The following feature is an excerpt from Ken Horowitz's excellent Beyond Donkey Kong: A History of Nintendo Arcade Games and has been reproduced here with the kind permission of both Horowitz and the publisher.
1981's arcade smash-hit Donkey Kong created a surge in revenue that lifted Nintendo’s prospects for its North American office and reaffirmed Hiroshi Yamauchi’s confidence in Shigeru Miyamoto’s talent. Mario’s quest to save Pauline was a sensation, one that exceeded NOA’s loftiest expectations, but there was still a lot left to be done, including combating counterfeiters.
Bootleg variations of Donkey Kong called Crazy Kong had popped up across the U.S., and they were eating into Nintendo’s profits. Crazy Kong was manufactured by a Japanese company called Falcon Industries and was an odd take on Nintendo’s own game. Falcon’s version went by several titles, including Congorilla and Big Kong, and played the same as Donkey Kong but had altered graphics and different colours. It also didn’t look or sound as good as the original, with less animation and cruder audio. To former Nintendo staffer Howard "Game Master" Phillips, the difference between the two was night and day. “It was such a clear rip-off, so I was always surprised when I came across one, usually in a ‘shady’ location,” he says.
It was such a clear rip-off, so I was always surprised when I came across one, usually in a ‘shady’ location
Ironically, the subject of Nintendo’s first major action against counterfeiting came against Falcon, a company that was under a Nintendo license. Falcon had paid Nintendo $100,000 for a license to produce its model, and the deal stipulated that stickers be placed on the PCB board of each Crazy Kong cabinet to show that it was authorized by Nintendo. Falcon also had to pay Nintendo a royalty of 10,000 Yen for each cabinet it manufactured. Most importantly, the agreement, which ended in January 1982, allowed Falcon to only sell or use Crazy Kong in Japan and prohibited it from importing or exporting the game. Despite these stipulations, thousands of Crazy Kong cabinets were now seemingly everywhere.
The confusion among manufacturers, distributors, and operators stemmed mostly from the stickers Nintendo had required Falcon to affix to each Crazy Kong PCB. Though the cabinets were for sale in Japan, the seal, which read “licensed by Nintendo” in English was official, so units were bought and sold in North America without a second thought. Sales were widespread, with some distributors selling hundreds of units before they realized Crazy Kong wasn’t legal in the U.S. One Dallas distributor even offered to buy 300 Donkey Kong cabs directly from Nintendo to compensate for having bought the same number of imitations. The illegality occurred because Nintendo of America Inc. was a separate corporation from Nintendo Ltd. and owned the Donkey Kong copyright in the U.S. Any licensing deal made with Nintendo in Japan didn’t apply in the U.S. for this reason.
It wasn’t that operators were buying Crazy Kong to deliberately hurt Nintendo. Out of necessity, they were settling for something that could get them as close to the Donkey Kong craze as possible. NOA was shipping the machines as fast as it could make them, and units typically went to the larger operators first. A pizza parlour owner, for instance, had little chance of getting a cabinet compared to larger locations like Chuck E. Cheese’s or Malibu Grand Prix. Orders were often backed up for weeks, an eternity for small operators.
Most video games had a short lifespan, and hits like Donkey Kong were opportunities that simply could not be missed. Bootleg games were often cheaper, and not just because they were knock-offs. Joe Kaminkow, the owner of one of Baltimore’s largest arcades and son of former Centuri President, Arnold Kaminkow, explained how rising prices were affecting operators. “The manufacturers are commanding exorbitant prices for these games. They find out they have a winner and knock the price up $300 a game. That can't continue unless they want to be manufacturers doing all the operating.”
It wasn’t that operators were buying Crazy Kong to deliberately hurt Nintendo. Out of necessity, they were settling for something that could get them as close to the Donkey Kong craze as possible
Nintendo of America president Minoru Arakawa and the company's attorney Howard Lincoln (who would later rise to the position of NOA chairman) acted quickly, cracking down on U.S. versions of Crazy Kong as early as Christmas Eve 1981, when they sued a company called Direct Connections for its manufacturing and selling of the game. A federal district judge sided with Nintendo then, dismissing the defendant’s claims that it had authorization to sell Crazy Kong because Nintendo had granted a license to Falcon, which in turn sold the game to Direct Connections. The court maintained that it was Nintendo’s U.S. subsidiary that owned the Donkey Kong copyright in the U.S.; NOA had no contract with Direct Connections and had not authorized the importation of Crazy Kong. The mere act of importing the game to North America was a violation of copyright. The accused’s claim that its game was substantially different from Nintendo’s was also dismissed.
Even with the victory against Direct Connections, catching the imitators was a difficult task because of how quickly they appeared. “We just can’t get to the manufacturer. We close somebody down, and a week later they reopen in someone’s garage,” said an exasperated Jim Donahue, a copyright lawyer for Nintendo. It was like sticking fingers in a leaking dam. As soon as Arakawa and Lincoln took down one counterfeiter, another sprung up in its place.
Things escalated quickly. In February 1982, NOA obtained a preliminary injunction in the Los Angeles Federal District Court to seize and impound more than two dozen games and components in the city. A month later, a similar injunction was brought against operators in Orlando, Florida. The end of July saw federal marshals seizing Crazy Kong cabinets from dozens of locations like Washington state, Nebraska, Michigan, and Missouri.
According to one of the accused distributors, Mike Stone of Signatron U.S.A., Nintendo was acting to stifle competition, since Crazy Kong was supposedly outselling Donkey Kong in Japan by almost three-to-one. Stone was incensed that Nintendo had taken no action against Falcon and instead centred its ire on American companies that had bought the game from it. When Stone met with the head of Falcon he was stunned at what he heard. “He assured me that Nintendo had not even written him a letter telling him to stop shipping the boards to the United States,” Stone alleged.
Along with the larger arcade operators, the defendants included smaller ones like pizzerias, drug stores, and even a bookstore
Things reached critical mass in August 1982 when Nintendo brought injunctions against 100 different defendants in one of the largest antipiracy lawsuits in the history of video gaming up to that point. Nintendo had threatened multiple locations with injunctions, but many had yet to relent. Along with the larger arcade operators, the defendants included smaller ones like pizzerias, drug stores, and even a bookstore.
Nintendo also published full-page announcements about its legal actions in trade journals like RePlay and Play Meter as a warning to other infringers. Over 41,000 Donkey Kong units had been sold in the U.S. by Nintendo as of May 1982, and the factory had poured over a million dollars in advertising, so there was a considerable investment to protect. That was only part of the equation, though. Arakawa and Lincoln knew that if they allowed the infringement to continue unchecked, everything they had achieved with Donkey Kong would quickly be undone. NOA would be back at square one.
Mike McEntee, a lawyer for the defendants, argued that although Falcon’s deal with Nintendo forbade it from manufacturing or selling Crazy Kong in the U.S., there was nothing preventing Falcon’s customers from doing so. McEntee contended that Nintendo was attempting to defraud its U.S. customers by profiting from Donkey Kong’s initial sales and then again by enforcing U.S. copyright laws. Falcon, Stone, and some of the other defendants demanded a jury trial to resolve the issue. Their claims didn’t convince the judge, and Nintendo won its injunction.
In time, Falcon itself would finally have its time in court. After seizing more than 1000 machines, Nintendo of Japan won an injunction in July 1982 against its former partner, claiming that Falcon had gone beyond the scope of its licensing agreement and illegally exported great numbers of PCBs to North America. Falcon was subsequently barred from further manufacturing, operating, or selling of Crazy Kong. The company countersued but lost, giving Nintendo a major victory at a critical time in its fight against bootlegging.
From Beyond Donkey Kong: A History of Nintendo Arcade Games © 2020 Ken Horowitz by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640.
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There was loads of Donkey Kong clones in the 80s. One of the first games I ever played as a tiny child... Roller Kong on the Commodore Plus4: https://youtu.be/sBdO3YZERho Look, it was good at the time, okay?
Yes, I remember the Crazy Kong cabinets. And I'm from Europe.
I was crazy about Donkey Kong at the time, so I knew by heart that the "other Kong" had to be some kind of forgery.
Nintendo when they realized that there was DK ripoffs in the USA.
Yep, there were no other competitors in the Arcade space in '81, literally no one. Arcades were just filled with one hundred Donkey Kong machines, because that's just how things worked.
Poor indie company like Falcon could make thousands of $3,000+ machines, but couldn't think of an original idea, so they made a dollar store version of DK.
Is it just me, or do the sound effects in Crazy Kong sound like something from an early-mid 2000’s flash game?
I'm not surprised
To be fair at the time of release wasnt Donkey Kong seen as just a thinly veiled knock off of King Kong? I remember at the time of release upon seeing the cabinet/original promotional artwork featuring a giant gorilla that Donkey Kong just HAD to be some kind of official King Kong spin off- Dont get me wrong, I love the big N but typical litigious Nintendo & their double standards again even back then lol😅
Its just business and Falcon violated the agreement. There is no gray area.
Space Fever doesn't use any assets from Space Invaders and adds new modes to change things up. It is derivative, but in no way is it copyright infringing.
Namco's Galaxian and (Nintendo's) Radar Scope have as much resemblance to Space Invaders as Double Dragon has to Streets of Rage.
Crazy Kong is port of Donkey Kong to cheaper Arcade hardware. It straight up uses most of the original sprites and depending on the distributor would use Miyamoto's art on the cabinet as well.
And please don't tell me what I should comment. Thank you.
@Slowdive Dude. Sega and Konami started the same way.
Konami's was the most blatant out of all of them.
@Slowdive Originality was never a thing. It is nothing more than a fluke that occurs from time to time.
Hell, Konami's game was JUST Space Invaders with a different name and sprites.
Personally, I preferred Beauty and the Beast and Congo Bongo on the Intellivision for my DK rip offs back then. But it would be interesting to see one of these in the wild.
Defending copyright and trademark is in no way a shady practice. They acted within their legal rights. Falcon a d their partners were the shady ones here.
A game been cloned I have never such thing in video games 😱😅
Now You're Playing A Knockoff! A Crazy Knockoff!
@Slowdive No, my friend. Nintendo is not a company that dislikes and even denies competition, either from companies, or its fans. Is this what you say to yourself to justify illegal practices and theft such as hacking and stealing the work of others and their intellectual properties? Please, wake up.
Good God, to think that...THAT was super technically Mario's first voice (when he jumps in the included video), both chronologically and canonically...good thing it quite obviously changed once that one PC edutainment game came out.
Interesting read indeed. I didn't know there were Donkey Kong clones (Wasn't around yet in the 80s), though I'm not surprised either. I'm quite familiar with both RePlay and Play Meter; the business I work for does, in part, work with the amusement sector. We don't have any insanely expensive modern cabinets, but there are some decent pinball and VG arcade cabinets that come through the repair area.
Everyone who used MAME, knows how much clones there is generally.
@Slowdive From what I heard, Space Invaders was about the era when even first-world governments were still debating whether or not computer programs counted as copyrightable content or as "just numbers".
So it's possible the early clones of SI could legally get away with it.
Though I heard mass game copying still went on in third world countries less quick to adopt copyright laws (though I'm sure some still just turn a blind eye to it ).
Or cultural reasons. I do remember reading into the '80s, there was a whole lot of South Korea just helping themselves to Japanese game assets for culture-relations reasons. Before I guess there was some pressure that it would probably be a good idea to try to establish their own game development identity than just copying.
Well, don’t this story sound all too familiar.
Is this a bad emulator, or is the Crazy Kong arcade really filled with graphical glitches?
If I was Nintendo I wouldn't even put my "Licensed by" stamp on that cheap knock-off, but back then that was probably just reducing damage already done.
There is only one Kong in video games, that is Donkey Kong.
“Congorilla” is a great title, but Nintendo already used Donkey Konga instead.
Don't forget originally Donkey Kong was supposed to be a Popeye game. Shigeru M. really wanted to do a Popeye game, but King Features, who owned the rights, didn't think it was worth the trouble. So he replaced Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl with his own characters. When King Features saw what a massive hit DK was, they were more than eager to make a Popeye game. So we ended up with two classic arcade games.
Fascinating stuff. Ha ha.
@Slowdive Indeed, Space Fever "borrows" a lot of its code pretty directly from Space Invaders — alien movement, shooting behaviors, etc. are virtually identical. It did, at least, invent two variant game modes and tried to bury its most direct clone by making it 'Game C'.
I absolutely loved Crazy Kong when I was a kid. The music pieces were much more catchy than Donkey Kong, too.
@BirdBoy16 Truth XD
Crazy Kong was the one I used to see in arcades around London back then - it was very rare to see a real Donkey Kong arcade machine...
@MrDannyB Although I agree with your general point.. Nintendo didn't wint the lawsuit against Universal because they claimed Donkey Kong wasn't like King Kong, but by claiming King Kong was an often told story in Japan, thus free for everybody to tell inn their own way..
"Interesting read indeed. I didn't know there were Donkey Kong clones (Wasn't around yet in the 80s), though I'm not surprised either."
What "Wasn't around yet in the 80s"?
@Mario500 I wasn't born yet lol. I missed the initial arcade boom and video game crash of '83.
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