Donkey Kong (1981)

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

When reflecting on the history of gaming, I often think about one of the classic Nintendo games, Donkey Kong (Nintendo 1981), released in 1981. This platform genre game features two renowned Nintendo characters, Donkey Kong and Mario, in rivalry. Donkey Kong throws barrels down at Mario to prohibit him from saving the woman that Donkey Kong has captured. It is the game player’s objective to climb to the top and save this lady, named Pauline. To do so, the gamer must direct Mario over barrels, up ladders, and to the platform where Pauline is located. While doing so, one may earn points by collecting items to increase their score. However, in order to stay alive, they must avoid the barrels which roll down the platforms and ladders.

Image Courtesy of Microsiervos on Flickr

Donkey Kong (Nintendo 1981) was groundbreaking for a variety of reasons. It was one of the earliest platform games, the first being Space Panic (Universal 1980), and the first platform game to use jumping as a way of avoiding obstacles and hopping from platform to platform. Furthermore, it has four unique stages and was one of the first games to include this multi-stage element. After the player completes all four stages, the game begins again from stage 1 but increases in difficulty. The game goes on until the player loses all of their lives or until they reach level 22, at which there is an error in the game’s programming which kills Mario quickly. Another reason that Donkey Kong (Nintendo 1981) is renowned in the gaming industry is that it introduced the first complete narrative. Other video games did not have this narrative element to them at the time. Nintendo achieved this through the use of cutscenes which was introduced by Pacman (Namco 1980). Furthermore, the storyline of the game was created prior to the programming, which was also unusual at the time.

Donkey Kong’s (Nintendo 1981) significance for Nintendo, though, lies mostly in its success abroad. It allowed the Japanese company to enter the North American market. Despite trademark infringement allegations from Universal City Studios in relation to their game King Kong (Universal 1980), Donkey Kong (Nintendo 1981) was deemed not in violation of these terms and served to be a crucial proponent in Nintendo’s current success in the gaming industry. At the time of the game’s release, the Nintendo company was trying to break into overseas markets. In an attempt to do so, Hiroshi Yamauchi, the company’s president, thought it would be wise to repurpose their previously manufactured game, Radar Scope (Nintendo 1979), into another arcade game as there were many unsold machines. He hired Shigeru Miyamoto to design the new game. At first, they intended to make the game about Popeye but since they were unable to get the right’s, they invented the Donkey Kong (Nintendo 1981) characters instead. Evidently, this proved to work in the company’s benefit. By the end of June 1982, Donkey Kong (Nintendo 1981) had brought in over $180 million for Nintendo through the sale of around 60,000 machines. Its success continued and it was monumental for the growth of Nintendo.

Altogether, Donkey Kong (Nintendo 1981) was impactful for a variety of reasons. It brought economic success to Nintendo (allowing for expansion), it introduced new elements to video games, and became a renowned symbol in video game culture. 

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Works Cited:

“Donkey Kong (video game).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.

Kent, Steven L. (2002). The Ultimate History of Video Games: The Story Behind the Craze that Touched our Lives and Changed the World. New York: Random House International.


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