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Cult Video Game Essentials: Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong was released on July 9th 1981 by Nintendo and it went on to become one of the biggest computer games of all time.  It is one of the earliest examples of a platform game with its focus on manoeuvring the main character Jumpman (aka Mario) across a series of platforms while dodging and jumping over obstacles in order to rescue a damsel in distress called Lady (aka Pauline) from a giant ape named Donley Kong.

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The game was the latest in a series of efforts by Nintendo to break into the North American market. Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo’s president at the time, assigned the project to a first-time video game designer named Shigeru Miyamoto. Drawing from a wide range of inspirations, including Popeye, Beauty and the Beast, and King Kong, Miyamoto developed the scenario and designed the game alongside Nintendo’s chief engineer, Gunpei Yokoi. The two men broke new ground by using graphics as a means of characterization, including  cutscenes to advance the game’s plot, and integrating multiple stages into the gameplay.

Regardless of initial doubts by Nintendo’s American staff, Donkey Kong succeeded commercially and critically in North America and Japan. Nintendo licensed the game to Coleco, who developed home console versions for numerous platforms. Other companies cloned Nintendo’s hit and avoided royalties altogether. Miyamoto’s characters appeared on cereal boxes, television cartoons, and dozens of other places. A lawsuit brought on by Universal City Studios, alleging Donkey Kong violated their trademark of King Kong, ultimately failed. The success of Donkey Kong and Nintendo’s victory in the courtroom helped to position the company for video game market dominance from its release in 1981 until the late 1990s (1996–1999).

The 2007 motion picture documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters explores the world of competitive classic arcade gaming and tells the story of Steve Wiebe’s quest to break Billy Mitchell’s King Kong record.

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