Video Game: Donkey Kong

The ape may get top billing, but we all know who the real star of this game is.note 


Classic 1980s arcade game from Nintendo. Introduced both Donkey Kong and Mario as characters.

While not, as is commonly reported, the very first Platform Game (that honor belongs to Space Panic), it was the very first to feature actual jumping. Didn't scroll at all, but involved a lot of jumping and climbing, and one level had moving platforms.

The storyline involved Mario (then known as Jumpman) saving a lady named Pauline (who was originally just named "Lady") from Donkey Kong, in an obvious reference to King Kong. Donkey Kong's main weapon seemed to be an endless supply of barrels, which Mario/Jumpman could, well...jump over.

The game is more-or-less single-handedly successful for saving the then-fledgling Nintendo of America. After having numerous arcade games tank, the then-president of Nintendo of Japan sent over circuit boards containing Donkey Kong. The NOA team set on translating the game. Pauline was named after an employee's wife, and Mario was named after their then-landlord, Mario Segale. They installed the game in an old Radar Scope arcade cabinet and set it up at a nearby bar, the Spot Tavern. The first day in, it made $30. The next day, it broke down too many quarters had caused a short circuit. Soon after that, Nintendo of America was assembling and shipping Donkey Kong machines all over the country, and the company was saved by this single game from Shigeru Miyamoto.

The Donkey Kong character's resemblance to King Kong led to Universal Studios filing suit against Nintendo, claiming trademark infringement. In an ironic twist, Nintendo's counsel, John Kirby, countered that Universal had itself argued in a previous case that King Kong's scenario and characters were in the public domain and the court agreed. They thanked Kirby by purchasing him a big sailboat, named Donkey Kong, with exclusive worldwide rights to use the name for sailboats.

In another ironic twist, Nintendo itself was found guilty of violating the copyright for the arcade game, and therefore cannot sell the original version of Donkey Kong for its consoles. To summarize, the original arcade game was written by a company named Ikegami Tsushinki on assignment, but the contract did not include ownership rights to the code. When Donkey Kong became a hit, Nintendo tried to make more boards themselves, and got sued for copyright violation as a result. A detailed report is available here.

The name itself resulted from Miyamoto's minimal knowledge of English at the time. He wanted to call the game "Stubborn Gorilla," (another name given, according to the "Mario Mania" player's guide, was Stupid Monkey) to convey that the villain was not acting out of malice or with premeditation. With a pocket-sized Japanese/English dictionary, he latched on to "donkey" (as in the phrase "stubborn as a donkey"), and assumed from King Kong that "kong" meant gorilla. The name did give rise to a number of theories which attempted to explain its origin. One, which appeared on some of the cabinet labels, stated that Jumpman was in fact the title's Donkey.

The game's sequel, Donkey Kong Jr., inverted the villain/hero roles; Junior had to rescue his father from Mario's clutches, and Donkey Kong 3 had a gardener named Stanley trying to chase Donkey Kong away from his greenhouse with a bug sprayer.

A new version of the game, also titled Donkey Kong but referred to by many fans as Game Boy Donkey Kong or Donkey Kong '94, was released on the Game Boy in 1994.

Donkey Kong features prominently in the documentary The King of Kong.

Tropes in this game include:

  • Alternate Company Equivalent: The Sega arcade game Congo Bongo (aka Tip Top) is often considered to be a rip-off of Donkey Kong. In reality, the programming for Donkey Kong was outsourced to a company called Ikegami Tsushinki, who sued Nintendo when they felt they were not properly compensated for their work. Ikegami ended up developing a Donkey Kong-like game for Sega, foreshadowing the future rivalry between the two companies.
  • American Kirby Is Hardcore: Everyone knows DK, right? Well, certainly not like this.
  • Animated Adaptation: The Saturday Supercade show.
  • Antagonist Title: The first and third games. The second game had Mario as the villain, with the titular Donkey Kong Jr. as the protagonist.
  • Anti-Villain: If the backstory is any indication, the titular Donkey Kong would qualify as a downplayed Type II.
  • Arcade Perfect Port: Averted. Most of the ports are faithful to the arcade version, but leave out 50m due to memory limitations. Some ports play it straighter, such as "Donkey Kong: Original Edition" and Donkey Kong '94, but even then there are graphical and audio differences. This is because Nintendo does not own the rights to Donkey Kong's source code, as explained above. The only truly arcade-perfect port is the one included in Donkey Kong 64.
  • Big Bad: The title character in Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong 3, and Mario in Donkey Kong Jr.
  • Breakout Character: Donkey Kong and Jumpman, who later became Mario. Pauline, not so much.
  • Characterization Marches On: This whole plot got started because Mario was basically an animal abuser. Quite a far cry from the kind-hearted hero he is now known as.
  • Character Title: It's Pauline, right?
  • Damsel in Distress: Pauline.
  • Distressed Dude: Donkey Kong in the second game, who was captured by Mario (making this the first, and so far only game where Mario is the Big Bad).
  • Drop the Hammer: The only way to break hazards or beat enemies; otherwise you must avoid them.
  • Expy: Initially conceived as a Popeye game until Nintendo was unable to secure the rights from Kings Features, the three central characters were instead made into new ones, Popeye becoming Jumpman, Bluto becoming Donkey Kong, and Olive Oyl becoming Pauline. A Popeye arcade game did get made some time later.
  • Endless Game: It's four different levels, done in various sequences, over and over. To most players, the goal was to beat your previous high score.
  • Everything's Better with Monkeys: Or maybe everything's worse with an ape.
  • Face-Heel Turn: Mario is the villain(!) in Donkey Kong Jr.
  • Fan Sequel: Has one in the form of Donkey Kong II: Jumpman Returns, abbreviated D2K.
  • Falling Damage: A very early example. If Mario falls through a hole in the floor, goes over the edge of a platform, or falls too far before hitting a surface while jumping onto or off of an elevator in Screen 3, he dies upon impact.
  • Fireballs: Some of the first Mario enemies!
  • Follow the Leader: The game was endlessly ripped off by other Japanese games companies, both straight clones and also variations - one of which, the 3D-isometric Congo Bongo, was foreshadowing-ly made by Sega. It also had home version clones, one of which was Miner 2049er.
  • Gender Flip: An amateur programmer created a ROM hack Donkey Kong: Pauline Edition for his 3-year-old daughter.
  • Inconveniently Placed Conveyor Belt: An early example exists in the 50m "Cement Factory" level (cut from most ports). The conveyor belts carry cement piles (which resemble pies, hence the level's long time nickname of the "Pie Factory") which Mario must avoid.
  • Invincibility Power-Up: The hammer, which lets you smash oncoming barrels and fireballs. Not quite invincible, though, as bad timing can lead to you getting hit while your hammer's in the wrong position or if you fall off an edge.
  • Jump Physics: Mario's jumping ability is rather weak compared to later games, and you can die if you fall above your jumping height. This also applies to Donkey Kong Jr. in the sequel.
  • Just Friends: Mario and Pauline become this in the 'Mario vs. Donkey Kong'' games.
  • Kill Screen: Level 22. Interestingly, the devteam did think to Cap the level counter at 99, so how did that oversight make it into the game?
  • Killer Gorilla: The titular character. In fact, in one early published strategy guide (written by blackjack and video game expert Ken Uston), Donkey was described as an "evil gorilla," and it was implied (although not stated outright) that Pauline was merely a prize that after defeating Mario he intended to rape and brutally torture before killing her. Averted later when the backstory became known: Mario mistreated Donkey, who kidnapped Pauline out of frustration.
  • Mascot: What Mario would eventually become for Nintendo, starting with this game. Donkey also enjoyed a big role in the limelight with his antagonist.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero:
    • According to the manual, Donkey only went on his rampage after being mistreated by Mario.
    • A Real Life case happened during the development of the game — Nintendo contracted Ikegami Co. Ltd. to code the Donkey Kong arcade game software and assemble the boards, but did not actually own the manufacturing rights to the game. A contract dispute soured relations between the two companies, and a court case ruled in favor of Ikegami Co. This has prevented Nintendo from re-releasing the original arcade game onto its various game systems. See here for more details.
  • No OSHA Compliance: It's understandable that a giant ape could cause a few collapsed walkways and broken ladders in a construction site, but who's responsible for letting him get up there in the first place?
  • One-Hit-Point Wonder: Mario himself.
  • Palette Swap: Blue barrels will spawn fireballs.
  • Protagonist Title: Donkey Kong Jr.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: A variation of Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor plays in the beginning of Donkey Kong Jr..
  • Puzzle Boss: Defeating Donkey Kong isn't as straightforward as jumping into him (of course, the Goomba Stomp hadn't been formulated quite yet anyway).
  • Sphere Eyes: The art on the machine itself.
  • Shoddy Knockoff Product: Many, but most notably, Crazy Kong and Crazy Kong Part II.
  • Throw a Barrel at It: Donkey Kong's main, and only, method of attack.
  • Timed Mission: You gotta finish each level before the timer runs out.
  • Unexpected Gameplay Change: Donkey Kong 3 was this to the original series, Becoming a shooter game instead of a platformer, and NOT starring Mario AT ALL, which is partly why it wasn't as popular as its predecessors.
  • Updated Re-release: The "Original Edition" designed for the 30th anniversary is a version of the game's NES release with 50m and the intermission cutscenes (originally removed due to space issues) added back in.
  • Villain Protagonist: Mario, while more of a Jerkass than a villain, fits into this role according to the backstory. Yes, really.

Fry: Wait a second, I know that monkey, his name is Donkey!
Professor Farnsworth: Monkeys aren't donkeys. Quit messing with my head!