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I've been watching playthroughs of the more primitive Donkey Kong games on YouTube and it occurred to me, if these games predate Super Mario Bros., the Mushroom Kingdom and Princess Peach, then who is the woman that Donkey Kong abducts and Mario sets out to rescue?

A cover of the arcade game Donkey Kong. At the top of the scaffolding, some kind of gorilla is angrily throwing barrels towards the bottom, while a disheveled and panicking blonde haired woman in red dress is standing behind him. A character wearing red trousers and hat with blue shirt is angrily pointing the index finger of his left hand towards the gorilla, while burning barrels are seen rolling around and towards him.

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"Pauline" or "The Lady" or "The Beautiful Girl"


The original (1981) arcade game has this bumper on the side

"Jumpman saves the lady"

Note that Mario hasn't been given a name (yet) and his back-story has him as an elderly carpenter, not an Italian plumber.

This looks like a plate advertising the game on an arcade machine. The title says "Save the lady from Donkey Kong", followed by the name of the company, Nintendo, and instructions from 1 to 6: Insert coin(s), select one or two players, controllers move Jumpman in 4 directions, jump button makes Jumpman jump; if Jumpman reaches top, Donkey Kong takes the lady higher up, and structure changes shape; when a certain structures have been cleared, Jumpman saves the lady. A red text at the bottom says "scoring value" and describes a few ways to earn points: 100 points for jumping over a barrel, 300 to 800 points for hitting with a hammer, and 300 to 800 points for picking stuffs such as an red and white umbrella, a pink purse, and what seems to be some kind of spaceship. The bottom text also says: Bonus points are also awarded based on the time remaining; Extra Jumpman when you gain a certain amount of points, which means you earn extra life if you earn enough points.

Press adverts from early 1982 simply call her 'The Beautiful Girl'

Above the title of the advertisement, we can read: "Chills! Thrills! Test your skills!" in an exploding yellow and red bubble. The title itself says "Donkey Kong from Nintendo". On the left, the characters are presented as follow: Donkey Kong which is snorting, The Beautiful Girl, disheveled, blonde haired and wearing a red dress, who is screaming "Help!", and The Best Lumberjack, wearing red trousers and hat and blue shirt with a black mustache, screaming "Fight!". The last character is known nowadays under the name Mario. The rest of the paper is telling the story of the game which it's advertising.

The name Pauline was applied to various merchandise that was sold to promote the NES games in Japan in 1982/3, including these plastic models.

This is the packaging of the collectable figures for the game. We can see the figurine of Pauline, blonde haired with red dress, standing beside a blue arcade machine. The figures are advertized for children who are at least 4 years old; most likely because any child younger is at risk of swallowing the toy. The back of the packaging shows that there is one collectable figure for each of the 3 characters: Donkey Kong™ the ape, Pauline™ and Mario™. They each have an item number, respectively: #4511, #4513, #4512. More text below to advertize the toys; including a message saying that a figurine for Donkey Kong Junior will be coming soon. The toys are made in Hong Kong.

The earliest source that names her as Pauline seems to be this (1982) Nintendo colouring book that accompanied the game and provided some back-story for her abduction.

This is a black and white drawing, picturing Pauline with a bag in her left hand and handing food towards what seems to be a huge gorilla inside a circular cage with her right hand. The text below says: "Pauline is offering Donkey Kong a peanut", hinting to the round bag in her left hand being a bag of peanut.

She was also named in the 1983 cartoon Saturday Supercade.

Canon confirmation was provided when she was officially named in the manual for the English-language NES version of Donkey Kong in 1986, and she seems to have retained the same name ever since.

A page of the instruction manual provided with the game, with a few pictures of the game and its characters and items, followed by a text explaining the game. The title text says: "Mario's purpose: To save Pauline who has been kidnapped by Donkey Kong.". There are two paragraphs below, explaining the game: "In rounds 1 and 2, Mario makes his way towards Pauline in the upper part of the screen. In round 3, he runs on the steel girders and pulls out bolts. If he can pull out all of the bolts, the girders will fall, Donkey Kong will tumble headlong down to the ground, and Pauline will be saved... for now". The bottom row is presenting the characters and a few items, with their in-game sprite as well as their name: Mario, Pauline, Donkey Kong, a barrel, a fireball with a face, and a jack.


Other sources refer to her as The Lady, The Girl or Mario's Girlfriend.

A page of a manual for the game Donkey Kong: Game and Watch, with two paragraphs. The first paragraph title text says: "How to play", followed by an explanation: "Donkey Kong captured a beautiful girl and carries her into a building under construction. The brave carpenter, Mario, comes to rescue her, following them over the girders. Donkey Kong thorws barrels at Mario to stop him. Knock the girder out from under Donkey Kong to save the girl". The second paragraph with illustrations of how the game looks like, is titled "(Screen)" in parenthesis, and the text of the paragraph says: "Game is played on two screens. The barrels which Donkey Kong throws on upper screen roll down to the lower screen. When Mario reaches top of lower screen, he emerges on upper screen."
Donkey Kong: Game and Watch (1982)

A page of the manual for the game Donkey Kong: Game and Watch 2. Similarly to the manual of the first game, it is divided into two paragraphs, the first one titled "How to play" and the second "(Screens)" in parenthesis, with with illustrations of how the game looks like. The first paragraph says: "A continuation of the famous Donkey Kong story. Mario saved the beautiful girl from Donkey Kong. And now Mario has chained Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong Junior braves snapjaws, sparks and birds, throwing the key which will open Donkey Kong's locks, up to where his papa is held prisonier. Junior opens the four locks hodling Donkey Kong one at a time. Operate Junior's movements to save Donkey Kong." The second paragraph says: "The game is played on two screens. Junior climbs the vines from the lower screen to the upper screen. When Junior throws the key up from the lower screen, it hooks on a tree branch on the upper screen."
Donkey Kong II: Game and Watch (1984)

This is a picture of an advertisement for the game Donkey Kong on Gameboy. A logo at the bottom left can be seen, which says: "Nintendo Exclusive". The rest of the screen is the title screen of the game itself. The background is yellow, and the title of the game says: "Save the lady from Donkey Kong®". The bottom texts of the screen says "Push start" and "1994 Nintendo".
Donkey Kong Gameboy Advert (1994)


Interestingly, she was given a different name in a print ad for the (1982) Game and Watch version of Donkey Kong ("Donkey Kong, the famous monster ape holds lovely Louise prisoner") but that appears to have been an invention of whoever wrote the copy for the advert.

This is a picture of the aforementioned print ad. It is a black and white drawing depicting a hand holding the Game & Watch portable console for Donkey Kong. The text "Grooarrh!" can be seen in huge at the top; most likely a growling from Donkey Kong. There is a very small text at the bottom which is advertizing the game and the console: "Help! Donkey Kong, the famous monster ape, holds lovely Louise prisoner on a building site. Can Mario bring down the mighty Kong? Can he shin up ladders, dodge death-dealing barrels, fit under flying girders, and leap for the crane hook that sends Donkey Kong crashing? Each move could be his last - and only you can help him! 'Donkey Kong' is the greatest double-screen adventure from Game & Watch - with two skill levels and a memory that keeps your highest score - for super ace show offs! And there's a quartz clock with alarm. That's why they call it Game & Watch! The most fun you can get in your pocket." The text below that paragraph is here for legal reasons: "CGL CGI House Goldings Hill Loughton Essex IG!0 2RR". There is a final paragraph below which says: "'Donkey Kong' is just one in the great series of Game & Watch from CGL", followed by the names of a couple of boots where you could acquire one.

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    Pauline has made a few appearances in games since then, including Super Mario Odyssey.
    – ConMan
    May 30, 2023 at 0:35
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    @ConMan - Yes, she's now a recognised character. She's in a bunch of things and has a full back-story and profile
    – Valorum
    May 30, 2023 at 7:08
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    @breversa - If something is worth doing, it's worth doing with massive overkill
    – Valorum
    May 30, 2023 at 9:55
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    Jump button makes Jumpman jump.
    – hobbs
    May 30, 2023 at 15:23
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    “Pauline will be saved… for now.” Never relax, Pauline. May 30, 2023 at 17:17
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Pauline.

Pauline was created by Shigeru Miyamoto and other developers for the 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong. She is the first female character in a video game with a speaking role, and is cited as a famous example of a damsel in distress in fiction. Originally, Pauline was known as Lady, and the game introduced her as Mario's girlfriend. The name Pauline was given after the then-girlfriend of Nintendo of America's warehouse manager, Don James. It was then used in licensed products after the game's release (including a collection of figures by Coleco and a coloring book), and was eventually used for the NES version of the game, although print ads for the Game & Watch version of the game refer to her as Louise. Captured by Donkey Kong atop a New York City construction site, the official artwork depicted her disheveled like the 1930s King Kong's Fay Wray in a torn dress and stiletto heels.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pauline_(Nintendo)

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    Of course, Donkey Kong was originally inspired by King Kong (hence the name - I believe it was originally planned to be "Monkey Kong" but that made it too much of a rip-off and they were forced to change it for legal reasons - there was a later Donkey Kong clone by that name, though that's somewhat obscure), so having Pauline be a rip-off of Fay Wray's character definitely checks out. May 30, 2023 at 13:37
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    @DarrelHoffman Donkey Kong was originally originally supposed to be Bluto, because the game was supposed to be a Popeye game. But Nintendo couldn't get the rights, so they reskinned things. Just imagine, if they had gotten the rights to Popeye, Mario would never have existed! May 30, 2023 at 14:38
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    @MasonWheeler Definitely a good thing -- I hated the blue Spinach Can in Popeye Kart.
    – R.M.
    May 30, 2023 at 15:39
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    @DarrelHoffman As far as I can tell it's a myth that the game was ever supposed to be called Monkey Kong. gaming-urban-legends.fandom.com/wiki/Monkey_Kong May 30, 2023 at 19:26
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    FTA: "In reality, the game's creator Shigeru Miyamoto thought the word "donkey" was a near-synonym of "stubborn", as donkeys can be quite stubborn in real life. Thus, the name Donkey Kong was meant to showcase the titular ape as a stubborn brute."
    – jcollum
    May 30, 2023 at 23:51

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