Beyond Donkey Kong: A History of Nintendo Arcade Games by Ken Horowitz, McFarland, November 30th, 2020
I have previously reviewed Ken Horowitz’s first book Playing at the Next Level and also been a long time (though not regular), contributor to his website Sega-16. I also read his second book The Sega Arcade Revolution and enjoyed it just as much though I didn’t write a review. Beyond Donkey Kong is his third book and his first to focus away from Sega’s legacy in the home console and arcade business.
Most histories of Nintendo or video games in general will dwell briefly on the early history of the company with playing cards, toys, mechanical games and then once they get to Donkey Kong will jump straight into the history of the home console market. But as the title implies, there is a lot more to Nintendo’s arcade history than this and this book sets out to cover it in detail from the early beginnings to the company’s quiet exit in the early 1990s.
Horowitz’s structure is similar to that followed in his previous two books. He moves through the history in a linear fashion though with some overlap in places. He also divides each chapter into sections covering the different games and often with a surprising but welcome level of depth. I found this also to be the most cohesive of the three as the previous two books read much more like a series of articles linked together with a common theme. In Beyond Donkey Kong, there are much stronger ties between chapters. Though it should be remembered that most of the games covered came from the same place with many of the same personalities involved.
In covering Nintendo, it is hard not to tread on already covered ground and this was certainly necessary to give proper context. Those who have read up on the company’s history will be familiar with a lot of the releases and major events. What makes this special is what has previously seen little coverage. Nintendo’s VS. arcade machines for example which were based on Famicom/NES (Family Computer/Nintendo Entertainment System) hardware and released in arcades. These machines had modified (and interchangeable) versions of games released in both Japan and later the US on the home market. Horowitz reveals that these systems had a big impact in promoting what would later be released to the North American market and eventually worldwide.
Another very interesting bit of history was the story of Miyamoto’s Sky Skipper, a game that was almost lost but for the efforts of some dedicated collectors. I had no idea this game ever existed but has since been released digitally on the Nintendo’s eShop for Switch. Though both are well known, it also has interesting coverage of the sequels to Donkey Kong which are better remembered because of their home ports.
The last section of the book covers Nintendo’s partnerships with other publishers such as Namco, Capcom and Sega to produce games like Cruis’n USA, F-Zero AX, Mario Kart Arcade GP and Luigi’s Mansion Arcade. Though Nintendo wasn’t directly involved, the stories behind these games were all very interesting.
In general it was the information behind the creation of these games that was most engaging and original. Horowitz goes into some depth with the design and development of the various games the trials they encountered. Many of these lesser known developers get a special mention and Horowitz gives the final chapter to profiling the major players individually at the end. This includes famous names like Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi but also lesser known people such as Toshihiko Nakago and Genyo Takeda.
This book certainly has a niche audience but this is a definite recommendation to anyone within that niche. It is somewhat academic given the subject matter but is always entertaining nonetheless.