Posted by Matt Timmy Creamer
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Matt Timmy Creamer

This past weekend marked the 35th anniversary of the beloved gorilla, Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong is one of the characters who has constantly evolved throughout the years. 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. What started as a lead villain has grown to extraordinary proportions to become one of the biggest heroes in video games. Let's explore how he became so popular, first by taking a look at the man who started it all - his creator.

The Creator: Shigeru Miyamoto

The man who also created the famous plumber we know today as Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto 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 symbolize the character’s stubbornness, while the title “Kong” is a word widely used in Japan to mean a large ape (like "King Kong," for example).

Donkey Kong, a.k.a. DK, has appeared in many popular games, including his very own series Donkey Kong Country. However, the game that he is most associated with is 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 it became an instant hit in local arcades. Since then, the great ape has spawned an entire franchise, with multiple sequel games and spinoffs.

Donkey Kong (1981)

Donkey Kong’s very first appearance came on July 9, 1981. DK’s first game featured him as the lead villain in a role that fans have adored since. This game not only revolutionized the standard arcade style games, but it also introduced us to Nintendo’s famous mascot, Jumpman. Mario, 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 for Mario to save his girlfriend by taking her up to the top of a large construction site. To keep Mario away, DK would roll humongous barrels down the site along with 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 involved Mario having to remove all of the rivets from the site while again having to avoid the walking fireballs. When the game was beaten, Mario succeeded in saving Pauline while defeating Donkey Kong, who fell off the platform and onto the ground at the end of the game. Mario was finally reunited once again with his girlfriend and the game ended just like fairy tale: happily ever after.

Donkey Kong Jr. (1982)

After the hugely successful Donkey Kong Arcade game, two sequels were green-lit by the names of Donkey Kong Jr. and Donkey Kong 3. The first sequel, Donkey Kong Jr., followed the first game’s storyline, which took place shortly after the original. Released roughly one year after the original, the game centered around DK’s son, Donkey Kong Jr., who had to save his dad from Mario’s clutches. Seeking revenge for stealing his girlfriend, Pauline, Mario has Donkey Kong locked up as punishment, leaving it up to DK's son to save him.

DK Jr. had to 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 were rolling balls of electricity to be avoided. Like its predecessor, this game also featured a total of four stages. The final stage involved DK Jr. having to obtain a set of keys to unlock his father from the cage. As a result, this freed Donkey Kong but showed Mario falling to his death this time.

Donkey Kong 3 (1983)

While the third installment was released in the year 1983, it didn’t reach American audiences until 1987. Donkey Kong 3 centered around Mario’s cousin, Stanley, who was tasked with keeping insects away from his greenhouse. Taking the spot of the villain once again, Donkey Kong made life difficult for Stanley by stirring up more insects to destroy all of Stanley’s vegetation. The stages could 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 faced include caterpillars, butterflies, beetles, moths, and bees.

The game was more a shooter than your standard run-and-jump style arcade game. Unlike the previous two, this game only had a total of three levels and it concluded with Donkey Kong getting 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 when the character of Donkey Kong truly came into his own.

Donkey Kong Country (1994)

Donkey Kong Country is a side-scrolling platformer originally published on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. It was also the first game that was not produced or directed by original Donkey Kong creator Shigeru Miyamoto.

Developed by the popular studio Rareware and published by Nintendo, Donkey Kong Country was the series that truly brought this fan-favorite character to life. The story took place on “Donkey Kong Island” and starred Donkey Kong, as well as introducing his famous nephew, Diddy Kong. The plot revolved around these two characters who were tasked with recovering their hoard of bananas from the evil anthropomorphic crocodiles named the Kremlings, led by the fearsome K. Rool.

There were other Kongs who aided both Donkey and Diddy on their quest. They included Cranky, Candy, and Funky, who each helped them in different ways. Other characters in the game called “animal buddies” played a large role in the gameplay. There was Squawks the Parrot, Expresso the Ostrich, Enguarde the Swordfish, Winky the Frog, and Rambi the Rhino. Each of these characters possessed their own unique abilities and offered 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 its way to the Gameboy Advance along with Donkey Kong Returns on the Nintendo Wii. All of these games were side-scrollers and have 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 with Super Mario 64, it was only a matter of time for the famous ape to get his turn. In 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” (you know, those games where you have to collect as many objects as possible to win).

Donkey Kong 64 was built around the concept of Donkey Kong re-obtaining his bananas that were stolen out of his Banana Hoard by the despicable Kremlings. This game offered a variety of different types of worlds including a desert, a toy factory, a cave, and a haunted castle, among others. The 3D game was also famous for its unique boss battles which made it quite challenging. However, it was the final payoff against K. Rool that took the cake — but I won’t spoil it 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 other game franchises such as the Mario Kart, Mario Party, Super Smash Bros., and the Mario Sports series. The ape has been shown to use his brute strength to take down his opponents.

Could The Character Of Donkey Kong Receive His Own Film?

Donkey Kong is a character that I believe deserves the film treatment. Unlike other Nintendo characters, he doesn’t talk. However, he did speak 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 the U.S. — only the first two episodes were aired on Fox Kids. The show was the first animated cartoon series to employ stop-motion capture, all 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 by far were the four of them going up against the one-and-only Donkey Kong. Though short, the scene captured the feeling of playing against the legendary character in an arcade game.

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. But while he has starred in multiple 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, 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.

Regardless, Donkey Kong will forever be one Nintendo’s original game changers. The Donkey Kong arcade series boasts 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 reign supreme once again? Only time will tell, but for now, let’s all appreciate some of his 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:

[Source: Mario Wiki]