The game with which Nintendo made its name and its fortune, Donkey Kong was the prize release for the Famicom’s launch in Japan — though thanks to the system’s localization delay, it didn’t enjoy nearly the same elite status when the NES debuted in America.

Donkey Kong

Japanese Title:ドンキーコング • Donkey Kong
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Genre: Platforming
Japanese Release: July 1983
U.S. Release: June 1986
European Release: Oct. 1986

Alternate version release data

Arcade [1981]; Game & Watch [1982]; Atari 2600 [1982]; ColecoVision [1982]; Coleco Tabletop Arcade [1982]; Intellivision [1982]; Atari 400/800 [1983]; IBM personal computers [1983]; Apple II [1983]; Commodore 64 [1983]; TI-99/4A [1983]; Vic-20 [1983]; Coleco ADAM [1984]; Amstrad CPC [1986]; MSX [1986]; ZX Spectrum [1986]; Donkey Kong Classics [NES, 1988]; Atari 7800 [1988]; Famicom Disk System [1988]; Game Boy [1994]; Game & Watch Gallery 2 [Game Boy Color, 1998]; Donkey Kong 64 [Nintendo 64, 1999]; Animal Crossing [GameCube, 2002]; eReader [Game Boy Advance, 2002]; NES Classics [Game Boy Advance, 2004]; Game & Watch Collection [Game Boy Color, 2006]; Wii Virtual Console [2006]; Donkey Kong Original Edition [Wii, 2010]; 3DS Virtual Console [2011]; Donkey Kong Original Edition [3DS, 2012]; Wii U Virtual Console [2013]; Classic NES Edition [2016]; Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong [Switch, 2018]; Nintendo Switch Online [2019]

NES-DK-USA


Strikingly, Donkey Kong — the single most important title of the Japanese Family Computer launch, and literally the game that Masayuki Uemura and his team designed the hardware around — appears on the U.S. system as the console’s 19th release, not its first. Where Donkey Kong marked the beginning of the Famicom’s story in Japan, here it instead serves as more of a segue. It marks the point at which the NES up-shifted from first to second gear.

Kong certainly remains a landmark for American audiences in one sense, but it feels overshadowed by its own legacy on NES. After all, once you’ve played Super Mario Bros. — which debuted alongside the NES in 1985 and was already gaining acclaim by the time the American edition of Donkey Kong arrived — it can be tough to go back to the title that kicked off Mario’s legacy and helped create 2D platformers in general.

Of course, due to the NES’s staggered roll-out, most American consumers wouldn’t have a chance to experience the NES until after Donkey Kong had arrived as well. The console arrived in the wider U.S. retail market with a massive onslaught of Mario and Donkey Kong games in tow — an embarrassment of franchise riches. Super Mario Bros. acted as the eye-catching, cutting-edge work, whereas Donkey Kong had the nostalgic edge. Sure, the game was only five years old by the time the NES reached the general U.S. market, but video games were much younger back then; those five years, spanning the first half of the ’80s, were nothing less than an epochal consideration in the contemporary scheme of console game evolution.  In the half-decade between Donkey Kong’s arcade premiere and arrival on NES, the U.S. console business had witnessed the debut of several competitors to the Atari 2600, the collapse of every American-made TV gaming system at retail, the general abandonment of consoles in favor of personal computers, and finally the arrival of new competitors from Japan in the form of Nintendo and the incipient SEGA Master System courtesy of Tonka. It was a momentous time. 

The idea of “retrogaming” didn’t exist in 1986, but if it did, it would have looked exactly like Donkey Kong. By 1986, the game had seen an impressive number of sequels. There was Donkey Kong Jr. and Donkey Kong 3, both of which showed up on NES day-and-date with the original. There were Mario-based spin-offs Mario Bros., Wrecking Crew, and Super Mario Bros. All of these were available on NES alongside Donkey Kong itself in summer 1986. Nintendo had churned out quite a few additional Donkey Kong-related titles beyond the NES and arcades, such as the Donkey Kong Hockey and Donkey Kong II Game & Watch units. And then there was the mysterious Return of Donkey Kong for NES, teased for years as an upcoming release by Nintendo of America almost from launch before quietly vanishing from release lists several years later. What place could there be for the humble platformer that started it all?

While it’s a little strange to think that a game as significant to Nintendo’s history as Donkey Kong would arrive so unceremoniously as a U.S. NES release, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Ultimately, Donkey Kong’s place at the NES launch speaks to how much the company had matured as a game maker over those five eventful years. Donkey Kong initially served as the cornerstone for Nintendo’s video game business. The company had seen its share of minor successes prior to Kong’s 1981 debut, but none of those had the same profound impact as that arcade smash. Plus, unlike most of Nintendo’s earlier successes, Donkey Kong had been a wholly original creation. While thematically similar in spirit and name to the movie King Kong and initially conceived as a Popeye product, the game’s mechanics, structure, and visuals had no real precedent in video gaming. 

The closest thing Donkey Kong might have had to direct inspiration within the medium would arguably be Universal’s Space Panic, a proto-platform game that involved evading monsters on platforms connected by ladders. The similarities between the two works ended there, though, as Space Panic lacked the jump mechanic so central to Kong’s design. If you boil it down, Space Panic amounted to a sideways Heiankyo Alien clone, more a precursor to Lode Runner, with action revolving around the player’s ability to use a shovel for digging pits in which to trap dangerous aliens. In that sense, Space Panic had about as much to do with Pac-Man — with their top-down maze chases — as it did Donkey Kong. 

So when Donkey Kong burst onto the arcade scene in 1981, it created an instant sensation, in large part because audiences had been primed for a game like this. After Space Invaders and Pac-Man, arcade-goers became eager for the next big video game intrusion into mainstream pop culture. Donkey Kong had all the ingredients to be a hit. For starters, it featured memorable characters, who would appear on a seemingly endless array of merchandise — an even more charismatic troupe than that of Pac-Man. Kong himself seemed enormous at the time, a huge, animated gorilla stomping about at the top of the screen. But protagonist Mario and his distressed damsel Pauline had their own appeal, and the storyline, trite and overplayed as it may have been, presented a simple goal and lent the whole thing a semblance of narrative that had never been seen before in a coin-op game. The game looked great, too, with vivid colors against a black background and simple but charming animation. Most of all, though, it played beautifully.

A bit of complexity 

Donkey Kong confronted players with greater complexity than any hit arcade game to date, but it was the right degree of complexity at the perfect time. Arcade games had steadily grown more complex over the decade since Pong’s debut, with Space Invaders as the first big hit to offer players a firing option in addition to linear left-to-right movement. 1980’s Pac-Man broke from linear movement by offering players a sinuous maze to navigate at high speeds, but it balanced out this leap in player freedom by taking away the action button and pushing players back to a single input device again: A four-way directional stick. 

It probably isn’t a coincidence that Pac-Man had become a bigger hit than Namco’s own remarkably similar Rally-X, which arrived at the same time to give players a more involved take on the maze chase. Rally-X had similar goals to those of Pac-Man (collect all the items in a maze while evading enemies), but it included an action button, which allowed players to turn the tides and unleash a smoke screen that would block enemy cars. Pac-Man also included the ability to get a leg up on bad guys, but that feature didn’t involve the use of a button; instead, you could simply grab one of four energizer pellets within the maze and momentarily gain the ability to remove a monster from the action by devouring it. No extra inputs required: The power-ups existed in the maze as part of the environment, activated by simple touch.

Donkey Kong increased the complexity of play a step above that of Pac-Man, adding a jump button to mix on top of the four-directional control stick. Yet this was a measured complexity. For one, the jump mechanic wherein players tapped a button to cause Mario to spring into the air felt intuitive and logical thanks to the creative decision to go with a side-on view similar to Space Panic’s. Mario could run freely left and right, like the missile base in Space Invaders. And as in Space Invaders, verticality existed largely as a secondary consideration. Instead of firing projectiles along the vertical axis, however, players either caused Mario to climb ladders or else could use the jump button to propel him into the air. Since you viewed the action in an ant farm-like cutaway view, running and jumping (or climbing) represented the only two axes of motion — something that wouldn’t have been the case in a top-down view akin to that of Heiankyo Alien.

Donkey Kong designer Shigeru Miyamoto took another cue from Pac-Man to help keep things manageable despite the increased complexity of the action: The normally defenseless Mario could briefly gain offensive capabilities, but this ability again lacked its own input, activated temporarily by touch. The game’s action button controlled jumping and jumping alone. You needed to use the jump button to leap into the air to initiate Mario’s offensive by snagging a hanging hammer, but once armed, Mario acted autonomously. He’d temporarily lay about himself in a flurry of automated barrel-smashing. As with Pac-Man, a tool within the game environment granted the hero power, but only for a few seconds.

If this talk of complexity and interfaces seems somewhat in the weeds, bear in mind how far games have come since 1981. Interface complexity really was a crucial consideration in the early days of the arcade; Atari had bombed a decade earlier with the first-ever commercial video game, Computer Space. Most historians blame Computer Space’s detailed physics and multiple buttons for its demise. A game that involved inertia, steering, thrusting, and firing may have been fine for the collegiate environment that incubated Computer Space’s progenitor, Spacewar, but it all proved far too complex for the average half-drunk bar patron who in 1971 had never seen a video game before. Instead, Pong would become gaming’s breakthrough hit, in large part because it gave players a simulation of a familiar sport, a single interface device, and appropriately simplistic goals. Decades later, that same need to keep things simple would help Nintendo’s Wii console and one-touch mobile games to net far greater casual-play interest than consoles and high-end PC games, which typically involve complex controllers and a score of commands to mentally file away. 

In that light, Nintendo took something of a risk with Donkey Kong in 1981. This was a game that felt far more intricate and involved than any arcade hit before it. The demands it placed on players could easily have caused the game to flop. Plus, not only did Donkey Kong establish the idea of platform-running with two axes of movement, controlled with a four-directional joystick and a jump button, it did so through an ever-changing array of environments. When Mario completed a stage, the action didn’t simply start over; instead, Kong moved along to a new scenario, forcing players to navigate an entirely different set of hazards.

Four for a quarter

To this point, video games had typically consisted of a single-screen scenario that would cycle endlessly with higher speed or heightened threats. You might occasionally encounter a small layout variation. Even Pac-Man spent his entire existence running around the same static maze until it imploded on its 256th iteration. Donkey Kong, however, changed its overall layout and even its level objectives after the player completed each screen. It felt almost like getting four games in one. The challenges certainly did repeat infinitely as you played, but they did so through a loop of four levels, each distinct.

The first stage saw Mario climbing a series of uneven girders while dodging barrels that rolled downward. Kong perched atop the stage, tossing barrels as his kidnapping victim called for help. Players could grasp the goal at a glance: Dodge the hazards, climb the scaffolding, reach Pauline. Once you did make your way to Pauline, however, Kong grabbed her and scampered up to the next phase of the construction site. The exact nature of that challenge varies from version to version — even the arcade game had its level order switched up during localization into the U.S. market — but ultimately it’s one of three challenges: A cement factory, a series of elevators, or the unfinished top of the building. 

The cement factory, sometimes referred to as a “pie factory” by people who somehow fail to notice the construction site theme of the game, looks like something out of a Warner Bros. cartoon. On three of the stage’s five tiers, the simple girders of the first level have been replaced by conveyor belts that push bins of wet cement from one side of the screen to the next. These belts will also usher Mario along as well, forcing players to work counter to the movement of the floor itself. This proves particularly hazardous on the floor directly beneath Kong, where a barrel of fire rests in the center of the belts and will happily destroy both Mario and/or any cement pile that happens to fall into it, all while simultaneously disgorging fireballs that chase Mario about the screen. To add one final touch of challenge to this scenario, Kong himself slides back and forth on the upper level along a conveyor belt that constantly changes direction, forcing players to time their approach to Pauline to avoid getting clobbered by the villain. This is by far the most complicated and difficult stage of the game, which probably accounts for its omission in most home ports… including on NES.

The third stage, generally designated as the 75m stage, recasts the automated hazards of the cement factory along the other axis: It replaces the horizontal conveyor belts with a pair of vertical elevators flanking a central platform. Players need to time their jumps across the elevators to avoid being crushed or dropped by the action of the moving platforms. At the same time, it’s essential to be mindful of the fact that poor Mario hadn’t quite earned his adventuring legs at this point in his career. In this, his first outing, the nimble hero can’t survive any jump or fall that amounts to a height greater than his own.

The final stage, wherein Mario finally gets the best of Kong and saves the girl, abandons the moving hazards of the previous two stages and instead turns the entire level design into a dynamic weapon. Mario dodges moving fireballs while passing over the eight crucial rivets that hold the entire stage together. Once you’ve removed all eight pegs, the entire assembly of girders collapses and leaves Kong stunned. The end.

A big part of what makes Donkey Kong work is that the game’s different stages play out as a narrative — nothing particularly elaborate, but easily grasped thanks to its thematic familiarity. Sadly, this too was something lost on NES, which according to Nathan Altice’s book I Am Error removed the cut scenes (along with the cement factory) due to cartridge limitations. In the arcade, the action begins with Kong abducting Pauline, climbing to the top of the first level, and setting the stage for the action by stomping the girders into disarray. Each level is meant to represent a different quarter of the 100-meter-high construction project that Kong has scarpered away to, and each stage opens with a challenge: How high can you get? In the end, you rescue Pauline and enjoy a simple animation that puts a bow on the whole thing, as Kong is upended and the lady kisses Mario for his hard work.

There’s more to Donkey Kong than shifting novelty and pantomime storytelling. The game also allows for a fair amount of technique and variability within its ever-changing challenges. The movement of barrels and fireballs feature an element of randomness, set against the fixed environmental hazards of the physical level layouts themselves. Mario can influence the world around him to a certain degree by luring fireballs to chase him. You can even affect the movement of barrels to a certain point. Unlike Pac-Man and its rigid ghost patterns, Donkey Kong never plays completely the same from one coin drop to the next. Each level offers multiple routes to the top, too. In the 25m stage, you can climb up several different ladders per tier. You can conquer the 50m stage by going up either the right or left side. The 75m stage offers both a high and a low route. And 100m has a completely open layout that allows it to be tackled however players prefer. Every stage also includes three of Pauline’s personal accessories to collect for extra points. Several stages feature the hammers that allow you to optionally smash up foes. The trade-off to hammer empowerment: You can’t climb while hammering and have to burn up precious time until the weapon vanishes.

There’s a lot happening in Donkey Kong at any given time, but the intuitive nature of the action and the progressive roll-out of mechanics across the four stages pairs neatly with the Hollywood-esque tale being spun to create an experience that drew in arcade-goers and rewarded them for coming to terms with all that was being asked of them. Donkey Kong felt like the next natural step in the evolution of action games. Had it arrived a year sooner or a year later, it would have had far less impact. 

Nintendo’s risk-taking design ambition was born of necessity. Donkey Kong didn’t come about because someone thought, “Our next game should be a run-and-jump adventure inspired by King Kong!” Rather, the company desperately needed to come up with a new game concept to stand out from the crowd. Nintendo had released several arcade games in the Space Invaders/Galaxian mold throughout 1979 and 1980. The most popular of these in Japan — Radar Scope — featured a very impressive visual effect that created the sensation of a tilted perspective in which enemy craft scaled in size as they approached and retreated from the player’s position. 

Nintendo earmarked Radar Scope for a significant U.S. roll-out, confident it would find success overseas as well. Unfortunately, Space Invaders had never been as big a deal in the U.S. as in Japan, and by the time thousands of Radar Scope cabinets made their way across the Pacific for American distribution, that entire style of game felt old and dated. U.S. distributors only purchased about half of Nintendo’s shipment, leaving a thousand unwanted Radar Scope cabinets unsold in a warehouse. Eager not to see the entire U.S. arm go bankrupt, the company set about creating a conversion kit for the Radar Scope hardware. 

Shigeru Miyamoto, a fairly recent hire who had been producing art and hardware designs for things like the Block Kuzushi standalone Pong clone console, came up with the design for Donkey Kong. Its four-stage cycle of run-and-jump challenges looked and played like nothing that had ever appeared in arcades before. Miyamoto worked with the company’s engineering subcontractors to convert the game concept into real code. Donkey Kong shipped in short order and became an immediate hit.

Again, the game’s timing couldn’t have been better. The American arcade had reached peak popularity thanks to Pac-Man fever, and Donkey Kong arrived on the scene with the nicest graphics, most memorable characters, and most impressively varied gameplay. It became an international smash, performing far beyond Nintendo’s hopes and ambitions. Combined with the popularity of the Game & Watch handheld line, Donkey Kong made Nintendo a force to be reckoned with in the games industry, and it fueled the company’s next ambition: To launch its own console.

Family matters

Quarters and 100-yen pieces alike were still piling up in the coin catchers of Donkey Kong machines everywhere when Nintendo embarked on its most daring venture to date by developing a new gaming console. The machine would arrive two years later as the Family Computer, or Famicom for short. According to I Am Error, Nintendo’s engineers designed the Famicom project with several goals in mind, chief among them the ability to play a flawless game of Donkey Kong. This was no small task. Donkey Kong was, at the time, a cutting-edge dedicated arcade cabinet, a game that looked and sounded fantastic because it ran on expensive hardware specifically created for that purpose. The Famicom, on the other hand, would need to make Donkey Kong work with interchangeable cartridges on multipurpose hardware, all in a package that could be priced competitively versus other consoles on the market. This demanded outright engineering genius and a fair number of technical shenanigans.

Hardware designer Masayuki Uemura and his small team pulled it off, more or less. Donkey Kong on Famicom didn’t quite reach arcade perfection, but it looked, sounded, and played more accurately than any other home conversion to date, even more so than the impressive ColecoVision port. Some of Donkey Kong’s compromises on NES were unavoidable. The arcade cabinet, for example, used a portrait-orientation monitor, whereas the Famicom had to be designed for consumer televisions manufactured in a landscape-orientation design. The arcade board had a pixel resolution of 224×256, while the Famicom offered the inverse: 256×224. Several levels therefore suffered from slight vertical compression. Most notable among these was the opening 25m stage, which saw poor Kong and Pauline scraping their heads against the top of the screen.

The other major compromise stemmed from the harsh data storage limitations of early Famicom carts. The first wave of games for the system offered far less memory capacity than Donkey Kong’s arcade board had enjoyed, and certain cuts had to be made. Nintendo ended up chopping the entire cement factory stage, along with the memorable opening cinematic and stage goal screens. When players pressed Start, they heard the game’s ominous introductory dirge, but it no longer accompanied an animation of Kong’s hostile opening stage demolitions. The tune simply played over the static title screen.

Despite these alterations, Donkey Kong for Famicom and NES definitely came closer to the arcade experience than any other conversion of the game that had shipped to that point. Even with the vertical compression, the graphics looked almost arcade-perfect, and the sound came remarkably close despite lacking the gritty boom of the coin-op’s audio samples. The three stages that did fit onto the cart played correctly, with no significant compromises. While some home PC versions of the game would include the opening animations or the cement factory stage, none of them looked as faithful as this one. Even the previous high-water mark of ports, the aforementioned ColecoVision conversion, had removed an entire tier of girders from the 25m stage. Nintendo quite simply offered the best possible home rendition of Donkey Kong at the time… which was only fitting, since it was after all their game. 

In 1983, when the Famicom launched, a near-perfect conversion of Donkey Kong was a pretty enticing prospect. Especially in Japan, which had largely been isolated from the American console experience thanks to a harsh exchange rate and high import costs. Donkey Kong ended up being the best-selling Famicom game of 1983. 

Late to the party

Surprisingly, when the U.S. version of the game arrived three years later, it turned out to be exactly the same as the Japanese release, with no improvements to be found. Certainly the potential for a more faithful adaptation existed. By 1986, NES cartridge ROM capacity had grown considerably from the Famicom’s early days. Nintendo could have added all the cut material back into the NES release of Donkey Kong, but they chose not to. You can certainly understand the appeal of a zero-effort localization; the NES release didn’t tie up any resources. The Japanese game contained only English text, so the NES release literally consisted of the Japanese ROM with a different cartridge shell and a new connector to reflect the physical differences between the Famicom and NES. 

Nevertheless, it seems like something of a missed opportunity. Donkey Kong still had enough cachet and name recognition in 1986 that it was going to sell regardless, but Nintendo could have gone the extra step to make its NES version of the game as close to perfect as possible. Sadly, we wouldn’t see an NES adaptation that restored most of the arcade’s missing content until nearly a quarter of a century later. In 2010, Nintendo cobbled together an official ROM hack of the NES game, which they called Donkey Kong Original Edition and preloaded onto a limited-edition Wii console. Original Edition also became available as a limited-edition loyalty program incentive download for 3DS owners a couple of years later. It was not, however, included on the 2016 Classic NES Edition mini-console (which contained the standard NES release), nor has Original Edition ever been made widely available for general purchase.

On the plus side, some version of Donkey Kong has been available for purchase on a Nintendo system almost constantly since 1983. The company phased out the U.S. Black Box series games in 1988, but Donkey Kong and its sequel were immediately jammed into a combo cart called Donkey Kong Classics, which remained in circulation more or less in perpetuity until the NES was discontinued in 1994. 

1994, as it turned out, was the point at which Nintendo released the masterful Donkey Kong for Game Boy, which initially resembles nothing more than a monochrome port of the arcade game but soon reveals a shocking fact: It contains roughly 100 additional stages. Donkey Kong for Game Boy remained available for several years, and around the time it faded from sale, fans could then unlock the entire original arcade game as a bonus in 1999’s Donkey Kong 64. Then, just as the Nintendo 64 went out of circulation in 2002, Donkey Kong appeared as one of about two dozen NES games that dedicated players could unlock in Animal Crossing for GameCube. Around the same time, the NES game also launched as a scannable card that worked with the Game Boy Advance’s eReader. Two years after that, it appeared as an NES Classic series retail release for GBA, which kept it in circulation until the Wii launched with its day-one Virtual Console service. In the decade since then, Donkey Kong has been available on an increasing number of platforms. 

Donkey Kong played a critical role in Nintendo’s history, and the company has more or less treated it with the respect you’d expect, even if legal issues seemingly prevent the arcade version from seeing the light of day ever again. Even today, Donkey Kong remains one of gaming’s most important works, and one of Nintendo’s biggest names. Of course it was there on NES almost from day one, looking about as good as it possibly could have at the time. Whatever else you might say about the NES adaptation of this classic, it was there, and it offered fans familiar, nostalgic fun. It was more of a tribute to the past than a look into the future… but then, Nintendo’s always understood the value of its own heritage.

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