In an industry where the home console market is dominated by three companies, it’s easy to forget that only one of them entirely bases their fortune on video games. Both Sony and Microsoft have video game divisions but still make a significant amount of income on other electronic devices like computers, televisions, music players, etc. Sony in itself is a veritable mass media titan while Microsoft made its fortune off computer operating systems. None of this is the case for Nintendo though. The Kyoto, Japan based company has only been about video games ever since they ushered in a new era back in the 80s. There is no Nintendo TV, Nintendo stereo, or Nintendo phone. While this sole focus can have its drawbacks, it gives Nintendo an edge that no other company can match: It has an unimaginable wealth of first-party titles.
Since Sony and Microsoft don’t exclusively focus on video games, most of their titles are made by third-party developers. Nintendo, however, is the exact opposite since they can dedicate their entire company to gaming development. The most popular video game character in history, Mario, is his own media franchise that spans across several different series’ and titles. There’s Mario Kart, Mario Party, Super Mario, and an incredible amount of sports and role-playing games that are all based around this simple Italian plumber. But while both the Mario character and the Mario franchise reign supreme in the industry, his name wasn’t plastered all over Nintendo’s very first popular game. That honor belongs to the great ape himself Donkey Kong and the groundbreaking arcade game Donkey Kong, which also gave Mario his beginnings. With this week’s release of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for the Wii U, there is no better time to reflect on where Nintendo’s two most popular characters came from and where the company really got started.
The release of Donkey Kong in 1981 predates the historical release of the Nintendo Entertainment System by about two years. It was one of the original arcade platformer games, and Nintendo initially designed it as a game adaptation of the famous Popeye comic strip. Nintendo desperately wanted to break into the North American market and the best way to do that was to use already established characters. When those plans fell through, director Shigeru Miyamoto decided to pursue game development using entirely new characters that mirrored the classic feud between Popeye and Bluto for Olive Oyl’s love. This brought to life the story of Jumpman, a carpenter who has to save his girlfriend Lady (later renamed as Pauline) from his angry and mistreated pet ape named Donkey Kong. Jumpman travels through four different one-screen stages with each representing 25 meters that Donkey Kong has climbed up on his structure. During his adventure, Jumpman must avoid barrells, fireballs, flaming oil, open holes, and many other obstacles to rescue his beloved girlfriend.
Nintendo’s North American staff wasn’t entirely sold on the concept, but plans to release the game in North American and Japanese arcades went forward regardless. Donkey Kong ended up becoming a massive success for Nintendo and it gave them exactly what they needed to begin their ascent to video game royalty. In terms of story, Donkey Kong was the first time a complete narrative was presented through a video game. This was where the damsel in distress concept started which would naturally become a staple within the industry itself. Donkey Kong was also the first title to include cutscenes that were used to move the story forward. Before each level, the villainous Donkey Kong would climb up ladders and set the stage for Jumpman to traverse. Whenever Jumpman is defeated, Donkey Kong would smile with glee. It was simple, yet different enough to make huge waves.
Donkey Kong’s success supplanted it as a true gaming icon. Two sequels were created in the form of Donkey Kong Jr. (Mario’s only appearance as an antagonist), Donkey Kong 3, but neither surpassed the legacy of the original obviously. Donkey Kong has become a major part of popular culture with several references in songs and television shows like The Simpsons and Futurama. The popular phrase “It’s on like Donkey Kong” was trademarked by Nintendo in 2010 after it became so ingrained in popular culture. Several celebrities are fans of the game too, including comedian Will Forte whose high score in Donkey Kong was actually in the Top 30 of all-time. As for Nintendo as a whole, the success of Donkey Kong is what made Nintendo realize that their fortune lied in video games and it has been going strong since.
In case you haven’t realized it by now, Jumpman later became and has since been renamed Mario. The very first Mario Bros. title was a spin-off from Donkey Kong and the rest is simply history in that regard. However, it took a good while before the evil ape Donkey Kong became his own hero. While Jumpman evolved into Mario and became the most well known video game character in history, Donkey Kong was pushed to the background after Donkey Kong 3. But in the 1990s the license was revived and Donkey Kong came back as a hero in 1994’s Donkey Kong Country, developed by Rare for the Super Nintendo. Donkey Kong Country was a complete resurgence for Donkey Kong, turning the previous villain into a regular hero with his own friends like Diddy Kong and Cranky Kong. Fun fact: Cranky Kong is actually the original Donkey Kong that kidnapped Pauline and fought Jumpman! A new Kong for a new era, decked out with his own tie, was the perfect recipe to breathe new life into a true Nintendo icon.
I have never played Donkey Kong in its original arcade form, but I did have the Game Boy remake. The remake was released in 1994 and it gave the timeless classic a new spin. Within this game, Jumpman was officially named Mario and it featured a blending of gameplay from Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and even Super Mario Bros. 2. The four original levels are present, but once you beat them the REAL game begins. Donkey Kong kidnaps Pauline again and now Mario has 97 more levels spanning 9 more worlds to get through before he faces a giant Donkey Kong in a climactic finale battle. Individual fights against Donkey Kong were relegated to boss battles and the focus of every other level was to get a key and travel through a locked door. I remember feeling such a huge sense of accomplishment after finishing the first four levels, and then complete shock when I was presented with so many more new ones. My lasting memory of this remake was its immense difficulty and the incredible amount of hours it actually took me to beat it. It was a game that really took no prisoners.
Nintendo’s list of first-party franchises really has no equal. The characters headlining each title, whether they’re Samus Aran, Link, Mario, or Donkey Kong are all iconic. They have been entertaining millions for more than 30 years and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is already considered to be another great entry into the impressive Nintendo catalogue. While both Mario and Donkey Kong can call Donkey Kong their original home, none of the other franchises would have happened if this 1981 arcade platformer didn’t become the smash hit that it was. Donkey Kong really got the ball rolling that lead us to the Nintendo we all know and love today. The sheer longevity of this company is proof that they got off on the best foot possible way back when.