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Still Climbing: Video game icons Mario and Donkey Kong turn 33 years old

Mario and Donkey Kong were introduced to the video game world on July 9, 1981
Mario and Donkey Kong were introduced to the video game world on July 9, 1981

How high can you get?

No, that is not the new state motto of Colorado. That is the question that was asked on-screen between each level of Donkey Kong, the 1981 arcade hit that saved the now-iconic Nintendo of America from bankruptcy. The coin-op classic turned 33-years-old on July 9, marking an anniversary for not one but two iconic video game characters.

An established name in Japan, Nintendo struggled to make a dent in the red-hot North American arcade video game market in the early 1980s. It was believed that Radar Scope, a spin on the space shooter concept that had proven popular stateside with titles such as Space Invaders, Phoenix and Galaxian, would be the game to change that. However, Radar Scope failed to catch on, leaving Nintendo's U.S. operation with thousands of unsold machines and looking into bankruptcy.

Eager to help pull the nose of the plane up, Nintendo's Japan headquarters sought out ideas for a new game that would run on Radar Scope hardware, allowing the American operation to convert the unsold machines into something that would sell them off. Enter a young artist named Shigeru Miyamoto and his game of Donkey Kong.

In an arcade full of space shooters and rows of Pac-Man machines, Donkey Kong stood out. First tested in Seattle-area sports bar The Spot Tavern, players looked past the odd game title and happily led a squeaky-shoed carpenter up a series of ladders an obstacles in the effort to save a young blonde woman from the clutches of a huge gorilla. The game caught on, taking Nintendo of America from bankruptcy filings to incorporation and quietly introducing a character that would go on to do even bigger things.

Mario was the name of the carpenter in Donkey Kong. Originally conceived as a character named Mr. Video and later briefly known as Jumpman, Miyamoto designed Mario as a hard-working everyman. The look of the character was due in large part to the hardware limitations available at the time. Overalls helped show the movement of Mario while items such as the mustache and hat helped show facial features against the black background.

A common misconception about Mario is that he was named Jumpman for the duration of Donkey Kong's short visit to the top of the arcade game earnings charts. While the cabinet instructions were designed and printed while the Jumpman name was still in place, Nintendo named the character Mario as the arcade cabinets were still awaiting shipment. Noticing a striking resemblance to their landlord Mario Segale, the character was renamed as the game went to market. The original sales flyer for Donkey Kong refers to the character as Mario as does the book The Winner's Book of Video Games by Craig Kubey, written just a couple months into the game's release. In the Donkey Kong chapter, the author notes that Nintendo called the carpenter Mario but had no name for the blonde woman in the game. She would later be named Pauline.

Donkey Kong and Mario would do battle once again in Donkey Kong Junior in 1982, marking Mario's one and only time as a villain. They would then go their separate ways for many years as Mario switched to becoming a plumber in 1983's Mario Bros., teaming with his brother Luigi for the first time, setting the stage for generations of games that would turn Mario into the most iconic character in video game history.

Miyamoto would also go on to become a video game icon in and of himself, creating classics such as Super Mario Bros. and the Legend of Zelda en route to gaining fame as the most successful video game creator of all time.

The original Donkey Kong arcade game sold over 60,000 units in North America. It would later prove popular as a home console title licensed by Coleco but fell from popularity in arcades by early 1983. By the time Nintendo would rise to it's biggest claim to fame with the Nintendo Entertainment System, most original Kong arcade games had been converted to later Nintendo arcade titles. It would see a brief resurgence after serving as the backdrop in a 2007 documentary film about two veteran gamers chasing down the all-time high score on the game. Most recently the game made a cameo on television comedy Enlisted.

Happy birthday to Mario and Donkey Kong and the legacies they made on Nintendo and the video game industry.

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