Ever wanted to feel as small as Mario did when confronted by his original, seven-foot tall gorilla nemesis? On Monday, the Strong National Museum of Play shared its new plans to create an enormous, 20-foot-tall Donkey Kong arcade cabinet. Even though it will be close to four times as big as the 1981 original, the cabinet will indeed be playable, no quarters required.
Nintendo is notoriously protective of its intellectual property, but museum staff leading the project said they worked directly with the Japanese game company to make sure this upscaled version played as close to the original as possible. Jon-Paul Dyson, director of The Strong’s National Center for the History of Electronic Games, told Gizmodo in a phone interview that the museum’s team got advice from Nintendo of America, then presented its work to the company itself to get the green light on the supersized cabinet. The team plans to build the supersized Donkey Kong in the next few months and unveil the installation at the museum’s Rochester, New York site on June 30.
There’s more than a few challenges when emulating a game built for CRT televisions on a flatscreen, let alone one at a large scale. The engineers at The Strong Museum are using an actual motherboard from the original Donkey Kong, which they’re adapting to a Home Arcade System Supergun JAMMA interface. A backup emulator motherboard also helps power the system as it upscales the RGB output to a large 1.56mm pixel pitch LED display. Players won’t play with the over-sized control panel on the cabinet itself, but a separate configuration that New Donk City-sized humans can actually use.
Andrew Borman, The Strong’s digital games curator, told us that the original motherboard remains unmodified save for basic maintenance. Using that piece of tech from the OG cabinet “provides the authentic video, sound, and gameplay experience that people expect.”
Emulating old games on new hardware is already a tricky business without needing to upscale them to the degree as The Strong Museum intends to. Dyson said that, in the emulator community, there are aspects of each game called “significant properties” that represent what makes the game feel like the original. This includes everything from the way colored pixels appear on the screen to the tightness of the controls. The game historian told us that Strong is even taking its players’ perspective into account. On the 1981 arcade cabinets, players were often directly at or at a downward angle to the screen. Unless you’re as big as DK himself, you’ll probably be looking up at The Strong’s supersized screen.
“One of the biggest challenges is understanding the original hardware configuration and the impact that changing any single piece could have on the overall experience,” Borman said. “The same detail went into the controls, as the feeling and response of the Donkey Kong joystick and buttons is an important part of the overall experience.”
Dyson said that Strong is not looking to compare itself much to other supersized cabinets such as CES 2020’s 16-foot-tall NBA Jam from old school arcade machine makers Arcade1Up. But more than that, the gaming historian said that even though the original Donkey Kong arcade cabinet came relatively late in the arcade era, it was a seminal moment in the gaming timeline. It was the first time players could control Nintendo posterboy Mario in the U.S. market, which would help Nintendo when the company brought its Nintendo Entertainment System to American shores in 1985. It also cemented Shigeru Miyamoto as a major figure in gaming that remains to this day.
The massive cabinet is part of museum’s expanded ESL Digital Worlds gallery exhibit, meant to express the broader history of play in pop culture. The Kong-sized cabinet is an expression of that gaming legacy.
“When the meteorite came down on arcades, Donkey Kong was one of the few mammals able to survive,” Dyson said. “In that way, Mario is this living connection we have to the past.”
The Kong-sized cabinet is part of the The Strong’s $65 million expansion being unveiled June 30 in Rochester, New York. According to the museum heads, the massive cabinet will be front and center as soon as visitors walk through the door.