Many people associate Nintendo with its mascot character, Mario. But did you know that the video game that put the iconic gamemaker on the map was actually the first Donkey Kong, released to arcades in Japan way back in 1981?
Crafted by Nintendo savant and video game guru Shigeru Miyamoto, the original Donkey Kong gave arcades something different from the space shooters and Pac Mac clones that dominated the scene at the time. It also introduced the world to characters that are now household names. In a sense, Donkey Kong may have birthed modern home console gaming as we know it because, as those familiar with the story will tell you, this huge success for Nintendo positioned the company to challenge rival Atari in the home console market.
And thank goodness they did: With the video game crash of 1983, brought about by a variety of factors but one overarching theme being consumer disaffection with what they deemed to be shovelware, Nintendo’s approach to gaming was sorely needed and, indeed, necessary to save the market.
Tying Donkey Kong’s arcade success to the later release of the Famicom system is not that much of a stretch, either, given Nintendo’s previous forays into the arcade space were largely forgettable. If Donkey Kong had failed, perhaps Nintendo executives would be reluctant to release a piece of kit buoyed initially by the company’s in-house offerings.
More modern gamers might be familiar with Donkey Kong from the Donkey Kong Country titles and, while definitely Donkey Kong games, they are not like the classic arcade game released in 1981.
This game features platforming elements but features a vertical level that Mario must climb to rescue Pauline at the top. You may recognize Pauline now as the Mayor of New Donk City in Super Mario Odyssey for the Nintendo Switch. Running up and down steel girders, all the while avoiding deadly obstacles, the original Donkey Kong arcade game tapped into the same simple gameplay concepts as Pac Man but added an overlay of platforming that would later become the company’s marquee genre.
In fact, the later release of Mario Bros. Arcade borrows a lot from its Donkey Kong predecessor including the platforming elements that underpin Super Mario Bros. for the Famicom.
For these reasons, the original Donkey Kong for the arcade is not only an arcade classic on par with or exceeding Pac Man and Pong when you consider its long term impact, but also foundational for a lot of what we understand to be a “Nintendo” game today.
It is hard to imagine the world without the iconic characters but it is even more difficult to imagine where we would be without all of the conventions that Nintendo has established over its corporate history.
Single-handedly saving video games in the West is no small feat, and Donkey Kong’s contribution is fundamental. Whether it is platforming, puzzle gaming, or home consoles themselves, Donkey Kong’s contribution to video games as an industry and culture is palpable to this day, placing it among the likes of Tetris for its foundational heritage.