In 1981, Nintendo was known primarily as a toy company that produced trading cards in Japan. In fact, they were barely known at all in the West. They began producing arcade games in the '70s, but they enjoyed limited success until Shigeru Miyamoto burst onto the scene.
|He and Gaben are the patron saints of gaming nowadays.|
Shigeru Miyamoto created Donkey Kong, and from there went on to become the single most influential figure in console gaming history. Donkey Kong started as a licensed Popeye game, but the licensing situation didn't work out. So the team had to come up with new characters. They called the hero "Mr. Video," a name which would change to Jumpman shortly afterward. When the Nintendo of America team was confronted with an angry landlord demanding their late rent, they averted his wrath by telling him they'd name their new hero after him. The landlord, Mario Segale, agreed to back down.
|That name should be familiar to you.|
The villain, they decided, would be a King Kong knockoff named Donkey Kong. The name basically came from a linguistic misunderstanding. "Donkey" is an obscure, archaic slang term for a stupid or foolish person. Miyamoto found that definition, coupled it with a word he understood to mean "giant ape," and called it a day. The American team thought it was hilarious, and the name stuck.
You know who didn't think it was hilarious? Universal Studios. As they understood it, they owned the rights to King Kong ever since they fought a court battle over the issue in 1975, and Nintendo was using a blatant knock-off character to reap enormous profits without paying them one red cent. Or even yen.
|I'd like to believe this is the face the studio heads made.|
So they took this little toy company to court. It had all the workings of a classic David and Goliath battle. There is speculation that Universal's legal department figured Nintendo would just settle to avoid a costly battle, but Nintendo's legal team had done its research pretty well. When they got to court, they made an elegantly simple argument.
King Kong is in the public domain. And what's more, Universal knew full well that he was. That's why they won the right to make a movie about him in the '70s. The judge ruled in favor of Nintendo, citing the ridiculousness of suing over a public domain character and the fact that Donkey Kong was different enough not to be confused with King Kong anyway.
|I mean, the building he climbed wasn't even finished!|
This was a massive, pivotal moment for Nintendo. It came on the heels of a massive crash in the home video game market, and it gave Nintendo the confidence to start pushing for a revival of the console. The very next year, the Nintendo Entertainment System was released in America, and the console market has enjoyed increasing success ever since.
If it weren't for a linguistic quirk and a frivolous lawsuit, Donkey Kong would not have served as the springboard that relaunched the game industry. We have this abused, rampaging, kidnapping ape to thank for everything from Super Mario Brothers to Pokémon, and maybe a lot more.