Updated: Oct 5, 2021
(Note: This article was heavily updated and expanded on October 5, 2021)
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 car is to the Ford Motor Company, or maybe cocaine was 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. This amount of machines puts Donkey Kong in the running as one of the top 10 most produced arcade machines of all time. For arcade collectors it might be hard to visualize a Donkey Kong machine in their minds without thinking of the classic baby blue color of the cabinet itself. Originally however, the first two runs of these well-known 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 even, some guess the estimate to be well over 100,000) Donkey Kong uprights that were manufactured, an estimated 1,500 to 2,500 are thought to have left the factory as red cabinets (That would be around 2 - 3% of all manufactured were red if you prefer percentages). Like any variation in any collectable, these red cabinets are highly sought after by collectors. This added collectability is perhaps multiplied by the historical importance of the debut of a very well know video game plumber in Donkey Kong. It can be confusing at times to sniff out a legitamite red cabinet from a false one. My hope is this guide will help end the confusion for collectors 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 globally. Legendary Nintendo game developer Shigeru Miyamoto would be part of the team that would introduce the world to a game Nintendo hoped would be a huge success, that game would be Radar Scope. Radar Scope is a space shooter very similar to many other 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 playfield 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 (where the game did fairly well in the marketplace), but Nintendo's bet that the game would do well in North America. Space Invaders style wanna be and copycat games had saturated the marketplace by the time Radar Scope premiered. Radar Scope’s clunky gameplay and annoying sound effects didn’t help the situation. Overall Radar Scope simply didn’t click with most gamers outside of Japan. Only around 800-1,000 of the 3,000 estimated units manufactured and shipped to the USA from Japan sold, living Nintendo in a rather tough spot financially.
As Nintendo scrambled to resolve this misstep that was turning into a financial crisis (Nintendo was a small company in the early 1980's without the deep pockets that the company has today), a plan was created to help retool the unsold Radar Scope games made with a blaze red laminated wood into something the public wanted. Nintendo would reengineer Radar Scope printed circuit boards (PCBs) into a new game which would be called Donkey Kong (A long and interesting development story that we won’t be covering here). The unsold Radar Scope cabinets would simply be reused, reconfigured, rebranded and sold as Donkey Kong, the game which would become the foundation for Nintendo’s modern fortunes. The success of Donkey Kong extended well beyond the left-over run unsold red colored cabinets, and eventually newer cabinets would be made in the more commonly seen light blue laminated color to keep up with demand for the hot new game title. Those 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 collectable 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 before its release. Two Nintendo arcade games named Heli Fire and Space Firebird would be released 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 which houses Donkey Kong (among other titles) for the first time with one slight variation. Heli Fire and Space Firebird (Space Firebird was officially released in the USA by Sega/Gremlin in a totally different cabinet) used basically the same Donkey Kong style cabinet design but 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, the cabinet design was changed to have sides with a more traditional "cut out" approach allowing for non-playing patrons to see what is going on with the game. This design element 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 uses the same art design as the art used for Heli Fire and Space Firebird, just with different color variations. As stated above, Radar Scope didn't sell so unsold machines would be modified (PCB's as well) to Donkey Kong machines to clear out the underselling machines. These modified at the factory Radar Scope machines turned into Donkey Kong’s are often known as “TKG2” machines (more about that in a bit).
After all the left-over Radar Scope machines were used for conversions to Donkey Kong, Nintendo made another run of red cabinets specifically to be Donkey Kong machines from the start. These are TKG3 machines and would be the last red Donkey Kong machines from Nintendo. TKG3 machines were Donkey Kong arcade games from the start and never used modified Radar Scope PCB's. After this short run of TKG3 machines in red were made (about 2,000 estimated, maybe less) the more traditional baby blue colored Donkey Kong cabinets would start rolling off the assembly line. These baby blue machines are usually TKG4 machines but sometimes will have serial number plates designating them as late production TKG3 machines. There was an overlap of production of red and blue cabinets at some point for TKG3 machines, but all TKG4 machines will be in the well know baby blue color. In the information below is my best guess so far on how all of this breaks down, and some more important differences on how to identify each machine variation correctly.
Speaker Vent Holes
Many collectors get very picky and excited about the number of cut through speaker slots on the left side of the front of the red version of these cabinets. Some red cabinets will have 5 larger slots for the speaker holes, 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 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. Legitimate blue Donkey Kong cabinets will only have the 7-slot version of the speaker holes. Nintendo was in the process of changing the design during the manufacturing of these game cabinets, so like many manufacturing variations in 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 for a red cabinet for Donkey Kong, and a bit easier to find in a "true" Radar Scope style 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 (it is doubtful that even Nintendo kept track of this). Due to the somewhat unique nature of the 5-slot variation for a red Donkey Kong cabinet they do tend to garner higher prices from collectors.
Serial Number Plates & Serial Numbers
If you are lucky and still happen to have the original serial number plate on your red cabinet attached to the back of the cabinet, this is your ultimate key into figuring out which version of the red cabinet you might have, or at least what it was when it left the factory originally from Nintendo. If you have the letters 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 have a game that left the factory as a Radar Scope, and it was never officially converted to a Donkey Kong by Nintendo. So, even though you could restore a TRS/Radar Scope into a red Donkey Kong game (as many collectors have done), technically this would be an incorrect restoration since it did not leave the factory in this manner. 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 an unknown reason, perhaps to make it easier for the operators to read from the serial plate.
The designation of TKG2 as the model number is when Donkey Kong first enters the picture (There are no TKG1's). These games are the very first USA bound Donkey Kong machines ever made. TKG2 machines are factory converted Radar Scope machines and can be found in both 5 speaker and 7 speaker slot variations. TKG2 serial numbers will start with 100001 on the serial number plate, starting with TKG3 versions 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 from a converted from a Radar Scope.
TKG3’s are more commonly seen in the 7 speaker slot version with a few rare 5 slot versions being found over the years by collectors. It appears that the transition from 5 speaker grill slots to 7 happened during the production of Radar Scope, and as the 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 TKG3's and they might be more common that I had originally thought). I personally would even be willing to bet blue and red machines might have been rolling off the assembly line at the same time, at a certain point of the factory 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, the placement of the 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, or just wanting to finish up a hard day on the arcade game assembly line.
A typical TKG2 version of Donkey Kong would have originally had the Nintendo "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 another game title by an operator (which is common for many classic arcade games), this isolation transformer usually is still in the bottom of the cabinet. 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 that does not contain any mentions or logos of a copyright notice or trademark printed on them. A true "no copyright" bezel will be made from two seperate pieces of material, 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, very fragile to handle, and can command some serious money for collectors seeking out to make their machines as historically correct as possible. Most TGK2 versions of Donkey Kong shipped from Nintendo 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 darker red 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 artworks. Again TKG3 machines seem to have had transtional manufacturing differences that were quickly getting sorted out, so not all TKG3 machines would have had the non copyrighted side art or marquees. All TKG3’s will however have had originally a one-piece bezel, a PP7-B power supply, and a black isolation transformer. There are also a number of variations of all the artwork at this time, and some versions of the marquee and bezel 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 basic versions of the Donkey Kong board set exist for the US market, they are labeled as either TKG2, TKG3, or TKG4 just like the cabinets. These board sets would have originally matched the serial number plate part number and serial number with the cabinet when it left the factory. On top of that there are also two different ROM sets for the US as well. The Japanese release would see 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. There were also several official and non-official ROM upgrade kits for the game to make it harder, easier, or faster.
First let's look at the TKG2 board version, which as we have stated 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 handwritten number on the sticker from the conversion on the metal connecting bracket (These board sets were modified one at a time by hand in Japan, then shipped back to Nintendo’s USA headquarters just outside Seattle, Washington). These original TKG2 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 board sets would be the first purpose-built Donkey Kong boards and although they are also 4 board sets, these are not converted Radar Scope boards. TKG3 PCB's started life as Donkey Kong PCB's from the factory. 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 PCBs were simply mislabeled and needed to be corrected.
TKG4 boards are the most common of all the Donkey Kong PCBs. These are 2-board sets that Nintendo put into production soon after the red cabinet production ended, and the more traditional light blue color production started. 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 (or gaming coding), 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 that Nintendo was surprised by the success of Donkey Kong and was making changes and modifications to the game 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 style will not fit into a cocktail or cabaret style 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 owner’s manual might still be present in the bottom of the cabinet or an invoice from the operator. Even if a game was converted into a different title lazy operators and technicians usually tend to leave things like previous paperwork or even original parts in the machine.
TKG2 machines will also usually have a variation dealing with how the monitor is held into place inside the cabinet, which was a holdover from both Radar Scope cabinets and other earlier Nintendo titles. A wooden box surrounding the monitor chassis and tube cover the monitor in these early machines, compared to the later versions simply having the montor bolted to the internal monitor shelf (and support brackets which bolt to the sides of the cabinet). Monitors will still be Sanyo style "EZ" 20 inch models, but the chassis components will be bolted to the side of the box instead of the more traditional metal housing of the later models (in these more common versions the chassis is in the traditional under the neck board spot like most arcade monitors). These earlier style "monitor in a box" versions will also have a unique (and fragile) front plastic bezel on the front of the box surrounding the monitor frame.
Marquee, Bezel, Control Panel, and Side Art Variations
As mentioned above, early production 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 applied at the factory. 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 from 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.
The earliest productions bezels are a two-piece item. The tinted plexiglass is a separate sheet of material behind the main clear piece that contains the artwork. (Photo to the left is a rare two-piece bezel, courtesy of Jeff Willard). The two-piece design would be quickly replaced early in production with a one-piece version with no copyright, then a copyrighted version. 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 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 styles of bezels have survived after 40 years.
Made in the USA Vs. Made in Japan Cabinets
Despite having a dedicated USA headquarters for North American markets, early Nintendo products were all manufactured in Japan and then shipped to the USA. 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 to keep up with demand. All red cabinets, however, were made in Japan and shipped to the USA factory. 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 measurement and manufacturing 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. Those TKG2 cabinets will also often have the large wooden frames around the monitor (as mentioned earlier), and different variations of the number and style of metal bolts that hold the monitor into the machine from the sides of the cabinet.
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 today, since they were not originally sold in large numbers (I would estimate a production of less than 2,000 units). Cabaret versions of almost all arcade games from a variety of companies are far less common than the upright versions as a rule. The cocktail version seems to have been manufactured in a decently large amount but is normally somewhat shunned by collectors compared to the upright versions due to its odd (but traditional for Japanese cocktail arcade games) flat to the player control panel design and lack of interesting art design elements. Even as cocktail games go (which are normally less interesting to look at than their upright variats), Nintendo's design leaves something to be desired as far as esthetics.
Also of note are the large number 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. Donkey Kong Junior was also seen in pre-release advertising as coming in a blue cabinet just like the original Donkey Kong machine. The unreleased Nintendo game Sky Skipper, and the very limitedly released game Space Demon are also known 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 co-op game Mario Bros. in 1983, the classic Nintendo arcade cabinet design would take its 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 known 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 conversion kit for older Nintendo cabinets and is commonly seen in the traditional Donkey Kong style cabinets. The game Punch-Out!! would share a very close lineage with these cabinets as well with some changes to accommodate two monitors. 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.
Between Radar Scope, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior, and Popeye Nintendo produced a massive amount of the Radar Scope style cabinet over the course of about 4 years. Production of this style of cabinet by Nintendo might be in the neighborhood of 200,000 or so. Thanks to this large production, the Radar Scope/Donkey Kong cabinet is commonly seen in conversions for other games not made by Nintendo. You can 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.
Dedicated Playchoice 10 arcade games and VS. Unisystem game titles 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 massive amount of the Radar Scope style cabinet over the course of about 4 years. Production of this style of cabinet by Nintendo might be in the neighborhood of 200,000 or so. Thanks to this large production, the Radar Scope/Donkey Kong cabinet is commonly seen in conversions for other games not made by Nintendo. You can 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 (Photo on the left: A converted Donkey Kong into a Mad Crasher). 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. Variations of the build of these bases can often be attributed more to operators attempting to fix them over the years than true manufacturing variations from the factory.
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 and reproduction cabinets can vary wildly, as well as the skill of an individual who is restoring a game. There are a large number of people on the internet claiming to sell authentic cabinets which are anything but. 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.
Some Common Questions I Tend to Get….
Q: Did Nintendo convert Radar Scope cocktail cabinets or environmental cabinets to Donkey Kong machines?
A: At this time, it seems like there is no evidence to support this.
Q: I heard that red Donkey Kong machines only came in 5 slot speaker versions….
A: This is not true, as listed in the article above, both TKG2 and TK3 machines appear as both 5 and 7 slot versions.
Q: How can you tell reproduction bezels, control panels, and marquees from the original versions?
A: Some reproductions are of very goods quality currently, and on the surface level can be hard to tell from originals. But keep in mind, originals would have been in operation to the public and taken abuse from the snot nosed kids playing the game in the early 80’s. One easy way to tell if these parts are original is if they seem to look totally unharmed or non-faded from use. If it looks like it is dead mint, it probably is a reproduction. Many reproduction art pieces (although of good quality) are also not of the same thickness, or type of plexiglass-glass material as the originals.
Q: Are reproduction cabinets worth anything?
A: They do have value as an item, but tend not to be of interest to collectors seeking originality. Most hobbies value originals, and reproductions (part or whole) tend to have much less value.
Q: How many original red Donkey Kong machines are left?
A: it’s hard to say, many machines were converted into other titles and many have been simply lost to time. If I had to make a guess I would say maybe 20% have survived at best.
Q: Can I plug a Donkey Kong PCB into a JAMMA style harness?
A: Some versions of the PCB you can with an adapter.
Q: Who is a good source for parts for my Donkey Kong?
A: I would recommend Mike’s Arcade and arcadeshop.com.
Q: I heard there is a secret 5th level in Donkey Kong! Which ROM set is that from?
A: A prototype version of the Coleco Adam has an original (Designed by Coleco) 5th level that can be activated via a code for its version of Donkey Kong Junior.
Q: Do you personally own/like/play Donkey Kong?
A: I own a very nice TK3 red Donkey Kong that I restored, but I will admit that Donkey Kong isn’t one of my favorite games. I tend to be more of an Atari and Taito gal (I do enjoy other Nintendo games). Despite this it is impossible to deny the importance of Donkey Kong in the pages of arcade history.
Q: Was Donkey Kong named Donkey Kong because of a mistake?
A: This is another urban legend, “Donkey” was chosen meaning foolish and “Kong” is a standard term in Japan to describe a large ape.
Q: Is Mario named “Jumpman” in Donkey Kong?
A: Yes, he isn’t officially called Mario in a video game until Donkey Kong Junior.
Q: Is the girl in Donkey Kong Princess Peach?
A: No, that is Pauline, she is described in some Donkey Kong material as simply “Lady” or the “Beautiful Girl". She has made some cameo appearances over the years in other Nintendo games.
Thanks to Trinity Quirk, Mike Haaland, Jeff Willard, "Kong Klub", and Alex Busch (who inspired me to write this) for contributions to this article.