Perhaps the world’s most famous barrel-wielding ape, Donkey Kong is one of gaming’s most iconic faces. Inventive, athletic and a family man to boot, Donkey Kong has been a prime part of video game culture for generations. The lovable gorilla has appeared in over forty different games and any Nintendo compilation piece featuring all the favourite faces would seem oddly lacking without him there. He featured as the main antagonist in the absurd 2015 movie Pixels and has had two separate TV shows based on his adventures.
Today – July 6th, 2016 – sees the legendary ape turn 35 years old.
The first ever Donkey Kong game was released on this day in 1981, an arcade game converted by Shigeru Miyamoto from Radar Scope to create something that would be more appealing to an American audience. Miyamoto’s interventions were a huge success and Donkey Kong quickly became one of the best selling arcade games of the early 1980s.
Far from the rough tough hero we know and love today, the original Donkey Kong was a villain.
He was a fearsome beast who had captured a poor damsel in the distress, a woman called Pauline. He did everything in his power to foil the attempts of her intrepid rescuer, then named ‘Jumpman’ – the character destined to become the world’s most adventurous plumber, Mario who would later lose interest in the unfortunate Pauline in favour of his more modern muse, the Princess Peach.
Despite being so different from the incarnations of Donkey Kong we have today, the original arcade version has become so iconic that it is has either been recreated in this form or been made available to download on the majority of new Nintendo consoles. You can even play it exactly it was way back at the beginning for free online.
The original game was so popular that it wasn’t long before further games in the series were released.
A simplified version of the game was created for the Game & Watch multiscreen mini-games and a sequel was hot on the original’s tails. In fact, Donkey Kong Jr was released just one year after the launch of the franchise.
The second game saw the beginning of Donkey Kong’s tranformation from villain to beloved hero. It sees the roles reversed now, as Mario – now with a fuller identity than he had in his ‘Jumpman’ days – has taken revenge on Donkey Kong for kidnapping Pauline and has imprisoned him in turn. It is now up to Donkey Kong Junior to rescue the senior ape.
Donkey Kong Jr is famous for being the only game ever to portray Mario as something other than the heroic figure of his legacy.
It was only a year later that Donkey Kong made his first television appearance.
In 1983, Saturday Supercade entertained children with cartoons featuring all their favourite video game characters, with each episode broken down into shorts from each game. It only ran for two seasons, with Donkey Kong was a regular throughout.
His show saw the gorilla, voiced by Soupy Sales, having escaped from the circus and getting into all kinds of hijinx while on the run. He is pursued by Mario and Pauline, who usually ended up rescuing the somewhat dim Donkey Kong from doing the bidding of various villains.
Between September 1983 and October 1984, it aired 19 episodes, and some have even been preserved on YouTube.
For the rest of the 1980s, fans had to put up with just two more games, Donkey Kong II and Donkey Kong 3, until Donkey Kong was released on Game Boy in 1994, complete with almost 100 new playable levels.
The empty time was not wasted though, as 1994 also saw the launch of the Donkey Kong Country SNES games. Developed by British game development company Rare under the control of Tim Stamper, the game took on an entirely new direction. It saw Donkey Kong – described as the grandson of the original damsel-capturing Donkey Kong – and his all new sidekick, Diddy Kong, rescuing bananas from King K Rool and his Kremling Krew.
Similar in style to the side-scrolling Mario Bros games, both music and gameplay made it hugely popular. Its pride, though, was the computer graphics, which were groundbreaking for gaming of the time.
In keeping with the progression started with the first ever games over a decade before, the sequel – Diddy Kong’s Quest – saw the younger character take on a leading role. Now at the mercy of K Rool, Donkey Kong was once again in need of rescue from the little guy as well as from his newly introduced girlfriend, Dixie Kong, who got her own game in 1996 as the third installment of the Donkey Kong Country series.
The new games were just as popular as the first run and were also quickly followed by a TV series that was just as revolutionary as the games that inspired it.
Donkey Kong Country is famously one of the first television shows to be entirely computer animated with motion capture. French Canadian in origin, it was aired first in Canada and France and came to America later, in the summer of 1997.
It featured characters from the games, with only a handful of new faces. The story follows Donkey Kong and his friends as they are beseiged by K Rool and his cronies, who want to see the mysterious Crystal Coconut from our heroes in order to take over Kongo Bongo Island.
As if that wasn’t enough to hook you – each episode promised at least two songs.
For anyone nostalgic for those halcyon days, or are learning of this for the first time now and want to experience it for themselves, all 40 episodes have been available on DVD since 2015.
Now a fully fledged icon of both game and screen, Donkey Kong’s status was practically sealed by the time the millenium hit.
By that time, an all new series in the style of Donkey Kong Country, Donkey Kong Land, had been released and proved equally successful. A Donkey Kong Country sequel was made for the Nintendo 64 and introduced a multiplayer battle mode. It was soon joined by a spin-off racing series, followed by Game Cube’s Donkey Konga series in 2004.
Rare let go of Donkey Kong when it ended its partnership with Nintendo in 2001, but the gorilla didn’t seem to see any dent in his fortune.
The Mario Vs Donkey Kong games made up the first series featuring Donkey Kong since the split. While it returned to a more traditional arcade format, fans flocked to it and in the years since it has had six sequels spanning all of Nintendo’s biggest consoles.
In fact, the most recent was released just this year, with Mini Mario & Friends: Amiibo Challenge released on the Wii U and Nintendo 3DS of April this year.
This joins a myriad of spin-off and group games where Donkey Kong has made an always warmly welcomed appearence, from Mario Kart to Smash Bros.
With such a diverse and complex legacy behind it, it’s easy to see why Donkey Kong remains one of the most recognisable characters in popular culture. The glorious gorilla has transcended gaming – has indeed moved beyond the screen entirely.
In 2007, the USHRA Monster Jam motorsport tour licensed a monster truck inspired by the beautiful beast. True to its legacy, it competed in multiple Monster Jam Word Finals and was the fastest qualifier in the World Finals 10.
Beloved across the world, an icon and even a role model, no one could argue that Donkey Kong hasn’t had a truly epic 35 years of existence. The momentum at which the immortal ape continues to barrel – and you’ll get no apologies for the pun – through every advance in gaming and culture has shown no sign of slowing.
It’s on, as the saying goes, like Donkey Kong.
Here is to an amazing three and a half decades, and to 35 more.