Donkey Kong and The Six Degrees of SCREW

On this day, March 26, 1973, Donkey Kong made his first-ever public appearance on the cover of SCREW #212. Eight years later, artist Leslie Cabarga’s lovable ape would become the face of Nintendo…

As you and the kids site done to watch The Super Mario Bros. Movie on Netflix or wherever, you probably already know that Mario began with the outrageously popular arcade game Donkey Kong from Nintendo. But what you didn’t know is that the Donkey Kong character first debuted on a cover of SCREW, ultimately leading to the birth of Mario. Call it “The Six Degrees of SCREW” or “SCREW’s Law”, whatever it is, it seems everything in modern pop culture somehow finds its way back to SCREW…

SCREW #212 (MARCH 26, 1973)

Artist Leslie Cabarga began selling his legendary cartoons to underground newspapers in and around New York City at 14. Through the 1970s, his unique, signature 1920s-30s art style landed his work in the pages and on the covers of publications like East Village Other, Rat Subterranean News, Gothic Blimp Works and of course, SCREW. He was just 19 when he did his “King Kong” cover for SCREW #212 introducing the world to his lovable gorilla we would all one day come to know as “Donkey Kong”.

The seed was planted…

After that, Cabarga moved to San Francisco where he published comics in San Francisco Comic Book, Yellow Dog, Comix Book and several other popular comix of the era as well as National Lampoon. He eventually landed art director jobs at Rolling Stone, Outside and Rock magazines. His work would ultimately land on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Fortune magazines, to name a few of the biggies. He also did the illustration for The J. Geils Band’s 1982 album Showtime, designed the logo for Tetris and helped revive the career of everyone’s favorite whore, Betty Boop.


In 1980, a little-known Japanese company called Nintendo set up shop in New York City and Seattle. Nintendo America was born. Coming from Tokyo, their all-male staff felt right at home in the hustle-and-bustle of Manhattan’s Time Square, even more so among the whores and peep shows of West 42nd Street where they soon discovered the familiar pages of Screw, which was also published under license in Japan at the time. SCREW was a staple in the Nintendo America offices, in fact, the first and only SCREW subscribers in Washington State at the time were Nintendo America employees in Seattle.

In July 1981, Nintendo America released the first version of its coin-op video arcade game Donkey Kong to the American market. Created by first-time video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, Donkey Kong was wrapped in attractive and irresistible marquee and cabinet graphics designed by Leslie Cabarga featuring his lovable gorilla and two characters named, “Pauline” and “Mario”. Cabarga — who they discovered in Screw — was the American illustrator who conceived and created the first rendition of Mario, revising the original Japanese version’s “Jumpman” to create the iconic, little Italian dude we all know and love, and who was inspired by Mario Segale, then-landlord of Nintendo America’s Seattle office.


Donkey Kong was Nintendo’s first international success, generating more than $280 million in revenue its first year (and billions since) and saving the company from financial ruin. Through the 80s and into the 90s, Donkey Kong was everywhere — arcade games, Colecovision, shirts, hats, backpacks, lunchboxes, toys, you name it. Like Pac-Man (his biggest competitor at the time) the character was licensed to anything and everything that wasn’t nailed down that could be sold. They spun-off Donkey Kong II, Donkey Kong Jr. and of course Super Mario Bros. which, along with the introduction of their NES Game Console, spun-off another 200+ games, not to mention all the toys and cartoons and movies and other shit that would ultimately make Mario the most successful and iconic game franchise of all-time.

…And to think it all started with a lovable gorilla on the cover of SCREW, beneath the heading “Sex Secrets Of A Pimp” and a bunch of Japanese pervs with a penchant for American smut. Well, kind of, at least that’s our story and we’re sticking to it. Perhaps I should have titled this “Nintendo’s Shady Past”. The thought that something as wholesome as Donkey Kong, and Nintendo, and Mario with all his spinoffs and toys and everything else is all within just two degrees of a porn magazine is like discovering dear old, lovable Grandpa has been on the sex offender registry your entire life.

Today, Leslie Cabarga is in Southern California. He’s pushing 70-years-old, lives in his own custom-built tiny house and has since moved on from illustration to carpentry and cabinet-making. He also plays ukulele and piano with the CA State Old-Time Fiddlers’ Association.





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