Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss the history of noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be climbing the ladder of knowledge on Donkey Kong, the series that saved Nintendo of America and popularized the platformer genre. This article pertains only to classic Donkey Kong, but you can find more information about the Donkey Kong Country successor series in an earlier Franchise Festival article.
Nintendo was already sixty years old when a young Hiroshi Yamauchi became the company’s president in 1949. Originally founded by Yamauchi’s grandfather as a playing card (hanafuda) manufacturer, the company would branch out into a variety of alternative business ventures under its new leader. None of these would be commercially successful until Nintendo began producing children’s toys; Yamauchi had discovered staffer Gunpei Yokoi – who would go on to invent the Game & Watch and Game Boy hardware – playing with an extendable claw he had developed in his free time and correctly identified this as a route to market dominance.
By the 1970s, Yamauchi moved his company into the fledgling world of electronic games. He hired a young industrial designer named Shigeru Miyamoto to help create the physical housing for Nintendo’s range of Color TV-Game home video game consoles. These devices each featured variations on a single game, and could be plugged into owners’ television sets. Arcades were booming at the time, as well, and Nintendo soon entered that market with a handful of cabinets. Most of these were relatively derivative of successful titles made by Nintendo’s competitors, like 1975’s EVR Race or 1979’s Space Fever, and were published primarily for Japan’s domestic market.
Hiroshi Yamauchi had long coordinated his business efforts with an awareness of international trends, however. Sensing an opportunity in the United States, he established subsidiary Nintendo of America in 1980. Unfortunately, none of the arcade titles exported to the West in 1980 were commercially successful. In particular, Radar Scope (1980) was a significant failure for the company, selling only one thousand of the three thousand units built. On the edge of closing Nintendo’s North American division, Yamauchi solicited ideas for one final game to recoup costs.
Donkey Kong (1981)
Shigeru Miyamoto, having been introduced to game design as a contributor to the development of Radar Scope, made a successful (if idiosyncratic) pitch: a vertically-oriented obstacle course based on King Features’ Popeye property. The licensing deal would quickly fall through, leaving Nintendo to green-light a version starring original characters. Miyamoto designed the characters in the style of Popeye’s central love triangle: an everyman hero, an oversized brute, and a damsel in distress. The game mechanics, on the other hand, were a refined iteration on the platforming genre pioneer Space Panic (1980); that game had featured a sidescrolling obstacle course for the first time in the medium’s history, but lacked the chief mechanic of later platformers: the ability to jump.
In Donkey Kong, players take on the role of Mario – originally named Jumpman in recognition of his primary ability, then renamed within the game’s sales brochure to honor Nintendo’s warehouse landlord Mario Segale – as he leaps over barrels and other obstacles. Impediments are dropped by the titular Donkey Kong, who holds the damsel atop four stages of a towering skyscraper. This character was inspired directly by the film King Kong (1933), though his name originated with Miyamoto’s search to find a simple English term conveying stubbornness and silliness; a dictionary search confirmed that “donkey” would do the trick. The damsel is unnamed in the game itself, but supplementary materials referred to her alternately as Lady or Pauline. Cutscene animations at the start of play and at the conclusion of each single-screen stage establish the narrative, pioneering the use of on-screen storytelling in the medium.
Gameplay was developed by Miyamoto in collaboration with Gunpei Yokoi. The player can move Mario left or right and can tap a button to jump; these two inputs can be combined to make Mario jump left or right. When he encounters a ladder, Mario can ascend or descend it if the player holds the joystick up or down, respectively. Items can be collected around each stage to improve the player’s score, while a hammer power-up lets the player smash obstacles in Mario’s path for a limited time. Each stage occupies a single screen; the player’s objective is to guide Mario from the bottom of each area to the top. A fail state is encountered when Mario is struck by an obstacle or falls from a platform. After watching the ending cutscene, play restarts at Stage 1 with increased difficulty.
Surprisingly, level layout differs between the Japanese original and 1981’s American port. In the Japanese original, the player works his or her way through Stages 1, 2, 3, and 4 in order before play restarts with a more challenging variant on Stage 1. When localized for Western audiences, the game was altered to reflect a new order: Stages 1, 4, 1 (harder), 3, 4, 1 (hardest), 2, 3, 4. Stage 1 is the most well-known, depicting Mario’s ascent past barrels and up a set of red girders. Stage 2 features conveyor belts which move Mario when no directional button is pressed. Stage 3 includes rising elevators. Stage 4 requires Mario to leap over several rivets on each floor of a multi-tier skyscraper in order to undermine its architectural integrity, dropping Donkey Kong to the wreckage below.
Executives were skeptical about the potential success of the game, due to its striking novelty. Most of its competitors were shooters like Galaxian (1979) or top-down maze games like Pac-Man (1980). In an effort to keep costs low, Nintendo of America staff simply reprogrammed its surplus of Radar Scope cabinets with the data for Donkey Kong. Happily, the game dramatically outperformed Nintendo’s earlier titles in Japan and North America. The studio became a household name virtually overnight.
Others sought to copy Donkey Kong‘s success either by imitating it – creating the platformer genre – or by directly copying and renaming it. Few legal suits emerged, as copyright enforcement was still new to the medium, aside from one significant exception: Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Nintendo Co., Ltd. The venerable film studio claimed that Nintendo had infringed upon its King Kong property in 1982, kicking off a contentious legal battle that would only be resolved when lawyer John Kirby successfully asserted that Universal had previously claimed that King Kong’s plot was public domain.
An even thornier legal struggle would persist in Nintendo’s home country. According to an extensive Gamasutra retrospective on the development of Donkey Kong, engineering firm Ikegami Tsushinki had exclusive rights to produce arcade boards for the game. Though the character designs clearly belonged to Nintendo, this left the game’s code in an ambiguous space. Nintendo would dissolve the contract with Ikegami Tsushinki, looking to Iwasaki Engineering for its arcade production needs on the inevitable sequel, but Ikegami Tsushinki would file a copyright dispute in 1983. This struggle would endure even past the point that Ikegami Tsushinki left arcade hardware development. Finally, a settlement reached in 1990 left Nintendo with no ownership over the original code for its breakthrough game.
Nintendo had ported Donkey Kong to the Famicom in 1983, however. Other versions were published throughout the home console landscape during the early 1980s, as Nintendo was not yet developing exclusively for its own hardware. Few of these re-releases faithfully reproduce the exact feel of the arcade original, unfortunately, but they would become the only way for fans to play the game (aside from unofficial emulation) for almost twenty years after Nintendo’s 1990 settlement with Ikegami Tsushinki; most lack specific visual elements, but some even omit a stage. In a surprising twist revealed at E3 2018, Nintendo announced that collaborator HAMSTER Co. would be publishing a faithfully emulated reproduction of the arcade original on its Switch console. The status of the code’s rights is yet unclear, as of writing in November 2018, but fans of classic video games rejoiced that a genuine pioneer of the medium would be easily accessible for the first time in three decades.
Donkey Kong Jr. (1982)
Nintendo was overwhelmed by the success of its first platformer and immediately assigned a sequel to Shigeru Miyamoto. His reputation had ascended rapidly at the company in spite of his background in industrial design, as Miyamoto had demonstrated the first indication of his natural gift for game development. He would go on to become one of the medium’s most universally beloved talents, but still had a few humble years ahead of him as a comparatively unknown figure in the wider world.
Donkey Kong Jr. is broadly similar to its predecessor: the player character must ascend vertically-oriented obstacle courses, dodging impediments across four distinct areas. Where Donkey Kong Jr. establishes its own identity is in the art design and particulars of its level design. Rather than revisiting the role of Mario, players instead control Donkey Kong’s son. DK Jr. seeks to save his father, who has been caged by Mario. Levels begin in a jungle setting before moving towards a more industrial appearance at the halfway point. Enemies consist primarily of googly-eyed creatures released by the nefarious Mario rather than the simple objects and environmental features of the preceding game.
DK Jr.’s moveset is similar to Mario’s, but jumping is less emphasized than it was in Donkey Kong. Instead, each level features hanging ropes or vines which can be ascended, descended, and leaped between. Enemies can similarly navigate the hanging cables. DK Jr. must also gather a key on each stage, plus five additional keys on the final stage; in all stages aside from the last, however, the key is directly adjacent to Donkey Kong’s cage. Vine navigation introduces a new layer of risk-reward decision-making by the player, as DK Jr. moves more rapidly but is open to twice as many enemy attacks when he has his hands outstretched to two separate vines.
The game was a successful follow-up, improving on elements of the original and casting Nintendo’s heroic Mario character in a surprising new light. It was so popular that a port would be published as a launch title for the company’s new Famicom home console and feature in Twin Galaxies’ first video game world championship in 1983. A black and white portable version would be released as Donkey Kong II in 1983 as part of Nintendo’s Game & Watch hardware lineup.
The character went on on to appear in Super Mario Kart (1992) on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and Mario’s Tennis (1995) on the Virtual Boy. His last major appearance was in Nintendo 64’s Mario Tennis (2000). Diddy Kong, originally created by Rare for its Donkey Country series, has since then largely usurped Donkey Kong Jr.’s place in spinoff titles featuring Nintendo properties. Donkey Kong Jr. was recently featured as a bonus costume in Super Mario Maker (2015), however, reassuring fans that the character isn’t consigned only to their memories.
Donkey Kong 3 (1983)
Inexplicably, Nintendo opted to omit Mario and Donkey Kong Jr. from its third Donkey Kong title. Even more inexplicably, it replaced the series’ characteristic platformer gameplay with 2D shooter mechanics reminiscent of Galaxian (1979). This would result in comparatively low sales, with the game selling only ⅙ of the units that Donkey Kong Jr. sold a year earlier. Still, the game is rather engaging as an odd experiment within one of the medium’s most popular properties.
Players take on the role of Stanley the Bug Man as he defends his greenhouse from a bug assault masterminded by the vengeful Donkey Kong. Stanley had debuted a year earlier as The Fumigator in a Game & Watch device, but Donkey Kong 3 would mark the final opportunity (as of writing) for players to control this hapless gardener. His moves include leaping up and down to navigate between tiered platforms, walking side-to-side, and firing bug spray upward in a linear arc.
Full vertical movement is confined almost exclusively to enemy characters. These include Donkey Kong, who slowly descends from the stage’s upper third to attack Stanley, along with assorted colorful bugs. The bugs move in specific patterns, and represent a threat to Stanley’s five plants at the bottom of the screen.
If Stanley sustains damage or all five plants are stolen by flies, the player must restart the stage. If Stanley sprays Donkey Kong enough that he retreats to his starting location, or kills all of the marauding insects, the player moves on to the next stage. Only three distinct level layouts are included, in contrast to the four available in Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. Stanley can upgrade his spray tool to fire twice as far by picking up a dropped power-up icon, making combat much easier.
The game would disappoint fans seeking a meaningful evolution on the gameplay of Donkey Kong Jr. Still, its animation is impeccable; Donkey Kong’s amusing fate involves him falling from a tree with his head stuck in a beehive while Stanley dances below. The music also marks an early work by Hirokazu Tanaka, who would go on to compose beloved soundtracks for Dr. Mario (1990) and Earthbound (1995) among others.
In keeping with a trend established by Nintendo during the early 1980s, Hudson Soft was contracted to develop a port for Japanese PCs. These include the X1, PC-8801 and PC-6601. Elements of the game could not easily be translated from its native arcade architecture to personal computer hardware, so Hudson Soft instead designed a semi-sequel incorporating aspects of Donkey Kong 3 while integrating new features. These notably include seventeen additional stage environments!
The 1984 port, titled Donkey Kong 3: The Great Counterattack, was only made accessible to Westerners when a fan community collectively purchased one of the few remaining X1 disk copies and dumped it to a modern PC in 2018. Though it was feared lost as recently as the early 2010s, fans outside of Japan can now experience it through emulation software. Sadly, versions produced for the PC-8801 and PC-6601 remain unavailable to players without access to those original pieces of hardware.
Donkey Kong (1994)
Nintendo had grown into a powerful software giant by the mid-1980s, largely on the back of its popular Donkey Kong series of arcade games. Its critical market coup was the 1983 release of a home console that could rival arcades for engaging, robust game experiences. The Famicom would be released first in Japan – its launch lineup included ports of both Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. – and would then be released overseas in 1985 as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). By the 1990s, the company’s name would be colloquially used as a synonym for any piece of video game hardware throughout the English-speaking world.
During this ascent, however, Donkey Kong himself would be conspicuously absent. Donkey Kong 3 would be the last original game in the series produced during the 1980s, perhaps as a result of Nintendo largely discontinuing its line of arcade cabinets. The release of the side-scrolling Super Mario Bros. in 1985 and the increasing shift away from simplistic arcade experiences in favor of deep, lengthy games made for home audiences likely contributed to the Donkey Kong IP’s decade-long hibernation. Still, the series produced a handful of ports through the end of the 1980s, including a 1988 compilation of Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. on the NES.
Fans likely approached the Game Boy’s Donkey Kong (1994) with expectations informed by these middling arcade ports. The game was marketed as a portable version of the series’ original arcade debut, so this assumption would have been reasonable. Fans who picked up the game on a whim – presumably the few players who didn’t already have it on another piece of hardware – would discover that the new release represented much more than a straightforward adaptation.
The game at first appears to be a retread of familiar ground, as players navigate Mario through the original Donkey Kong’s four stages. After that, however, a world map full of additional stages is revealed. The player must then solve more than one hundred single-screen platformer puzzles.
Play centers on Mario’s newly expanded set of acrobatic moves, along with his ability to pick up and throw objects. The latter is adapted from Super Mario Bros. 2 (1988), and is primarily put to use carrying keys from one part of a stage to a locked door. It can also be used to throw other objects, including the hammer power-up from the original Donkey Kong. Acrobatic mobility is entirely new to Nintendo’s palette, offering navigation options not previously encountered in a Donkey Kong or Mario title. These elements would form the basis for Mario’s moveset in the superlative Super Mario 64 only two years later.
The antagonist is Donkey Kong, who has once again kidnapped Pauline. Donkey Kong Jr. regularly appears to assist his father in impeding Mario’s progress. Traps and enemies offer obstacles as Mario attempts to navigate the game’s maze-like platforming environments. The level structure includes three puzzle stages broken up by a boss challenge and a cutscene framing the action of the next four-stage suite.
Despite an extraordinarily positive critical reception, Donkey Kong ‘94 would be the final entry in the trend-setting series. One level would be adapted into a Nelsonic game watch as Star Fox had been in 1993. After this, the series was largely supplanted by Rare’s Donkey Kong Country franchise; the Country titles made use of the Donkey Kong IP, but were mechanically distinct from their arcade and Game Boy predecessors. Plans for porting Donkey Kong ‘94 to the Game Boy Advance in the 2000s, once Donkey Kong Country had seemingly run out of steam, would in fact result in an entirely new spinoff series.
At E3 2002, Nintendo showed off a demo for a new title called Donkey Kong Plus. This would serve as a remake of its Game Boy game from eight years earlier while also integrating with the Gamecube in a unique way. Users would be able to create puzzle levels on the Gamecube and send them to the Game Boy Advance using a GBA Link Cable. That peripheral had been relatively under-utilized elsewhere, and Nintendo intended to push it into wider circulation through its use in popular franchises like The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy. Unfortunately, Donkey Kong Plus was abandoned at some point in development and was subsequently redesigned as Mario vs. Donkey Kong.
Mario vs. Donkey Kong (2004) would be the start of an engaging series of puzzle platformers primarily published on Nintendo’s handheld hardware. It is clearly a spiritual successor to the Donkey Kong series, but is particularly indebted to Donkey Kong ‘94. Mario navigates mazes of platforms, attempting to transport a key to a locked door on each stage. Interestingly, players have discovered the remnants of a level editor in the game’s code, reinforcing the fact that it was originally intended to be a hybrid Gamecube/GBA remake of Donkey Kong ‘94.
Mario vs Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis (2006) would be released on the Nintendo DS only two years later. A level editor was included this time, ensuring that players could create endless puzzle courses for their friends in the style of Donkey Kong ‘94. Pauline, last spotted in the original Donkey Kong franchise, would reappear for the first time in twelve years. This entry marks the first major evolution for the spinoff series, as the player now guides small Mario robots using the DS touchscreen rather than navigating an acrobatic Mario around obstacle courses. Later games in the Mario vs. Donkey Kong franchise would largely take their cues from this mechanic.
At the time of writing, it seems unlikely that any future Donkey Kong games will be developed. The original series more or less split into two successor franchises over the course of the late 1990s and early 2000s: Donkey Kong Country and Mario vs. Donkey Kong. The former highlights the aesthetic and humorous simian characters of the original series, while the latter emphasizes similarly tight puzzle-based level design. There is no longer a place for Donkey Kong’s classic mechanics in their purest form, as platformers had largely evolved past single screen score-based obstacle courses before the 1980s were over. Shigeru Miyamoto’s earliest contribution to his company’s fortunes has had a wide reach, however, and 1981’s Donkey Kong remains engaging even thirty-seven years on.
What do you think? What is your favorite Donkey Kong game? Are you happy that video games took their cues from the original entry’s pioneering mechanics, or do you wish we were still playing space shooters and maze games?
Next week we’ll have a spell cast upon us by Wizardry. Be sure to join us here at 9:00 AM EST on Friday, November 16 to read and discuss.