From Villain To Hero: Looking Back 35 Years At The Ape Who Shaped Video Game History

Donkey Kong is one of those characters that has represented the brand name Nintendo. Thirty five years later, Donkey Kong remains as one of Nintendo’s most recognizable icons.  The famous ape has had plenty of games in his repertoire and has arguably shaped video game history.  But what started as just a character, has quickly grown to extraordinary proportions.  

The Creator: Shigeru Miyamoto 

The man behind the famous plumber, Shigeru Miyamoto has crafted  a wonderful character that many fans have enjoyed playing with or against over the years.  For those who may not know, the name “Donkey” was chosen to emulate the character’s stubbornness, while the title “Kong” was a term widely used in Japan to mean a large age.

Donkey Kong aka DK, has appeared in many popular games, including his very own series  Donkey Kong Country.  However, the game that he is most associated with was the very first game he appeared in, and that was the original  Donkey Kong  Arcade game.  Miyamoto spent a lifetime getting this game going, and became an instant hit in local arcade stores. So let’s now take a look back at a character that has constantly evolved starting with:

‘Donkey Kong:’ (1981)

Donkey Kong’s very first appearance came on July 9, 1981.  DK’s first game featured him as the lead villain and one that fans have adored to this day.  This game not only revolutionized the standard arcade style games, but it also introduced us to Nintendo’s famous mascot: Jumpman as we now know him today, was the protagonist in this game as he sought to reclaim his beloved girlfriend named Pauline from the clutches of the giant ape.

Once Mario’s pet gorilla, Donkey Kong made it rather difficult him to save his girlfriend by taking her up to the top of large construction site.  To keep Mario away, DK would roll humongous barrels down the site along with creating fireballs that would also attack Mario.  Mario would have to time his jumps accurately for him to be able to reach the top and stop the giant ape.

There were a total of four stages in this game each with different obstacles to avoid.  Every level would gradually become more difficult, as Mario had to continue to traverse his way to get back Pauline.  The final stage involves Mario having to remove all of the rivets from the site while again having to avoid the walking fireballs.  When beaten, Mario succeeds saving Pauline while defeating Donkey Kong who falls off the site and onto the ground at the end of the game. Mario is finally reunited once again with his girlfriend and the game ends just like fairy tale; happily ever after.

‘Donkey Kong Jr. (1982)

After the hugely successful  Donkey Kong  Arcade game, two sequels were greenlit with the likes of  Donkey Kong Jr.  and  Donkey Kong 3.  The first sequel  Donkey Kong Jr.  followed the first game’s storyline, which takes place shortly after the original.  Released roughly one year after the original, the game centers around DK’s son Donkey Kong Jr., who has to save him from Mario’s clutches.  Mario has Donkey Kong locked up as punishment for stealing his girlfriend Pauline away from him.  It’s now up to DK’s son to save him.

DK Jr. must save his father by avoiding many obstacles thrown his way including a variety of enemies known as “Nitpickers” (bird-like creatures), “Snapjaws” (bear-trap looking creatures with eyes), and also “Sparks” which are rolling balls of electricity that must be avoided.  Like its predecessor, this game also features a total of four stages.  The final stage involves DK Jr. to obtain a set of keys to unlock his father from the cage.  As a result, this frees Donkey Kong, but also shows Mario falling to his death.

However, the famous arcade series wasn’t done as Nintendo released yet another sequel for fans to enjoy!

‘Donkey Kong 3’ (1983)

While its first release was in the year 1983, it didn’t reach American audiences until 1987.  Donkey Kong 3  centers around Mario’s cousin named Stanley, who is tasked with keeping insects away from his greenhouse.  Taking the spot of the villain once again, Donkey Kong makes life for Stanley more difficult by stirring up more insects to destroy all of Stanley’s vegetation.  The stages can be beaten with Stanley firing bug spray at the nearby insects or by constantly firing at the ape himself.  Some of the insects that Stanley must face include caterpillars, butterflies, beetles, moths, and bees.

The game is more a shooter than your standard run and jump style arcade game.  Unlike the previous two, this game only has a total of three levels.  The game concludes with Donkey Kong having his head stuck inside a beehive.  Donkey Kong 3  was yet another critical hit in the Nintendo arsenal even without the famous plumber’s appearance.

The arcade games from the ‘1980s may have introduced this character to the gaming world, but it wasn’t until his first official game series in the early ’90s where the character of Donkey Kong came into his own.

‘Donkey Kong Country’ (1994)

Donkey Kong Returns  is a side scrolling platform based video and was originally published on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.  This was also the first game that was not produced or directed by the original Donkey Kong creator Shigeru Miyamoto.

Developed by the all so popular studios named Rareware and published by Nintendo,  Donkey Kong Country  was the series that truly brought this fan-favorite character to life.  The story takes place on “Donkey Kong Island” and stars Donkey Kong along with the first appearance of his famous nephew Diddy Kong.  The plot revolves around these two characters who are tasked with recovering their hoard of bananas from the evil anthropomorphic crocodiles named the Kremlings who are lead by the fearsome K. Rool.

There are other Kong’s who aide both Donkey and Diddy Kong on there quest.  They include Cranky, Candy and Funky, who each help them differently.  There are also characters in the game called called “animal buddies” who play a large role in the gameplay.  There’s Squawks the Parrot, Expresso the Ostrich, Enguarde the Swordfish, Winky the Frog, and Rambi the Rhino.  Each of these characters possess their own unique abilities and offer a fun experience in every level.

The ‘Donkey Kong Country’ Franchise And Its Numerous Sequels

Donkey Kong Country  has since spawned numerous sequels including  Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest  and  Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble.  The franchise has also made it’s way to the Gameboy Advance along with  Donkey Kong Returns  on the Nintendo Wii.  All of these games were side-scrollers and has become some of the more popular games ever released by Nintendo.

‘Donkey Kong 64’ (1999)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite game with DK as the lead hero. After Mario received his first 3D video game in 1996, it was only a matter of time for the famous ape to get his turn.  In the year 1999, Donkey Kong and his pals Diddy, Tiny, Lanky, and Chunky all earned a 3D treatment.  This game was a massive success and is also the game that defined the term “collectathon.”

Donkey Kong 64  also told the story of obtaining his bananas that were stolen from his Banana Hoard from the despicable Kremlings.  This game offered a variety of different types of worlds including one’s that take place in a desert, a toy factory, a cave, and a haunted castle among others.  The 3D game is also famous for its unique boss battles which made it quite challenging.  However, it’s the final payoff against K. Rool that takes the cake which I won’t spoil here.

What Other Games Does Donkey Kong Star In? 

Besides the games with him as the lead, Donkey Kong has appeared as a playable character in many game franchises such as the  Mario Kart, Mario Party, Super Smash Bros.,  and the  Mario  sports series.  The ape can utilize his brute strength to take down his opponents which may come in handy against his opponents.

Could The Character Of Donkey Kong Receive His Own Film?        

Donkey Kong is a character who I believe deserves the film treatment.  Unlike other Nintendo characters, he doesn’t talk, however he did do so in the animated cartoon series that was released in the ’90s titled  Donkey Kong Country.  It was a successful hit in Canada, France, and Japan but not so much in U.S. which only aired the first two episodes on Fox Kids.  The show was the first animated cartoon series to employ stop-motion capture, while trying to match the aesthetic tone of his popular games.

Donkey Kong also made a brief appearance in 2015’s  Pixels  starring Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Josh Gad, and Peter Dinklage.  The film was a box office bomb, however the best scene in the movie was by far our four heroes going up against the one-and-only Donkey Kong.  Though short, the scene captured the feeling of playing against the legendary character drawing many similarities to his famous arcade game.  You can watch the scene in its entirety below:

Final Thoughts

The character of Donkey Kong has come a long way.  DK who once started out as a villain, has since become one of Nintendo’s greatest heroes.  DK has starred in many games with many becoming massive hits.  The character has since hit a roadblock with a few critical failures including his own racing game   Donkey Kong: Barrel Blast  along with another  Donkey Kong Country  game titled:  Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.  

It’s tough to say which direction Nintendo plans on taking this franchise.  Nintendo did try something unique with  Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat,  but its short campaign scared audiences away with its steep price tag.

Donkey Kong will forever be one Nintendo’s original game changers.  The  Donkey Kong Arcade  series are some of the most beloved arcade games of all time.  The  Donkey Kong Country  series also proved widely successful and has since earned an enormous reputation in video game history.

Will we see Donkey Kong once again reign supreme?  Only time will tell but for now, let’s all appreciate some of the games that have helped shaped the video game world. I will leave you with one last word of advice: If you haven’t checked out the famous DK Rap, you haven’t lived!  Check it out in all its glory below:

Sources: Mario




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