Some rivalries have been going on so long that it’s hard to imagine where they began. Coke vs Pepsi, Burger King vs McDonalds, Mario vs Donkey Kong — these battles have been part of the American consciousness for so long it’s hard to even remember when they weren’t happening. But when it comes to the famous plumber and the oversized ape, the date is a matter of public record. The first Donkey Kong arcade machine was manufactured on July 9, 1981, in Japan, marking the first appearances of Mario, Donkey Kong, and Pauline, who are all 35 years old this year.
Back in 1981, Nintendo was a medium-sized toy maker in Japan that had only made a handful of arcade games, none of which were particularly popular. The publisher was in an experimental mindset, and Donkey Kong was just the type of strange creation that comes out of a company just getting into game development. Fairly new employee Shigeru Miyamoto teamed up with the boss of R&D, Gunpei Yokoi, and some uncredited developers to make the simple story of a carpenter trying to save his girlfriend from an angry gorilla. It was just crazy enough to work, as Donkey Kong became a hit worldwide by the end of the year, paving the way for Nintendo to become a powerhouse in gaming for the next three decades.
All these years later, both Mario and Donkey Kong have starred in many famous games that overshadow their first appearances, but now, on such a major anniversary, it’s worth remembering what made Donkey Kong so different from every other quarter-muncher in the arcade. Here are some of its more underrated accomplishments…
Donkey Kong Told Gaming’s First Real Story
Everyone talks about storytelling in games like it’s some kind of buzzword or special feature. Back in 1981, games didn’t have any stories to tell. Hits like Pac-Man, Asteroids, and Space Invaders began and ended with the premise of the gameplay and ended when “Game Over” popped up onscreen. Compare that to Donkey Kong, which follows a simple-yet-defined three act structure. Donkey Kong enters the screen and climbs up a construction site carrying Pauline, and Mario (or Jumpman at the time) is right behind him. Mario then fights his way up to reach Donkey Kong across four different stages. When Mario finally reaches the top of the level, he’s reunited with Pauline as Donkey Kong falls down defeated. The beginning, middle, and end of Mario vs Donkey Kong is all there in the game, long before any other developers were even trying.
Donkey Kong Helped Invent The D-Pad
Less than a year later, Gunpei Yokoi’s team made the first ever handheld Mario game with the Game & Watch adaptation of Donkey Kong. Back in June 1982, Game & Watch took relatively cheap calculator parts to make simple LCD games, but they needed to make a more complex machine to properly recreate Donkey Kong. To get true control of Mario’s platforming, the R&D team came up with the plus sign-style directional pad that would quickly become the accepted way to control 2D games from then on. Compare that D-Pad to the one on the Xbox One or Wii U today, and you can see how timeless that design is. And it’s all thanks to Donkey Kong.
Donkey Kong Beat King Kong Via Lawsuit
The popularity of Donkey Kong had its drawbacks as well. Just as Nintendo was making hundreds of millions of dollars off the arcade machines, major film studio Universal Studios couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Donkey Kong and King Kong. Universal hoped to threaten Nintendo with a lawsuit over the game stealing King Kong‘s story and hopefully end up owning the game developer. Nintendo called Universal’s bluff in and took them to court, where Nintendo’s lawyers Howard Lincoln and John Kirby successfully argued that Universal had no claim to Donkey Kong. After a couple appeals, Nintendo collected $1.8 million, named Howard Lincoln the president of Nintendo of America, and would later name a famous pink puffball after John Kirby.
Donkey Kong Launched the Career of Shigeru Miyamoto
Most obviously, Donkey Kong was the launching pad for one of gaming’s most unlikely masterminds. Shigeru Miyamoto planned on becoming a comic book artist but instead joined Nintendo as an artist on the company’s earliest games. Miyamoto offered up the concept, the designs, and the colorful world of Donkey Kong as a last ditch effort to reuse unsold arcade cabinets. The game’s success led Miyamoto to a string of success, from Donkey Kong Jr. to Super Mario Bros. to The Legend of Zelda and on and on and on. Soon enough Miyamoto would ascend to an executive position where he still helps lead Nintendo to this day. Just imagine where he’d be if Donkey Kong had failed.
Thanks for all the great memories Mario, Donkey Kong, and everyone involved. Here’s to another 35 years of the two of you battling it out and pushing the envelope for games everywhere.