Video Game Greats: The Rise of Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong first appeared in his standalone game, Donkey Kong, in 1981. In this game, Jumpman (who would soon become Mario) is trying to rescue his girlfriend Pauline from Donkey Kong, who is holding her captive at the end of each level. Jumpman must work his way through a series of platforms, dodging and jumping over barrels thrown at him by the angry ape. This game first appeared in arcades, becoming one of the first, and most popular platform games. The games use of jumping and multiple stages are responsible for setting the template for future arcade-platformer games. The game and overall idea of Donkey Kong was initially not well received by the folks at Nintendo America, but Donkey Kong ended up being considered to be one of the top 100 video games of all time and the character became one of Nintendo’s most popular and recognizable franchises.


Donkey Kong was designed by first-time video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto (ever heard of him)? DK was originally planned to appear in a game based on the Popeye comic strip, but the deal fell through. So, Nintendo decided it was time to create new characters that they could use for their own games, so they went forward with the Donkey Kong design. Miyamoto gathered inspirations for his character from Popeye, Beauty and the Beast, and King Kong. His final product was Donkey Kong, which originally meant “stubborn ape.” Miyamoto would go on to help create some of the greatest Nintendo franchises like Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Pikmin, and more.


In 1982, Nintendo followed up its original Donkey Kong game with Donkey Kong Jr., and this time, the roles were reversed. In this arcade platformer, Mario (renamed from Jumpman) has captured Donkey Kong and put him in a cage as punishment for kidnapping Pauline. Donkey Kong Jr. sets out on a rescue mission to free his father from Mario. Donkey Kong Jr. must fight his way through Mario’s release of animals and various obstacles to try and stop him and save his father. It was considered a successful sequel to the original Donkey Kong and is pretty similar to the original game. However, Donkey Kong Jr. contained a few differences from its predecessor, most notably, a new character, Donkey Kong Jr., vine swinging, and new villains like snapjaws and nitpickers. The game was later released on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and a couple of other less notable consoles.

Donkey Kong 3 made its way into arcades in 1983, this time without Mario. This was the first game in the series to not feature Mario and instead featured a brand new character. Being a complete deviation from its predecessors, the game did not receive very good reviews. IGN described it as a “radical departure” from the other games in the series. The game offers a completely different style of gameplay since it is considered a “shooter”. In this game, Donkey Kong decides to hang out in an innocent exterminator’s greenhouse, named Stanley. Being a large ape, he is constantly bringing insects into the greenhouse and ruining Stanley’s plants. Stanley will not tolerate this, and in order to save his beloved flowers from Donkey Kong, he must defeat him with bug spray, which is why it is considered a shooter. Donkey Kong is hanging from vines at the top of the screen, and Stanley must dodge various insects and spray DK with the bug spray until he is forced to leave. In 1986 Donkey Kong 3 was ported to the NES and then again onto the Wii in 2008.

It would be almost a decade later until the world would fall in love with Donkey Kong again. With most of Nintendo’s focus on Mario, Donkey Kong had taken a back seat to the Italian hero. In 1994 Nintendo released a Gameboy version of Donkey Kong, which is recognized for its nostalgic value featuring DK re-designed with his famous red necktie. In addition to the nostalgia and necktie, the game built on Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr., adding 97 new stages, which featured an all-new style of gameplay. In the new stages, the player must lead Mario through each level to find a key, which unlocks a door eventually leading to a boss fight. Along with being similar the original DK games, the Gameboy title featured the popular pickup and throw mechanic from Super Mario Bros. 2. One of the most significant facts about Gameboy version is that it is the first Gameboy title to be designed with enhanced features that appear when played on the Super Gameboy. The game was received positively and vaulted Donkey Kong back into the spotlight.

In 1994, Nintendo partnered with game developer Rare, to make a new game for our esteemed primate, Donkey Kong Country. This is the first game of the Donkey Kong franchise that was not produced or directed by Miyamoto, however, he was still involved in the making of the game. Originally published for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong try to take back their stolen bananas from the villain, King K. Rool. This installment in the series is a similar platformer that features side-scrolling elements. You are able to choose from Donkey Kong or Diddy Kong as playable characters and must navigate your way through 40 different levels in order to get back your stolen bananas. Through the game, players are able to change between Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong during the levels, taking advantage of their specialties such as strength and speed. Funky Kong, Candy Kong, and Cranky Kong were introduced in this game and would go on to become franchise characters. The team at Rare redesigned Donkey Kong in this game with a 3D appearance that gave him the design that we all are familiar with today. This game was well received and some consider it to be the game that saved the SNES.


Nintendo’s partnership with Rare resulted in two more games in the Donkey Kong Country series, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest and Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble. In Donkey Kong Country 2, King K. Rool makes a return and this time has captured Donkey Kong. This leaves Diddy Kong with no choice except to try and save his father. However, he cannot do it alone, so he recruits his girlfriend, Dixie Kong, to help. Released in 1995 for the SNES, players are given more challenging levels and can control Diddy Kong or Dixie Kong through 8 worlds that feature 52 levels.The game was designed in 3D, but then converted to 2D, and is considered to be one of the greatest 2D platformers ever made. In Donkey Kong Country 3 both Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong have been captured by King K. Rool and Dixie Kong and her cousin Kiddy Kong must rescue them! Throughout the 48 levels, this game is noted for its return to original DK gameplay, mainly because of the use of barrels, which pays homage to the original Donkey Kong game. The game returns to old themes, like forests, mountains, and factories, and the graphics are known for their colorful and vibrant look. This is the final game in the Donkey Kong Country series.

In 1999, Nintendo continued their partnership with Rare and made what would be the last major game in the Nintendo-Rare era, Donkey Kong 64. This was the first game released on the Nintendo 64 that required the console’s expansion pak. Donkey Kong 64 was the first game in the franchise to have 3D gameplay, which helped make it a huge success. In the game, King K. Rool is up to his old tricks again and has kidnapped Donkey Kong’s friends. In order to save them, he must play mini-games, solve puzzles, and collect items to unlock boss fights, which in turn unlock new worlds. Once DK has saved one of his friends, they become a playable character in the game and can help save the rest of the gang. Donkey Kong 64 was immensely popular and was the best selling game of the 1999 holiday season. Critics spoke highly of it, despite its large amount of in-game collecting.

Donkey Kong wouldn’t see another major game until 2004 when Nintendo partnered with Namco to make Donkey Konga for the GameCube. In this game, Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong come across a mysterious set of bongos on the beach and begin to curiously beat them. Eventually, they realize that if they can learn to play them properly, they can buy as many bananas as they wish, so they begin playing songs. The game features songs from the Mario series, The Legend of Zelda series, and even songs like “We Will Rock You.” This game is different from all the other Donkey Kong games because you play with a set of bongos, which shows Donkey Kong and the gang in a whole new light! It was well received by critics and fans and received two sequels. The positive reception of the series helped prove Nintendo’s theory that Donkey Kong could be more than just a platformer franchise.


Donkey Kong and his friends also appeared on a lot of Nintendo’s handheld consoles, and in 2004 he was reunited with Mario for the first time in a long time. Released in 2004 for the Game Boy Advance, Mario vs. Donkey Kong is a throwback to the original Donkey Kong game. In this game, Mario chases Donkey Kong to try and retrieve stolen mini-Mario’s. Other games featuring DK and his crew were also released on Nintendo’s handheld devices throughout the years such as Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2, DK King of Swing, DK Jungle Climber, and more.

Nintendo has also made a couple of games where various Nintendo characters appear in the same game, such as the Mario Kart series, Smash Bros. series, and the Mario Party games. Donkey Kong was not left out of these, making his first Mario Kart appearance in the hit game, Mario Kart 64. Since then, he has been in all the games in the series. He has his own stage in Super Smash Bros. called Kongo Jungle and has returned in later games. DK appeared in Mario Party 1-4 as a main character and then made a special guest appearance in a few of the later games in the series. He has even made appearances in various Mario sports games over the years. After all, apes are quite the athletes! This just goes to show that Donkey Kong is a beloved Nintendo character who can do more than just swing from vines and jump off platforms.


Overall, Donkey Kong has been a well-received Nintendo character. Nintendo Power ranked DK as their 8th favorite Nintendo character, which is pretty impressive considering Nintendo’s vast catalog of characters. Donkey Kong has proved that he can stand the test of time and has evolved from a bunch of pixels that resemble an ape to a 3D character that we all recognize today. There haven’t been many Donkey Kong games in the last 10 years, but hopefully, with the success of the Switch, Nintendo will consider giving Donkey Kong a new game, or maybe even a new series.


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