fact, Nintendo dominated the court room, and the judge not only rule in favor of Nintendo, though rewarded them with the profits Universal had earned with a King Kong video game, as well as damages and the fee to pay for an attorney. In the end, Nintendo managed to get $1.8 million from the lawsuit. Nintendo thanked John Kirby by giving him a sailboat named Donkey Kong. They jokingly gave him the rights to name all sailboats after their character. It is also said that the character Kirby is named after John Kirby, but this has not been confirmed or denied by Nintendo.

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