With the upcoming release of the Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition (NA) / Nintendo Classic Mini: Nintendo Entertainment System (EU), we're going to provide short profiles of all 30 games included on the system. This time around we look at Donkey Kong, a tale perhaps more complicated than it should be.
For such a simple game Donkey Kong has an oddly complex history, perhaps because its arcade served as the beginning of a new era for Nintendo, a tipping point. Yet change takes time, so as a result this one has more ports than you may realise, and this mini NES may not even have the best console version. Yep, it's complicated.
Most Nintendo fans know the basic history of how the original Donkey Kong arcade came to be. Having enjoyed success with arcades in Japan, Nintendo had struggled in the lucrative North American market. Company President at the time, Hiroshi Yamauchi, saw potential in a young Shigeru Miyamoto, and tasked him with producing a game to take over from the struggling Radar Scope in North America; that was a title that had succeeded in Japan, notably. With supervision from Gunpei Yokoi, Miyamoto's vision for a detailed platformer began to take form.
Though incredibly simplistic by modern standards, what became Donkey Kong was innovative in 1981. The focus on characters and inspiration from comic strips was far different from character-free action arcades of the time, with 'Jumpman' (who became Mario) attempting to rescue Pauline from the big ape, Donkey Kong. As is well documented, it was originally planned to be a Popeye game, but the delay in obtaining rights prompted Miyamoto to improvise and create a new trio of characters.
The game was a smash hit at arcades, taking off and giving Nintendo a key step into the North American market. As we said in the intro, though, this was a transitional time. Before the Famicom arrived with this as a launch title in Japan, Donkey Kong was ported to a lot of systems. It was first licensed to Coleco, which ported it and bundled it with the ColecoVision in 1982; it was a major hit for Coleco, helping to shift plenty of systems. Coleco then helped port it to a variety of other consoles (pre-NES era), with game sales apparently seeing over $5 million go to Nintendo in royalties. It's an intriguing point in Nintendo history, when its most notable games were regularly ported and sold on other hardware; naturally that changed once the Famicom and NES established themselves. As a side-note, there's also a Game & Watch version.
The money and rights issues around Donkey Kong didn't stop there, either. In this fascinating article on Gamasutra, there are details on a forgotten man that was heavily involved in the original arcade - Ikegami Tsushinki. If Shigeru Miyamoto was the creator and the innovator, it seems that Tsushinki was the quiet force that did the necessary technical work. He reportedly dealt with practical matters of programming, and actually created the arcade boards and units.
As the arcade took off in the US, particularly, Gamasutra reports that a 'custody battle' ensued as Nintendo started to tackle extensive demand for units by producing them internally. The dispute was over the Donkey Kong manufacturing rights, and whether Tsushinki's contract meant he was the only party legally allowed to produce the units; by making cabinets themselves Nintendo didn't have to pay a notable fee for each from Tsushinki. The legal argument even revolved around the code, which Tsushinki had apparently produced, and which had seemingly been reverse-engineered when Nintendo started manufacturing its own arcade unit boards.
According to Gamasutra, "in 1990 a court ruled that Nintendo did not have the rights to Donkey Kong's code, and the two companies settled out of court for an undisclosed sum." It's an interesting backstory that Tsushinki, so little known, had such a key part in the game's initial creation and remained tied to it years after the game had drifted to the periphery.
Moving to the NES port, it originally lacked the Cement Factory stage, having three levels instead of the four in the arcade. Aside from that it's a good version, though the Donkey Kong: Original Edition download is based on the NES game but with all four of the arcade's stages. The weird part is that the 'Original Edition' has had varied distribution methods in the last couple of generations; depending on region it's been bundled with Wii hardware, been distributed via Club Nintendo, and included as a 'reward' for buying a specific number of applicable games. The promotions varied.
Yet we can't find any indication on Nintendo's official pages that the 'Original Edition' is the one on the Mini NES; as the system is pushing for authenticity, it seems likely that it'll be the three-stage version originally released on the hardware.
This is a welcome (and inevitable) inclusion on the mini NES. In reality it's the arcade original that has a rich history and remains key in popular culture, with the ongoing battles over the world record (and the popular 'Kong Off' events) leading the way. When telling anyone about the rich history of Nintendo, however, this game will be a good place to start on the cute little system. It's the game that took Nintendo to a new level of success in video games, and features the debut of the character that went on to become the company's enduring mascot.