Donkey Kong [1981]

(Content warning: Racism.)

Donkey Kong [1981] is not only the start of a long-running genre-defining game franchise, but also the creation myth of an industry titan. It becomes overburdened with significance: I had to go and delete from Wikipedia the bizarre and preposterously incorrect claim that Donkey Kong was straight up the first video game with a complete narrative, which I’ve seen elsewhere too. It’s like when people say the Fantastic Four was the first time there were feelings in comic books or whatever. Fact is, the landmark importance of this game rests not on some earthshaking innovation, but on its own merits as a game, but even more than that in the characters it introduces to video gaming history: Donkey Kong, Mario, Nintendo, and Shigeru Miyamoto.

(Constant Drudgery Is Harmful To) Soul, Spirit, And Health – Rip Rig & Panic [1981]

People even make a moderately big deal about this being Miyamoto’s very first game and how that lent him a unique perspective, when to my eyes, in the context of 1981 it’s much more notable for someone to be already a somewhat experienced hand in this very young industry… like Shigeru Miyamoto was. It wasn’t his first rodeo: Miyamoto had apprenticed on Sheriff [1979], officially doing art direction, which isn’t far off from what he did for Donkey Kong, and left his thumbprint on it or vice versa, in the form of his use of the damsel-in-distress device and storytelling cutscenes predating even Pac-Man [1980], recurring here and later. What’s more notable to me on the production end is how Miyamoto did not work alone, and did not code, but instead served as a creative director, aiming specifically at the foreign American market. He worked with people from the international branch of his corporation and subcontractors, who only in 1990 would be legally recognized as the creators and owners of the nitty-gritty implementation of Donkey Kong. This is for the most part the future model of global game development, heralding the slow end of the predominance of the early-80s truly solitary game designer — an ironic but fitting entrance to the blog of our first Superstar Developer. Perhaps all this is why Donkey Kong has themes of labor written all over it.

The story of Donkey Kong is far from “complete:” Not only does it not have an end state, but despite the significant efforts it takes to convey its narrative nonverbally, like its predecessors it relies heavily on not just reference, to the famous finale King Kong [1933 and 1976] as surely as Death Race [1976] needs Death Race 2000 [1975], but also through inference. Where the manual for owner-operators of Galaga [1981] cabinets lays out its premise, the manual for Donkey Kong contains only technical information, and whatever text was on the cabinet is lost as far as my research skills are capable. The audience still has to do much of the work of constructing the tale for themselves through interpretation of its shorthand.

So, to get in the spirit of things, I would like you to pretend to forget everything you know about Super Mario, the cartoon corporate mascot of 1985 on. For the time being, this is Jumpman. Jumpman lives in what is, by way of King Kong riff, implicitly but obviously New York City. He is a laborer, as signified by the caricature of his workingman’s overalls, his gruff masculine mustache, and his literal blue collar, an assemblage of broad traits straight out of a Leninist propaganda poster of the stereotypical ideal worker. The most straightforward implication is that he is employed at this construction site that Donkey Kong menaces him at, and swings a hammer within a proscribed capacity as specifically a carpenter. This identity as a general manual laborer who works in positions that are precarious both in terms of the outsize hazard and evidentially in their brief terms of employment — Mario as a temp — would be the core of the nascent character’s identity and gameplay across many titles like Mario’s Cement Factory [1983] or Vs. Wrecking Crew [1984] until it was abruptly and totally abandoned.

Jumpman might be the hero, but if so, he’s another hero who comes by it primarily by way of enduring his expendability, not like, virtue. He’s all too mortal. What would in later platformer games be a trivial fall are debilitating for Jumpman, sending him right to the cold comfort of Workman’s Comp. Jumpman’s plight in Donkey Kong can be read as an exaggeration of the normal workday: For the reward of an all-too-brief respite with your loved ones before it starts all over again, you drag yourself through a fresh but repetitive load of inordinately difficult bullshit in a work environment where they skirt safety regulations to get your personal stock of numbers to increase. It’s easy to identify and sympathize with. Lionizing Jumpman, in this light, is lionizing ourselves and those around us too.

Luckily, someone else was nice enough to count the OSHA violations for me.

If Jumpman is a hero, Donkey Kong is not just a villain but a total villain. He is the source of all of Jumpman’s woes, the one who steals his time with his loved ones away, the one who makes his life hard at work, the one who makes his job unsafe. Well, only the first level explicitly, but at a certain point before you’re even done with the game, Donkey Kong ceases to be a mundane beast, but an icon for how capitalist nerve center New York City treats its lowest-prestige workers, and the struggle takes on the quality of myth. It’s the same metaphorical vein rapper Duke Bootee identified a year later as a big, obvious “Neon King Kong standing on my back” (cw: homophobia, suicide), perhaps thinking of Donkey Kong. And not only is this another arcade game where the only ending is a kill screen glitch, but that you don’t even get to touch Donkey Kong. He’s completely unstoppable.

Let’s talk about that unsafe work environment, that hostile gameworld. This is the first time on this blog we’ve really seen level design, as opposed to whole implemented world maps or randomized levels or different arrangements of enemies. Donkey Kong is a series of obstacle courses and thus exists in an athletic tradition almost as old as organized athleticism itself, dating back as early as Ancient Rome where they had people train by jumping in sand or out of pits while carrying weights, or the Grecian Olympics if you think hurdles alone count as an obstacle course. The traditional purpose of an obstacle course is so that the person who goes through it conforms to a competitive performance standard before an audience. Perhaps this pedigree is why the competition for Donkey Kong champion was dramatized in sports documentary face/heel style for The King Of Kong [2007] over, say, Frogger [1981]. (I must say, it’s refreshing to have something that began as frivolous entertainment and was only much later appropriated into military use instead of the other way around!) It’s a clever comic exaggeration of the daily aggravations of a job, and of the pressure to be what your employer wants you to be, no matter how ridiculously hard that is.

The organization of multiple courses to challenge the player’s skills in a specific order that is understood and scored as parts of a whole, on the other hand, is… well, that’s golf courses. Not that they’re the inspiration, but there’s no other analogous predecessor, close or not, that I can think of nor find for the whole idea of video game levels. The similarities don’t stop there, either: Both golf and video games were forged against a historical backdrop of negotiating very apparent physical constraints and technological advancements that seem to demand in response increasingly unethical levels of ostentatious resource consumption by designers. It’s interesting how I’ve never seen this comparison harped on. It’s probably because everybody hates golf, too much to even think too much about it. Mainly because it’s culturally positioned as too bourgeoisie and exclusive, not like the inclusive working-class Donkey Kong game. Maybe subscription streaming game services will correct that for us. But take a look at this abridged passage of golf course design tips from the early, formative Concerning Golf [1903] and ponder the applicability to Donkey Kong and level design in general:

3) The shortest, most direct line to the hole, even if it be the centre of the fairway, should be fraught with danger;
4) The architect must allow the ground to dictate play; […]
8) A course should never pretend to be, nor is it intended to be, an infallible tribunal of skill alone. The element of chance is the very essence of the game, part of the fun of the game;
9) All really good golf holes involve a contest of wits and risks. No one should attempt to copy a great hole because so much may depend on its surroundings as well as some features miles away in the background which influences and effects the play of the hole. If the terrain is suitable, some of the character of the original might be incorporated elsewhere;
10) Inequalities in putting green surfaces should not be exaggerated. A tilt from front to back or left to right or vice versa is sufficient.

John Laing Low

Because there’s four whole screen-filling maps in Donkey Kong, not just one, instead of relying on algorithmic increases in difficulty like Space Invaders [1978] (from which the game at least lifts the idea of a catchy constant bass riff) the difficulty curve had to be manually sculpted. It’s a bit out of whack. The third and then the first levels are the hardest (and most iconic with their red girders,) whereas the second is trivially easy. Each one gets its own special level gimmick, which all reorient your fundamental relationship with basic movement. They also all have additional obstacles, mechanics, and collectibles unrelated to their central gimmick, but even more than these contribute to gameplay they contribute to the sense of an energetic, generous design chock full of candy. The barrels of 25m emphasize jumping, you know, like a game about a Jumpman can reasonably be expected to gracefully tutorialize, but they’re also notably capricious. I took to hanging out uphill of ladders until a barrel passed because there was no telling if it was gonna roll down on top of me or not. The conveyor belts of 50m complicate horizontal movement, and at the end, you have to use your waiting skill again for the automated ladders, which foreshadows the automatic lifts of 75m that complicate vertical movement and make fall damage a serious concern. Finally, 100m makes the collecting mandatory instead of an optional bonus. You gain the ability to alter the map yourself, leaving a trail of new gaps. You are lifting bolts to put the nails in Donkey Kong’s coffin.

Donkey Kong foregrounds the architectural metaphor that is historically very central to game environment design with its “building under construction” motif. If we accept the close connection of architecture and game environment design, this is akin to painting a photographer’s set. Though they are different mediums, it draws attention to the creation of its own image, to the considerable human labor spent to produce it. I can’t help but think of the uncredited subcontractors, and of the 6 Nintendo of America workers who had to pull hours to convert an entire warehouse of 2000 Radar Scope [1979] cabinets to Donkey Kong machines entirely by themselves.

That was when Jumpman became Mario. Midway through this process, the warehouse’s landlord and mustachioed concrete magnate Mario Segale visited and verbally berated Minoru Arakawa for overdue rent. Hence the name.

So.

Why in the world would you name your working-class hero after a hostile landlord?

Because Mario is not a hero, that’s why! The name on the cabinet is Donkey Kong! We’re playing by classic monster movie logic here, where the monster is not the real monster, and if they are, not for the sequel. In this case, Donkey Kong Jr. [1982], where Mario is Donkey Kong’s brutal captor, only makes clear the purported intended plot of the first game, which takes a lot more from King Kong than the climax. It’s the classic “It’s Media” move, where Donkey Kong’s actions only seem like implacable antagonism because they’ve been completely shorn of all potentially-justifying context and every moment that led up to this climax, and once again we automatically side with the player character.

Too bad King Kong [1933] is a feature-length raw nerve of anxious white racist nightmares that’s barely even an allegory. Donkey Kong takes the whole entire America half, that is, skipping the preamble on Skull Island where the titular Kong is violently kidnapped from his home in the jungle among indigenous tribal people who conduct human sacrifices, and taken to America on a boat in chains. That part is merely implied by way of the symbolic racist stereotype of black Americans as somehow ape-like and vice versa. On arrival, Mario and Carl Denham alike restrain and enslave the titular Kong, likewise on display for entertainment purposes in Donkey Kong Circus [1984]. But all fears are confirmed! This beast can’t be contained despite what that profiteering huckster Denham would have you believe, and he breaks out and starts climbing a skyscraper, kidnapping a white woman to take with. In King Kong, we understand from the Skull Island scenes that this is an act of animalistic, fetishistic lust (even as it is bizarrely romanticized because it’s still filling the role an Old Hollywood love triangle) and when King Kong dies Carl pins the blame on the dame, but at least in the original story of Donkey Kong that gets told in interviews, the key divergence is that Donkey Kong is only doing it for sheer revenge on Mario. Not really much of an improvement, but I guess it’s safer for kids and more sympathetic.

All of the obvious racial implications of King Kong are frequently overlooked or missed entirely. It’s more than plausible Miyamoto and whoever else might have had input on the plot here was basically ignorant of them, not that the mission here is to divine the levels of bigotry in an author. Rather, Donkey Kong is an example of the near-worst-case-scenario for uncritically repeating stories and cliches. The misogynistic damsel-in-distress device Miyamoto will be returning to again and again and again from here on out, one that will spread through many video games to come over the next decades, is not only nasty because it objectifies women and denies them agency, but it is also fundamentally rooted in a tradition of miscegenation panic, of white purity and bestial otherness.

All in all, you have to be glad Donkey Kong didn’t complete its narrative. I like mine better.


Please donate to protester bail funds, be audience to more than white people, and do what else you can to help where you are. It’s not even close to over. Black lives matter. Abolish the police.

2 thoughts on “Donkey Kong [1981]

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