Soapy Mario: Miyamoto came up with Donkey Kong ideas in the bath

Giving new meaning to thought bubbles

Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto has been reminiscing about his time spent developing Donkey Kong in a recent interview posted to Nintendo’s Japanese website.

In the interview, translated in full by Wired’s Chris Kohler, Miyamoto reaches back 35 years and shares secrets from the development of Donkey Kong and Mario that he hasn’t mentioned publicly before now.

One of these secrets is that he used to mull over ideas for games, including Donkey Kong, while in Nintendo’s company bath. 

Thinking time

Miyamoto told the interviewer: “There was a water boiler that was used to make the hanafuda (traditional Japanese playing cards that Nintendo manufactures), and the water from this boiler was also used for a bathtub... at night when nobody was around, you could hang out there for a long time. It totally saved me. It was really effective at letting me put my ideas in order.”

Actually, that secret is really two-fold since it’s news to us that Nintendo has a company bath, never mind that Miyamoto used to use it as his thinking space. 

You could hardly blame Miyamoto for needing the time to take a long bath, though, since he also reveals in the interview that he created Donkey Kong under some intense time pressure with next to no time outside of work. 

Miyamoto says that he told his friends they probably wouldn’t hear from him for “two or three months” before he spent every day of the development process just “going back and forth between the office and the company housing.”

The game developer also reveals that though globalism was important to Nintendo at the time, he “listened to a lot of Nintendo of America’s opinions, but not all of them.”

Lessons learned

The main point of contention appears to have been over the naming of Donkey Kong, with Nintendo of America resisting the now iconic character name. Miyamoto says he had wanted to show that the character was a “stupid monkey” and that in the dictionary he found that donkey had a secondary definition of idiot so opted for that. 

Apparently, the American division of Nintendo said that this secondary definition was inaccurate but after sticking to his guns, Miyamoto had the satisfaction of everyone saying Donkey Kong “with no hesitation” after only a year. 

He did listen to Nintendo of America, though, when they told him the character voices sounded “weird” and should be changed. It’s hard to imagine now, but the game was originally supposed to feature a human voice for the woman Donkey Kong had stolen away. 

However, after people in the company said it sounded like she was crying “kelp” instead of help”, Miyamoto said they “took out all of the voices”, replacing “help” with Donkey Kong’s growl and another phrase, “nice!”, with the “pi-ro-po-pon-pon! sound”. 

Miyamoto acknowledges that this was the best decision, saying it made him realise the importance of good sound effects as “when you walk past an arcade and hear that sound, it’s really catchy.”

Looking back on his arcade classic, Miyamoto says “it has a certain stiffness to it [...] you can’t move around as freely” but that might have something to do with the fact that he recalls he was “pretty serious” when making it.

Miyamoto’s nostalgic interview is undoubtedly interesting, but it’s also quite timely since Nintendo is gearing up to release the Classic Mini NES in November, which will come preloaded with the classic Donkey Kong and Mario titles and many others besides.