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Considering the game named after him is what first put Nintendo on the map, Donkey Kong should be a pretty big deal. And yet, over 30 years after his arcade debut, he remains a B-level franchise at best. He's certainly no Legend of Zelda, and although he continues to appear in various Mario spinoffs, Super Mario 3D World got the big holiday release spot while Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was pushed to last February. However, existing in this strange space between "important enough to keep around" and "not important enough to hang our hopes onto" has made Donkey Kong's history one of the most enjoyably bizarre among Nintendo's more prominent mascots.
Donkey Kong as a series seems like it has constantly been struggling to justify its own existence. He may have started out as a Japanese arcade character with a poorly translated name, but the classic image of Donkey Kong is the necktie-wearing CGI ape conjured by British developer Rare for their mega-popular Donkey Kong Country in 1994. But even in that game, which arguably did put DK on the same level as Mario for a while, insecurities start to poke through. On a console like the Super Nintendo full of amazing platformers like Super Mario World and Mega Man X, how does a new one stand out? Also, with the first PlayStation on the horizon, how does a regular old 16-bit game stave off obsolescence? With its then-revolutionary technique of importing 3D models as 2D sprites, Donkey Kong Country solved both of these problems with a single stroke. However, although the mind-blowing visuals did rocket it above the competition at the time, later reevaluations of the game would agree that the actual platforming gameplay failed to meet classic Nintendo standards.
The 3D power of the Nintendo 64 then gave Rare the chance to prove their Donkey Kong games were more than just style over substance. When comparing the two DK titles on the N64 with their contemporaries, the phrase that comes to mind is "bigger, but not necessarily better." Let's start with 1997’s Diddy Kong Racing. For years, Mario Kart's racing and battle modes have been huge multiplayer hits. So that was the game Diddy Kong Racing needed to surpass to prove why it should even exist. It took what worked about Mario's kart racing and just added more. It included planes and boats, something Mario Kart is only now just implementing. It added a substantial single-player mode with a hub area to explore and elaborate boss races. It even threw in a central antagonist in the form of the woefully underused Wizpig. Diddy Kong Racing's plethora of features brought some appreciated depth to the kart racing genre, as well as some superfluous touch screen shenanigans in its 2007 remake.
But feature creep soon decayed into bloat when Rare then applied this same expansive philosophy to the 3D platformer Donkey Kong 64 two years later. Quality aside, DK64's sheer size and scope remain impressive. One of the few games that required the N64 ram expansion, the game felt so full that it was about to burst. However, it quickly collapses under its own weight and sealed Rare’s reputation as makers of nothing but big collect-a-thons. Players switch between five characters each with their own bananas, blueprints, and weapon ammo to collect. But wait, there’s more. Throw in some crystal coconuts and bananas fairies to find, along with musical instruments to unlock and different strengths of ground pounds to purchase. Self-indulgence even plagues the game from the very start with the terrible cult classic “DK Rap.” “His coconut gun can fire in spurts. If he shoots ya, it's gonna hurt.” As a kid, I found DK64 epic and overwhelming, but looking back, it’s just an overly dense slog. In trying to be a bigger and better 3D platformer than Super Mario 64, as well as Rare's own Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64 just looked like it was trying too hard. No wonder the care-free raunchiness of Conker's Bad Fur Day was such a relief.
However, after selling Rare to Microsoft in 2002, and killing projects like Donkey Kong Racing in the process, the question for Nintendo then became "just what do we do with Donkey Kong?" Again, what's the point in keeping him around? Their solution seemed to be relegating him to strange side projects to fill holes in their release schedule. While that may sound like an undignified fate for the franchise that single-handedly extended the life of the Super Nintendo, this freedom actually produced some of the most interesting and experimental Donkey Kong games. This era gave us the peculiar, peg-swinging platforming of Paon’s DK: King of Swing and DK: Jungle Climber. It let the big monkey step into the ring as the final secret character into the Punch-Out!! Wii remake.
But most importantly, when Nintendo's new Tokyo team was given Donkey Kong as their first assignment, they used their creative freedom to make one of the wonderfully weird games of all times in the form of Donkey Kong Jungle Beat. A 2D platformer controlled by an extremely niche bongo peripheral originally made for music games had no right to be good. And yet, stellar graphics, inventive level design, a unique rhythmic combo system, and the bizarre tactile thrill of commanding a gorilla by slapping on plastic drums made the game something truly special. The bafflingly high quality of the short but sweet Donkey Kong Jungle Beat foreshadowed the even greater things to come with the team's next game: Super Mario Galaxy. As great as these experiments were though, not counting the mediocre Donkey Kong Barrel Blast, they were all one-offs. Donkey Kong's ultimate fate was still uncertain. Who would swing in and help?
After completing the acclaimed Metroid Prime Trilogy, many key members of Retro Studios left the company. Suddenly, one of Nintendo's best teams needed a new project. When these two Nintendo possessions both in need of long-term futures came together, Retro and Donkey Kong made sweet jungle love. The two most recent Donkey Kong Country revivals may look relatively conventional compared to DK's past adventures, after all the first one is literally called Donkey Kong Country Returns, but they’re still exceedingly well-made. With their high difficulty, weighty physics, and naturalistic 2.5D environments, they also feel like entirely different animals compared to the similarly nostalgic New Super Mario Bros. series.
For as good as they'll probably be, it's not too hard to imagine what the next few Mario, Zelda, or even Metroid games might look like. However, after going from a slick 2D platformer, to a bloated 3D platformer, to the world's only bongo-based platformer, and back to a slick 2D platformer, Donkey Kong's wayward trajectory is much harder to predict. Like a sketchy old celebrity, that unreliability may be what's ultimately keeping him from reaching full Nintendo superstar status, and that far-out ambition doesn't always pay off. But when it does, it elevates old Dankey Kang to my personal favorite Nintendo franchise. I’d take games as fun, fresh, fascinating, and just plain freaking weird as these past Donkey Kong games over Mario Party 23 any day. Come on, do the Donkey Kong.