Thirty years of hopping barrels in 2011

This year, Nintendo celebrated the 25th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. The game was originally released in 1985 went on to sell more than 40 million copies by 2003. The company made a big deal out of this, releasing special red editions of the DSi and Wii. Nintendo has also re-released Super Mario All Stars, the SNES collection featuring ports of four NES Super Mario games with improved graphics, in a 25th anniversary package with a soundtrack CD and booklet detailing the game’s history.

Considering Mario is Nintendo’s mascot and is comparable Mickey Mouse, it’s not hard to see what the big deal is. However, 2011 will mark another major anniversary for Nintendo. An anniversary that is just as, if not more important than, Super Mario Bros’ release.

I’m talking about Donkey Kong.

In 1981, Nintendo, then a struggling newcomer to the world of arcade games, released Donkey Kong to a couple of bars in Seattle. One year after its initial release, the game would earn $180 million and make millionaires out of the two salesmen who sold the arcade machines on commission. The game’s runaway success caught the attention of MCA Universal, who filed a lawsuit against Nintendo for infringing on their copyright for King Kong. The suit ultimately failed when it was discovered Universal didn’t own a copyright on King Kong. Two more Donkey Kong games would be released in arcades, with ports of the first Donkey Kong appearing on the Atari 2600 and 7800, ColecoVision, Intellivision and the NES.

More recently, Donkey Kong has come to symbolize the world of competitive gaming through the 2007 documentary “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.” The film revolves around a high school teacher, Steve Wiebe, and his attempt to earn the world high score from the world record holder Billy Mitchell. Mitchell is notable for setting a number of high scores on arcade games and being the first person to play a perfect game of Pac-Man, by eating every fruit, ghost and pellet without losing a single life until reaching the game’s kill-screen at stage 256.

While ports of the game are just fine, ports just don’t hold water to arcade versions. The Wii’s Virtual Console service has the NES port, but anyone who played the arcade version can see the NES game as a tame, domesticated house pet compared to its arcade counterpart.

The real Donkey Kong is a brutal beast whose hunger for quarters drives it to thrash players willing to take it on. Donkey Kong’s barrels fly down the girders at such a pace that Mario is forced to wait for an opening in the onslaught of barrels to climb a latter. Elevators move much faster that they do in the NES port and the arcade version features a stage not found in the NES port: the cement factory. At the cement factory, Mario is forced to navigate a series of conveyor belts while dodging piles of cement and hopping flames.

I think Nintendo should release the original arcade versions of Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. and Donkey Kong 3 on either a special disk set or through as Virtual Arcade titles and allow gamers to play the games as they originally were created. However, Nintendo’s roots in the arcades are nothing but a distant and forgotten memory for most gamers. The Legend of Zelda will no doubt celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2011 with more fanfare than will be shown to Donkey Kong. Then again, Nintendo was strangely quiet about the Super Mario Bros. 25th Anniversary Collection until just before it was released, so perhaps something is in the works.

By the way, in case you’re wanting to take on the aging gorilla in its native arcade jungle, take a trip to Murray, Utah and stop by the Nickel Mania arcade at 6051 South State Street. There, situated between the Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong Jr. cabinets, sits the vicious, hungry beast that started it all.

Written by Dave


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