You probably didn’t know it, or maybe you did, but Donkey Kong, the original, was the first platform game in which the player had a dedicated jump button. What we have so internalized today was an enormous revolution. So much, that nobody gave a damn that the name of the machine itself was nonsense: What does it have to do a butter (donkey in English) with what happens in the game?
The Nintendo landscape was especially particular before the creation of Donkey Kong. The toy company had developed several video games, but none had been successful, and to make matters worse, the plan to offer a game with the well-known license from Popeye it had gone to waste.
Fortunately, a young and restless Shigeru Miyamoto worked his magic: he made the most of the hardware available, came up with a hilarious game and reimagined the protagonists, replacing the evil Brutus with a monkey with very bad fleas. Donkey Kong was born.
Donkey Kong, proof that Miyamoto is right even when he’s wrong
Unsurprisingly, the name of a video game then and now is a momentous matter, and in many ways directly related to its success. It has to be engaging, of course, but also fun. So Miyamoto and his companions came up with the idea of calling both that great ape and the arcade Donkey Kong.
Had they confused the word donkey (donkey) with monkey (monkey)? Rather, they were wrong the meaning of the word. What they really wanted to make clear is that this ape was pretty dumb. silly. So, consulting a Japanese dictionary, they came to the conclusion that the word donkey was used to refer to the profile of an idiot person.
Something that also happens in Spanish, but that -definitely- does not apply to Shakespeare’s language. So they ran into the classic case of Lost in translation.
We wanted to give the game a name that suggested a goofy gorilla, so we called it Donkey Kong. Donkey is the name of an animal, the donkey, but when we looked it up in the dictionary we saw that it could also mean “stupid person”. So we proposed it to Nintendo of America, but they said no, claiming that the word donkey did not suggest “stupid” to them. (laughs)
What really had to be a picture worth seeing was how the idea of calling that machine was received Donkey Kong at Nintendo of America offices. But, on the other hand, Miyamoto is a genius even when he is wrong: he knew that if that badly phrased name had aroused so much impression among English speakers, the best strategy to achieve that success that the company was asking for was to use it.
Miyamoto at that time did not have the weight in the company that he has now, so the final approval of the name Donkey Kong It would come from either the legendary Gunpei Yokoi or Hiroshi Yamauchi himself. And well, you have to admit that it sounds very good. Despite the fact that it gives room for the conclusion, it is striking and from there, that the quality and fun of the game did the rest.
They said it didn’t make any sense, but I decided to go with the name Donkey Kong, because it made an impression. A year later everyone used it without thinking about it, so I deduced that any name was worth it, because people end up getting used to it. I realized that making an impression is essential, another thing Donkey has taught me.
However, what Miyamoto had not calculated is that the second part of the name added to the resounding success of the video game would end up putting the game and even Nintendo itself in a mess of titanic proportions. About the size of King Kong.
With Universal Pictures we have come across!
Currently, the relationship between Nintendo and Universal is like a movie. Never better said: together they have shaped Super Mario Bros. The movie (where Donkey Kong comes out) and they have numerous projects in common at hand, such as Super Nintendo World. But in the mid-eighties the picture was very, very different.
The success of Donkey Kong spread to the entire planet Earth. And in the absence of reaching infinite space, he entered the offices of Universal, who understood that part of the overwhelming reception of that Nintendo video game came from the popularity of one of its most valuable intellectual properties: the very King Kong. And what is even worse: they were profiting with it.
Universal took the legal route and that put the Japanese company in check. It was not a misunderstanding but, if the lawsuit were successful, Nintendo would not only have to make an outlay that would put its future on the line, but also, and as a bonus, it would lose its greatest asset in the video game industry. What’s more, Universal already had been able to get Coleco to pay royalties in the past.
Why was the word Kong used? Here, again, the jump from one language to another was also decisive: as Miyamoto himself stated in statements to Wired, the word ‘Kong’ is widely used in Japan to refer to great apes. In fact, and for reference purposes, if we don’t take into account the name of the game itself, both the flyer and the instructions for Donkey Kong on the Japanese machine refer to the character specifically as Kong (コング). And it makes all the sense in the world: he is a great ape.
So who is right? The quick answer is Kirby. More specifically the lawyer John Kirby.
John Kirby not only demonstrated that Nintendo did not infringe any trademark or intellectual property with the Donkey Kong video game, but also recalled that in 1975 Universal had already gone to court with RKO Pictures to establish that even the plot of King Kong was in the public domain. As a result, Nintendo not only won the case, but the process cost Universal a whopping $1.8 million (1982) dollars in legal fees.
Coincidence or not, many years later, a brave, rosy, and capable hero would be born on the Game Boy: the no less iconic Kirby.
Nintendo’s first hit, and universal’s last big animated surprise
Nintendo was fully aware that Donkey Kong it was too good a name not to use in a video game. That this success was beyond his control perhaps caught everyone by surprise.
Perhaps the ‘donkey’ thing doesn’t make any sense, and the ‘kong’ thing would almost lead to a big scare; but in the end what prevails was not the name, but a video game that even today can be enjoyed wonderfully on current systems. And its sequels, even more.
All’s well That ends well. And despite the clash of positions between Nintendo and Universal, we are left with this beautiful romance that both companies are currently living and the way in which, working together, they are able to unite the best of each house when it comes to making movies.
Because, who would have told us 40 years ago that Donkey Kong himself -after passing through Pixels- would make his triumphant entrance on the big screen combining the talents of Universal and Shigeru Miyamoto himself.
A character who now goes by simply D.K. and that perhaps, it is not as recognizable as Super Mario, but from which we draw two conclusions: despite the fact that he is still not very smart, he has a great name. So much, as to have his own movie.
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