Donkey Kong, released in 1981 by Nintendo, was the first arcade video game to feature multiple playing fields. The character Mario had to climb up a series of steel ladders and ramps and rescue his girlfriend Pauline from the clutches of the eponymous Donkey Kong. To keep the insane, love-struck Mario at bay, Donkey Kong rolled barrels down the ramps (which led up to the cage in which Pauline was imprisoned) hoping to crush him. This was deemed a wise expenditure of pockets full of coins in the early 1980s.
Nintendo was originally a company that made playing cards, which it did successfully for over 70 years. When Space Invaders arrived, Nintendo attempted to create a clone. Called Radarscope, it was very poorly received by the public, and so Nintendo was left with a warehouse full of game cabinets. A young man called Shigeru Miyamoto was given the job of thinking up a game which would utilise the surplus cabinets.
Miyamoto was an artist who worked at Nintendo, designing the artwork for game cabinets. Nintendo made an intuitive leap - games were not only being programmed by programmers but designed by them. However capable a programmer was, they were not always the best designers. Nintendo gave Miyamoto the green light to design his own game. He had begun working on a game based on Popeye1, but the deal for the rights fell through. He was then transferred to the Radarscope rescue project. His work on Popeye had him thinking about a game along the lines of the beauty and the beast motif, and he came up with an idea for a game about a giant gorilla that escaped from his irritating, pint-sized owner. To exact revenge for his years of confinement, the ape kidnaps his owner's girlfriend and climbs a series of buildings, challenging his owner to catch him.
Origins of the Name Donkey Kong
It's been said Donkey Kong was named 'Monkey Kong' in Japan, but that when the name was given over the phone to its American manufacturer they heard 'Donkey Kong'. In truth, the game was called Donkey Kong from the outset. Everyone was familiar with 'Kong' as a name for a giant gorilla, and Miyamoto wanted another name that would imply the creature's stubbornness. Donkey, therefore, made sense. Sales representatives at Nintendo's New York headquarters2 thought the name was stupid, and that gamers would refuse to play the game. They were proven wrong. The game sold 65,000 units which, by way of contrast, was just short of Atari's 70,000 units mark for 'Asteroids'.
Origins of Mario
It's also been said the main character didn't receive the name 'Mario' until the release of Donkey Kong Jr. This again is incorrect. The character was first identified only as 'Jumpman', but the name Mario appeared later in promotional material for the original game. Oddly enough, today Mario's job is given as a plumber, but in the original game he was a carpenter3. Miyamoto specifically wanted a blue-collar character because he felt the game players would better identify with an Everyman sort instead of a super hero. The name 'Mario' came from the name of the landlord of Nintendo's NYC HQ, Mario Segali. He resembled the moustachioed character. The video incarnation of Mario was given a moustache because of the low pixel resolution at the time. Nintendo couldn't make a convincing mouth on the little man but a moustache showed up better. He was given a hat for the same reason - it looked better than blocky hair.
The game's popularity spawned a lawsuit... of course. Universal Studios, which made the 1929 film version of King Kong, sued Nintendo and Coleco (the initial licensee for Nintendo's range of games). Despite the fact that Universal's copyrights had expired a few years previous, Universal felt the game was still damaging to their movie. Coleco settled out of court, though Universal discovered Nintendo was willing and able to go to court. Universal tried to argue its copyright was still valid, and a judge dismissed this claim and noted Universal knew full well its rights had expired. The judge viewed the suit as vexatious and ruled in Nintendo's favour. The judge also awarded the video game company $1.8 million for legal expenses.
Miyamoto eventually went on to create the Super Mario series as well as the Legend of Zelda series.