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The Secret History of Donkey Kong

July 6, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

This also left Nintendo without a development team to follow up its smash hit. Nintendo wanted a sequel, but Ikegami was done with them. Soon after, Ikegami would go on to anonymously develop the innovative smash hits Zaxxon and Congo Bongo for Sega, contributing to the rise of one of Nintendo's biggest rivals. Ikegami Tsushinki was clearly an immensely talented team, but its terms were too restrictive for Nintendo's needs, and it needed to find a new partner.

Nintendo hired another contractor called Iwasaki Engineering to disassemble and reverse engineer Donkey Kong so that Nintendo could add new graphics, stages, and mechanics for a sequel. This time, the nature of the agreement was clear to both sides from the start, and would turn out to be a long and fruitful partnership. As Nintendo established its internal R&D, many members of Iwasaki would join its ranks. Before long, Nintendo was developing hit games completely on its own.

Shigeru Miyamoto's mind had been racing with more ideas since before he finished the original Donkey Kong, and his sequel came naturally. He wanted to show that the eponymous antagonist was more complex than just a big, mean ape, so he considered telling the story from Kong's perspective.

Of course, DK was simply too big to be a player character, and so Miyamoto made him a father, introducing a new hero, Junior, out to rescue his dad from the vindictive Mario.

Ladders gave way to vines and chains, and the barrels were replaced with nasty Snapjaws and birds. Donkey Kong Jr. was clever for a sequel released so soon after the original, with patterns that bore little resemblance to its predecessor.

The large amount of moving sprites was quite dazzling in 1982, and the climbing and reaching mechanics offered something fresh from the original. Once again four unique stages kept the gameplay varied and had players sinking in quarter after quarter to try to make it a little further.

But for all its very original ideas, Donkey Kong Jr. was still built on code reverse engineered from the original game -- code that was already the center of a copyright dispute. In 1983, Ikegami Tsushinki filed a ¥580 million copyright infringement suit (about $8.7 million adjusted for exchange rates and inflation) over both Donkey Kong and its sequel.

The legal battle dragged on for years, long after Ikegami left the game development business. In 1990 a court ruled that Nintendo did not have the rights to Donkey Kong's code, and the two companies settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. With the case settled and Ikegami long gone from the gaming business, little is said about Miyamoto's anonymous collaborators and the role they played in one of gaming's most important titles.

An Empire Emerges

The squabbles surrounding the development of Nintendo's first international hits were barely a blip on the radar compared to the tremendous impact of the game itself. Donkey Kong and its sequel had effectively given birth to a new genre of side-view jumping games, with countless imitators -- some clever and some blatant -- appearing in America, Japan, and Europe, in arcades, on consoles, and on home computers. By 1983, folks in the West started calling these "platform games".

In 1982, Shigeru Miyamoto got to make his Popeye game, officially licensed and all, on brand new, more powerful hardware. Nintendo went on to develop a third game in the Donkey Kong series with an all-new protagonist, Stanley the Exterminator.

The third in the trilogy bore little resemblance to its predecessors, abandoning the platform mechanics in favor of an unconventional shooter motif that had Stanley pressuring DK into a beehive with his bug spray. It failed to take off like the earlier games did, and Donkey Kong was put on a long hiatus.

With an internal development team and a small stable of strong brands in place, the stage was set for Nintendo's most ambitious move yet. In 1983, Nintendo released its brand new Famicom console with three ports of Shigeru Miyamoto's arcade games: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Popeye.

While concessions were made for ROM size and resolution, the ports were simply much closer to the real arcade experience than any home system could deliver up to that point, paving the way for Nintendo's extended domination of the console market. By the time the NES would reach our shores, Nintendo was winding down their arcade development for good. In just a few short years, Nintendo had changed the gaming landscape.

Donkey Kong has continued to be one of Nintendo's most recognizable characters, albeit in a form that would be almost unrecognizable to gamers in 1981. But Kong's legacy is far greater than that. If you can't imagine a world without Super Mario Brothers, without the NES, and maybe even without Nintendo at all, then you can't imagine a world without Donkey Kong. Both as a remarkable piece of game design and a commercial breakthrough for the single most important gaming company in Japan, Donkey Kong changed the world, and 30 years later we're still feeling its effects.

Note: Special thanks to GDRI for their tireless research and Masumi Akagi for his book Sore wa “Pong” kara Hajimatta.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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