This year marks the 35th birthday of Donkey Kong, and it’s now been over a decade since the events depicted in the docu-drama The King of Kong. Mat Corne revisits an article he wrote for DK’s 30th birthday, charting the history of this arcade classic and the legacy it has created.
“There might be a kill screen coming up if you’re interested!”
It is difficult to understate the importance of Donkey Kong in gaming history. From its impact on game design and the fortunes of Nintendo, to the drama of the hotly-contested high score, almost every part of popular culture has been affected by this simple story of man against ape. But it all began with a game called Radar Scope…
Radar Scope was a space shooter similar to Galaxian, and it was a complete flop. Nintendo’s fledgling American operation was stuck with a warehouse full of unwanted machines and was on the verge of going bankrupt. Desperate to keep afloat, they begged their Japanese counterparts to come up with a new game and the project was put in the hands of young designer Shigeru Miyamoto.
Miyamoto’s game broke new ground in game design and storytelling. Donkey Kong wasn’t the first platform game (that honour belongs to Space Panic) but it was the first game to allow the player to jump over obstacles. It was also the first game to tell a story, with the hero’s quest to rescue his lady portrayed with basic cutscenes. Nintendo of America weren’t especially confident about the game but it was a worldwide smash, becoming the biggest game of 1981 and earning the company a fortune.
Nintendo’s troubles weren’t over though, as they were sued by Universal Studios who claimed the game infringed the copyright on their recently-released remake of King Kong. In one of the pivotal moments in gaming history, Nintendo refused to back down and won the lawsuit when it was revealed that Universal didn’t actually own the copyright! The resulting damages and legal fees helped set Nintendo on the road to worldwide gaming domination.
Donkey Kong was responsible for the rise of Miyamoto and the financial security of Nintendo, but let’s not forget one last thing – the hero of the game was a moustachioed character nicknamed Jumpman, but the Americans wanted to give him a proper name. While they still had cash-flow issues their landlord arrived at the warehouse demanding overdue rent. After some negotiations the landlord granted a stay of execution, but he also provided inspiration. His name was Mario Segale, and the rest as they say is history!
Following two arcade sequels and the rise to prominence of Mario, Donkey Kong was somewhat forgotten and left in the wilderness until the early nineties. The franchise was revived with the help of British developers Rare, who produced Donkey Kong Country for the SNES, and Donkey Kong Land for the Gameboy. These were hugely successful and spawned numerous sequels, spin-offs and continued development on the N64 and beyond. They had little in common with their arcade ancestor however, which was largely consigned to history until Hollywood came calling.
In 2007 the documentary-drama The King of Kong brought the classic game to a whole new audience.
The story of Steve Wiebe’s quest to wrench the world record high score from Billy Mitchell struck a chord not only with gamers, but with critics and moviegoers in general. Suddenly the 26 year old videogame was big news again, with stories of Wiebe and Mitchell’s exploits making headlines across the globe. A new generation of gamers started wondering what all the fuss was about and began trying to reach the legendary kill screen. Several new kids arrived on the block and one of them, plastic surgeon Hank Chien, set a new record score in 2010.
In the years since the release of the movie, the high score has changed hands countless times, with many of the world’s top players gathering for annual Kong-Off events. At one of these events the record was actually broken twice in the space of 12 hours! The current world record high score on the arcade machine stands at 1,190,000 held by Wes Copeland, although an even higher score has been set on the MAME emulated version of the game. So many new players have arrived on the scene in the last few years that the old masters Mitchell and Wiebe aren’t even amongst the Top Ten players of the game any more, though all those that have surpassed them still recognise their influence.
It’s probably important to mention that to most gamers Donkey Kong is one of the hardest, most frustrating games you will ever play! So why is it so popular? The answer lies in that high difficulty level. In the current climate of games that can be completed in a few days and have save points to aid your progress, achieving a decent score on Donkey Kong is seen as a medal of honour – proof that you can compete with the greatest gamers in the world.
Few games have influenced the industry quite like Donkey Kong. Without it there would be no Mario, possibly even no Nintendo, and the gaming landscape would look very different. Thirty-five years on and the game’s legacy is clear for all to see and shows no sign of abating.
This is an updated version of an article originally published in Replay Magazine, 2011.