Donkey Kong – We know it; we love it. But we almost didn’t have it at all. At least, not without the perfect storm of a hurting video game market and a snub from Popeye the Sailor Man.
In 1980, Nintendo of America was hurting.
Sales for their brand new video game, Radar Scope, were abysmal, and the company needed something to save them from financial ruin. Shigeru Miyamoto had originally come up with an idea for a Popeye video game but was unable to secure the licensing for Popeye. So he changed the characters around — Brutus was turned into a Donkey, Popeye into Jumpman (a predecessor for Mario), and Olive Oyl was turned into Pauline. The new platformer game, Donkey Kong, was ready for players in the summer of 1981.
Donkey Kong was an immediate success. The arcade game would be ported several times throughout its life, and would bring in over $4 billion dollars for Nintendo. The first home console Donkey Kong was released by Coleco Vision in 1982. The first Donkey Kong was also available for various Atari consoles and, of course, the Nintendo Entertainment System.
But the game was met with some legal backlash.
As the game does use the name “Kong”, Universal City Studios took immediate notice. Their classic horror film, King Kong, was an inspiration for the Donkey Kong game — but were the two characters truly that similar? Universal filed suit. Coleco did pay royalties to Universal, but Nintendo stood firm Nintendo’s lawyer, John Kirby, argued that Universal themselves had previously admitted that the character of Donkey Kong fell into the public domain. This resulted in a win for Nintendo. As thanks to John Kirby’s win, Nintendo created the character Kirby in his honor.
Donkey Kong was popular with players and critics and would go on to create a larger-than-life Donkey Kong franchise. The character is still as popular as he was in 1981. In 2023’s Super Mario Bros. movie Seth Rogan voices the character, and yes, the Donkey Kong rap does appear in the movie. While most people associate Mario with Nintendo, it was truly the house that DK built.
From collector’s point of view, is Donkey Kong worth collecting? Absolutely. We wouldn’t have Mario if it wasn’t for DK! Yet despite that, prices on original Donkey Kong cartridges is all over the place. The one-year average on a sealed WATA-graded 9.8 Donkey Kong Intellivision cartridge is $442. A sealed VGA 85 Atari 8-bit has a one-year average of $204. A sealed WATA-graded 8.5 Nintendo example sold for $72,000 in January 2021.
These are all the same games. The Nintendo port wasn’t even the first console port of DK. Yet out of all of them, the Nintendo example seems to be the one people are most interested in. By comparison, a sealed WATA-graded 9.8 Super Mario Bros has a one-year average of $57,600.
If you are a collector and don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on an original DK game, the ports for non-Nintendo games will be your best bet. Personally, I’d rather own a Coleco Vision example as it was the first. If you’re interested in buying an original arcade cabinet, be prepared to spend around $3,000 for one. There are also bartop arcade cabs that do not take up as much room, and sell for under $700.
Donkey Kong is still as popular as he was in 1981, and I am confident that Nintendo will keep this ape around for decades to come!