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The Secret History of Donkey Kong

July 6, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[As we reach the 30-year anniversary of the title that made Shigeru Miyamoto a superstar developer, a complicated tale of secret development contracts and protracted legal battles emerges from the ether.]

Donkey Kong is perhaps the greatest outsider game of all time. It broke all the rules because its creator, the now-legendary Shigeru Miyamoto, didn't know them to begin with. It not only launched the career of gaming's most celebrated creative mind, it gave birth to the jump-and-run platform genre as we know it, and established Nintendo as perhaps the industry's longest standing superpower.

Thirty years later, Donkey Kong remains one of gaming's most recognizable icons, and still much of its story is untold. Most accounts of its development treat Miyamoto as if he was the only man in the room; that his sketches, ideas, and sprites were brought to life either by magic or some worker bees too unimportant to even mention. For many years, the question of who developed Donkey Kong went unanswered because it was seldom even asked.

Back before credit rolls were a common part of video games, developers used to find other ways to sign their work, usually in the default high score tables, but sometimes with messages or initials embedded in the ROM itself. These are sometimes the only clues left to help connect these games to their authors.

A scan of Donkey Kong's ROM proves to have a more revealing message than most:


Ikegami Co. Ltd., also known as Ikegami Tsushinki, is an engineering firm still operating today, and seldom associated with video game development. But back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was one of the first "shadow developers" in the Japanese market -- contractors like the famous TOSE that would develop games silently, without credit.

Not only was this hidden message found in Donkey Kong, but in other 1980s classics like Zaxxon and Congo Bongo, both released under Sega's name. Ikegami was more than just a group of hired coders; it was a full development team capable of repeat success, and unlike other shadow developers, it owned the rights to games it developed, placing Donkey Kong at the center of a bitter copyright dispute.

Beginner's Luck

Shigeru Miyamoto first came to Nintendo, a quickly growing toy manufacturer, in 1977. It seemed like a dream job for the artist/engineer, still fresh out of college, who had joined the company in the hopes of designing toys. But Nintendo was just beginning to explore a new medium, the burgeoning market of coin-operated video games, and Miyamoto's dreams were deferred. Nintendo's president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, assigned the young designer to create the cabinet and promotional art for its new video games, Sheriff, Space Firebird, and Radar Scope.

Unlike Nintendo's previous arcade machines -- largely electromechanical amusements -- these arcade machines were programmable video games with relatively cutting-edge hardware, a major step toward competing with the likes of Taito, which had changed the face of arcades with the release of Space Invaders.

Nintendo's management knew what it had to do to compete, but the company's modest engineering department had not yet become a video game development studio. Nintendo turned to Ikegami Tsushinki, which agreed to develop games under Nintendo's name, as well as engineer and manufacture the hardware they would run on. Nintendo made the cabinets itself and handled all the marketing. It seemed like a fair arrangement.

Either because of their eye-catching cab art or their clever gameplay, Sheriff and Radar Scope were successful in Japan, but Nintendo's rivals like Taito and Namco were making a killing in the American market, and Nintendo wanted a piece of the action. Yamauchi tasked his son-in-law, Minoru Arakawa, with establishing an American base of operations, and their first order of business was to bring Radar Scope to the U.S. market.

Because Nintendo could not make their own Radar Scope hardware to match demand, they were forced to order units from Ikegami ahead of time. Anticipating America would greet the game as warmly as its native Japan, Nintendo ordered 3,000 units from Ikegami, and shipped them to Nintendo's American distribution facility in Washington.

Alas, Radar Scope was not a hit in America. In fact, it sold only 1,000 units, leaving 2,000 arcade machines with very expensive hardware sitting in Nintendo's warehouse. The implications were potentially devastating. Nintendo could either give up, and face financial ruin, or it could develop a conversion kit that would turn those cabinets into something marketable. Arakawa begged his father-in-law to pursue the latter course of action.

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Leonardo Nanfara
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Cool article, i love gaming history. I play Donkey Kong all the time on my home arcade machine. I first played this game when i was 5 years old on my Atari console and now im 31 and im still lovin this game. This game is timeless :)

Tyler Hoffmann
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Definitely a fun read. The last paragraph definitely makes me wonder... what if? What IPs would we have today? What about hardware? So many questions!

Abel Bascunana Pons
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Excellent article. The first time i met Donkey Kong in Spain was about 1984-1986 thanks to Game&Watch handhelds. Unforgettable times.

Ron Alpert
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A very fascinating look into the past, one that is seldom talked-about. Especially considering its weight, stories like this try to provide answers but end up only raising more questions. Something tells me we'll never know the true depth of the involvement of the actual people who made crucial design decisions of these early games, we can only appreciate what history they have given us. Game design (especially during those early days where "every byte counts") has always been particularly intimate between the person entering the data and the delicate systems they've created; perhaps someday more light will be shed on this mysterious history, the foundation of an empire.

Trevor Cuthbertson
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"Ikegami would go on to anonymously develop the innovative smash hits Zaxxon and Congo Bongo for Sega"

For years, I always thought there was some greater connection between Congo Bongo and Donkey Kong, moreso than the other "Kong" knockoffs. Ikegami Tsushinki was the missing link. Great article!!!

Clay Cowgill
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About ~15 years ago I had a conversation with an ex-Atari engineer. (I was buying his collection of old Atari coin-op 'stuff'.) He had a few prototype machines he was selling as well, one of which was Donkey Kong.

As Dave described it, the game was offered to Atari for distribution but Atari's engineers were none too keen on being supplemented by outside developers. During play testing they discovered several bugs (he showed me one involving jumpman being invulnerable while standing at the top of a broken ladder) and used those as evidence to shoot down picking up the game and distributing it under the Atari label. Shortly thereafter they did get in bed with Namco, but Dave found it amusing that Atari almost wound up with DK as well as all their other hits from the 80's.

John Harris
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This is a very interesting article, because Nintendo released what is supposed to be an emulation of arcade Donkey Kong as part of Donkey Kong 64. I wonder if Ikegami knows about that?

Travis Fahs
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That was well after the 1990 settlement that resolved the issues between Ikegami and Nintnendo.

Matt Hackett
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I was going to say, "I thought Miyamoto wanted to call it Monkey Kong" but it looks like that was busted:

Donkey Kong is definitely one of the greats. Still engaging and extremely challenging to this day.