Updated: Apr 4, 2022
Jungle King is one of Taito's most famous arcade games from the 1980's, but most people know it from its second name Jungle Hunt. The story of Jungle King is fascinating and marks the end of arcade game manufactures rather loose use of other companies copyrights and trademarks. With the completion of my Jungle King cocktail project, I thought it would be a good time to deep dive a bit into the history of this fun and interesting game.
Before we talk about Jungle King, we need to chat a bit about another game. In 1981 Nintendo released the instant classic Donkey Kong into arcades across the world. The unique platform style gameplay was a unique gaming experience in a time when the arcades were mostly populated with space shooters. The success of Donkey Kong sent competing companies into a frenzy to develop their own platform style games. These games ranged in quality and originality greatly, with none of them able to recreate the huge success of Donkey Kong.
Most of these games followed the formula Donkey Kong had set; 4 different levels of gameplay, a climbing to the top to rescue someone or something on each level, and a jump and dodge style of player control.
By the early 1980’s Taito was one of the biggest arcade game manufactures on the planet, this success was built on the foundation of arguably the first true arcade smash hit, Space Invaders. Space Invaders was released in the USA by Midway, but soon after the global success of the game Taito decided to manufacture and distribute their own games in the USA. In 1981 Taito would release 18 arcade games, mostly in their home market of Japan. For the US, they didn’t have a platform like game of any kind on the market yet… the big hit for Taito in 1981 was the unique land grab puzzle game Qix.
Taito like almost every other major game manufacture wanted their own Donkey Kong style game. In 1982 Taito developed a jungle themed 4 level game that combined both the platforming style of gameplay of Donkey Kong, with some ideas of some other popular games like Irem’s Moon Patrol into a game first named Jungle Boy. Jungle Boy would be renamed to Jungle King to capitalize on it’s Tarzan look alike main hero. Not only does the pixel hero look like Tarzan, he even gives out a digitally produced Tarzan yell at the start of the game. The theming is cleaver and makes great use of the Tarzan imagery, there was only one problem… Tarzan was a copyrighted character, which Taito had not attempted to gain the copyright permission to use in the game.
Up until this point, many manufactures of arcade games and pinballs had a bit of a fast and loose approach to other companies copyrights. Even companies would ruthlessly copy others games and rebrand them, as Atari would find out early on with the multitude of Pong clones. Many early video games would use theming, imagery, or direct rip off ideas from well known copyrighted material. As the 1980’s rolled in, the video game industry had become so large what ever free pass they had for this copyright infringement seemed to have passed. Taito also ran into maybe a bit of bad luck with choosing Tarzan to copy.
Tarzan was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan’s first appearance is in the novel Tarzan of the Apes published in a magazine in 1912. Burroughs passed away in 1950, but his creations Tarzan and John Carter continued to be licensed and protected by copyright from his estate. In the 1970’s there was a bit of a Tarzan revival going on. Marvel Comics introduced a new series of Tarzan in 1979, Filmation studios produced an animated TV show, and in the 1980’s two feature films were released.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. the holding company to this day of the Tarzan and John Carter copyrights has been involved in countless legal actions for years over the rights of these characters. To this day they are still actively involved in several lawsuits despite the fact that most of Burroughs' original work had expired and is now considered to be part of the public domain. Burroughs Inc. had been on a bit of a suing spree in the early 1980’s including a lawsuit over both 1980’s Tarzan films.
Jungle King was released in early 1982, and would go on to be a decent hit for Taito. The multi level gameplay and color graphics drew in arcade patrons. There is some nice parallax scrolling on the first level, and the music is fairly catchy as well. The hardware design shares a a lot with other Taito arcade games including the classic game Elevator Action. Taito released the game in an upright cabinet, cabaret cabinet, and a cocktail. The four levels of gameplay included jumping from vines…. Swimming in crocodile infested waters…. Running and jumping over boulders…. And finally rescuing the girl from the angry native warriors. After completing the four levels they start again, but of course the difficultly ramps up. The second wave of levels also incorporates some new obstacles such as Monkeys on the vines and more agile crocodiles. Almost immediately after it’s release, the estate of Burroughs sought legal action. Now here is where the story gets a little hazy despite years of arcade fans and magazines telling this story. I couldn’t find any official court documentation of Taito officially being sued, but it seems they did indeed receive a cease and desist order from Burroughs estate. But there is no record of damages being paid or an actual legal court case, because there probably wasn’t one. It seems Taito immediate took action not to get sued.
Jungle King was quickly retooled and retitled to the name Jungle Hunt. Gone were the Tarzan yell, the Tarzan like main character sprite… and a few other graphical elements. Tarzan was replaced with a Doctor Livingston British explorer style character… some new music was added but overall the gameplay was exactly the same. The upright and cabaret arcade game cabinets in the USA received new and somewhat genetic artwork, the cocktail machines kept the odd fancy Taito cocktail artwork.
The name change didn’t seem to affect the success of the game, in fact the media attention over the lawsuit might have helped the game in some way. Production numbers are not available, but it seems the Jungle Hunt versions of these arcade games are more common than the Jungle King versions. I would bet overall production was around 65% Jungle Hunt and 35% Jungle King overall, with cabaret machines and cocktails having much lower production numbers compared to the upright machines. Home version for home video game systems and home computers were released worldwide. Atari would release most of these versions through their short lived Atarisoft computer software division. These versions vary in quality and authenticity compared to the arcade version. Strangely the underpowered Atari 2600 version is one of the few versions of the game that attempts to recreate the arcade’s parallax scrolling on the first level.
Taito would rework the game yet again in 1982 with the release of Pirate Pete. Pirate Pete keeps the same four levels of gameplay, but reworks the graphics to a pirate theme. The graphic overhaul for Pete is much more dramatic in scope when compared to the changes of Jungle King to Jungle Hunt. It’s unclear if Pirate Pete was an attempt to push farther out from the Tarzan comparison, or create some sort of sudo sequel to the original game. Pirate Pete was both announced and marketed by Taito for the US market.
It seems however the game was released only in a limited fashion in the USA, the game PCB is fairly rare and I couldn’t find any other collectors who have a dedicated cabinet version of the game. Maybe Taito knew they had milked the concept as much as they could and decided to move onto other games.
The legacy of Jungle King is interesting not only as a game, but as the symbolic end of manufactures of amusement devices from taking copyright infringement lightly. Ironically Jungle King was a commonly bootlegged PCB throughout the world in the early 1980’s. The Jungle Hunt version is a common fixture in Taito greatest hits collections for modern systems, and today is considered to be one of Taito’s most successful arcade games of the early 1980’s.