How Donkey Kong spawned a 40-year legacy

By Bobby Waddle

Anyone writing a nostalgic column automatically dates themselves.

Since we’re here to celebrate 40 years of “Donkey Kong,” you might assume I’m going to discuss how that game blew my 11-year-old mind when it stunned arcades during the summer of 1981.

Problem is, I’m not 51 years old. I’m 31.

Rather, my roundabout meeting with the mighty monkey came in 1994, the year he founded the greatest nation on Earth: Donkey Kong Country. (Sorry, Uncle Sam.)

I remember the television commercial well. The advertising took great pains to point out the “first fully rendered video game EVER” was only available on the Super Nintendo.

This wasn’t lost on me. My parents, wonderful though they may be, did not have a Super Nintendo.

Instead, I cut my teeth on the original Nintendo system, leading Mario halfway through the Mushroom Kingdom repeatedly before getting pounded by the Hammer Brothers (I’ve since improved, but not by much).

Even though the SNES was nowhere to be found, I had options. My parents had an Atari and an Intellivision system.

As luck would have it, I recognized the Donkey Kong logo on an Intellivision cartridge, from the bright red lettering on down to the stars in the middle of the letter “O.”

That was good enough for my 4-year-old brain. Dad hooked up the already ancient Mattel console and the family plopped down for some quality time.

Now, I knew this wasn’t the Super Nintendo. I didn’t expect awesome graphics, but I was ready for a heroic gorilla to guide me through a jungle romp.

As you’ve gathered by now, my experience was exactly the opposite.

Instead of swinging through trees, I was dodging barrels at a construction site. Even more shockingly, I didn’t control the title character. He was the villain!

Instead, I was this unrecognizable little guy in a blue cap. I wasn’t disappointed. I was just bewildered.

So I asked my parents the question that tied everything together.

“If I’m not Donkey Kong, who am I?” 

They chuckled. “Mario.”

All roads lead to Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong’s legacy was secure well before his glossed-up Super Nintendo star turn.

As one of the earliest examples of platform games, Donkey Kong drafted a manifesto that its spin-off series, Super Mario Bros., would revolutionize in 1985.

And by the time 1990 rolled around, the Super Mario Bros. series had three games under its belt and its hero was an international icon. According to a survey cited by Nintendo Power magazine at the time, Mario’s popularity eclipsed Mickey Mouse (I’m skeptical, but the fact people believe it at all speaks volumes).

This also explains why a youngster like me took that legacy for granted. All of my favorite video games had a simple goal: Run and jump from one end of the screen to the other.

But more than its gameplay innovations, I’m astonished by the way Donkey Kong cobbled a mish-mash of 20th century pop culture into something new.

This was by design. Before Donkey Kong, video games weren’t created with a solid story in mind. They were excuses to blast aliens or play some sports.

Donkey Kong on the other hand, had its script written before the programming started, and is considered to have the first story plot in gaming.

Nintendo was in a precarious financial position, and the game’s young designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, was instructed to create marketable characters that could fuel a franchise and cross over to North American audiences.

Originality wasn’t the initial goal. Nintendo had its eye on the world’s top spinach pitchman, Popeye, who made his comic strip debut in 1919. 

This took care of the plot. The decades-long feud between Popeye and Bluto for Olive Oyl’s affection made it easy for Miyamoto to change gears when Nintendo failed to secure permission to use the characters.

Miyamoto moved on to 1930s celluloid to find inspiration — specifically, King Kong’s doomed infatuation with Fay Wray’s damsel in distress.

Olive Oyl became Pauline. Popeye, the hero of the piece, was retooled into Jumpman, whose name looked back to Pac-Man while acknowledging the pioneering platforming afoot.

And Bluto, of course, became the monkey. According to lore, Miyamoto christened his creation with the “Donkey” moniker because he thought the primate was stubborn as a mule.

From there, the legend spilled into real life. When the game reached North American shores, Jumpman became Mario in a tribute to Nintendo of America’s warehouse landlord.

That, to me, is what makes Donkey Kong so powerful. It took two cultural properties, Popeye and King Kong, that I would never say in the same sentence and combined them with a real-life American citizen. It synthesized the mediums of comics, films, computers and continents to plop this strange little arcade game onto the tail end of the 20th century.

And it just got weirder from there. I certainly wouldn’t expect King Kong to spawn the creation of a kingdom of mushrooms that needs a Brooklyn-based plumber to protect it from some unfortunate hybrid of a dragon and a turtle, but Mario remains a household name. Pretty impressive for a guy who essentially travels through the same story for 36 years.

That’s not even mentioning Donkey Kong’s 1994 reinvention as a franchise hero. While its jungle setting is certainly more realistic than a fungus province, the idea of an ape battling a crew of reptilian pirates over a pile of bananas isn’t much less, um, bananas.

And if you managed to make it this far in the column, you know 1994 is where I realized Mario and Donkey Kong were part of a larger whole, drawing on a rich human tradition of storytelling and drama.

It’s only fitting that I was dropped into the Donkey Kong legend in the middle of its making. The great ape himself debuted in the middle of a great period of artistic innovation that shows no sign of slowing down.

Who knows where he might end up when he’s 80? 

MORE DK: Donkey Kong Country rekindled a friendship only to troll it.

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