Went on a little video game bender thanks to Donkey Kong: A Record of Struggle on Shmuplations, which translates an interview from “bit” magazine with Hirohisa Komanome, a programmer at Ikegami who Nintendo contracted to build their first arcade games. The handful of minor happenstances that led to the invention of Mario are almost unbelieveable and makes me believe in serendipitous circumstances.

First, an aggressive timeline. They made Donkey Kong in 2.5 months! A quick turnaround project like that easily could have failed at the slightest scope increase. Second, the entire project motivation was an attempt to offload some extra motherboards

The Donkey Kong development began as a means of clearing out the extra printed circuit board (PCB) inventory of Radar Scope (1980/Nintendo), an arcade game which Nintendo had subcontracted Ikegami to develop.

Imagine! If Nintendo never printed extra arcade motherboards for Radar Scope… Shigeru Miyamoto might never had made Donkey Kong… and if they never made Donkey Kong… then the Mario we know might never have existed!

A video from Critical Kate based on the original “bit” magazine interview that digs deeper into the origins of Mario and how Donkey Kong was almost a Popeye game because Popeye was popular in Japan in the 1970s. Mario could have been Popeye! Imagine a world without Mario, who is now more popular than Mickey Mouse.

The article and the video both touch on the origins of the “Jump” button, which is my favorite part of the origin story of Mario (née, “Jumpman”). For you math dorks there’s a whole breakdown of how they simplified parabolic jump physics that would have never fit within one render frame on the z80 chip, into a second order derivative of that function that only required a bit shift and two additions. That simplified bit of physics powered both Mario’s jump and the bouncing barrels. Incredibly clever if you ask me. It reminded me of other optimizations like John Carmack’s Fast Inverse Square Root algorithm from the Quake III source code or the efficient scrolling textures and displacement maps in Super Mario Galaxy 2.

There’s also an interesting note about the design goals of Donkey Kong based on what made Pac-Man good which are inclusive (?) given the time.

We on the development team took note of Pac-Man’s simple controls, and we also wanted our game to have easy controls with a single joystick. Our thoughts about the appeal of the Pac-Man controls could be summarized as follows:

  1. It uses a single joystick (simple and clear).
  2. The function of the joystick is simultaneously for movement, offensive actions, and defensive actions (moving is both offensive and defensive)
  3. Girls can also play (expansion of market share)

And the formula worked! Add in the core single button game mechanic of jumping and you have an easy to play game enjoyed by boys and girls across all ages, across all continents, and across multiple generations.

Before I go, Critical Kate also has another incredible video on the origins of Samus Aran from Metroid that I now consider required viewing for any of my friends. Enjoy.