Despite being an enduring pop culture icon for almost 90 years, King Kong’s appearances in the virtual world are somewhat limited when compared to his monster cohort like Godzilla, Gamera, and Ultraman. Despite this, his impact on the games medium is about as big as a 50 foot gorilla. Lets take a look at King Kong in the game space.
In 1976, Dino DeLaurentiis would release his King Kong remake to big box office returns, and only two years later Taito’s Space Invaders would ignite the arcade boom. It was only a matter time before these two worlds collided.
But, how these two worlds collided was not the least bit friendly. Before we get into official King Kong games we have to talk about a very important game directly inspired by King Kong. So inspired, in fact, that it sparked a lawsuit.
King Kong vs Donkey Kong
1981’s Donkey Kong was a smash hit from Nintendo. Funnily enough, it was made out of desperation, as Nintendo’s Radar Scope game was failing to perform in America. Then president Hiroshi Yamauchi set young designer Shigeru Miyamoto on a mission to make a game that would become a hit in the USA. Miyamoto took the concept from a canned Popeye game (pardon the pun) and re-envisioned it with a King Kong-inspired flair. Popeye became Jumpman, Olive Oil became Pauline, and Bluto became Donkey Kong.
The unwanted Radar Scope cabinets were converted into Donkey Kong cabinets and the game was an instant hit. Nintendo ended up selling more than 67,000 units of Donkey Kong and created a bedrock of cash and ideas that would turn them into the juggernaut they are today. It also kickstarted Miyamoto’s career, who would become Nintendo’s golden goose- making Mario, Zelda, Star Fox, and more for the Kyoto-based company.
However, before all that could happen, Nintendo got sued.
Nintendo was a fairly small company in 1981 who had just been on the verge of bankruptcy. So when Universal knocked on their doors alleging that Donkey Kong infringed on their King Kong, they straightened up.
Before contacting Nintendo, Universal first contacted licensees like Colecovision and strong-armed them into giving royalties for selling Donkey Kong goods. This was done purely to make their infringement case strong when they finally got to Nintendo.
However, Nintendo stood their ground, proving that not only did the game not infringe of King Kong, but that Universal didn’t even own the rights to King Kong! Universal had actually gone to the trouble of proving King Kong was in the public domain in a 1975 court battle with RKO Pictures. So when all was said and done, Universal actually owed Nintendo money as the court found a licensed King Kong game by Tiger Electronics infringed on Donkey Kong! (more on that later)
If Nintendo had lost this case, not only would their history be completely different, the history of King Kong and the precedent for these types of copyright infringement cases would be forever changed. This effectively changed the trajectory of the video game medium and the trajectory for King Kong media. However, it seems Nintendo and Universal have buried the hatchet, as Super Nintendo World is coming to Universal Studios Japan later this month!
Anyways, enough has been written about Donkey Kong and about this landmark case, so I’ll leave it at that and get onto the real King Kong games. Well, mostly, “real.”
And the very first one is, in fact, that Tiger Electronics Donkey Kong tabletop video game that was part of the court case mentioned above!
King Kong (1981)
Platform: LCD game, table top and handheld variations
Developer: Tiger Electronics
Publisher: Tiger Electronics
The original game that helped spark the above lawsuit, King Kong is basically a Donkey Kong clone for LCDs. This game actually predates the Game & Watch version of Donkey Kong, which wouldn’t release until 1982.
Tiger released several variants of this unit, but the first and most popular was a simple variant of Donkey Kong in a blue tabletop device.
Funily enough, the more interesting King Kong LCD games come from Japan!
King Kong Jungle & King Kong New York (1982)
King Kong Jungle & King Kong New York (1982)
Platform: Handheld LCD game
Epoch is a Japanese software company famous for creating Japan’s first cartridge-based video games styem: The Casette Vision, as well as Barcode Battler and many, many Doraemon video games. In the early 1980s they made a lot of LCD games inspired by Nintendo’s success with the Game & Watch.
In 1982 they released King Kong New York and King Kong Jungle. Surprisingly, neither of them are Donkey Kong clones, both taking actual scenes from the 1976 film and turning them into games. These were released in Japan and Europe, but it doesn’t seem like they ever came out in North America.
The situation regarding the King Kong character and wordmark is quite different in Japan compared to how it is here. I’m not the expert to go into it, but it’s worth mentioning that these King Kong LCD games are, as far as I can tell, unlicensed creations.
King Kong New York has Kong standing atop a building similar to the World Trade Tower he hops onto at the end of King Kong (1976) and has the player attacking planes as they try to destroy the building beneath his feet. Check out this video of it in action.
King Kong Jungle seems to be inspired by Dwan’s waterfall scene and has you take control of the ape in order to protect her from falling logs and slithering snakes. It’s actually quite cute, and the illustrations of Kong are stylized and funny. You can see a video of it in action here.
King Kong (1982)
Platform: Atari 2600, LCD
Programmer: Karl T. Olinger
Tiger, with the bona fide King Kong license in hand, decided to have a go at the newfangled home cartridge video game market and made their first title King Kong.
And, surprise surprise, it’s a clone of Donkey Kong! Well, a clone of the first stage at least. Sort of.
You have to move to the top of the screen, just like in Donkey Kong, but the difference is that the barrel-er, excuse me bombs that Donk-er, King Kong throws at you have a chance of being “magic”- meaning jumping over them pops you up a level. Also as you get close to the top, Kong runs down to the bottom and the bombs reverse direction and start moving up the building.
Since this was Tiger, of course there was an LCD version, licensed to Tandy. It appears to be very similar to their previous LCD version.
Other Donkey Kong Knockoffs
It would take too long to highlight every video game “inspired” by Donkey Kong and i’ve tried to highlight the ones above since they are explicitly about King Kong, so I’d like to just mention a few notable Donkey Kong-style games that Kong fans might get a kick out of.
Congo Bongo (1983, SEGA)
Donkey Kong meets Frogger in a jungle dense with other creatures. Interestingly enough, this was developed by Ikegami Tsushinki- who developed the original Donkey Kong arcade boards! Maybe this makes it a spiritual sequel to the game?
Crazy Kong 1&2 (1981, Falcon)
These games are sort of bootleg. Essentially Nintendo needed someone to make more Donkey Kong units as they were a small company unable to meet demand. So they licensed the game to Falcon to produce more units in Japan, and Japan only. Naturally, Falcon sold units overseas, breaching contract and causing Nintendo to revoke the license.
These are literal clones of Donkey Kong with a few small visual differences. This one also got an LCD version.
Mighty Kong (199?, Tandy)
And LCD version of Donkey Kong with some new ideas like keys, doors, and ropes you can hang from.
Wally Kong (1984, walltone software)
Donkey Kong… but on the ZX Spectrum!
Killer Gorilla (1983, Micro Power)
A version of Donkey Kong for the BBC Micro, and later Acorn Electron and Amstrad CPC. Believe it or not the programmer of this game, Adrian Stephens, was only 17 when he made the game for Micro Power!
Kong Man (1982)
This isn’t quite a “video game” but it is an electronic game from TOMY where you have to guide a metal ball up a number of obstacles to rescue a lady from the clutches of a Mechanikong look-alike. It appears there was a version with a more traditional ape as well.
King Kong 2: megaton punch of fury (1986)
Genre: Action Adventure
Developed by Konami, this game features veteran developers and composers from such classics as Contra, Castlevania and Metal Gear Solid and this game basically plays like a more action-focused Legend of Zelda game. It’s Japan-only but has very little text and is easily playable in Japanese or with an English translation patch. It’s kind of confusing at first as the levels are maze-like, but it’s actually quite fun once you get the hang of it.
While the game is based on King Kong Lives (called King Kong 2 in Japan), it takes its own liberties with the source material and sees you travelling across 9 worlds. You end up in what I assume is New York City, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, a desert, and a few military bases, but the game never exactly spells out where you are. It can feel a bit like Kong was plopped into a random Konami action game.
Each world has a boss you must defeat to earn a key- when you have all 8 you can proceed to the final level to save your Queen Kong. These bosses include fire-breathing scorpions, two varieties of “a bunch of blobs”, a dragon, a snail, a bee, a spider, and most importantly: an army of Mechanikongs! The enemies you fight include gelatinous slimes, dragons, giant insects, worms, killer whales, the military, and giant ducks. Yes, giant ducks.
You can attack with your fists, throw rocks, and even jump on enemies to defeat them. There are multiple powerups you can collect including artificial hearts, speed powerups, rocks to throw, and even Moai heads from the Gradius series.
You can easily and cheaply import a copy of the game, but it is worth noting that a fan translated rom also exists! Don’t count on this one ever getting a re-release so enjoy it however you can.
King Kong 2: The legend revived (1987)
Genre: Action Adventure
A year after King Kong 2 on super famicom, King Kong 2: The Legend Revived was released for the MSX computer- a favourite of Konami’s. This game serves as a sort of prequel to the famicom game and a “midquel” to the movie. It explores the time that Hank Mitchell travels to Borneo to find Lady Kong. Except instead of going to Borneo, Hank goes to “Golnebo.”
This is an entirely different game from Megaton Punch. It’s an action RPG in the vein of Falcom’s Ys. You explore Golnebo, collect keys, gold, and items, level up your character, and talk to natives of the island to get tips and buy items. You can even learn magic spells!
The game multiple endings, determined by how many “days” it takes you to complete the task of finding Lady Kong.
I haven’t played it, and it isn’t easy to track down, but it’s apparently quite good. It can be emulated and there is a translation patch available.
Interestingly enough, back in 1983 Matsushita Denki (Panasonic) named their National-branded MSX product line “King Kong” and used a guy dressed in an ape suit to promote it! While this was likely an unlicensed use of the character, the official King Kong made his way to MSX eventually.
WAI WAI WORLD (1988)
Genre: Platform Adventure
What do Mikey from the goonies, Simon Belmont from Castlevania, and King Kong all have in common? Well, they’re all characters in this nutso video game.
While Konami still had the rights to King Kong, he was considered among their top-line A-lister characters in this wacky crossover game. The game references Goemon, Gradius, Twinbee, and more as you swap between the cast of characters (including Konami Man- who made a cameo in King Kong 2) and complete various platforming levels (well, and one final shooting stage starring the Vic Viper and TwinBee).
There is a sequel and a mobile version, but neither of them features King Kong. This game was never released outside of Japan, but it’s easy enough to play and there is an English translation of the game available.
However, the game is a bit tough to enjoy. The high difficulty, meandering levels, and jankiness mean you’re probably better off playing the much better Wai Wai World 2, but sadly the sequel doesn’t include Kong as Konami’s license had expired by that point!
However, the two games had their OST released on vinyl a few short years ago!:
Well, that covers the “early years” of King Kong’s video game career. Kong had a pretty busy decade in the formative years of the video game medium. How did things turn out in the 90s and 2000s? Tune in next time as we explore his later years!