Retro Flashback: Donkey Kong Turns 35

For a long time now the staff at TiCGN have been dying to write about the video games we played as children that ultimately lead to us becoming involved in the industry we love so much. What better day to launch a new series about retro video games (yes, that term makes us feel old) than on the 35th birthday of one of the most iconic characters of the pixelated screen? July 9th marks Donkey Kong’s 35th birthday. We raise our glasses to the big guy who helped shape the future of an industry. Welcome to TiCGN’s first Retro Flashback.

Looking back, I can see that a dangerous amount of my childhood was spent in arcades. Every Saturday my mom would drop me off at the closest arcade and give me a bit of money to play games with and she would pick me up later. I was so young back then I had no clue that my mom was just getting me out of her hair while she ran errands, I just thought I had an awesome mother. Come to think of it, I spent so many Saturday afternoons in arcades that it is a miracle that I wasn’t abducted.

At any rate, the arcade is where I made my very first contact with Nintendo. There was Space Invaders and Pac-Man and all of the other classics from that era. Set within all of those games was a brightly colored arcade cabinet that somehow managed to stand apart from every other machine that tried to part you from your pocket full of quarters. I remember thinking that the name was strange – Donkey Kong – but no stranger than the name in the bottom corner of the marquee sign, Nintendo. I had never seen a company called Nintendo before so I had assumed they must be new. (Ironic, since Nintendo has been around since the late 1800s!)

I must have stood there watching the screen for about five minutes. In a way I was reminded of Pac-Man in that the player had to make their away across a screen full of challenges but while Pac-Man was about evading four deadly pursuers, Donkey Kong required you to make your way towards a confrontation with a powerful enemy. That’s a concept people can relate to. After all, there are countless books, movies, games, poems and other works of art that tell the deeds of the hero who triumphs over the adversary. On that note, your character was Jumpman who would later be known to the world as Mario. Donkey Kong is one of the few video games to spawn two legendary and recognizable video game franchises.

I must have dumped nearly all of my quarters into Donkey Kong on that first day as I learned the timing of when to jump, how to use the hammers, mastered the timing of the “pie factory” stage, made death-defying leaps from elevator to girders and finally pulled out all of the rivets. I laughed as Donkey Kong plummeted to the bottom of the structure and landed on his head. However, a classic villain never gives up and at the end of the day, Donkey Kong would have the last laugh as I couldn’t dodge on of his lightning quick barrel throws in a later stage. Over the years I would take on the role of Donkey Kong’s son and rescue him from Mario’s clutches (Donkey Kong Jr. was one of the video games where Mario was an adversary), stung DK’s rear with bug spray and tangled with him in a myriad of other ventures ranging from kart races to epic brawls. Donkey Kong’s grandest moments came from the Donkey Kong Country series but that is a tale best suited for another Retro Flashback.

While I couldn’t have known it at the time, Donkey Kong was practically a Hail Mary pass by Nintendo of America. The company had released a number of arcade games that ranged from flops to mediocre. Nintendo of America had a warehouse full of games called Radar Scope that failed to catch on. It was decided that a new game would be made that could run on the Radar Scope machine’s architecture and a young Shigeru Miyamoto crafted an adventure which thrust the lovable gorilla into the spotlight.

Interestingly enough, Donkey Kong’s refusal to be defeated by Mario would be reflected in the real world when Universal Studios attempted to bully Nintendo with threats of litigation over alleged copyright infringement. You see, Universal claimed that Donkey Kong infringed on the old King Kong movie from decades prior. With the resolve of an 800 pound gorilla, Nintendo stood their ground and Universal Studios was ultimately forced to pay damages to Nintendo. It is quite an impressive story which has been capably chronicled by The Gaming Historian:

Other TiCGN writers share their memories of Donkey Kong:

Hilary C – My dad bought a Super Nintendo for himself, and the family really, but he quickly discovered he had no video game skills whatsoever. Eventually, my mom ended up playing it the most out of anyone and her game of choice was Donkey Kong. She beat it before either my sister or I even came close. I have distinct memories of her playing the final boss battle, cheering her on. I ended up getting her Donkey Kong 2 for Christmas years and years later so she could play it again.

Ryan Silberman – Donkey Kong is the perfect symbol for the best of Nintendo’s decisions. This game, which brilliantly introduced the idea of controlling a realized, full-colored human to rescue another from a giant ape, single-handedly saved Nintendo of America from bankruptcy. The game was so awesome that Universal Studios wanted to cash in on the game by suing Nintendo for aping (pun intended) the idea of King Kong, an attempt that failed on an epic scale due to their film being public domain. Plus, there isn’t a scene in King Kong where the protagonist uses a hammer to smash barrels rolling along a construction site.

Thankfully, Donkey Kong isn’t just a historical curiosity. It’s also a fun game in its own right. In my personal opinion, the definitive way to play the title is through the original arcade cabinet. The console versions are decent conversions, but the arcade original was way harder and featured a challenge not present elsewhere: You had to reach L2 and L3, beating the 25m stage once more each time, in order to access the 75m and 50m stages, respectively. Not to mention it is always fun to beat other people’s high scores in an arcade!

We wish Donkey Kong a happy 35th birthday and look forward to many more years of great games with him.

Share this article: