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The Secret History of Donkey Kong
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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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