Miyamoto spills Donkey Kong's darkest secrets, 35 years later
The best ideas for Donkey Kong were thought up when designer Shigeru Miyamoto was fully nude. Just think on that for a while.
In an interview with Nintendo's Creative Fellow posted today to Nintendo's Japanese website, Miyamoto reaches back into his memories of 35 years ago, when he created his seminal arcade hit Donkey Kong. It was Miyamoto's first game as a director, it was the origin of Mario, and it's one of the most important videogames of all time. The home version of the game is also getting a re-release, along with 29 other Nintendo Entertainment System classics, via the plug-and-play NES Classic machine on November 11.
Miyamoto has given countless interviews about Donkey Kong over the course of his career, but in this chat, he spilled all sorts of secrets I'd never read before. It's long been known that the game's protagonist was named "Mr. Video" and "Jumpman" by Miyamoto, but that it was Nintendo's American branch that christened him "Mario" due to his resemblance to their landlord, Mario Segale. But did you know that Donkey Kong was supposed to have human voice samples? Or that Nintendo had a company bathtub? Here are the new secrets of Donkey Kong revealed, perhaps for the first time, today.
Miyamoto didn't work on the NES version of Donkey Kong, but he did work on other games.
Donkey Kong was released for the arcade in 1981, but came out on the Famicom, the Japanese version of
the NES, in 1983. Miyamoto had nothing to do with this version, he said. "The porting of arcade games to
Famicom, we left in the hands of a different team. In order to get the Famicom off to a good start, I was
working on the rest of the software lineup."
While only three games were available for Famicom on its launch day, Miyamoto says the team hoped to have about 7 games available in short order. "I personally really wanted there to be a Baseball game, and so I was working on that, as well as games like Tennis and Golf." These simple sports games aren't listed in any of Miyamoto's official "gameographies," but he says he was all in on their creation: "I was directly in charge of the character design and the game design."
In fact, any game on the Famicom is designed around Miyamoto's low-level specs: The 8-bit systems could only pull from a palette of 64 possible colors, and Miyamoto helped to hand-pick which colors it would support, he said.
Miyamoto told his friends he was going to disappear, and spent four or five solid months on Nintendo's property.
Miyamoto had to create Donkey Kong under intense time pressure. Nintendo of America was sitting on many unsold cabinets of a failed arcade game called Radarscope, and it needed a replacement game immediately. Miyamoto knew he was going into intense crunch time, and telephoned several of his friends, saying, "You probably won't hear from me for about two or three months." This was about how long it took to create a full game in those days, he said—but in fact, Donkey Kong ended up taking about four or five months.
"At the time, I was living in company-owned housing, just across the river from the office," Miyamoto said. Living in company dorms was not unusual for young, unmarried guys in Japan. "So every day, I was just going back and forth between the office and the company housing. Thank goodness we had a company bathtub!"
This even surprised the Nintendo employee conducting the interview. "There was a company bath?" he said.
"Yes," Miyamoto replied. "At that time, our office was in Tobakaido, which also housed the hanafuda factory." Nintendo had been a maker of hanafuda, traditional Japanese playing cards, since 1889, and this was still a major part of its business in 1981. "There was a water boiler that was used to make the hanafuda, and the water from this boiler was also used for a bathtub. The employees making the hanafuda could wash their sweat away in the bath after work, and at night when nobody was around, you could hang out there for a long time."
"It totally saved me," Miyamoto said of the bathtub. "It was really effective at letting me put my ideas in order."
Miyamoto used Nintendo of America's ideas sometimes, but fought them when he thought he was right.
"At that time, while I was making Donkey Kong, the conversations were all around how 'globalism is important' and 'we should think worldwide,'" he said. "We listened to a lot of Nintendo of America's opinions, but not all of them."
"For example, for the game's title, I was trying to convey the idea of 'stupid monkey,'" he said. "'Donkey' of course referred to the animal, but the dictionary I used said that it had a secondary meaning of 'idiot.' Nintendo of America said that this was not the case, and 'donkey' didn't mean 'idiot.'"
"Even though it was in the dictionary," the interviewer said.
"It's a mystery," Miyamoto replied. "But I just liked the sound of it, so I decided to stand my ground on 'Donkey Kong.' And within a year, everyone was saying 'Donkey Kong' with no hesitation."
Miyamoto thought the details of Donkey Kong's storyline would make it clear that Mario was supposed to be in his twenties. He was wrong.
Many people are surprised when they find out that the Mario character is supposed to be just out of college, probably since that giant moustache makes him look like your retired uncle. "I didn't think he was an old man," Miyamoto said. "I thought he was more like 24 to 26 years old. When you think of the story—Mario kept Donkey Kong locked up, so he escaped with his girlfriend—he was a young guy, a bachelor. But of course, now there are people who think he's around 40 years old."
The game was supposed to talk to you, in English.
"The lady stolen away by Donkey Kong was supposed to yell out, 'Help, Help!' And when Mario jumped over a barrel, she was supposed to yell, 'Nice!,' complimenting him. But some people within the company said, 'Doesn't the pronunciation sound a little weird?' So we tested it on a native English speaker, a professor. They said it sounded like she was talking about seaweed: 'Kelp, Kelp!'"
"At that point in development, we couldn't fix it," Miyamoto said. "So we took out all of the voices. "Help!" was replaced with Donkey Kong's growl, and "Nice!" was replaced with thepi-ro-po-pon-pon! sound. It's really good that we went withpi-ro-po-pon-pon. When you walk past an arcade and hear that sound, it's really catchy. So even though we took out the voices, it still had great results. From this experience, I learned the importance of having good sound effects."
(And yes, that means that the official onomatopoeia for Mario's jumping sound is pi-ro-po-pon-pon! Another secret.)Miyamoto learned to let go of his "seriousness" after Donkey Kong.
Coming back to the NES Classic version of Donkey Kong,, Miyamoto understands that today's players probably won't find it as appealing. "It has a certain stiffness to it," he says. "You can't move around as freely. The texture is much different from today's games."
Miyamoto learned to loosen up, he says, after this game. "I was pretty serious when I was making this, he says. "For example: If you were to fall from a height equal to your own body height, you'd probably break your foot, right? So inDonkey Kong, if you fall 1.5 times Mario's height, you die. But later I thought, isn't it better if you don't die from such a thing? So in Mario Bros., even if you fall five times Mario's height, you don't die."
"But still, please enjoy this very serious game in which you die if you fall off a single platform," Miyamoto concluded.
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