Nintendo’s monkey of manifold mantles – one Donkey Kong, Esq. – recently turned 40. Forty years young and still so vital, but it could be reasonably argued that the ol’ Kongmeister has been undergoing a bit of an identity crisis for most of his lifespan. The man-ape has turned from heel to face to heel more times than The Big Show (one for you wrestling fans, there).
Naturally, accompanying these changes of mood there’s a surplus of interesting, diverse gameplay styles that our banana-loving pal is forced to carry on his shoulders like a sort of hairy Atlas. So what better way to mark the month of his esteemed birth than by taking a look at the different flavours of DK and seeing if we can find any sort of through-line to tie a neat bow around the whole experience?
Because you have to admit that for one of Nintendo’s flagship characters, the Big N is surprisingly willing to push the boat out with him...
The OG DK: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr and Donkey Kong 3
1981’s Donkey Kong is one of the most iconic video games ever made. We’d also contend that it’s one of the very earliest games that remains enjoyable to this day – who doesn’t love a quick spin through that first loop? But examining the Donkster himself, it’s obvious that while he’s the star of the show (hence the title) he’s also very much the antagonist. The yet-to-be-properly-named Jumpman (aka Mario) clambers over vividly purple girders, dodging barrels as DK viciously yeets them, riding elevators and popping comically enormous supports out of the platforms, eventually rescuing the fair lady Pauline and causing Kong to plummet to the ground - sustaining a presumably permanent head injury.
It could be argued in a tiresome, canon-adherent way that said skull trauma probably accounts for DK’s flip-flopping as the series goes on, but that would be in poor taste. The tables turned the very next year, however, with 1982’s Donkey Kong Jr. that cast you as the titular tyke in an effort to rescue the poor, captured Donkey Kong from the now correctly-monikered Mario. Presumably laid up in hospital after his savage beating, Mario took a back seat for next year’s follow-up Donkey Kong 3, but DK returned to the villain role as lesser-loved Nintendo hero Stanley the Bugman (how on earth did he not become a household name?!) took to the stage in a compelling shooter that sees Donkey sending swarms of vicious insects careening towards Stanley, who must keep both bug and beast at bay with his high-pressure insect repellant.
It’s good, but it’s not very Donkey Kong, is it?
The Icon: Donkey Kong Country and sequels
Entrusting UK software house Rareware with the magnificent monkey was a masterstroke by Nintendo, as the variously brilliant and beloved Donkey Kong Country series is probably the first thing most gamers think of when “Donkey Kong” is mentioned. And with good cause – these titles codified DK as a hero, battling the evil King K.Rool in three consecutive Super NES adventures.
The waters, however, are again muddied by the fact that Donkey Kong doesn’t actually take a starring role in first and second sequels Diddy’s Kong Quest or Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble, instead relegated to a hominoid-in-distress sort of role. This suggests a rather distressing trend of DK being deemed not interesting enough to be the playable character, while still having his name right there on the box.
Thankfully the eventual Wii-quel Donkey Kong Country Returns and its beloved Wii U/Switch sequel Tropical Freeze put the hero in prime position where he belongs – you’re always playing as DK here, though partner Kongs can be rotated out. Probably the DK sub-series with the strongest identity, the Country saga has come to be known as the Donkey Kong experience. But it’s far from the only one, as you’ll soon see...
The Beat Technician: Donkey Konga and Jungle Beat
In 2003, Nintendo had a bit of an episode and released the DK Bongos, a magnificently specific peripheral for GameCube designed around a Kong-themed series of three rhythm-action games (one unreleased in the West) based on the popular drumming series Taiko no Tatsujin. And they were fun games, yes, but DK was pretty much window dressing within them.
More remarkable, we think, was Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, a fascinating, gorgeous and completely insane platform game that utilised the DK Bongos for its controls – smack the right drum to go right, left drum to go left, both together to jump and physically clap your hands to, well, have DK clap his hands. And this presented us with yet another world for the Kongster, one we hadn’t seen before in which he was once again on the side of the angels but with very little in the way of recognisable Donkey Kong things outside of the usual collectable bananas. The game was re-released on the Wii under the “New Play Control” line, and is eminently worth buying.
The Enigma: Mario vs Donkey Kong, its sequels and predecessor
Before DKC, Nintendo released a Game Boy incarnation of Donkey Kong commonly known as Donkey Kong ‘94, which returned Mario to the starring role and also reclaimed the roots of the original DK. In fact, the first few levels are upgraded recreations of the arcade game and only upon beating them do things open up somewhat explosively, taking Mario on a hundred-plus level adventure through all kinds of worlds in a platform puzzle game for the ages. If you haven’t played this one, go and buy it right now on 3DS.
We’ll wait. Got it? Okay, so now it’s eight hours later and you know how good it is. Nintendo didn’t, and it took the company ten years to deliver a follow-up in 2004’s GBA title Mario vs. Donkey Kong, offering similar but slightly less interesting gameplay alongside some truly ugly pre-rendered sprites and a boatload of Charles Martinet Mario blather. Following this somewhat lacking (but still pretty good) follow-up to that Game Boy masterpiece, the Mario vs Donkey Kong series went in a totally different direction, offering a succession of games taking after the likes of Lemmings, The Incredible Machine and Pipe Dream. Good stuff, generally, but what does it have to do with being a giant ape!?
The Cloud Clu-Clu Lander: DK: King of Swing
Sort of associated with the Country series, but very much its own thing, DK: King of Swing hit Game Boy Advance in 2005 and offered yet another take on the great ape. With gameplay utilising only the L and R buttons on your GBA, DK navigated tightly-designed and shockingly frustrating worlds built out of pegs, with each of the shoulder buttons closing the grip of his respective fist and allowing DK to clamber around the stages collecting medals, crystal coconuts and – yes – bananas.
Sequel DK: Jungle Climber rocked up two years later with a much more polished and thoughtful take on the same formula, remaining one of the most underrated titles in the entire franchise. But it throws things into disarray with giant alien bananas Xananab from the planet Plantaen (deep sigh) taking DK as well as his friends and enemies into bizarre cosmic locales that have never been revisited. It’s probably for the best.
The Barrel of Fun: The rest
Does that cover all of DK’s many roles and reversals? No, not at all. We didn’t cover Donkey Kong 64 for a start, a game that’s tangentially part of the Country series but really bears very little resemblance to it. There’s also Donkey Kong Barrel Blast, a tragic racing game originally intended for the DK Bongos but later moved to the Wii. Then there are titles like the Super Smash Bros series, which can cast DK as either hero or villain depending on the match-up.
Ultimately, the only really consistent thing about Donkey Kong’s games is that they’re usually pretty good. Even his most recent adventure Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze eschews the enemies and many gimmicks from its immediate predecessor in favour of a brand new squad of monsters to face off against. And while it turned out great by almost all accounts, the constant reinvention of the DK series is impossible not to notice. It’s probably for the best and has helped to keep things fresh, but it might be nice to see the DK series take the time to develop a consistent visual style at the very least. Still, if the quality is going to stay so high, we’re entirely willing to ignore the series’ lack of identity.
What do you want to see next from the Donkster? Rumours of a full 3D adventure abounded recently but nothing seems to have surfaced. Do you want another reinvention? A third modern DKC to cement a second trilogy? Or maybe have the monkey take his position at the head of Mario’s rogue's gallery once again? All that can be guaranteed is whatever Nintendo has up its sleeve for the superior simian, it’ll be covered right here.
- Further reading: Best Donkey Kong Games Of All Time