On July 9, 1981, Nintendo released Donkey Kong, the arcade game that saved the company.
By this time Nintendo had been around nearly 100 years, though the company’s work had evolved greatly over time. It started as a playing-card company, later getting into such varied productions as instant rice and taxi services. In 1969, it ventured into an industry that would prove fruitful: electronic video games. For the next decade, Nintendo would achieve success in Japan with various home-gaming systems and arcade games.
In 1979, the company decided it wanted to branch into the profitable U.S. market. Everyone agreed on the title that would break Nintendo in the States: Radar Scope, a game that had already proven to be immensely popular in Japanese arcades.
Nintendo produced 3,000 copies of the space-age shooter game, confident it would resonate with American audiences. They were wrong. Released in December 1980, Radar Scope was met with a collective yawn. Only a third of the arcade games even left Nintendo’s Seattle area warehouse. Its commercial failure sent the company into crisis.
To recoup some of the money spent on the failed Radar Scope release, Nintendo sought to find a way to convert the arcade game’s expensive hardware into another product. The project was given to Shigeru Miyamoto, a staff artist at Nintendo who had never developed a game in his life.
What Miyamoto lacked in experience he more than made up for in creativity. He also brought with him a perspective unlike anything in gaming at the time. Rather than creating shooter games like Space Invaders or Centipede, Miyamoto wanted to infuse his game with a narrative, and he wanted the visuals to further reflect a comic book influence.
“When I was younger, I used to draw my comics, and in school, I studied industrial design,” Miyamoto recalled to NPR decades later. “So, from both of those past experiences, I was always thinking about what’s the right angle to draw a picture from or to view something from and was constantly thinking about perspective in that sense.”
Originally, Miyamoto wanted to use the story of Popeye, the classic cartoon character that was always saving his love, Olive Oyl, from the villainous Brutus. When Nintendo was unable to secure the cartoon’s rights, Miyamoto created new characters but based their conflict on the classic Popeye love triangle. There’d still be a damsel in distress, but now she was held captive by a giant ape. And the hero was no longer a sailor but rather a brave carpenter, originally called “Jumpman.”
Surprisingly, many ideas came to Miyamoto while he washed up in the company bathtub. “There was a water boiler that was used to make the hanafuda [traditional Japanese playing cards that Nintendo manufactured],” the designer recalled in 2016. “And the water from this boiler was also used for a bathtub. … At night when nobody was around, you could hang out there for a long time. It saved me. It was effective at letting me put my ideas in order.”
In the book Game Over, Press Start to Continue, Miyamoto noted that he didn’t want the ape to be “too evil or repulsive,” instead of making the unusual decision to make him the game’s star. In the original story concept, the giant animal was the carpenter’s pet. Tired of being owned by a “mean, small man,” he escaped his cage and kidnapped his owner’s girlfriend. The narrative changed slightly, but the basic concept remained.
Through various levels, Jumpman would dodge barrels thrown by the ape – and other assorted obstacles – in his quest to rescue his love. Miyamoto even contributed to the game’s music to enhance its cinematic-like quality.
“I grew up watching a lot of cartoons and anime, so I just had this image that at the beginning there’s always this dramatic music to start things off — that’s where the dramatic [intro tune] came from,” he explained. “And then for the ending, I play guitar a little bit, and so the end song I put together as a bit of a parody of a song I used to play on guitar.”
As the game was readying for release, some final tweaks were made. Aware that the name Jumpman wouldn’t work in the U.S., Nintendo decided to rename the character Mario – his name coming from the landlord who owned the storage facility housing its arcade games. For the ape – and the game’s title – Miyamoto combined Kong from the classic King Kong movies, and Donkey, a word he found in a Japanese-to-English dictionary that was described as stubborn and idiotic. So, the name “Donkey Kong” was born, a title universally hated by Nintendo’s U.S. sales managers.
“Everyone thought that it wouldn’t succeed,” Miyamoto recalled of the initial reaction to the name. “But because the game did so well, even today based on that experience, when somebody tells me, ‘Oh, that name is too strange, it won’t work,’ I get very convinced and say, ‘Yes, I’ve thought of something very unique! This is going to do well.’”
“Well” may be an understatement. Released on July 9, 1981, the initial 2,000 Donkey Kong arcade games – built-in converted Radar Scope units – sold out quickly. Nintendo began producing more in Japan, but the demand, coupled with lag time, led the company to set up shop in the U.S. as well.
By October 1981, Donkey Kong was selling 4,000 units a month. By the summer of 1982, the game had earned Nintendo more than $180 million in revenue. By the time 1983 arrived, Donkey Kong had brought in more than $280 million.
Whereas Nintendo had previously been teetering on the brink of financial failure, Donkey Kong brought the company to new heights. And the impact was only just starting. Soon Mario would get his own fully developed franchise, catapulting Nintendo to the biggest gaming company in the world and becoming one of the world’s most beloved characters in the process.