Donkey Kong is the game responsible for introducing two of Nintendo's most popular and enduring mascots, the big ape himself and his occasional nemesis, Mario. The game also helped Nintendo become an industry heavyweight, both in Japan and in the rest of the world. To this day, Donkey Kong, Mario, and Nintendo are all still making names for themselves, over 25 years after the mischievious monkey first snatched Mario's girlfiend.
In 1980, Nintendo had an ambition. The company's fledgling video game operation was underway in Japan, and some games were actually gaining notice elsewhere in the world. Initially, the company relied on other distributors to release games outside of Japan. However, fresh from the success of a game called Radar Scope, Nintendo decided to branch out and try doing its own international distribution. Specifically, the company set its sites on North America, and the newly christined Nintendo of America was tasked with bringing Radar Scope across the Pacific.
Unfortunately, the space shooter failed to make much of an impression in the States, and sales were poor. Nintendo of America found themselves in desperate need of a hit, and quickly, or else Nintendo's attempts at international business probably would be short-lived. Back in Japan, a young programmer by the name of Shigeru Miyamoto was tasked with "fixing" Radar Scope, in hopes the game could be made more appealing to American audiences. Instead, Miyamoto ended up creating his own game, using the same hardware as Radar Scope. Donkey Kong was born. The game was a huge success, Nintendo of America was saved, and Nintendo's future in video games was cemented. Shigeru Miyamoto himself also became something of a legend, going on to create several other popular Nintendo franchises, including Zelda and Star Fox.
One of the biggest and most persistent mysteries surrounding Donkey Kong is: Where did the name come from? Many people assume it is a poor translation of some Japanese phrase, perhaps one that was supposed to mean "King Kong." Others think the name is a misspelling of "Monkey Kong," the result of a garbled fax or a bad phone line. No one knows for sure, or at least, no single answer has ever satisfied the conspiracy theorists. Miyamoto maintains he chose "Donkey" to represent the character's stubbornness.
Speaking of "King Kong," an interesting chapter of the game's history was written when Universal Studios, owner of the King Kong movie franchise, sued Nintendo for copyright infringement. Amusingly, Universal's attempt to lay claim to Donkey Kong backfired badly when it was discovered the studio had claimed in an earlier court case that "King Kong" was in the public domain. Nintendo won the case, and Universal was found to have acted in "bad faith," knowing full well the accusations against Nintendo were not sound.