Donkey Kong is one of Nintendo's oldest franchises, and one that's come back into prominence with a new Wii U release. When you think about it, DK is arguably Nintendo's second most famous character (don't tell Link I wrote that). But do you really know Donkey Kong?
He’s starred in some of the most popular games ever made, but much of his history is unknown to casual fans. What's the reactionary gorilla been up to all these years and what are the strangest parts of his lineage? Click onward to see where it all began...
When first we met
In 1981, toymaker Nintendo had barely dipped its toe into the emerging Japanese gaming market, but was ready to head to America. As the legend goes, the publisher repurposed some unpopular arcade cabinets to house a game created by a young artist named Shigeru Miyamoto who was overseen by the man that would eventually build the Game Boy, Gumpei Yokoi. Introducing an actual plot to gaming, the silly but simple tale followed a carpenter's pet gorilla stealing the workman's girlfriend. Thus Donkey Kong was born.
Despite the odd concept, the game became a monster hit around the world. The game basically invented the platformer, but back then arcade titles were inventing genres left and right. The real reason it's forever lodged in the minds of the players worldwide is the compelling narrative hook, memorable music, and colorful, cartoony graphics that have aged gracefully. But even though his name was on the marquee, it was Jumpman (soon to be renamed Mario) that became the real star, pushing DK into the background.
Neither Monkey Kong nor King Kong
Still argued about to this day, fans aren't totally sure why a huge gorilla is named Donkey. A commonly held belief that Donkey Kong is a mistranslation of Monkey Kong, but that's been successfully disproven. According to creator Shigeru Miyamoto, the "Donkey" name was intentional, meant to reference the stubborn nature of the ape.
No matter the source of his first name, it was DK's last name that got Nintendo in trouble with Universal Studios. The movie company claimed the game infringed on its King Kong copyright, with both the plot and title. Seemingly the big studio thought it could intimidate Nintendo into settling, but N's legal team didn't falter. After proving that Universal didn't even possess the rights to King Kong, the court sided with Nintendo, a big victory on its road to US expansion.
When it was finally time for the ape’s big sequel, Donkey Kong didn't return the conquering hero in his second adventure. Unpredictably, he's the damsel in distress, caged by Mario and assisted by his son, the titular Donkey Kong Junior. To this date gamers have yet to meet Junior's mother, but at the time we were too busy trying to save papa to notice.
Perhaps intended to play against player expectations at the time, seeing Mario as whip-wielding jailer out to kill a baby gorilla is a little jarring these day. It's a risk that Nintendo wouldn't take again with its mascot. In fact, Donkey Kong and his nemesis would part ways for a good while after this game.
After he was finally freed by his son, Donkey Kong's third arcade title had him returning to his destructive ways. This time the imposing beast avoided Mario--he was enjoying new found success in Mario Bros--and forcefully took over a stranger’s green house. The only person to come to the aid of the defenseless plants was the now-forgotten Stanley the Bugman.
Ditching platforming to become a Galaga-styled shooter, Donkey Kong 3 is a strange asterisk in the ape's career. For as cool as he is, Stanley is an unneeded Mario replacement, though I do appreciate the little dance he does after winning. Looking back, this era represents a strange mood swing for players. After they pitied DK in the second game, they were now expected to shoot him in the crotch with bug spray.
Following DK3, Kong was mostly limited to appearing in arcade ports while Jr. oddly joined the roster of Super Mario Kart instead of him, something that wouldn’t be repeated in future Kart games. Then 1994 saw him return in a huge way that included a new, red necktie. Fans first saw DK at his most villainous in the stupendous Game Boy remake of the arcade original. Then Kong got a console series all his own thanks to some tech wizards in Northern England.
Donkey Kong Country made DK the hero for the first time ever as he chased down his stolen bananas all over a garden paradise. It gave DK a new personality and heroic identity, forgoing his unpredictable nature, bestowing a new voice and purpose. Featuring then-stunning CG graphics, DKC convinced many that the next generation consoles weren't needed as long the SNES could create such dazzling games.
Enter Diddy Kong
Originally designed as a new take on Donkey Kong Jr., Nintendo rejected Rare's redesign for the character, causing Rare to repurpose that look for Diddy Kong, an entirely new sidekick. The little monkey stuck close to his elder throughout DKC, even in the perilous underwater and mine cart stages, and he garnered a powerful fan base of his own. By the time the sequel rolled out, Diddy had usurped DK in the leading role.
Despite having his name in the title, Donkey Kong was shoved to background once again, getting captured in both sequels with Diddy and his girlfriend Dixie taking over as the main character. But even if he wasn't always playable, Country successfully returned Donkey Kong to a place of prominence in Nintendo's pantheon. Soon he was on friendly terms with Mario in the plumber's many spin-offs, including Mario Kart, while Diddy went to headline a racer of his own.
The missing link
Donkey Kong Country may have put DK in the center stage again, but it also created a question of identity that Nintendo still hasn't fully explained. DKC introduced a whole family of new Kongs, including the crotchety (but lovable) Cranky Kong. The aged ape claimed to be the original arcade Donkey Kong that kidnapped Pauline. If that's true, who's the Donkey Kong in DKC and what happened to DK Jr.?
When Rare was in charge of the DK mythology Cranky sometimes said he was DK's father and other times claimed to be his grandfather, while Nintendo at first ignored the backstory entirely when Donkey Kong appeared in other games. Cranky being DK's father makes more sense, since that would mean DK is an adult version of Junior, but in his more recent appearances overseen by Nintendo, Cranky is clearly identified as DK's grandfather. So what happened to Junior? He hasn't been seen in years and if his dad is approximately 97 in ape years, how old can he be? And for that matter, why hasn't Mario aged at all in the intervening years? Perhaps these are things the world isn’t meant to know.
Too much of a good thing
After ruling the sales charts in the second half of the SNES's lifecycle, Rare moved on to the N64 and became one of, if not the dominant developer for the system. Rare used the console to introduce multiple new stars, including Banjo-Kazooie and Jet Force Gemini, before returning to DK in Donkey Kong 64. Sadly, even though the game was well made, its formula had gotten stale.
Aside from the so-bad-it's-good rap that starts the game, the real problem with DK64 is that it buried players in collectibles. After unlocking the five different playable characters, each has different colored coins to collect along with Golden Bananas, Crystal Coconuts, keys, rolls of film, headphones, and medals that are scattered in every single stage. Rare was famous for using tons of hidden collectibles to extend playtime, but DK64 took that to such ludicrous extremes that numerous players rejected it. After DK64, many gamers needed to take a break from the ape's world.
Adventures that were never meant to be
Donkey Kong 64 ended up as Rare's last hurrah with the primate, despite having several games prepared for Nintendo GameCube. Pictured above is Donkey Kong Racing, one of the first titles shown for GC and even advertised on the North American packaging for the system. That and two other DK games were cancelled when Rare was purchased by an unlikely corporate suitor.
Following the success of Country, Nintendo became part owner of Rare, but when the N64 went to pasture, Nintendo chose to sell its stake in Rare to Microsoft. Once MS got Rare working on titles for the Xbox and its successor, Nintendo cancelled multiple Donkey Kong titles that suddenly were missing a developer. At first it was unclear to fans who owned what characters after the sale, but eventually all the Country characters belonged to Nintendo. Unsurprisingly, the publisher took the ape back into the first party fold at that point.
Overseen by Nintendo once more, Donkey Kong entered a transition period during the GameCube years. He continued to appear alongside Mario in sports and racing games, but his solo releases were scattershot. While appearing in a couple portable adventures, DK was tethered to a clunky peripheral on the GameCube, starring in a series of games that were only playable using an oddball bongo drum controller.
The three Donkey Konga games--one of which never left Japan--are cute, but the pop-heavy track lists are too shallow, barely cracking 30 songs per entry and failing to take advantage of the huge backlog of classic Nintendo music at the devs' disposal. Even weirder was Jungle Beat, a standard platformer that you controlled only with the bongos. It's a physically taxing game, but if you're in good enough shape to keep up with the beat, it's pretty fun. Still, the bongo years will mostly be remembered as one of the weirdest chapters in DK’s history.
An old grudge flares up
After all that time as a leading man, it seemed like DK had left behind his kidnapping ways, but when Pauline returned to Mario’s side, so too did DK’s dark side. In each of the Mario vs. Donkey Kong games, Kong flies into a jealous rage and steals something, either new toys or Pauline herself. Early in the series, Mario chased DK himself, but by the later entries the plumber uses toys do most of the work for him via Lemmings-inspired games.
DK’s actions in this series makes me wonder just how smart he really is. In the Country games he’s intelligent enough to converse with other characters and seems like a good guy. But Mario vs. Donkey Kong has DK acting so erratic, stealing things and creating deadly traps for Mario and his Minis. Perhaps simply seeing Mario brings out the worst in DK, causing some wild reaction in him that he can’t control. Of course, by the end of each subseries entry, Mario and Pauline ultimately forgive Donkey Kong, happily friends once again--until the next time DK loses his mind.
Back where he belongs
The Wii spent much of its lifetime free of the dominant ape. 2007 saw the release of the quickly forgotten Barrel Blast and most of his other appearances were limited to ports and supporting roles in Mario sports games. That changed following DK’s surprise appearance as the final boss in the Punch-Out!! remake, and DK’s momentum continued into a revival many kids of the 1990s had been yearning for. Picking up where Rare had left off with DK64, Metroid Prime devs Retro Studios returned the primate to honor with Donkey Kong Country Returns in 2010.
A striking and proudly 2D throwback, DKCR was a fitting tribute to what was so great about the series Rare made famous, incorporating the iconic music and other cute references to previous DKC entries. However, Nintendo held back on the greater Kong family, as only the indispensable Cranky Kong appears alongside DK and Diddy. Fans loved to see the primates reunited, with over five million copies sold attesting to Country's continued popularity. With sales like that, it wasn't a shock to see the game ported to the 3DS in 2013.
And that brings us to today and DK's arrival on the Wii U. The DKC series is stronger than ever in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze It brought Donkey, Diddy, Cranky, and the returning Dixie into HD, with their fur looking particularly shiny. And the game's punishing nature shows the ape hasn't gone soft in his old age.
And that's just the start of a 2014 full of gorilla love on the Wii U. Donkey and Diddy are both confirmed for the Super Smash Bros. Wii U and 3DS roster, on top of DK being a racer in Mario Kart 8. Even if Nintendo is going through a bit of a transition these days, it looks like Donkey Kong will be a constant no matter what else changes.
No matter where he ends up next, Donkey Kong’s legacy at Nintendo seems more secure than ever. After dozens of starring roles and cameos, what are your favorite memories of DK? Tell us in the comments.
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