A Definitive Guide to Donkey Kong Red Cabinets (And Other Variations)
Updated: May 15, 2020
Collectors of arcade games love Donkey Kong, and why not? Not only is it one of the all time classic arcade games, but would become the cornerstone of the empire known as Nintendo. Donkey Kong is like the film Steamboat Willy is to Disney, or the Model T is to Ford, or cocaine is to Studio 54. Nintendo made a lot of Donkey Kong machines, by most accounts around 75,000 - 80,000 upright machines for the US market alone. For arcade collectors it might be hard to imagine a Donkey Kong machine in their minds without thinking of the baby blue color of the cabinet itself. Originally however, the first two runs of these cabinets left the factory with a red laminate and not the classic baby blue. Opinions seem to be mixed, but out of the about 80,000 (Maybe more) Donkey Kong uprights manufactured, an estimated 1,500 to 2,500 are thought to have left the factory as red cabinets (About 2 - 3% of all manufactured were red if you prefer percentages). And like any variation in any collectable these are highly sought after by collectors. It can be confusing to sniff out a legit red cabinet from a false one. My hope is this guide will help end the confusion and entertain those people (like myself) who love odd arcade trivia. So let's all dive deep into the banana barrel and get started.
In the Beginning....
In the late 1970’s Nintendo was struggling to get a piece of the red hot arcade video game market in the United States and elsewhere. Legendary game developer Shigeru Miyamoto would be part of the team that would introduce the world to what Nintendo hoped would be a huge success, that game would be Radar Scope. This space shooter is very similar to many such games that would be released in the aftermath of the popularity of Taito’s Space Invaders. Despite the attempt at an early 3-D like play field the game was a huge commercial failure for Nintendo. This was not so much due to a lack of popularity in Nintendo's native Japan, but it's bet that the game would do well in North America. Its clunky gameplay and annoying sound effects didn’t help the situation. The video game market was flooded worldwide with countless Space Invader type games already by 1979-1980, and Radar Scope simply didn’t click with most US gamers. Only around 800-1,000 of the 3,000 estimated units shipped to the USA from Japan actually sold, living Nintendo in a rather tough financial spot.
As Nintendo scrambled to resolve this financial crisis, a plan was created to help reconfigure those unsold Radar Scope cabinets made out of blaze red laminated wood. Nintendo would reconfigure the Radar Scope PCB’s into what would become Donkey Kong (A long and interesting development story that we won’t be covering here). The remaining Radar Scope cabinets would be reused and sold as the game which would make the foundation for Nintendo’s modern fortunes. The success of Donkey Kong extended well beyond the left over red colored cabinets, and newer cabinets would be made in the more commonly known light blue laminated color. These original red cabinets however, thanks to not only their rarity but what they represent with Nintendo’s history, have become a much sought after piece of arcade history. Over the years I have seen a good bit of speculation and misinformation regarding these cabinets. With that in mind, let us dive deep into the variations of these lusted after, ruby sided, pixel producing wonder boxes.
Red vs. Blue
Before we get to the well known Donkey Kong cabinet let's go back about 18 months from its release. Two Nintendo arcade games named Heli Fire and Space Firebird would come out before Radar Scope and Donkey Kong. Neither of these games could be called a wild success, but they did debut the classic Nintendo arcade cabinet design for the first time with one slight variation. Heli Fire and Space Firebird (Space Firebird was offically released in the USA by Sega/Gremlin in a totally different cabinet) used a cabinet design that had an angled side line from the top of the cabinet al the way to where the bottom of the control panel ends coming out of the cabinet. It's an elegant design, but with a critical flaw for operators and arcade patrons. These "side blinders" make it difficult for other people to see the action of the game when someone else is playing. The coin door is also almost the same as what would be on the classic Donkey Kong style cabinets. Early cabinets do sometimes appear to have only one coin mechanism instead of two. So it is possible some early red Donkey Kong games might have only one coin mechanism from the factory. The number of coin mechanisms might have been an operator ordered option at the time. Once Donkey Kong production officially started in earnest, two coin mechanisms would be the standard.
With the release of Radar Scope we see the modified cabinet sides with a more traditional cut out approach allowing for non-playing patrons to see what is going on with the game. This was especially helpful for Nintendo games since the monitor sits slightly back from the front bezel at an angle under tinted plexiglass. The bezel for Radar Scope is exactly the same as the art used from Heli Fire and Space Firebird, just with different colors. As stated above and in countless other articles on this subject, Radar Scope didn't sell so unsold machines would be modified (PCB's as well) to Donkey Kong machines in an attempt to clear out the underselling machines. These are often known as TKG2 Machines (more about that in a bit)
After the left over Radar Scope machines were all used, Nintendo made another run of red cabinets specifically for Donkey Kong. These are considered to be TKG3 machines and would be the last red Donkey Kong machines from Nintendo. After this short run of TKG3 machines in red were made (about 2,000 or so machines maybe?), the traditional baby blue colored Donkey Kongs would start rolling off the assembly line. Below is my best guess so far on this break down.
Speaker Vent Holes
Some collectors get very picky and excited about the number of speaker slots on the left side of the front of the cabinet. Some red cabinets will have 5 larger slots for the speaker, where others will have 7 thinner slots. Over the years there has been speculation about if the 5 slot versions are earlier versions of the cabinet. The truth is both of these versions were in production at the same time during the original cabinet manufacturing of Radar Scope and early Donkey Kong machines. Because of this you will see both legitimate Radar Scope machines and red Donkey Kong cabinets with either 5 or 7 slots for the speaker grill. Nintendo was in the process of changing the design during the manufacturing of these games. Like many manufacturing variations n any factory, changes sometimes slowly happen and not all at once. It does appear the 5 slot version is slightly harder to find than a 7 slot red cabinet for Donkey Kong, and a bit easier to find in a "true" Radar Scope cabinet. Unless someone is able to dig up exact production numbers from Nintendo's past however, we will never know how many of each style left the factory floor.
Serial Number Plates & Serial Numbers
If you still happen to have the original serial number plate on your red cabinet, this is your ultimate key into figuring out which version of the red cabinet you have. Or at least, what it was when it left the factory originally from Nintendo. If you have TRS as the first three letters on the serial plate (usually located on the back center of the game cabinet in the space for "Model Number"), you actually have a game that left the factory as a Radar Scope. So even though you could restore a TRS/Radar Scope into a red Donkey Kong (as many collectors have done), technically this would not be an incorrect restoration. The proper restoration would be to turn it back into a Radar Scope machine. Some early Radar Scope and Donkey Kong machines will have the serial number colored with red paint for some reason.
The designation of TKG2 as the model number is when Donkey Kong enters the picture (There are no TKG1's). These games are the very first USA bound Donkey Kong machines ever made. TKG2’s are factory converted Radar Scope machines and have been found in both 5 speaker and 7 speaker slot variations. TKG2 serial numbers will start with 100001 on the plate, starting with TKG3's the serial numbers "reset" to 000001 (or possibly 000101). If you have a TKG3 designation on your serial number plate, your machine started life as a Donkey Kong and was not converted from a Radar Scope. TKG3’s are mostly all 7 slots with a few rare 5 slot versions being found. It appears that the transition from 5 speaker grill slots to 7 happened during the production of Radar Scope, and as the red cabinet inventory cleared out newer production went to 7 slots. TKG3's will often be red, but there are reports of TKG3's in the more traditional baby blue color as well (recently I have been contacted by a few collectors about blue TKG-3's and they might be more common that I had originally thought). I would even willing to bet blue and red machines might have been rolling off the assembly line at the same time, at a certain point of production. There are also a number of other variances regarding the coin bucket, how many coin mechanisms might be on the front, the number of insert coin stickers, and some other odds and ends we will get too. The accounting of all these variances might be due to Nintendo attempting to get as many of these games out the factory door as quickly as possible.
A typical TKG2 version of Donkey Kong would have the "PP7-A” power supply (The same one found in non-converted Radar Scope machines) and a black isolation transformer in the bottom of the cabinet. Even if your game has been converted to other games over the years, this isolation transformer usually is still in the bottom. It is possible there is some transitionary TKG3 machines that also have these items. Most early TKG2’s and some TGK3’s will have the marquee art, bezel, control panel, and side art without any copyright information printed on them. A true no copyright bezel will be two pieces with a clear plexiglass front (the artwork will be printed on the reverse side) and a separate tinted plexiglass piece behind it. These two part bezels are very difficult to find today, and can command some serious money. Most TGK2 versions shipped without side art at all, but if they do have it, it will be the version without a copyright. There are also reports of a slightly redder colored version of the side art on these cabinets. TGK3’s mostly shipped with side art, and may or may not include the copyright information on all other artwork. TKG3’s will have a one piece bezel, a PP7-B power supply, and a black isolation transformer most of the time. There are also a number of variations of all the artwork at this time, and some versions might just say "Nintendo 1981" compared to the more common "1981 Nintendo of America, Inc".
The PCB variations for Donkey Kong can be just as wild as the cabinet variations. Three version of the Donkey Kong board set exist for the US market, they are labeled as either TKG2, TKG3, or TKG4. The board set would have originally matched the serial number plate part number when it left the factory. On top of that there are also two different ROM sets for the US as well. The Japanese had 3 different ROM variations, not including bootlegs or the other licensed versions of the game. It's important to note here the board letter and number combo refers to the part number of the PCB version and not to the ROM set version. Usually you can find the ROM set number on the chips themselves, or just by observing changes in the game screen information.
First let's look at the TKG2 board version, which originally were not Donkey Kong boards. These are Radarscope boards that were modified by hand one at a time in Japan to Donkey Kong. These are the very first Donkey Kong PCB's and were shipped in the modified red Radar Scope cabinets. A "TKG2" sticker was placed overtop the original TRS (or Radar Scope) PCB part number. Sometimes they also include a sticker stating "Nintendo, Kyoto" with a hand written number on the sticker from the conversion on the metal connecting bracket. These original boards are very difficult to find today, and can be somewhat difficult to make reliable. If we believe the lore of Radar Scope, 2000-3000 of these PCB's were originally manufactured. I believe around 800-1200 were converted to Donkey Kong, maybe more. This board set is made up of 4 interconnected PCB's.
TKG3 boards would be the first purpose built Donkey Kong boards and although they are also 4 board sets, these are not converted Radar Scope boards. There are reports of TKG3 sets with stickers over the part number as well, but there is no real evidence why this is. Maybe some unpopulated boards were used in production of early TKG3 PCBs, or some PCB's were simply mislabeled and needed to be corrected.
TKG4 boards are the most common of all Donkey Kong PCBs. These are 2-board sets that Nintendo put into production soon after the red cabinets turned to the more traditional blue color. If you own a Donkey Kong arcade machine, it's a good bet you have this version of the PCB. TKG4 sets included the 2nd version of the ROMS, which confusingly is known as Set 1. For TKG2 and TKG3 sets the older "Set 2" ROM version, and the newer "Set 1" version are known to exist.
A note here about the ROM versions, Set 1 and Set 2 are MAME emulator designations and not the official title for these ROM versions. A better explication of the variances of US ROM sets comes from fellow arcade game collector Mike Haaland. Mike sent me this information, "The (1st) US ROM sets are the original with the ladder cheat (With (C) Nintendo 1981 on the title screen), and 2 different 'speed-up kits'. The ROMS that replaced all ROM sets were the final TKG4 sets that shipped on all 2 board (TKG4) sets. Then there was another 'speed-up kit #2" which replaces eproms 5A and 5E on the TKG4 set, or 5F and 5K on the TKG2/3 sets. I have no details on this kit and don't believe I have seen those ROMSA. Nintendo service bulletin TKG-06 describes the 2nd kit, but only says "....in an attempt to increase revenue of Donkey Kong we are making available an updated speed-up kit, part number TKG-23-70'."
It's important to remember here that Nintendo was surprised by the success of Donkey Kong and was making changes and modifications to the game pretty quickly as production initially ramped up. Cocktail and cabaret machines would all receive TKG3 versions of the boards set, since the longer 2 board set of the TKG4 will not fit into a cocktail or cabaret cabinet. Cocktail and cabaret cabinets that shipped with the second ROM set are listed as part number TKG3-7. Earlier versions that shipped with the original ROM set, are listed as TKG3-6.
Added to the confusion of ROM Sets, updated ROMs were made available for purchase to operators starting in December 1981 for pre TKG4 board sets. The original ROM set (Set 2 if we are referencing MAME) will show the message on the title screen "(C) Nintendo 1981", where the updated set (Set 1) will show "(C) 1981 Nintendo of America Inc." on the title screen. Earlier ROM sets will also allow what is know as the "ladder trick". Standing on a ladder with one hand visibly touching the girder above you, the barrels can’t roll down the ladder. Only a barrel thrown from Donkey Kong or a fireball can kill you when doing this. There is also a change from "How High Can You Try?" to "Get" during the intro screen. With the availability of the updated ROM sets, and the ease of getting ROM sets burned today... its somewhat impossible to tell if the ROM set was the original one shipped with the game, or was modified at a later date.
Other Internal Variations
Internal paperwork in the cabinet can also be helpful to figuring out the exact lineage of your red cabinet. Any previous dip switch setting instructions or monitor adjustment paperwork glued into the cabinet can help you find the cabinets true origin. Often these papers are either missing (removed by the operator), have deteriorated, or have been destroyed by pests. Sometimes you might get very lucky and an original owners manual might still be present in the bottom of the cabinet or an invoice from the operator.
Marquee, Bezel, Control Panel, and Side Art Variations
As mentioned above, early Donkey Kong machines will be missing the Nintendo copyright information on the marquee, bezel, control panel overlay, and the side art. It has been reported that early Donkey Kong conversions in the factory from Radar Scope machine might not have even had side art. The placement of some early side art sometime seems to be much lower on the cabinet sides than the later higher placement (usually starting at about 3 inches form the top of the cabinet sides). This lower side art placement could just be a random variation from workers attempting to get the games out as quickly as possible. Given how easily early Nintendo side art is peeled off the may or may not be true.
Early bezels that are missing the copyright information also have been found as a two piece item. The tinted plexiglass is actually a separate sheet of material behind the main clear piece that contains the artwork. Once the versions with the marked copyright appeared, they had become one single piece of tinted plexiglass with the artwork applied. Some early transitional versions of artwork will state "©1981 Nintendo" rather than the much more common "©1981 Nintendo of America, Inc.". Some early machine appeared to not ship with the additional instructional sticker below the bezel (and above the control panel) on the front of the machine on the left side.
Recently I have discovered yet another variation where the "©1981 Nintendo of America, Inc." on the bezel is a sticker on the front of the plexiglass and not printed on the glass itself like the rest of the art. This sticker is easily taken off and I doubt many of these style of bezels have survived after 40 years.
Made in the USA Vs. Made in Japan Cabinets
With the overwhelming success of Donkey Kong, Nintendo started to build cabinets in Redmond, Washington along with ones built in Japan and shipped to the USA. All red cabinets however, were made in Japan and shipped to the USA factory in Redmond, WA. The more common light blue cabinets can be found with both Made in Japan and Made in USA serial number plate versions. This would continue with production of future Nintendo cabinets as well for other titles. There are slight variations in these cabinets as well, and like most things opinions of with one is "better" depends upon which collector you speak to.
Materials and the design of these cabinets are slightly different depending on which side of the ocean they were manufactured. Japanese cabinets will be made from plywood and will have the slot for the flat white T-molding perfectly centered. USA built cabinets will be made from a particle board like material, and often (but not always) will have the T-molding slot slightly off center. T-molding will be a flat narrow white which is exclusive to Nintendo games on both cabinet styles. The sides and fronts (no matter the color) are not painted wood, but a high gloss laminate or formica depending on the cabinet. Colored laminate is the most common, so if you are going to repaint or touch up the paint it's imperative to use oil based paint. Some laminate was indeed painted at the factory instead of chemically colored, but I don't really know enough about laminate to tell you which is which. There are of course, variations to all of these with the one constant being that Japan cabinets will always be made from plywood.
Made in Japan and earlier upright cabinets might also have a more simple and less stout "Front Screen Clamp" which holds in the bezel plexiglass. These were commonly popped out by players in early Donkey Kong games in attempts to get free credits. Later versions are a bit more "heavy duty" and will lock down much more securely. It is possible (although I can't find any evidence) Nintendo sent out a modified version for operators and owners of earlier versions of the game. I have seen many Donkey Kong style cabinets over the years with some hackery involving brackets of all types to prevent players from popping out the plexiglass bezels.
Other Cabinet Variations and Versions
Donkey Kong was also made available in a dedicated cocktail cabinet and a smaller cabaret sized cabinet for the US market. The cabaret cabinets are rather difficult to find, since they were not sold in large numbers (I would estimate less than 2,000). Cabaret versions of almost all arcade games from a variety of companies are far less common than the upright versions as a general rule. The cocktail version seems to have been manufactured in a decent amount, but is normally somewhat shunned by players due to it's odd (but traditional for Japanese cocktail arcade games) flat control panel. Even as cocktail games go, Nintendo's design leaves something to be desired as far as esthetics.
Also of note are the large amount of bootleg versions of both Donkey Kong PCB's and cabinets themselves. The bootleg cabinets tend to vary wildly and do not mimic the Nintendo cabinet design. Many of these cabinets carry the title Crazy Kong, Congorilla, Big Kong, Donkey King, Monkey Donkey, King Kong, or Crazy Junior. There are however versions of Crazy Kong by the company Falcon (and others) that were officially licensed by Nintendo with several variations of the hardware they are based on.
The basic design of the Radar Scope/Donkey Kong cabinet style would be reused for the games Donkey Kong Junior, and Popeye. Donkey Kong Junior would come from the factory in a dedicated beautiful bright orange, and Popeye's cabinet would share Donkey Kong's pale blue color. Donkey Kong 3 would only be sold as a conversion kit, and had no official dedicated cabinet from the factory. With this in mind, it is common to see Donkey Kong 3 machines in either blue, red, or orange cabinets depending on which donor cabinet the arcade owner/operator decided would be a viable donor. The same is true for conversion kits for Unisystem kit titles, and Playchoice 10 kits.
It's also important to note here just for completist sake that Donkey Kong Junior has been seen in pre-release advertising as coming in a blue cabinet just like the original Donkey Kong machine. Although I have personally seen blue Donkey Kong Junior machines these could have been conversions made at the time of the game's release, or later restorations. The unreleased game Sky Skipper, and the very limitedly released game Space Demon are also know to exist in the same blue Donkey Kong style cabinet. Some collectors have gone to great lengths to recreate replicas of Sky Skipper, which shares many hardware similarities with Popeye.
With the release of the two player game Mario Bros. in 1983, the Nintendo arcade cabinet design would take it's first slight tweak to allow a control panel with a bit more real estate for two players to play at the same time. This cabinet is often know as the "Wide Body", and can be quickly recognized thanks to its unique center speaker cutout under the control panel. Mario Bros. was also released as a kit for older Nintendo cabinets and is commonly seen in the traditional Donkey Kong blue or Donkey Kong Junior orange version cabinets.
Punch-Out!! would share a very close lineage with the Radar Scope/Donkey Kong cabinets with some obvious changes. To accommodate the additional monitor needed the cabinet was heighten a bit, and the marquee is much shorter. These cabinets also enjoy not just one, but two speaker grills blasting sound and music at the players knees. Punch-Out!! cabinets are commonly converted for two screen Playchoice kits, as well as Super Punch-Out!! kits, and the very rare Arm Wrestling game by Nintendo. I once saw a Street Fighter II conversion in one of these cabinets with both monitors intact.
Dedicated Playchoice 10 arcade games and single screen Unisystem games had their own cabinets from the factory, in a similar yet slightly evolved style from the original Radar Scope/Donkey Kong design. The speaker grill moved from the lower left side below the control panel, to above the monitor and below the marquee. Nintendo's arcade release of R-Type also enjoyed this cabinet style. You can also see the control panel starting to "jet out" a bit more into the style of other arcade game manufactures. These games would be the last games to carry on any traces of Nintendo's earlier arcade game cabinet designs.
Between Radar Scope, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior, and Popeye Nintendo produced a large number of the Radar Scope style cabinet over the course of about 4 years. Production of this style of cabinet by Nintendo might be somewhere in the neighborhood of about 200,000 or so. Thanks to this large production, the Radar Scope/Donkey Kong cabinet style is commonly seen in conversions for other games not made by Nintendo. You an expect to find all sorts of color combinations, repainted versions, and modified cabinets with any number of arcade games especially from the 1980's era of video games. I have seen many converted Nintendo cabinets over the years with all manner of game titles.
Wear and tear can be tough on these cabinets if they have seen multiple conversions over the years, or just a lot of gameplay. There are a few known weak points in this cabinet design that normally will have to be addressed in any restoration attempt. First the control panel base is not a great design, and prone to breakage. It will often see alignment issues over the years. The famous speaker grill slots are often broken or smashed in from repeated gameplay over the years. These can be tricky to repair properly if the damage is severe. As these cabinets approach 40 years of age, I am sure the original designers never would have dreamed they would survive this long.
One of the other well known trouble spots of Nintendo cabinets is the small wooden base on the bottom of the cabinet. A video game urban legend would tell you these were built on USA bound cabinets because Americans tend to be taller then Japanese people, but this is simply not true. All Nintendo cabinets of this style have this thin inset wooden base on the bottom in order for the rear casters to "tuck" under the back. These bases often break from the weight of the cabinet, and water damage over the years. Even if a cabinet hasn't been submerged in water, water damage can occur on the bottom of an arcade cabinet due to mopping the floor around the cabinet. Luckily, it's relatively easy to rebuild this base platform if yours is damaged or missing. Without the platform the game will cause most players to hunch over a bit to play.
Some Final Thoughts
Hopefully this guide will bring a bit more clarity to the mystery and allure of a red Donkey Kong cabinet. Just a word of warning here as we enter the 2020's, and the rise of CNC cutting machines and high quality reproduction artwork. It is possible that someone with the right parts could reproduce a red cabinet with great accuracy. In the realm of any collectable, originality will always be worth more than a good reproduction. A very clean game or a cabinet in amazingly good condition might be a red flag for a reproduction. Even serial number plates can be reproduced (although they are never imprinted like the originals). It also appears everyone with a large format inkjet printer feels they can now make decent replacement side art and new bezels. The quality of restoration parts can vary wildly, as well as the skill of an individual who is restoring a game. Proceed with caution always, and if you aren't sure consult an expert.
This page is an evolving document, if you have questions or comments or any information to add please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org . Apologies to anyone I swiped a photo from without giving credit.
Thanks to Trinity Quirk, Mike Haaland, Jeff Willard, "Kong Klub", and Alex Busch (who inspired me to write this) for contributions to this article.