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Feature: How A Donkey Kong Clone Almost Scuppered Nintendo’s Ambitions In The West

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The following feature is an excerpt from Ken Horowitz’s excellent Beyond Donkey Kong: A History of Nintendo Arcade Games and has been reproduced here with the kind permission of both Horowitz and the publisher.

1981’s arcade smash-hit Donkey Kong created a surge in revenue that lifted Nintendo’s prospects for its North American office and reaffirmed Hiroshi Yamauchi’s confidence in Shigeru Miyamoto’s talent. Mario’s quest to save Pauline was a sensation, one that exceeded NOA’s loftiest expectations, but there was still a lot left to be done, including combating counterfeiters.

Bootleg variations of Donkey Kong called Crazy Kong had popped up across the U.S., and they were eating into Nintendo’s profits. Crazy Kong was manufactured by a Japanese company called Falcon Industries and was an odd take on Nintendo’s own game. Falcon’s version went by several titles, including Congorilla and Big Kong, and played the same as Donkey Kong but had altered graphics and different colours. It also didn’t look or sound as good as the original, with less animation and cruder audio. To former Nintendo staffer Howard “Game Master” Phillips, the difference between the two was night and day. “It was such a clear rip-off, so I was always surprised when I came across one, usually in a ‘shady’ location,” he says.

It was such a clear rip-off, so I was always surprised when I came across one, usually in a ‘shady’ location

Ironically, the subject of Nintendo’s first major action against counterfeiting came against Falcon, a company that was under a Nintendo license. Falcon had paid Nintendo $100,000 for a license to produce its model, and the deal stipulated that stickers be placed on the PCB board of each Crazy Kong cabinet to show that it was authorized by Nintendo. Falcon also had to pay Nintendo a royalty of 10,000 Yen for each cabinet it manufactured. Most importantly, the agreement, which ended in January 1982, allowed Falcon to only sell or use Crazy Kong in Japan and prohibited it from importing or exporting the game. Despite these stipulations, thousands of Crazy Kong cabinets were now seemingly everywhere.

The confusion among manufacturers, distributors, and operators stemmed mostly from the stickers Nintendo had required Falcon to affix to each Crazy Kong PCB. Though the cabinets were for sale in Japan, the seal, which read “licensed by Nintendo” in English was official, so units were bought and sold in North America without a second thought. Sales were widespread, with some distributors selling hundreds of units before they realized Crazy Kong wasn’t legal in the U.S. One Dallas distributor even offered to buy 300 Donkey Kong cabs directly from Nintendo to compensate for having bought the same number of imitations. The illegality occurred because Nintendo of America Inc. was a separate corporation from Nintendo Ltd. and owned the Donkey Kong copyright in the U.S. Any licensing deal made with Nintendo in Japan didn’t apply in the U.S. for this reason.

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