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The Secret History of Donkey Kong


July 6, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next
 

Nintendo, lean on experienced game developers, placed Miyamoto in charge of the project. Miyamoto had never designed a game before, but he had been doodling ideas for characters even as he worked on Nintendo's cabinets. Yamauchi assured him his lack of technical skills would not be a problem. Miyamoto would simply give direction to the team at Ikegami Tsushinki, and it would develop the game according to his ideas. Gunpei Yokoi -- later known as the father of the Game Boy -- would further guide Miyamoto on technical and design concerns.

It was not only the first real game design Miyamoto had done, but the first time anyone at Nintendo had been deeply involved in the game design process. Placing an inexperienced designer in front of such an important project might seem like a risky move, but Miyamoto's unique perspective would prove to be his biggest asset. Miyamoto did not approach game design the way others did. Where most games at the time involved scenarios drawn from action movies -- shoot-outs, race cars, submarines, and intergalactic battles -- Miyamoto wanted his game to feel like a comic strip come to life.

Even the notion of discrete characters with individual personalities was fairly uncommon in arcade games at the time, but characters and story were fundamental to Miyamoto's vision.

Initially he had hoped to create a game based on Popeye and his perpetual battle with Bluto over his damsel in distress, Olive Oyl. Nintendo was unable to secure the license -- at least at that time -- so the designer superimposed the classic love triangle over a King Kong theme.

A lovestruck gorilla absconds to the top of a construction site with the prettiest girl he sees, and her carpenter boyfriend has to come to her aid. Just a picture of the scenario can tell the whole story through the din and distractions of a busy arcade.

Even Miyamoto's methods of communication mirrored the comic medium he was inspired by. Like Sonic the Hedgehog designer Hirokazu Yasuhara, he would draw pictures of scenarios on paper, each one a whimsical snapshot of how the game would feel. While jumping wasn't a new mechanic in games, Miyamoto envisioned a character that would have to jump over hazards, onto moving platforms, and across gaps in a way that had never been done before. The action was just plain fun, funny, and fit perfectly with the game's lighthearted tone.

The game the two companies created communicated quite a bit without the need for words. The decision to show the giant ape as he scaled the building's scaffolds, to show Pauline crying for help, and to show the gorilla's escape at the end of the level was a bold one at the time. Normally these things would just be implicit, but Miyamoto wanted to make sure the whole story, simple though it was, could be told on screen in a way that could be instantly grasped by players.

This also allowed for an innovative multi-stage design that boasted four very distinctive screens of action with unique challenges, without confusing the objectives. Pauline was still near the top of the screen crying for help, and Mario's goal was clear. That desire to see the new levels, rather than just repeating the same one over again would motivate players, especially the more causal, to drop more quarters into the game in a way that just competing for high score never could.

Yamauchi immediately recognized that Miyamoto's game could be the one to save Nintendo's sinking American operation. He asked the designer to give the game an English title that Americans could relate to. Of course, Miyamoto knew very little English, so when he tried to look up a word that would accurately convey his ape's stubbornness, he came up with the somewhat perplexing "Donkey Kong".

It didn't matter. The game arrived just in time to save Nintendo's American division. The situation was so dire that the company's landlord, Mario Segale, had been coming around demanding the late rent payments owed to him. Arakawa thought the mustachioed owner looked a bit like the hero of Miyamoto's game, so Jumpman was renamed to Mario in his honor.

Custody Battle

While Donkey Kong was poised for launch, Nintendo's American arcade division was teetering on the brink. Resources were so tight that Nintendo of America's three employees had to convert all 2,000 Radar Scope units over to Donkey Kong by themselves. But once those units started making their ways into the darkened hallways of arcades around the country, Nintendo's only problem was where to get more.

That problem wasn't as straightforward as it sounds. Ikegami Tsushinki produced the initial shipment of boards, just as they had done for Radar Scope, but Donkey Kong was a huge hit and Nintendo needed more. Demand was so high in America that Arakawa began manufacturing new units in Nintendo of America's warehouse.

But Nintendo didn't actually own the manufacturing rights to Donkey Kong. Although their game was still a Nintendo product, and the characters, name, and brand all belonged to it, the development contract gave Ikegami Tsushinki the exclusive rights to manufacture and sell boards to Nintendo for ¥70,000 each. After the initial order of 8,000 units, Nintendo ceased to buy boards from Ikegami. Although the contract was unclear with regard to actual copyright of the program code -- still new territory for the law -- Ikegami was named as the sole supplier for Donkey Kong boards.

Nintendo didn't see it that way. Before long, Nintendo had manufactured about 80,000 additional units without Ikegami's involvement, burning the bridge with the company that had developed its biggest hit, and opening themselves up to a bitter legal battle that would drag on for almost a decade.


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