Nintendo of America Nearly Killed Donkey Kong

One of the most famous video game characters in history almost never saw the light of day in the West

James Burns
Dec 31, 2020 · 6 min read

ou could say that Nintendo of America — the company’s first subsidiary outside Japan — was born as a mom and pop business. Its first president was Minoru Arakawa, the son-in-law of Hiroshi Yamauchi, the formidable patriarch of Nintendo. Its first employee was Yoko Arakawa, Minoru’s wife. The early days of Nintendo of America certainly weren’t glamorous; Minoru and Yoko had picked out a small office suite at Twenty-fifth Street and Broadway in New York City. The office space was modest, but the task ahead of the couple was enormous: help Nintendo find a foothold in the then-$8 billion per year coin-operated arcade market. In 1980, Nintendo had almost no presence in the West (its products were sold through trading companies in these territories, but Nintendo had no direct footprint).

Challenges everywhere

The Arakawas faced an uphill battle. For one thing, neither of them knew a great deal about video games. They were trying to expand the family business, and they had entered the venture reluctantly. As well, the arcade market in North America in 1980 may have been massive in terms of overall revenue, but it was dominated by established franchises like Pong, Space Invaders, Asteroids Breakout, and many others.

Minoru Arakawa. Source: Spiegel.

In order to crack the market, Nintendo would have to first be able to create its own amazing arcade experiences. That, in turn, would require an understanding of what made a great arcade game in the first place. As the Arakawas explored the arcades of New York — taking the time to carefully observe players tapping away feverishly, their faces flickering amid the neon glow of exploding sprites — they came to a realisation. Players could describe what they liked about these games, but the greatest games tended to leave players speechless. That is to say, they possessed some magical quality that couldn’t easily be articulated. Player and machine formed some kind of symbiotic connection that was resistant to simplistic definition. At any rate, it was definitely clear to the Arakawas that coin-operated arcade games had to capture a player’s attention within mere seconds of dropping the first quarter in. And that attention had to be held as long as possible if the machine were to have any real commercial value.

Searching for a killer app

As mentioned above, Nintendo had sold some arcade games in North America via various trading companies prior to 1980. But the company wasn’t exactly making a big splash. Its early arcade games were passable, but none of them had the appeal of titles like Space Invaders (we might now say that these games and others, like Pac-Man, had “gone viral” by the early 1980s).

Radarscope inlays. Source: My Nintendo Arcade.

Radarscope was really the first Nintendo arcade game to turn heads in any significant way. It was a simple shooting game, but results from early test locations indicated a positive response. Nintendo of America went all-in on Radarscope, almost betting the farm by ordering three thousand units. It took four months to receive the units from Japan by sea, and in that time, interest in Radarscope had already begun to wane, causing the Arakawas to panic. By the time they distributed the game to arcades across their fledgeling distribution network in North America, the game already seemed outdated to many players. Worse still, the growing internal team at Nintendo of America regarded the game as “boring”.

In the end, Nintendo of America was left with over two thousand Radarscope machines sitting in its inventory. Nobody would buy them, even at sharply-discounted prices.

Minoru Arakawa ultimately decided that the situation could be salvaged by ripping out the inlays from the existing Radarscope cabinets, and inserting new hardware inside — essentially converting Radarscope into a different game entirely. But Arakawa needed a new game. He nervously waited for a shipment from NCL (and, in the meantime, Nintendo of America moved its headquarters from New York to Seattle — there were several advantages to this, including reduced shipping time from Japan).

Dodging a bullet (or a barrel, perhaps?)

Nintendo of America’s small team, now finally settled in Seattle, spent some time testing the Radarscope machines that had arrived by rail from New York. Meanwhile, they nervously awaited the arrival of a new game from Japan. When a shiny new arcade board finally arrived, the team promptly installed it in an existing machine and turned it on.

Original arcade cabinet artwork. Source: Phoenix Arcade.

They gathered around the screen as the words “DONKEY KONG” appeared before them.

The Nintendo of America team were in shock. Radarscope had been a complete failure. They needed a game that could compete with the likes of Pac-Man and Space Invaders. But…Donkey Kong? What the hell was this? A couple of the staff tried it out, and concluded it was an unmitigated disaster. A wave of despair ran through the group. It was as though the writing was on the wall: it’s all over.

Initially, Arakawa complained to Yamauchi — but the stubborn Nintendo president remained firm in his determination that Donkey Kong was a “good game” and the American team should attempt to sell it. He wouldn’t even entertain the suggestion that the name should be changed.

Donkey Kong saves the day

The American team had their marching orders. The game was localised by Nintendo of America (and, famously, they chose to name the little jumping carpenter Mario after Mario Segali, their landlord).

It wasn’t long before all two thousand Radarscope units (which had been converted to play Donkey Kong) were sold. The local bars that Nintendo had initially convinced to take a couple of machines to test were now ordering more. They were seeing eager patrons line up just to play the new game.

Soon after, Nintendo of America sold a further sixty thousands Donkey Kong machines in North America. This one game resulted in revenues of over $100 million in the first year.

Donkey Kong. Source: Digital Trends.

In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine a company like Nintendo struggling to the extent that they might close their doors. Donkey Kong was a strange, unknown quantity that had no proven track record. But Hiroshi Yamauchi trusted the game’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, and he tended to have a strong instinct for which products were likely to become successful.

We tend to look back on history as though events unfolded in an inevitable way. But as this story demonstrates, some of the biggest success stories in history can often hinge on a combination of pure luck and determination.

I want to thank David Sheff, a journalist who wrote the outstanding book “Game Over” in 1993. His book contains many interviews an anecdotes from key figures at Nintendo before, during, and after the period discussed in this article. His work is a key reference point for this piece. I highly recommend “Game Over” for any Nintendo enthusiast.

Cover image by Hello Mister Frank on Dribbble. Thank you to David Sheff, Nintendo, Digital Trends, Kotaku, Phoenix Arcade, and My Nintendo Arcade.

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