This Week in Gaming History: Donkey Kong's deeper legacy0 Comments
The iconic Donkey Kong is turning 35 years old. The original arcade game first appeared on July 9, 1981 in The Spot Tavern, a sports bar outside of Seattle that is still in business today. Historically speaking, it is one of the most important video game releases of all time in a seemingly countless number of ways.
Sadly, some of this has been lost in the shuffle after 2007's cult classic film The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. While racking up huge scores on Donkey Kong is no simple feat, other historic and important aspects of the game's history have been overshadowed by the film. In reality, Donkey Kong was only popular in American arcades for about a year, but within that year the title set forth a series of firsts and historic events that shaped everything that followed.
This piece will look into the true legacy of the game, which is hardly mentioned in documentary films and other online articles. It will skip the widely known items, such as the debut of Mario or the first design involvement of Shigeru Miyamoto. While important, most know of these contributions to history. This feature aims to bring more awareness to other historic notes that are seemingly being lost to time or never widely shared in the first place.
It literally saved Nintendo of America
It's hard to imagine the American video game industry today without Nintendo in the timeline, but it came incredibly close to happening. While Nintendo was a longstanding company in Japan, their efforts to infiltrate the booming American video game market had struggled. The answer was thought to be a game called Radar Scope, a 1980 game that put a slight spin on the mega-popular Galaxian.
Radar Scope bombed, leaving Nintendo of America with thousands of unsold arcade machines. Bankruptcy proceedings started to to take place. Desperate to save the United States expansion, Nintendo of Japan scrambled to create a hit game. To save on costs, the game would have to run on same hardware as Radar Scope, with the plan to change the artwork and computer chips and sell the overstock. Donkey Kong was the end result of this scramble, and while the name didn't inspire confidence, the coin box numbers did.
Nintendo of America went from bankruptcy to incorporation on the back of Donkey Kong sales and merchandising. Without it, the Nintendo Entertainment System may have never seen the light of day in North America, a situation that would have resulted in a totally different console market today. Even before that, however, the game impacted the launch of a different video game console.
It gave Atari real competition
While Mattel's Intellivision had caused headaches for Atari with a higher powered console and a series of in-your-face comparison commericals, the system failed to create too much competition. In an era where home consoles were driven almost totally by ports of hit arcade games, Atari had a stranglehold on the rights to almost every key title. As the originators of Asteroids, Centipede and Missile Command, Atari automatically had exclusive claim to several smash hit coin-ops. They also obtained the home rights to Namco's Pac-Man, Williams' Defender, Taito's Space Invaders and Stern's Berzerk. It was fairly rare for any other home console to have the rights to any arcade hit of note, giving Atari the edge regardless of what kind of chips were inside their Video Computer System console.
This changed with Donkey Kong, causing an almost immediate shift in the console industry. Coleco, fresh off a successful series of early handheld games, got the rights to DK almost immediately. This gave the company the pack-in launch title they needed to bring attention to their new ColecoVision console. In addition, the enhanced power of the ColecoVision was shown off in what was an incredibly arcade faithful port for the era.
In a move that would be unheard of in any other era, Coleco also produced third-party software for Atari's system at the same time they were pushing the ColecoVision. This gave the company the opportunity to do side-by-side comparisons, showing off their own console's near-arcade perfect graphics beside the Atari version of Donkey Kong, which saw the big ape resembling a gingerbread man. It also marked a point where Coleco began to obtain console rights to several other arcade hits, as did several other publishers. Atari's chokehold on the flow of arcade hits for home game consoles came to a very sudden stop.
It was part of television history
Some time before the annual Kong Off events came to be, the world was treated to a historic first in arcade game history. At E3 2009, G4tv aired the first-ever live televised world record attempts on a video arcade game as Steve Wiebe played three times during the G4 broadcast. It was also livestreamed in full - a rarity in those days - and still stands today as the most watched livestream of an arcade world record attempt by far. Wiebe's King of Kong rival Billy Mitchell was also invited to play, but declined, appearing only in a pre-taped interview the day before Wiebe's attempts.
This G4 event was covered by USA Today, Guinness World Records and numerous local news outlets. Wiebe's final attempt was seemingly cut short when a power strip blew under the stage, but his final restart resulted in a live "kill screen" run witnessed by both the audience in attendance and watching at home. This marked the first time such a feat was aired live on television, and the first time such a glitch was aired on television at all since 1982, when a Pac-Man kill screen appeared on a taped broadcast.
This not only marks the first-ever televised world record attempt on a video arcade game, as of this writing it is still the only such live event ever done. It also sparked a change in the career of the guy writing this feature, who was working behind the scenes to make it happen. Today, Donkey Kong has many more competitors and promoters, but only Wiebe and G4 have been part of historic firsts in this space.
Overall, not bad for a game made to help sell overstocked arcade cabinets 35 years ago. A very happy birthday to Donkey Kong, Mario and Pauline, a trio that not only entertained millions but became perhaps the most important lynchpin in the history of video gaming. How high can you get?