“Where do you want it, then?” A delivery guy is heaving a very large and heavy arcade cabinet through my front door. “Erm, over there in the living room please.”
After more than 40 years of wanting one and the last 10 years actively trying to find one, this summer I finally managed to buy an original Donkey Kong arcade machine. Not a replica or a MAME recreation - an actual original 1981 plywood cabinet with Formica covering, manufactured by Nintendo Co. Ltd. in Japan (according to the metal plaque on the back), complete with the original circuit board, CRT monitor, marquee sign, side artwork, joystick and buttons.
We both manoeuvre the machine into position, plug it in, and turn it on - a quick burst of digital sound and the distinctive scanlines fade up with a Donkey Kong logo, a list of high scores and the start of a silent attract mode. Now I’m over the shock of the size of the thing, I stand back to take it in. The cab has some inevitable wear-and-tear - even some dried-on ancient 1980s chewing gum under the play area, which I soon chip off - but the light-blue body with colourful Donkey Kong side-art, lit-up DK sign and plexiglass artwork look absolutely gorgeous.
This particular Donkey Kong is a US import (now with built-in stepdown to convert from 110v to 240v), and while you can easily open the coin door and trigger the mechanism for free plays, it accepts 25-cent coins, which go through the slot and drop into a crude wooden box that the arcade operator would have unlocked and emptied when full back in the day. A glance at the coin counter in the machine and this Donkey Kong has been played 32,955 times - meaning it brought in a respectable $8,000 for its previous owners.
I push a quarter into the coin slot, press the one-player button, and the ominous Donkey Kong music begins as DK carries Pauline up the ladder before jumping along the girder causing the cabinet to rattle and vibrate to the sound of his gorilla stomps - something you don’t get from emulation. I manage to clear the first screen, guiding “Jumpman” (as Mario was called at the time) over the barrels and up ladders, gradually getting used to the joystick controls, which feel a little looser compared to modern controllers and need a bit more force - but I soon use up my three lives in several contretemps with a fireball. It takes a good few hours before I finally rack up 40,000 points and reach the extra factory level not seen in the NES conversion of Donkey Kong - this is the US arcade version, which has recently been released on Nintendo Switch as part of the excellent Arcade Archives series.
So why Donkey Kong? I’ve been a huge Nintendo fan for more than 25 years, even when writing and editing a PC games mag PC Zone in the 2000s - but my love of DK goes right back to my youth and frequenting dark, smoky arcades in Whitby and Scarborough in the early 1980s. For me, visiting these seaside resorts was less to do with boring sandcastles, donkey rides and ice creams (well, they’re ok, I guess), but all about the arcade games; and during this golden era, every visit brought new pixelated delights - Asteroids, Pac-Man, Defender, Tempest, Galaxian and on one fateful day, Donkey Kong. It was colourful, full of character, funny, immensely playable - and bloody difficult, barrelling through my 10 pence pieces in a few minutes. But I loved it.
Little did I know at that time that Gunpei Yokoi and Shigeru Miyamoto’s game had just saved Nintendo of America’s arcade business, replacing the dull Space Invaders clone Radar Scope in the cabinets and shifting 60,000 units. Donkey Kong was the first Nintendo game to feature the stubborn ape, but also Pauline (later to become mayor of New Donk City in Super Mario Odyssey) and of course, Mario (named after their coin-op warehouse owner in New York), who was given the lowly moniker of Jumpman on the cabinet. It’s a genuine piece of video game and pop culture history, and it’s why I’ve wanted an original for so long – and was also prepared to hunt one down and fork out the current high going rate of £2,500 for the privilege.
Someone else prepared to put up with the cost and maintenance of arcade machines is Martyn Brown, a Yorkshire-based developer, previously of Team17 and now with Five Aces Publishing making fantastically immersing mobile sports games such as New Star Soccer. Brown owns a private home arcade with 14 machines including Super Sprint, Tempest, Pac-Man and Gyruss after catching the collecting bug back in the mid-1990s when he bought a Battlezone “cabaret” version for £100, which was forever breaking down. “Such is the reliability of Atari vector machines...” he tells me.
So what is the market like now for coin-op collectors? “It’s getting increasingly difficult to find an original and reliable machine due to the growing number of private arcade spaces," says Brown. "The market is unfortunately awash with replicas, but you usually get what you pay for. Definitely try and seek advice when getting involved in owning classic machines. Personally speaking, I’ve a mixture of dedicated original cabs and generic JAMMA machines, but God forbid if I ever use an LCD display!” JAMMA stands for the catchy 'Japan Amusement Machine and Marketing Association' and is an agreed tech specification for arcade cabinets that was introduced in 1985 to make swapping out motherboards of different games much easier.
Brown enjoys his hobby, but he confesses that “it helps if you’re an obsessive type. Once you get the bug, the search for your favourite game can be painfully slow, frustrating and not to mention expensive. It’s also fraught with disappointment that a machine can sometimes last minutes before it falls over.”
This was unfortunately so true in my case, and I was about to have my first proper experience of owning a 40-year-old piece of technology - these are machines that were only really meant to run for a few years, not four decades. Returning to DK after a couple of days and turning on the power brought up a CRT screen that was glitching and making the game unplayable. Panic! Fortunately, I had bought the Donkey Kong cabinet from Arcade Club, who run some of the best arcade experiences in the UK in their venues in Leeds, Blackpool and the main HQ in Bury – and, with a collection of thousands, know a thing or two about running and maintaining these games.
I carefully unplugged the spaghetti-like connections to the motherboard inside my DK cabinet (remembering to take a photo of them first) and took the poorly PCB to Arcade Club in Leeds, where the resident engineer began working on it, testing connections and cleaning components. After an anxious week of waiting, the fix was finally complete - a dodgy old Z80 CPU that needed replacing - so I picked up the PCB, took it home and started to install it again into the Donkey Kong cabinet, re-connecting all the numerous coloured wires and securing the rusting motherboard to the wooden surround.
Nervously switching on the machine, with a feeling of waiting for a patient to regain consciousness after an operation, the Donkey Kong game slowly faded up and was back up-and-running. I breathed a sigh of relief and played a few games just to make sure things were ok - but this constant upkeep and repair is something that collectors know about very well.
Having an arcade cabinet is not like buying a modern console with up-to-date components and manufacturing warranties, and so preparing for electronic and mechanical breakdowns in any one of dozens of components is a part of this hobby that you should be aware of if you plan to eventually own one or more of these antique machines. In fact, many arcades and private owners now prefer to use more reliable 60-in-1 JAMMA cards for games or expensive FPGA solutions for some of the most problematic cabinets such as Atari’s Tempest and Williams’ Defender.
Despite the issues, I am happy with my Donkey Kong cab, and after a few reservations, the family is also now enjoying the big stupid ape and loveable red-and-blue overalls-wearing carpenter sidekick, resulting in many heated and competitive two-player battles. Whether or not it’s what a good industry friend called “the nerd equivalent of a mid-life crisis Ferrari”, I do love owning an original DK - not just as a Nintendo fanboy being able to delve into the history of this iconic coin-op, but also as it’s introduced me to a whole community of passionate, arcade cabinet owners, who are rescuing, repairing and restoring these beautiful, classic games and keeping them far away from the nearest rubbish tip.
Jamie Sefton runs Game Republic.