A big, mean ape is the reason Nintendo caught fire with American audiences.
Take a moment to thank Donkey Kong today, which is the 34th anniversary of the original game’s arrival in the States. Legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto came up with the titular primate and his mustachioed arch-nemesis — “Jumpman” at the time, the prototypical Mario — as Nintendo pushed to gain stateside traction.
Miyamoto’s first project for Nintendo was Radar Scope, a 1980 arcade game that looked and played like a faux-3D Space Invaders. Take a look:
The game’s success in Japan led Nintendo of America to import a large number of arcade cabinets, but low sales left the company in dire straits. It was a grim situation, but company president Hiroshi Yamauchi came up with a solution: convert Radar Scope into something more palatable. Even fresh.
Miyamoto seized the opportunity, and Donkey Kong was born. It was the first example of the nascent medium being used to tell a story, with cutscenes showing Donkey kidnapping Lady, the game’s damsel-in-distress, and Jumpman setting out to save her.
Donkey Kong also featured multiple levels,injecting the experience with a sense of variety. And fundamentally, it introduced some of the basic platforming concepts that would guide Nintendo’s early NES hit, Super Mario Bros — not to mention a key character in Jumpman/Mario himself.
But what of Radar Scope? Nintendo of America’s unsold stock of arcade machines were repurposed after Miyamoto’s Donkey Kong passed muster with the company’s higher-ups. Today, one of the rarest treasures in gaming is the original red Donkey Kong arcade cabinet; these started life as Radar Scope before they were gutted and re-skinned with Miyamoto’s second game.
Donkey Kong‘s popularity was later eclipsed by Mario, following the success of the NES and its pack-in game, Super Mario Bros. But the mustachioed plumber owes his existence to Miyamoto’s angry ape. There’s an amazing sequence here: without Donkey Kong there is no Mario; without Radar Scope there is no Donkey Kong; and without Radar Scope‘s failure, there’s a very different path for Nintendo in America.