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 involves the plumber (originally a carpenter) named Mario (originally Jumpmannote ) saving his girlfriend Pauline (originally "Lady"note ) from Donkey Kong, in an obvious reference to King Kong. Donkey Kong's mode of attack is a seemingly-endless supply of barrels, fireballs, and springs 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 same year Mario was spun off into his own game with Mario Bros., the lesser-known Donkey Kong 3 was released. In Mario’s place was an exterminator named Stanley trying to chase Donkey Kong away from his greenhouse with insect repellant. The arcade games were ported to various home consoles, including personal computers and Nintendo's own NES.
Donkey Kong 3 also had a sequel titled Donkey Kong 3: The Great Counterattack, released by Hudson Soft for various computers at the same time as Super Mario Bros. Special. It had more traditional shooter-type gameplay similar to Galaga.
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, Donkey Kong 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 against Donkey Kong, with Donkey Kong lobbing assorted crap at you, and it gets more complicated each time. It all culminates with Donkey Kong 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 game, he would reappear as Cranky Kong: the Donkey Kong Country franchise by British game developer Rare, which was even more successful, reinvented the character as a new generation of Donkey Kong for modern audiences.note
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 circuit.note 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 Universal and Nintendo would reconcile after the lawsuit, leading to the 1989 Universal release The Wizard prominently featuring the Nintendo Entertainment System and several of its games, notably Super Mario Bros. 3, then to Universal's theme parks announcing plans to open Nintendo-themed sections many years later, and Universal's Illumination Entertainment getting the rights to make an animated Mario film, unsurprisingly titled The Super Mario Bros. Movie.
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, and for many years the only rerelease of the arcade version was as an Embedded Precursor in Donkey Kong 64. 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.
According to Nintendo, 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.note 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 all three games include:
- Agony of the Feet: The springs on the Spring Stage can sometimes bounce off Donkey Kong's leg. It doesn't seem to hurt him, though.
- 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.
- Arcade-Perfect Port: 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.
- Artwork and Game Graphics Segregation:
- Mario's official artwork depicts him with black hair and a black mustache; in-game, however, they're both blue due to palette limitations.
- Pauline (then known as Lady) is depicted in the game's artwork with blonde hair, which she wears down, and a red dress and stilettos. Her sprite, meanwhile, depicts her with hazel pigtails, a pink dress with a white trim and a purple waistband, and purple stilettos. Later appearances from Donkey Kong '94 onward would amalgamate the two designs, featuring the look of her cabinet artwork but the brunette hair from her sprite (though her sprite in the Game Boy game would still be blonde due to the handheld's graphical limitations).
- Blackground: One of the most iconic uses of this trope. It can be inferred that the game takes place on a construction site at night, although some later games are more ambiguous about it.
- 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: The early DK is more animalistic and violent, harassing carpenters/plumbers and gardeners for no explained reason.
- Collision Damage: If you're stupid enough to walk into Donkey Kong, you'll discover this applies to him just as much as anything else.
- 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 uses art for◊ Mr. Do's Castle.
- Damsel in Distress: Pauline fills this role.
- Depending on the Writer: Most of the time, it's clear that the Donkey Kong of this game became Cranky Kong later, but rarely this is "forgotten" and treated 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 North America 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.
- Difficulty by Region: A very unusual case. In the original Japanese version, the levels are played in their proper order (25m, 50m, 75m, 100m) on each run-through. The American version, for whatever reason, shuffles the level order around for each cycle, with the first cycle being 25m followed by 100m, then the second sticking 75m in the middle, the third being the "proper" order, and the fourth and fifth onward sticking 25m in a second and a third time, respectively. Due to this, 50m is significantly harder to reach too since you'll be on the third cycle when you do, which is where the difficulty really begins to ramp up. Jr. follows suit with its four levels, though unlike with the original game, the fourth onward uses the "proper" level order rather than repeating the first stage occasionally.
- Drop the Hammer: The only way to break hazards or beat enemies; otherwise you must avoid them.
- Early Installment Character-Design Difference: Pauline is depicted as wearing a pink dress, and having either red or blonde hair depending which port you're playing. She wouldn't get her familiar design as a brunette who wears red dresses until Donkey Kong '94.
- Early-Installment Weirdness:
- Being the very first game in the franchise, it's a given. It didn't take place in the Mushroom Kingdom, there were no coins to collect or powerups besides Hammers, Mario was a carpenter instead of a plumber, the damsel was Pauline instead of Peach, and the antagonist was Donkey Kong instead of Bowser.
- Outside of characterization, Mario's moveset can come off as very unusual to anyone who started with the later games. Despite being named "Jumpman", Mario can manage to jump his own (very short) height, his jump itself has no air control and exists primarily as "jump straight up" or "jump in a fixed arc" (similar to the NES Castlevania games), he's overall pretty slow on the ground, and he dies if he falls a relatively short distance. This is in opposition to most post-Super Mario Bros. games, where Mario's incredible mobility and acrobatics define his gameplay. He also lacks the Goomba Stomp, though he does gain points for jumping over barrels.
- Evil Grunt: Donkey Kong's grunt when he kidnaps Pauline.
- Excuse Plot: The ever popular "guy chases after other guy who kidnapped his girl". Though interestingly enough, when it was released, Donkey Kong was considered unique for being a game that had a story.
- 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.
- Pauline, being Nintendo's second female character, was beaten to the punch by Nintendo's first female character—the damsel in distress from Sheriff, who was also originally named Lady. In Family BASIC V3, one of the minigames additionally features her in a re-enactment of Sheriff's rescue scene.
- 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. Subverted once you hit the Level 22 Kill Screen.
- 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.
- Frivolous Lawsuit: The game was famously at the center of one by Universal Studios, who demanded Nintendo and several other companies turn over all profits made with the Donkey Kong property for infringing on the King Kong copyright. Nintendo fought back and ultimately won because, as it turns out, Universal themselves had actually proven in an earlier lawsuit that King Kong was a Public Domain Character.
- Game Mod:
- Donkey Kong: Original Edition is basically an official mod of the NES version, adding in a few elements that were previously missing (most notably the 50m stage and the animation of Donkey Kong carrying Pauline between levels)
- Unofficially, a man created ''Donkey Kong: Pauline Edition" for his daughter where the player plays as Pauline and must rescue Mario.
- 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."
- 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 jacks, 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.
- Just Friends: Ultimately. While arcade materials suggest that Mario and Pauline didn't have an established relationship prior to the events of the game, home port manuals described them as romantically involved. Pauline was referred to as Mario's girlfriend at the time when she made her return in Donkey Kong '94, but subsequent appearances would drop references to this and make it vague as to whether they were even in a relationship in the first place, likely due to Princess Peach taking her place as Mario's primary love interest.
- Kill Screen:
- 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. Not only will he die from touching one of the various hazards (barrels, spring-things, fire, pies), he'll also die just from falling several feet.
- Overflow Error: The cause of the game's Kill Screen. Each level's timer is calculated by an algorithm, with the level number as one of the variables, but on Level 22, this causes the time limit to be so large that it overflows and ends up as just 4 seconds, making the level unwinnable.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Fry: Wait a second, I know that monkey, his name is Donkey!
Professor Farnsworth: Monkeys aren't donkeys. Quit messing with my head!