Despite appearances, there’s a lot going on in Donkey Kong. In fact, the game made history for Nintendo in several ways. It took an important step on the path towards creating the platforming genre, but it can best be described as a “climbing game”, as the action takes place primarily across a vertical plane.
It was conceived as Nintendo’s answer to the runaway arcade success Pac-Man, and marked their efforts to infiltrate the North American market. The game was a huge success, and as we know, featured characters that would go on to be iconic for Nintendo.
In a rather unusual move for games at the time, Donkey Kong featured a well-rounded, if not simple, plot. In a similar fashion to King Kong, a gorilla kidnaps a young woman (Pauline), climbing out of reach to the top of several large structures where he holds her hostage. An originally unnamed but now familiar character gives chase, attempting to rescue her from her captor in order to be reunited.
In fact, many made this comparison, including the lawyers at Universal. Nintendo got into some hot water at the time, and what followed was a topsy turvy legal battle which came good for them in the end, thanks to a chap called John Kirby. As a result of his work defending Nintendo, he was thanked by having a character named after him (three guesses as to who).
That’s right, this is a time before Mario and Donkey Kong became the mascots that we know and love today. 1981 marked a very different time where Mario was nameless, before becoming known as “Jumpman”, and Donkey Kong was also without a name, as well as being the villain of the game. The damsel in distress was called Pauline, who was around several years before Princess Peach, who we all now synonymously associate with being rescued by Mario.
Alongside the gameplay and characters, Donkey Kong also became something of an icon thanks to its soundtrack. I say soundtrack, it’s more a pattern of five sounds which are played on a loop. It works incredibly well however, and is memorable and catchy in the same way as the famous theme from the film Jaws is. Today it’s instantly recognisable to most, a testament to the legacy of the game.
On the subject of legacy, over the years Donkey Kong has become one of those games which has attracted speedrunners, all chasing the world record for the quickest completion time. Some players have completed the game in just over a minute, which is some achievement.
As you may expect, thanks to the success of Donkey Kong a sequel was almost inevitable. The following year Donkey Kong Jr. was released, however rather surprisingly the roles had been reversed. This time around, Mario had rather unusually been cast in the role as the villain by kidnapping Donkey Kong. You play as the gorilla’s son, who sets out to save his father from the temporarily evil moustached plumber.
Away from the hugely successful Donkey Kong franchise which this game gave birth to, it has also been re-released many times over the years. It’s widely regarded as one of Nintendo’s all-time classics, and as a result has appeared on numerous home consoles at the time, as well as being re-released on the Game Boy and featuring on the Virtual Console service since the days of its birth on the Wii.
Donkey Kong is an important game for so many reasons, and remains fun to play, even an amazing 40 years later. From an arcade game which aimed to take on the giants of the day, it’s become an iconic and integral part of Nintendo’s, and by extension video game, history. I’m sure you have all played it at some point, but if you haven’t I strongly recommend that you go and check it out for yourself – the Nintendo eShop will hold a copy in one form or another.