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The fascinating connections between Nintendo’s Donkey Kong and the classic cartoon character Popeye the Sailor Man.

Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto helped shape the video games industry as we know it, and many of the titles he designed are now considered all-time classics. His talent for design and character is evident in one of his earliest works, the 1981 arcade classic Donkey Kong. It’s an example of pure gameplay that it holds up to this day as a frantic obstacle course of comic action.

It’s well known that Donkey Kong was originally going to be a game based on the cartoon character Popeye the Sailorman. Nintendo was a licensee for the property, which was long popular in Japan and was back in vogue (to an extent) following the 1980 Robin Williams film and a new series of Hanna-Barbara cartoons. The exploits of the comic sailor were an obvious choice for a character-based arcade game.

In a 2009 Iwata Asks interview, Miyamoto spoke about the game’s initial concepts and the guidance of Nintendo designer Gunpei Yokoi.

“So I sketched out a few ideas for games using Popeye. At that point, Yokoi-san was good enough to bring these ideas to the President’s attention and in the end, one of the ideas received official approval. Yokoi-san thought that designers would become necessary members of development teams in order to make games in the future. And that’s how Donkey Kong came about.”

However, the deal to use the licence fell through. This forced Miyamoto to rework the game, with Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl becoming Jumpman (the original name for Mario), Donkey Kong, and Pauline.

Nonetheless, the influence of E.C. Segar’s comic creation is still evident in the completed Donkey Kong. The 1934 Popeye short ‘A Dream Walking’ follows the adventures of a sleepwalking Olive Oyl who wanders from her home and onto a dangerous skyscraper construction site.

Donkey Kong is not an exact match for Olive Oyl’s adventure, but you’ll see familiar visual motifs and a similar sense of “close call” action. Popeye’s famous Spinach power-up is also an obvious antecedent to Jumpman’s hammer and, later, Mario’s mushroom. It’s a charming cartoon, full of playful humour and imagination, like much of Miyamoto’s work.

Popeye the Sailor in A Dream Walking

It’s also possible that Donkey Kong and Mario owe a debt to another Popeye.

Game archivist Kate Willært points out that a popular Japanese men’s fashion magazine of the time also used the Popeye licence. And given the timing, the cover art of this 1980 issue certainly gives us pause for thought.

Popeye Magazine
It’s a me, Popeye magazine. Image: @katewillaert / Thumbsticks

Donkey Kong was greeted with scepticism by Nintendo of America’s management when it arrived from Japan. However, the game was a smash hit in arcades and did much to popularise the platforming genre.

Nintendo didn’t forget about Popeye, either. The spinach-munching sailor finally starred in his own game a year later, the logo of which bears a striking similarity to that of Popeye magazine.

Donkey Kong and Popeye Arcade Game Art
Arcade artwork for Donkey Kong and Popeye

It’s tempting to imagine the world in which Popeye and Bluto, not Jumpman and Donkey Kong, were the leads of Minamoto’s iconic game. Would we now be playing Super Popeye Odyssey and Wimpy’s Treasure Tracker?

H/T: Matt Alt, The VideoGame History Hour, and Kate Willært.

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