Saturday, June 23, 2012

The History of Donkey Kong, Part 1: Humble Beginnings

Since the start of the decade, Nintendo and their fans have been celebrating the anniversaries of some of Nintendo's most beloved franchises nonstop. Over the course of 2010 and 2011, Nintendo held special events and released special editions of classic video games from the Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda series to honor their 25th birthdays. This year, Nintendo is planning on doing those things all over again to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Kirby series. While Nintendo fans were happy to see Nintendo recognize their rich history, they were a little disappointed that Nintendo seemed to have forgotten that their popular Metroid series also turned 25 the same year the Legend of Zelda series did. On nearly every Nintendo related message board, you saw people bring up how sad they were that the famous bounty hunter, Samus Aran, was being ignored. However, while I was reading these people's thoughts, I could not help but wonder why no one was caring about another famous Nintendo franchise that was ignored last year.

That is right, in 2011, Donkey Kong and the entire Donkey Kong franchise turned thirty years old, and Nintendo did not even mention it. While modern Donkey Kong games are no longer anything like the original 1981 arcade game, I still think it would have been nice for Nintendo to do something for the oldest character they have. It is a feat for a video game franchise manages to last more than one or two console generations, but Donkey Kong has remained relevant for almost all of modern video game history, even if the last thirty years have been quite rocky and unpredictable for the ape.

Because Donkey Kong was ignored by both Nintendo and fans last year, I decided to put together a little retrospective of the entire Donkey Kong series, covering everything from the development of the original Donkey Kong arcade game to today. Are you ready for a video game history lesson? Well, to start off, we have to travel back in time to an era before the 1980s.

The history of Donkey Kong starts back in late 1979 when Nintendo released a shooter game named Radar Scope for Japanese arcades. Despite the game being extremely similar to other famous games at the time, such as Space Invaders and Galaxian, it quickly became immensely popular in Japan. Seeing the amount of buzz Radar Scope was creating in cities like Tokyo, Nintendo's newly opened American branch thought it would be a good idea to bring the game over to the United States. In fact, Nintendo of America was convinced that it would be so successful that the branch's president at the time, Minoru Arakawa, requested a large order of arcade units to be sent to America. Nearly one year after the initial Japanese release, Radar Scope hit American arcades and was met with lukewarm reception.

Because the sales of the arcade game did not live up to Nintendo of America's high expectations, there were thousands of unsold units sitting in warehouses across the United States. This caused the new American branch of Nintendo to have major financial troubles, and Arakawa ended up asking Nintendo's worldwide President, Hiroshi Yamauchi, to send him an updated version of Radar Scope that would sell. Yamauchi approached a young graphic artist named Shigeru Miyamoto and gave him the responsibility of fixing Radar Scope to make it more appealing to western audiences.

After receiving his new assignment, a young Miyamoto decided that he did not want to fix a poor game, but instead he wanted to create an entirely new game using Radar Scope's hardware. At the time, Nintendo was seeking out a license to create a game based on the popular Popeye comic strips, so Miyamoto originally designed his game to have a love triangle between the characters Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto. When the Japanese company failed to get the license, Popeye was turned into a carpenter, Olive Oyl was turned into the carpenter's girlfriend, and Bluto was turned into an ape. Miyamoto later stated that he chose an ape to be the bad guy because he drew inspiration from Beauty and the Beast and King Kong, and he also did not want the villain to be too repulsive.

During the process of creating the new characters, the blossoming developer did something that had never been done before -- he created a story for the game. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, arcade games did not tell stories, and, instead, focused solely on gameplay. If there was a story, it was a merely an afterthought and it was not something developers thought of while they were designing their games. Despite the industry standard at the time, Miyamoto wanted to create a storyline for his new game and ended up writing a short story explaining what was happening on screen as one played through the game. The story he came up with was the following: The ape was the mistreated pet of the carpenter, and, eventually, the ape became tired of being mistreated. He escaped his confinement and kidnapped the carpenter's girlfriend as revenge. 

The new game designer integrated the story into the game itself, creating the very first game where story actually played a role during the gameplay. Yes, you read the last few sentences correctly. The man that many people perceive as not caring about stories in video games actually wrote the very first story that played out as you were playing the game, so you can thank him for paving the way for games like Final Fantasy.

Because there was a story, the characters needed names. The carpenter ended up being named Jumpman, who of course eventually became known as Mario, the girlfriend was named Pauline, and the ape became known as Donkey Kong. There are numerous accounts of where the name Donkey Kong actually came from, but Miyamoto himself said he chose the name because he thought it would convey the image of a stupid ape. Of course, the characters were not the only things that needed to be named, as the game needed to be called something too. It was eventually decided that it would be named after the villain himself, Donkey Kong.

When Donkey Kong was finally finished, it was sent to Nintendo of America for testing. Numerous people working for the American branch were skeptical about the game and thought that it would not be all that popular, but Arakawa was certain that it would be hit. Nintendo of America's distributors eventually convinced two local bars in Seattle to install arcade units of the new game to see how it popular it would be. The locals quickly fell in love with the game, and the bars asked for more units to be sent to them. Donkey Kong was eventually released for arcades in both Japan and the United States in 1981 and almost immediately became a huge success, saving Nintendo's new American branch from financial ruin and putting the Japanese company on the map in one of the largest markets for gaming.

Seeing the success Nintendo was having with their new Donkey Kong game, many video game developers, including Coleco and Atari, approached the Japanese company asking for licenses to create their own Donkey Kong games. Nintendo eventually gave Coleco permission to create Donkey Kong video games and table top games due to Coleco's popularity in the United States at the time. In 1982, Coleco created their own version of the famous arcade game for their Colecovision home console, and they also later created a version of the game for the Atari 2600 and Intellivision. By 1983, Donkey Kong had been ported countless times and was on various home consoles and home computers, ranging from Atari's 8-bit computers to the Commodore 64 and even to Nintendo's own home console, the Famicom. The game also saw a release for Nintendo's handheld Game & Watch system, but there was only one level due to the Game & Watch's LCD screen and lack of power.

Donkey Kong and Mario were not only appearing on video game consoles across the world though. Nintendo also licensed out the rights to Donkey Kong to companies that were not even involed in the gaming industry, and the hero and villain appeared on pajamas, cereal boxes, and in Japanese comics. By mid 1983, the Donkey Kong craze had spread to nearly every single industrialized country at the time.

Despite Nintendo's success with their new game, there were still some hardships the company had to go through as a direct result of Donkey Kong. In 1982, Universal City Studios filed a law suit against Nintendo, claiming that Donkey Kong was an infringement on their popular King Kong movies. Nintendo's attorney for the case, John Kirby, pointed out that in a previous court case, Universal themselves had argued that the characters and scenarios from King Kong were public domain, and therefore, Nintendo was not infringing on any copyrights Universal had. The court ended up ruling in favor of Nintendo, but Universal City Studios appealed. In 1984, the appeals court upheld the previous verdict, meaning Nintendo could create as many Donkey Kong games as they desired.

While all of this happening in the two years following the first release of Donkey Kong, Shigeru Miyamoto started work on a sequel that would explain what happened after the original title ended. In this game, the roles of the villain and hero would be reversed. Mario kidnapped Donkey Kong after the events of the first game, and it was up to Donkey Kong's son, Donkey Kong Jr., to save the ape. This sequel was titled Donkey Kong Junior after the game's new hero and was released in arcades in both Japanese and American arcades in 1982.

Fans of the original Donkey Kong ended up loving the sequel because it took what made the first game great and expanded upon it. You were still trying to get to the top of a level by jumping and platforming, but you were now also dropping fruits on enemies to kill them and climbing up vines. These two simple additions opened up new gameplay possibilites that entertained new and old fans alike, and in the end it proved to be a winning formula.

Even though the sequel proved to be popular, it never reached the same levels of popularity as its predecessor. Still, the sequel managed to earn itself a large fanbase, and in one way or another, it eventually made its way to a large number of gaming devices, including the Colecovision, Atari 2600, Intellivision, Famicom, and Game & Watch series, just like the original. It has even seen many re-releases and remakes in modern times, proving that while it was overshadowed by the first game in the series, Donkey Kong Jr. was still a fun and entertaining game with a large fanbase.

Following the release of Donkey Kong Jr., Nintendo developed a plethora of new Donkey Kong games that never caught on like the first two did. The first of these new Donkey Kong games was a third arcade game, creatively titled Donkey Kong 3, and it was released in 1983. This third game was a radical departure for the gameplay and characters gamers had come to know and love in the first two Donkey Kong games. Instead of being a platformer staring Mario and Donkey Kong, it was a shooter starring a new character named Stanley. In this third Donkey Kong, the mischievous ape breaks into Stanley's green house and causes such a ruckus that bugs started eating Stanley's flowers. You play as Stanley, and you have to save the flowers by shooting Donkey Kong with bug spray.

Because the game never caught on, and due to it being released during the North American video game crash of 1983, Donkey Kong 3 was not ported to nearly as many home consoles or home computers as Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. The only ports it saw were for Nintendo's own Famicom home console and for two home computers that were never released outside of Japan.

Donkey Kong 3 was then followed up by another Donkey Kong game, but this new game was developed specifically for the Famicom, not for arcades. It was called Donkey Kong Jr. Math and it was released in late 1983. As you can probably guess, it was a game that taught players simple math skills, and the gameplay involved maneuvering Donkey Kong Jr. around vines and chains to correctly answer math questions. There was also a multiplayer mode that allowed two people to play the game at the same time for the first time in a Donkey Kong game. In this extra mode, Donkey Kong would show you a number, and then you had to race against a friend to come up with an equation that would create that number.

Needless to say, the Famicom game was not well received by critics or fans, and it was actually one of the worst performing launch titles for the Nintendo Entertainment System when it was released in North America in late 1985. It was panned for having clunky controls and for just being a boring game. The poor sales and reception of Donkey Kong Jr. Math was more than likely the reason Nintendo of America did not localize other Nintendo developed educational games for the 8-bit console.

The last two games in this slew of Donkey Kong games were released in 1984 and they were both for the Game & Watch series. The first of the two games, released in the latter half of the year for the Game & Watch Panorama series, was Donkey Kong Circus. Like most Game & Watch games, the gameplay was extremely simple. You played as Donkey Kong, who was balancing on a barrel, and you had to catch and toss pineapples up into the air while avoiding fireballs. The second game, which was entitled Donkey Kong Hockey, was released for the Game & Watch Micro Vs. series. As you can probably guess from the title, this game was a hockey match between Donkey Kong and his arch nemesis, Mario. Because it was for the Game & Watch Micro Vs. series, there was also a multiplayer option in the game where a second person could jump in and play if they so desired.

After Donkey Kong Hockey was released, the ape and his son went missing for nearly an entire decade. While Mario was receiving games left and right and expanding upon his own universe, Donkey Kong was in the middle of a long hiatus. It would be eight years before one of the apes would be spotted again in a new and original game. In 1992, Nintendo released Super Mario Kart for their new Super Nintendo home console, and one of the eight available characters to race as was Donkey Kong Jr. It was a sign that Nintendo had not forgotten about the younger ape or his father, but it still was not a game starring the original Nintendo villain or his offspring. Finally, two years after Super Mario Kart's release and ten years after Donkey Kong Hockey's release, Nintendo released a game simply titled Donkey Kong for the Game Boy. 

At first the Game Boy game seemed like yet another version of the 1981 arcade classic, due to its name, story, and the first four levels of the game being based off of the four levels from the original, but once you managed to get passed the beginning, it became obvious that Donkey Kong for the Game Boy was a completely new and original game. While it did have some similarities with original Donkey Kong and its sequel when it came to gameplay, it added in its own twists and takes on platforming to make it feel more like a puzzle game with platformer elements.

As previously mentioned, the Game Boy game started out very similarly to the original arcade game, with Donkey Kong kidnapping Mario's girlfriend, Pauline, and taking her to a construction site. After completing the first four levels from the original Donkey Kong, the ape ran off with Pauline, and Mario pursued. What you discovered after that is that the game was divided up into nine different worlds, with multiple levels in each world, very similar to most other platformers of the era. 

In each level, Mario had to make his way passed various obstacles to reach a key which unlocked a door at the very end of the level. Each world also had at least two levels where Mario would confront the ape, and these levels were either battles between Donkey Kong and Mario, or levels more like the original two Donkey Kong games where all you had to do was manage to make it to where Pauline was. In addition to these new types of levels, the Game Boy game also allowed Mario to pick up items and walk on his hands for the first time in a Donkey Kong game, which expanded upon the gameplay from Donkey Kong Junior even further.

Not only was it the first Donkey Kong game in a decade, but it was also one of the first games to take advantage of the Super Nintendo's new add on, the Super Game Boy, meaning it was one of the first Game Boy games to actually have some color in it. That was not the only new technical addition to Donkey Kong, as it was also the very first Donkey Kong game that allowed you to save your data. In addition to those changes, this was the first Donkey Kong game released where the ape was wearing his now signature tie.

The game was extremely well received by the media and fans and was even named best Game Boy game of 1994 by the gaming magizine Electronic Gaming Monthly. It took the best aspects from Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. and added to them to create a fun and addicting game. Despite the rave reviews, the Game Boy Donkey Kong would be overshadowed by another Donkey Kong only a few months after its release. This new Donkey Kong game was released for the Super Nintendo and was created by a certain British developer.

Click here for Part 2!

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