Making Their Mark

Making Their Mark
The King and the Donkey

Spanner | 16 Oct 2007 09:17
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This article originally appeared in issue 39 of The Escapist.

Nintendo wasn't born with a silver joystick in its mouth. It fought, clawed and clamored its way into a world that didn't want it, and despite making mistakes over the years (there is yet to be a success within the industry who hasn't), the Japanese pioneer deserves recognition for forging a path of its own design; a company built on the passion of people who knew they had something unique to give the customers they just couldn't reach. A driving vision, steely determination and a refusal to be intimidated ultimately led to Nintendo being established as the world videogame power it is today - an inspiring lesson to us all. No matter how powerful your rivals may appear to be, the future is shaped solely by your own desire to achieve, and can only be subverted if your resolve allows it to be.

Even during the golden age of gaming, Nintendo was not a young name. Reaching back as far as the late 1800s, it began life producing Japanese playing cards made from bark known as hanafuda. For almost a century thereafter, Nintendo kept itself happily ticking along by dabbling in any number of niche markets, one of which was the blossoming American videogame trend. As with all its endeavors, this product line was approached with Nintendo's trademark innovation, and as the Japanese public's interest increased, so did the company's investment. Despite making an early start on the gaming scene, Nintendo's domination of the industry was a long way down the line, and would actually be kick started by the recklessness of its competition.

Not that the Western industry actively blocked any Japanese attempts to find a finger hold in the Trans-Pacific market, but gaming trends across the basin were so radically different that finding a title with universal appeal was an immensely difficult task. It's not at all unlikely that attempts at transcending the ostensibly impenetrable cultural barrier, in either direction, would have been viewed as impossible if not for the few anomalies that had produced the same impact on both shores, such as Pac Man, Space Invaders and Gun Fight. But no matter how much the gameplay of these success stories was dissected, analyzed and put back together, recreating their quintessential, global appeal was becoming the Holy Grail of videogame development.

While most coin-op manufacturers of the late '70s and early '80s concentrated on the more attainable goal of localized success, Nintendo set itself the prodigious task of breaching that trade barrier once and for all. To this end, the Japanese management decided a radical approach to game development was required, and sought an alternative path to designing the Eastern title that would enthrall the Western arcade. A greenhorn artist and designer from Nintendo's toy manufacturing division was drafted in and given the ambiguous assignment of realizing this much coveted, and previously unattainable, goal. Young Shigeru Miyamoto was a complete newcomer to videogames, but together with veteran engineer Gunpei Yokoi, the dynamic duo soon created a game that would open the door to the American dream. Unable to speak English, Miyamoto-san took up a translation dictionary to fathom the title "Stubborn Gorilla," and mistakenly christened his magnificent machine as "Donkey Kong."

The game quickly established Shigeru Miyamoto as the right dude for the gig when Donkey Kong single-handedly rescued the failing Nintendo of America, which had already defaulted on its warehouse payments and whose three employees were preparing to file for bankruptcy. In apology, president of Nintendo of America, Minoru Arakawa, renamed the hero of Donkey Kong (known simply as "Jumpman") after Mario Segale, the landlord of the warehouse he had previously been unable to pay.

It was 1981. Times were looking good, and Nintendo had finally found its way to the Promised Land.

Ever since Atari first had the notion of licensing arcade games for conversion to home systems (with Space Invaders), the arcades had become vast, neon-coated advertisements and intense, expensive testing grounds for the real profit behind the industry, the home games market. It was clear that Donkey Kong was just such a license waiting to explode in a ball of green flame. Nintendo was unprepared for the rigors of the home console wars, and, although every major player on the scene wanted the rights to the monkey, it was eventually bagged by Coleco, who had previously known some success with a home system (a dedicated Pong clone known as the Telstar), though ultimately won the contract via its intention to take Nintendo's obstinate anthropoid to multiple formats, initially accompanying their new console, the ColecoVision, as its flagship title. Third-party ports were to follow for other home machines, as well as the handheld games market in which the Connecticut Leather Company was already immersed. Taking Nintendo from strength to strength, Donkey Kong licensing went into full throttle.

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