Donkey KongKing KongIt’s not everyday a video game player can say, “I played Donkey Kong in a courtroom.” But that’s what I did. And it wasn’t just any courtroom. It was in U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York presided by Judge Robert W. Sweet. Universal’s complaint was over a supposed trademark violation of King Kong. At face value it was a case about a big gorilla in a video game and the royalties surrounding it. But in a much larger scope it served as a defining moment for Nintendo and one that laid the seeds for a future industry. This was the landmark case of Universal City Studios vs. Nintendo Co Ltd. (NCL).

The Case

In 1981, Nintendo released Donkey Kong, the first commercial success by Shigeru Miyamoto. Surprising everyone including Nintendo, the game was tremendously popular in the US. Upon their discovering the game in 1982, Universal believed Donkey Kong infringed on “their rights” to King Kong. Claiming to own the trademark rights, Universal demanded that Nintendo and their licensees pay royalties. When Nintendo refused, Universal filed suit. The case of Universal vs. Nintendo was scheduled for hearing on August 8, 1983.

Howard LincolnThe Call

It was a day early in August when Nintendo of America (NOA) President, Minoru Arakawa told me to expect a call from Howard Lincoln. In the call Howard asked me to fly to New York City to play Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. for the court. “Sure!” I replied, not then fully understanding the gravity of this case. I was just excited about a trip to New York City.

I told my parents about my upcoming first business trip. “You’re going to play video games where?” They rolled their eyes in disbelief, as they’d always been pretty skeptical about my working for a video game company. But I thought I had the best job ever! Friends and family always introduced me as, “This is Jerry. He plays video games for Nintendo.”

Since my job interview included proving to the company I could play Donkey Kong Jr. (more on that in another post), demonstrating games in court was not going to be a problem. But once I got the call I immediately started to practice, just to make sure I was sharp.

“I Play Games for Nintendo”

RePlay CoverI was Nintendo’s first Market Research Analyst and original game master (lower left in photo). This meant being the in-house game expert, plus be the eyes and ears for the American player. I regularly communicated with Nintendo Co. Ltd. (NCL) on game design and testing matters. My purpose was to help make games that would appeal to American players. Even back then, companies making it big in the US told the world you had officially arrived.

For NOA, Donkey Kong’s success was an unexpected surprise. They didn’t know why it was a hit, so I helped them understand why. It’s important to note that Donkey Kong was essentially a “band aid” for another game, Radarscope when it failed to interest American players. A warehouse full of Radarscopes had to be uncrated, stripped of their decals and artwork, then retrofitted with modified Donkey Kong game PCBs and cabinet art.

End of Part I of 3. Next: Leaving for New York City

One Response to Spotlight: Universal vs. Nintendo – Part 1 of 3

  1. Stephanie says:

    Liking this retelling of this story, Jerry. Thanks and great blog!

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