Origins: In 1980, Nintendo was a one-time toy company that had ventured into the field of electronic games and was trying to duplicate the success of Taito's "Space Invaders" and Atari's "Asteroids" by cracking the lucrative American arcade game market. Unfortunately, the game Nintendo head Hiroshi Yamauchi selected to spearhead the assault on the pockets of American youth was "Radarscope," a dull "shoot-down-the-airplanes" effort that gathered far more dust than quarters. Even worse, Nintendo's development teams were busy working on other projects and couldn't be pulled away to try to salvage the fiasco. So, Yamauchi turned to a young artist named Shigeru Miyamoto, who had never designed a video game before, and tapped him to turn "Radarscope" into something profitable.
Instead of revamping "Radarscope," Miyamoto instead created a new game from scratch, somewhat inspired by the tale of Beauty and the Beast. In Miyamoto's version, the beast was a giant ape who captured a young woman, and her carpenter boyfriend had to rescue her from his clutches by navigating the shell of an unfinished building while trying to avoid rolling barrels and other obstacles hurled by the enraged ape. Some Nintendo executives were skeptical that Miyamoto's new game would be an even bigger flop than "Radarscope," but it proved a hit both in Japan and America, pulling in
Those of us who spent our after-school hours hanging around arcades in those days were intrigued by the new game's departure from the traditional "shoot and destroy" motif, its use of comical characters, and its distinctive music and sound effects. Few of us stopped to ponder why the game was called "Donkey Kong" when it featured no donkeys — the name was euphonious enough,
Now that we're older and have the capacity to ponder weightier issues than we did back then, it's time to consider: Why was the game named "Donkey Kong"? The "Kong" part is obvious (giant
Why exactly the giant ape is called "Donkey Kong" is a mystery, although I heard one story that sounds plausible: The original arcade game, designed in Japan, was supposed to be called "Monkey Kong," but somebody misspelled it and the name stuck.2
However, chalking up the name "Donkey Kong" to a mistranslation is a rather dubious explanation. Confusing "donkey" and "monkey" could hardly be considered a "translation mistake" (especially since they're two quite different animals whose names aren't the least bit similar in Japanese). Nor does this seem likely to be the product of a spelling error, as the sounds represented by the letters "d" and "m" are distinctly different in both Japanese and English (and we'd have to believe that by an amazing coincidence, the translator misspelled "monkey" in just the right way to produce the name of another animal). At best, this is an error in orthography, one unlikely to be made by someone who wasn't already somewhat familiar with English. For example, I might confuse the Spanish words for "duck" and "turkey" ("pato" vs. "pavo") but only because I've learned enough Spanish to know these words in the first place (and even then, part of my difficulty in distinguishing these words would stem from the fact that they refer to somewhat similar animals). If I had any doubts — or I didn't know these words in the first place — a quick flip through an English-Spanish dictionary would easily set me right.
However, at some point prior to the release of this seminal video game featuring a bad-ass monkey and a squat Italian-American handyman, a blurred fax resulted in it forever being known as Donkey Kong.4
[Collected on the Internet, 2001]
When Miyamoto talked to the American importers about the name of the game he had just created he said "Monkey Kong", but due to the bad phone line the Americans thought he said "Donkey Kong"; they liked the latter name better, so it stuck.
Yet another explanation is that the title wasn't the result of a mistake at all, but rather the product of the game designer's efforts to come up with a name that reflected the comic stubbornness of the main character:
[Collected on the Internet, 2001]
The word "donkey" is, given a poor grasp of english idiom, the opposite of the word "king" (etymology: donkey — ass — fool; fool is traditionally the opposite of king). The title "Donkey Kong" is supposed to be a clever pun, but it doesn't translate well. It also serves as a way to refer to the movie King Kong without violating copyright.
The bottom line is that no evidence backs up any of the explanations that the name "Donkey Kong" came about because of a misread fax, mispronunciation, or mistranslation. Shigeru Miyamoto, the game's inventor and the one person who unquestionably knows the origins of the name he chose, has repeatedly affirmed that he used the word "donkey" to convey a sense of stubbornness and the name "Kong" to invoke the image of a gorilla.
Last updated: 13 May 2011
3. Bailey, Eric. "Is There No Rescue at Hand in This Super Mario Land?" The [London] Daily Telegraph. 23 December 1991. 2. Burrill, William. "Game Boy Cart More Fun Than Barrel of Donkeys." The Toronto Star. 4 August 1994 (p. F5). 1. Dougherty, Kerry. "Pretendo — Oops, Nintendo — Separates Males from Females." The [Norfolk] Virginian-Pilot. 4 January 1997 (p. A11). 5. Mingo, Jack. How the Cadillac Got Its Fins. New York: HarperBusiness, 1994. ISBN 0-88730-677-2 (pp. 136-141). Sheff, David. Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. ISBN 0-340-59982-0. 4. The Guardian. "Rock, Pop & Jazz." 5 October 1999.