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 a carpenter (later plumber) named Marionote saving a lady (later named Paulinenote ) from Donkey Kong, in an obvious reference to King Kong. Donkey Kong's mode of attack is a seemingly-endless supply of barrels that Mario must either dodge, jump over or smash with a hammer.
The game's sequel, Donkey Kong Junior (shortened to Donkey Kong Jr. in revised arcade releases and certain home ports) inverted the villain/hero roles: Donkey Kong Junior has to free his father from the clutches of zookeeper Mario by climbing vines and grabbing keys. The lesser-known Donkey Kong 3 has an exterminator named Stanley trying to chase Donkey Kong away from his greenhouse with insect repellent. The arcade games were ported to personal computers and Nintendo's own NES/Famicom.
1994's Donkey Kong (often referred to by the production title Donkey Kong '94) for the Game Boy expanded on the formula and inspired the later Mario vs. Donkey Kong series: You start the game by saving Pauline from a construction site as usual, but unlike in the original, DK reawakens after falling from his perch and takes off with her again. What follows is an exhaustive chase through 101 levels in various locales, including the surrounding city, a jungle and an airplane in mid-flight. The majority of levels are puzzle-focused, with Mario having to navigate a single room filled with obstacles and carry a key to a door, and occasionally being harried by Donkey Kong Jr. The final level in each 'world' is a standard duel vs. Donkey Kong, with DK lobbing assorted crap at you, and it gets more complicated each time. It all culminates with DK over-dosing on Super Mushrooms and turning into a King Kong-sized menace, but Mario prevails and seemingly befriends the Kongs at the end.
After these sequels, Donkey Kong faded into history. The same year as the Game Boy version, he would reappear as Cranky Kong, with Donkey Kong Jr. growing up to become the Donkey Kong we know today: The latter became the protagonist of the Donkey Kong Country franchise by British game developer Rare, which was even-more successful and reinvented the character for modern audiences.
The original more-or-less single-handedly rescued the fledgling Nintendo of America. After having numerous arcade games tank, the then-president of Nintendo of Japan sent over circuit boards containing Donkey Kong. 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 circuitnote . 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. Nintendo thanked Kirby by purchasing him a big sailboat, named Donkey Kong, with exclusive worldwide rights to use the name for sailboats.note
In another ironic twist, Nintendo itself was found guilty of violating the copyright for the arcade game, and therefore could not sell the original version of Donkey Kong for its consoles. To summarize, the original arcade game was written by a company named Ikegami Tsushinkinote on assignment. Either that, or Nintendo made the game themselves using hardware made by Ikegami, depending on who's telling the story. Either way, the contract did not include ownership rights to the code. When Donkey Kong became a hit, Nintendo either tried to make more boards themselves or simply used the code (illegally, according to Ikegami) to create Donkey Kong Junior, Donkey Kong 3, Mario Bros., Popeye, and possibly other games. In any case, they got sued for copyright violation as a result. A detailed report is available here.. However, this finally changed with the release of the arcade version on Nintendo Switch, as part of Hamster's Arcade Archives series.
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 Mario was in fact the title's Donkey. Regarding the other two characters: the NoA team named the hero after their then-landlord, Mario Segale, and eventually named the heroine after an employee's wife, Polly James.
Donkey Kong also 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, Ikegami ended up also developing this gamenote for Sega, foreshadowing the future rivalry between Nintendo and Sega.
- American Kirby Is Hardcore: The boxart◊ for the Intellivision port of the game turned the cartoonish Donkey Kong into a downright scary looking monster with glowing eyes and a macho buzzcut. Mario looks like a circus strongman holding a golden Mjolnir.
- Animated Adaptation: The Saturday Supercade show, featuring none other than Peter Cullen as the voice of Mario, plus Frank Welker as Donkey Kong Junior in his own segment.
- Antagonist Title: The first and third games. The second game had Mario as the villain, with the titular Donkey Kong Junior as the protagonist.
- Arcade-Perfect Port: Averted in most cases. Most of the ports are faithful to the arcade version, but leave out 50m due to memory limitations. Some versions play it straight, such as Donkey Kong: Original Edition and the Game Boy Donkey Kong, 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. For the longest time, the only truly arcade-perfect port was the one included in Donkey Kong 64.note The 2018 release of the original arcade versions of DK and DK Jr on the Switch under the Arcade Archives series has their full version. Though they are technically not ports, as they are emulated versions of the original arcade games.
- Big Bad: The title character in Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong 3, and Mario in Donkey Kong Junior.
- Breakout Character: Donkey Kong and Mario. Pauline, not so much (well, at the time).
- Captain Obvious: The original instruction card combines this with Department of Redundancy Department, but was unintentional in both cases:"Jump button makes Jumpman jump."
- Characterization Marches On:
- Mario from Super Mario Bros. 3 onward would certainly never be as spitefully vengeful as in Donkey Kong Junior. Compare how he forgives DK for even bigger slights in the Game Boy Donkey Kong and Mario VS Donkey Kong.
- Conversely, the early DK is more animalistic and violent, harassing carpenters/plumbers and gardeners for no explained reason.
- Covers Always Lie: As bizarre as the Intellivision boxart was, it was at least somewhat faithful to the game. The Atari 2600 covers are utterly shameful: the English version is a literal copy-paste of King Kong artwork while the Spanish version must be seen to be believed◊.
- Damsel in Distress: Pauline fills this role.
- Depending on the Writer: Most of the time it's official that the Donkey Kong of this game became Cranky Kong later, but rarely they "forget" this and act like the "present" DK was there all along. There's also the matter of whether Cranky is the current Kong's father or grandfather. The current line as of Donkey Kong Country Returns is he's his grandfather, which bears asking exactly where Junior went.
- Derivative Differentiation: The original arcade game was born out of this kind of serendipity; Nintendo, still trying to get their foot in the American game market in 1981, tried releasing a standard Space Invaders clone called Radarscope in the arcades; while it did well overseas, it completely flopped in the US and left them stuck with thousands of unsold cabinets. This prompted them to place Shigeru Miyamoto in charge of improvising another game to replace Radarscope (while converting the unsold cabinets into new games) and, instead of making another cookie cutter maze or shoot em up, created one of the earliest note and certainly one of the most important platformer games in history.
- Distressed Dude: Donkey Kong in the second game, who was captured by Mario (making this the only game where he is the Big Bad so far).
- Drop the Hammer: The only way to break hazards or beat enemies; otherwise you must avoid them.
- Early Installment Weirdness: The damsel was Pauline instead of Peach, the antagonist was Donkey Kong instead of Bowser, and, in Donkey Kong Junior, Mario was the Big Bad. The third game doesn't even have Mario at all; the protagonist is Stanley.
- Excuse Plot: The ever popular "Guy chases after other guy who kidnapped his girl".
- 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 Mario, Bluto becoming Donkey Kong, and Olive Oyl becoming Pauline. A Popeye arcade game did get made some time later. The Mario in the illustration artwork for this game◊ still bears a vestigial resemblance to Popeye (in particular the nose, chin and squinty eyes) that would vanish when Mario got his more familiar redesign.
- Donkey Kong himself was an obvious expy of King Kong.
- 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.note
- Evil Living Flames: The first Mario game of all is also the first to feature this type of enemy, in the form of fireballs with eyes that hop out of burning oil drums and chase after Mario as he tries to reach Donkey Kong.
- 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. In Donkey Kong Jr., Junior dies if he drops down from too far up.
- Game Mod: Donkey Kong: Original Edition has been confirmed to essentially be an official example of this. Nintendo essentially took a ROM of the NES version and programmed in a few missing elements of the arcade version.
- Gender Flip: An amateur programmer created a ROM hack Donkey Kong: Pauline Edition for his 3-year-old daughter.
- Gratuitous English: Not in the game itself, but on the arcade version's instruction card:"If Jumpman reaches top, Donkey Kong takes the lady higher up, and structure changes shape."
"When a certain structures have been cleared, Jumpman saves the lady."
"Extra Jumpman when you gain a certain points."
- Grey-and-Gray Morality: The early Mario and DK games treat the duo as something of a Tom and Jerry-esque slapstick rivalry duo, which is more pronounced in the cartoon. To give proper context, DK was Mario's pet who escaped and kidnapped his girlfriend, prompting Mario to rescue her. In DK Junior, however, Mario keeps DK locked up and tries to kill Junior when he tries to free his father. Keeping DK locked up after his rampage rather than returning him to the wild to live with his son is at least morally questionable, but trying to kill Junior when he tries to save his father pushes him into straight up villainy. Pauline and Junior are unambiguously good, while DK and Mario are grey.
- HeelFace Revolving Door: Mario becomes the antagonist with DK as a hapless hostage in Donkey Kong Junior. Mario would reclaim the role of hero in Mario Bros. while DK is once again the villain in Donkey Kong 3.
- 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.
- Invincible Minor Minion: The Springese, due to appearing solely in a No-Gear Level (see below).
- 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 Junior in the sequel.
- Just Friends: While some home port manuals unofficially described them as romantically involved, Mario and Pauline are actually said to be this in arcade materials and all subsequent appearances, likely due to Princess Peach taking her place as the primary love interest.
- Kill Screen: Level 22; the timer is set so low that it is impossible to finish the level. Interestingly, the dev team did think to cap the level counter at 99, so how did that oversight make it into the game?
- Mascot: What Mario would eventually become for Nintendo, starting with this game. Donkey Kong also enjoyed a big role in the limelight.
- No-Gear Level: The elevator screen has no hammer.
- 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?
- Forget the barrels and jacks, what kind of oil spawns living fire monsters?
- One-Hit Point Wonder: Mario himself. Also Junior and Stanley.
- Palette Swap: Blue barrelsnote will spawn fireballs.
- Pet Baby Wild Animal: Donkey Kong was originally Mario's pet ape who escaped and kidnapped his girlfriend.
- Protagonist Title: Donkey Kong Junior.
- Public Domain Soundtrack: A variation of Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor plays in the beginning of Donkey Kong Junior.
- Puzzle Boss: Defeating Donkey Kong isn't as straightforward as jumping onto him (of course, the Goomba Stomp hadn't been formulated quite yet anyway).
- Retcon: The manual for Donkey Kong Land suggested Big Ape City as the setting of these early games. Super Mario Odyssey instead posits New Donk City as the location of Mario and DK's feud.note
- Super Drowning Skills: Junior dies if he touches water. Justified as apes can't swim and he's likely too young to have learned anyway.
- Sphere Eyes: Visible on Donkey Kong, even with his low-res sprite. They're more prominent on the cabinet artwork.
- Shoddy Knockoff Product: Many, but most notably, Crazy Kong and Crazy Kong Part II.
- Shout-Out: Donkey Kong is named after King Kong.
- Sudden Sequel Heel Syndrome: Mario in Donkey Kong Junior.
- 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. Notably, in level 22 of the original, the timer is set so low that it's outright impossible to finish the stage.
- Unexpected Gameplay Change: Donkey Kong 3 is a shooter game rather than a platformer, and stars an exterminator named Stanley rather than Mario.
- 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.
- Would Hurt a Child: In Donkey Kong Jr., Mario has no qualms with trying to murder Junior when he tries to rescue his father.
- Fry: Wait a second, I know that monkey, his name is Donkey!
Professor Farnsworth: Monkeys aren't donkeys. Quit messing with my head!