Donkey Kong is 30.
Feeling old yet?
While lacking the fanfare of Pac-Man's big birthday last year, the importance of Donkey Kong reaching the big 3-0 goes beyond a popular game title and fodder for documentary films. Had a red cap wearing Italian not chased a large ape up a skyscraper three decades ago, the video games you know and love in the modern day may not have happened.
How Low Can You Get?
Nintendo of America was struggling in 1980 and 1981. As the video game craze swept the country, none of Nintendo's game titles managed to make an impact in the booming industry. Space Firebird did modest business, but was licensed stateside to Sega/Gremlin, leaving Nintendo-labelled titles such as Sheriff and Heli-Fire to flounder.
A game called RadarScope looked to be the answer. Popular in Japan, RadarScope was a challenging and colorful title in the vein of Galaxian. Eager for a hit, Nintendo of America brought over thousands of RadarScope machines. Only 1,000 units sold, however, bringing NOA to talk bankruptcy.
Eager to save it's American operation, the home base of Nintendo in Japan scrambled to come up with a plug-and-play replacement game to convert the unsold RadarScope machines.
The task landed on a young man named Shigeru Miyamoto. The game that came out of it was Donkey Kong.
The Game is Called What???
While Nintendo of America's lawyers and staff scratched their heads at the odd name of the game, it became quickly apparent that they had a hit on their hands.
A test machine was installed in Seattle suburb bar The Spot Tavern, and quickly saw a great deal of player activity. More machines were added, and another test location at university hangout Goldie's was also added. (The Spot, still in operation today, was just added to the first induction list of the Registry of Historic Gaming Locations).
The RadarScope machines were quickly converted to Donkey Kong by the NOA staff and went on sale in July 1981 (* see end of article for more). Early earnings reports showed Donkey Kong doing well in limited release. After a strong response at the Chicago AMOA trade show in October, orders began to roll in, and Coleco approached Nintendo about a licensing deal for home console release.
Jump Button Makes Jumpman Jump
As the game went into production, the hero of Jumpman was renamed Mario, and the name began to appear in a variety of press materials and merchandise just as the machine rolled out to more locations.
While not the title character of this first game, Mario would go on to become the most iconic video game character in the history of the industry, as well as Nintendo's main mascot, while starring in and/or making cameo appearances in hundreds of games.
Try to imagine a video game world without Mario.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
Donkey Kong gave Nintendo of America life and income even as the Great Video Game Crash hit arcade and home markets in 1983. Licensing deals for Donkey Kong included not only home cartridges, but stuffed animals, Saturday morning cartoons, coloring books, t-shirts and even breakfast cereal for both DK and it's sequel Donkey Kong Junior. A victory in a lawsuit started by Universal City Studios also brought funds to Nintendo's bank accounts.
While Donkey Kong saved Nintendo of America, historians credit Nintendo with saving the video game industry in North America. After fighting for years to get it's hit FamiCom game console into a US retail market that had zero interest in selling video games, Nintendo finally released the Nintendo Entertainment System stateside in 1985.
The NES almost single handedly brought the US video game market back from the dead. Leading the charge was Mario, with mega-hit Super Mario Bros., another Miyamoto creation. Miyamoto's later title The Legend of Zelda also helped ensure the NES a legacy that is still felt today.
The character of Mario proved so successful that competing companies were certain to put him into their crosshairs.
Pushing their new 16-bit Genesis console in a very aggressive advertising campaign, Sega found Nintendo's market share a tough hill to climb. They aimed to create a mascot character to market as a "Mario Killer" and become as iconic as Nintendo's famed plumber.
The result was Sonic the Hedgehog. The original Sonic was successful in gaining ground for Sega and, in turn, created a classic character and game series of their own.
If not for Donkey Kong and it's hero Mario, the odds that Sonic the Hedgehog would have ever existed are low.
Modern Market Impact
It could be easy to look at the modern day video game market and note that, if not for Donkey Kong saving Nintendo of America and Nintendo of America saving the video game market in the US, there might not be a Nintendo Wii attached to televisions across the country, nor people waiting in line for days and days for the latest version of the Nintendo DS.
Digging into the backstory of Sony and Microsoft's current consoles shows they might not exist, either.
The roots of Sony's first PlayStation goes back to a working agreement between Nintendo and Sony to develop a CD-ROM add-on for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The day after Sony unveiled the PlayStation as the Consumer Electronics Show in 1991, Nintendo decided to go with Philips instead. A humiliated Sony opted to keep developing the PlayStation and release it as a console themselves with great success.
Microsoft later entered the console market with the original XBox in order to compete with the PlayStation 2 console, which was luring developers away from the Windows platform.
Looking at it from this perspective, had Donkey Kong not come along in July 1981, it's unlikely any of the modern video game consoles would exist at all, and difficult to know when and if the US video game industry would have recovered, and what kinds of games we might have seen. Perhaps other companies would have stepped up, or perhaps the mid-80s personal computer game revolution might have continued in full to this day, with home computers as the main source of electronic entertainment.
More coverage to celebrate Donkey Kong's 30th birthday will come along during this week, including a detailed look at Nintendo's pre-Donkey Kong video games, the competitive nature of the game and more.
( * = Conflicting information exists about the exact release date of Donkey Kong, with most evidence pointing at July 1981. Some sources specifically state the date as July 9, 1981. Others, such as The First Quarter by Steven Kent and Wikipedia simply state the monthy of July. Some sources state dates in late June of 1981, and still others state an October 10, 1981 release, which may stem from it's AMOA show appearance in October of that year, as most saw it for the first time at that show. Earnings reports in old trade magazines such as Play Meter start to show note of Donkey Kong in limited locations as the summer of 1981 wound down, leading this author to conclude the July dates to be the most likely. E-mails directly to Nintendo to confirm were not answered as the July 9 date came and went.)
Please provide this source and back link to this first publishing of this story if using or reporting it on another website or news source.