Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Storytelling: How Shigeru Miyamoto Saved NOA

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When Nintendo decided to move over to America, it wasn’t to begin the world of the NES but rather to establish a market for arcade games.  Nintendo of America (NOA) had struggled ever since it migrated to the United States, complete with difficulty finding a home base in both New York and New Jersey, eventually staying for good in the Seattle area.  At the time Nintendo’s owner, a gruff businessman by the name of Hiroshi Yamauchi, had inherited the company and vowed to make it into the powerhouse it eventually became.  Yamauchi recently warmed up to his son-in-law, Minoru Arakawa, and decided to make him in charge of Nintendo’s American migration thanks to his free-spirited nature, familiarity with the country and ability to overwork himself.  Now Arakawa was attempting to find the big arcade game that would put NOA on the map like Space Invaders had done for Taito.  That game was to be a linear space shooter called Radarscope.

Unfortunately for various reasons the project was delayed hitting the United States and while NOA desperately waited a little arcade game by the name of Pac-Man took America by storm.  By the time Radarscope arrived it was viewed as boring and no one was playing it in arcades.  With more than 2,000 units in a warehouse, Arakawa’s heart sank and he desperately worked to find a way to save Nintendo’s future in America. His gestalt came when he figured out that all arcade cabinets had similar insides all working together in sync and possibly they could replace the main board that controlled the game without having to rebuild the arcade.  As a result, 2,000 Radarscopes could become 2,000 of some other great game – they just needed a game.  Arakawa reluctantly called back to Japan and spoke with his father-in-law, hoping that some of his amazing talent would be able to create the game that would save the day.  Because Nintendo’s dream team was busy working on the console that would eventually become the Famicom, Yamauchi wasn’t going to move someone off for a game to save the US market.  Instead he sent a fresh designer by the name of Shigeru Miyamoto to create an arcade game for Arakawa.  When word got back that some young designer that was still wet behind the ears would create the game that would make or break NOA, Arakawa was extremely nervous.

Miyamoto decided he wanted to adapt the story of Beauty and the Beast as the basis for his game.  He decided to go with a large ape not unlike King Kong – the obvious connection to the monumental movie ape has never been denied – that is mistreated by his owner.  Upon his escape the ape decides to kidnap his owner’s girlfriend to get back at him and the point of the game would be to take control of the owner and get her back.  Most of the decisions for main character “Jump Man” – eventually Mario – were made from personality or design standpoints.  He had a big nose to make him appear clumsy and he was a carpenter so as to make him more of an average joe.  The mustache was used to distinguish his facial features on a small sprite, as are the choice of red and blue overalls for his costume.  His arms swayed with movement to point out his courageous nature and he wore a hat to avoid dealing with his hair’s physics when he jumped or fell.  Miyamoto had the ape scaling different level’s at his owner’s construction site, which accounted for the beams and ladders as well as the barrels for ammo.

The name was created by poor translations in an english-japanese dictionary: “kong” to mean ape makes sense in all languages, but the beast was to be also loveable and their dictionary claimed “donkey” meant goofy.  With one poor piece of translation literature “Goofy Ape” became “Donkey Kong”.  In America Jump Man was renamed to Mario after the harsh landlord of Nintendo’s first warehouse, Mario Segali, that they didn’t much care for.  Donkey Kong was replaced in the whole shipment of Radarscopes and sold off.  This is why even today, it’s possible to disassemble original Donkey Kong machines and potentially find hints of Radarscope underneath, but Donkey Kong was produced and reproduced in much larger quantity than the initial 2,000 machine release.

More than 60,000 Donkey Kong cabinets ended up being sold in 1981 alone, some of these machines cranking out impressive numbers of over $100 in quarters a day.  By the end of the year Nintendo of America had secured more than $100 million in sales and completed a licensing deal with Coleco to have Donkey Kong as the pack-in for the upcoming ColecoVision.  Nintendo of America spent 1980 ready to close its doors with the failure of Radarscope and finished 1981 as one of the most successful arcade producers in the United States.  It’s troubles wouldn’t be over for long, with a hefty lawsuit and the dwindling of the American arcade, but Miyamoto would later return to make Nintendo history once again with Super Mario Bros.  – but that is another story completely.

Sheff, David, Game Over (New York: Vintage, 1993).
Special thanks to this novel and its amazing blend of storytelling and history, without which I may never know some of the details of this story.  If you are a gaming or Nintendo enthusiast, hunt this down.

Written by Fred Rojas

January 27, 2012 at 2:44 pm

One Response

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  1. Love this article! I’m currently listening to “Super Mario: how nintendo conquered America” and the history is fascinating. I tried to find “Game Over” as it is considered the best Nintendo history but there was no audio version and I had an audible credit to spend 🙂 still interested in picking up a print version of “Game Over” though


    February 5, 2012 at 12:34 pm

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