Welcome to another Quick Bits article. I will do a more general article on Med Systems Software at some point in the future, for now, I’ll be doing a few short articles on the company’s early games. Ken Kalish’s Monkey Kong, one of countless Donkey Kong clones released in the early ’80s, would introduce the popular coin-op video game to owners of the TRS-80 Color Computer in 1982.
In the late 1970s, Nintendo, a relatively small Japanese company selling primarily playing cards and toys ventured into the fledging coin-op video game business. Here, 27-year-old artist, Shigeru Miyamoto, who later would become one of the most prolific game designers of all time, would help create the art for the company’s first coin-operated arcade game, Sheriff.
The following year, in October of 1980, the company introduced its next game, Radar Scope, and to break into the all-important North American video game market, a subsidiary, Nintendo of America was set up in New York City. Based on favorable tests of Radar Scope at arcades in Seattle, the president of Nintendo of America Minoru Arakawa wagered most of the company’s modest corporate budget on ordering 3,000 Radar Scope units from Nintendo in Japan. Shipping the units into New York by boat took almost four months, by which time the market had lost interest. A total of 1,000 Radar Scope units were sold to an underwhelming reception, the remaining 2,000 ended up in Nintendo’s warehouse. The costly failure put the subsidiary into a financial crisis and Arakawa pleaded for his father-in-law, Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi, to send him a new game that not only could convert and salvage thousands of unsold Radar Scope machines but hopefully also rival Namco’s monster hit, Pac-Man. Miyamoto was tasked by president Yamauchi to come up with the design for the new and very crucial game.
Miyamoto, inspired by a wide range of cartoons and movies, developed the scenario and designed what would become Donkey Kong, alongside Nintendo’s head engineer, Gunpei Yokoi, who supervised the project. The Japanese team crafted a simple storyline that visually unfolded as the player progressed. Recognizable characters were developed and cutscenes were created to advance the game’s plot. When the game was complete and released into the hungry market it became an immediate success and the highest-grossing arcade game of 1981 and 82. The massive success ushered in a wave of nearly identical games for video game consoles and home computers. While Nintendo officially licensed the game to Coleco, who went on to sell a total of eight million cartridges, most companies simply cloned the game and avoided royalties altogether. Donkey Kong not only became one of the most popular arcade games of all time but also one of the most cloned titles of all time.
There were many other systems and machines more popular than Tandy’s TRS-80 Color Computer yet the small and relatively simple computer got its own version of Donkey Kong when Ken Kalish created his Monkey Kong in 1982.
To compete with Commodore‘s inexpensive and popular Commodore VIC-20, Tandy Corporation, in July of 1980, announced its first TRS-80 Color Computer. The CoCo, as it became known, was Tandy’s entry into the low-end home computer market, and while it was relatively high priced and short powered it came to have its own loyal fanbase that would stretch all the way into the mid-’80s, thanks to Tandy and Radio Shack‘s stubbornly marketing efforts.
After earning a nice profit trading some South African gold mining stocks, Kalish, went to his local Radio Shack store looking to buy his first computer. He had been introduced to minicomputers and assembly programming in college while getting his Psychology degree. Now years later, computers had moved into people’s homes and while most opted for the VIC-20 or Atari‘s 8-bit home computers, into Kalish home moved a TRS-80 Color Computer 1, with 4k of memory, a tape drive, and Microsoft‘s Color BASIC. Kalish soon upgraded the computer to 16k and bought the Microworks assembler cartridge and started writing his first games. One of which was a very accurate clone of Nintendo’s Donkey Kong.
Ken Kalish’s Donkey Kong clone Monkey Kong, released by Med Systems Software for the TRS-80 Color Computer in 1982
Kalish machine had only 16k of memory which limited the game’s scope to only feature the first two levels from the original arcade version. While the gameplay was quite faithful, the controls and gameplay were somewhat sluggish and the green background would make anybody with normal vision wish they were colorblind. Nonetheless, for people with only a 16k CoCo machine, Monkey Kong would become the only Donkey Kong clone available.
The CoCo would the same year get a 32k Donkey Kong clone, with a black background, with Tom Mix Software’s excellent Donkey King.
Monkey Kong was quite an accurate clone of Nintendo’s Donkey Kong. The game allowed for one or two players, had three difficulty levels but only included the first two original levels.
The red, blue, yellow, and green colors were one of the CoCo’s official four-color 128×192 medium-resolution modes. Limited to 16k resulted in a game bearing reminiscent of the official but quite dreadful Atari 2600 and Intellivision conversions. While the graphics were better, and jumpman (Mario) looked like mario, the green background was a strange choice
Kalish also wrote Phantom Slayer, released by Med Systems Software in the first half of 1982, as one of the first full-screen, real-time 3D first-person shooters, a game I’ll be covering sometime in the future.
Sources: L. Curtis Boyle’s interview with Ken Kalish, Rainbow Magazine, Wikipedia…