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When Nintendo was still struggling to cement their new electronic gaming legacy in North America, they came up with Donkey Kong. The 1981 arcade classic which practically invented the platforming genre stood out from its competition, and would be the catalyst to Nintendo’s dominance in the market. It starred three characters: the captured Pauline, the would-be Mario named Jumpman, and the titular big ape, Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong’s impact on the industry cannot be understated. Despite starring in and having his name in the damn title, the character Donkey Kong would fall behind and become Nintendo’s perpetual second banana. So why did the practically no name protagonist move up, while Donkey Kong was sent crashing down? Turns out it’s all about sequels, court cases, and innovation.
By the time Mario got his own standalone video game, Donkey Kong had two. In 1982, Donkey Kong was brought out of arcades and ported onto any computer or console that could play it. Nintendo wasn’t one to rest on success, so they began working on a sequel: Donkey Kong Jr. In Donkey Kong Jr, you no longer play as Mario, but rather Kong’s young son, who is trying to rescue his father from Mario’s cage. It switched the protagonist/antagonist roles around, and suddenly the Kong family were the heroes. Kong Jr also changed some of the original game’s mechanics, focusing on how Kong Jr’s unique movements compared to Mario. The sequel innovated, found its own level of success, and seemingly turned the tables on Mario, thrusting him into a villainous role. But Donkey Kong Jr hit a legal snag, and while Nintendo fought their courtroom battle, Mario jumped ahead.
The Donkey Kong arcade game wasn’t made by Nintendo alone. A Japanese technology company called Ikegami Tsushinki already had a working relationship with Nintendo. They had coded some of Nintendo’s previous titles and were signed on to exclusively create Donkey Kong’s arcade boards. This is where the dispute begins. According to their contract, Nintendo wasn’t allowed to copy Donkey Kong’s code, but nowhere did it state that Ikegami owned the game’s code outright. So when Nintendo moved on, reversed engineered Donkey Kong’s code, and created a sequel with it, Nintendo filed an injunction against Ikegami, and Ikegami sued. It would take years before the case would reach a conclusion when both parties settled in 1990. The specifics of this settlement are unknown, but we do know that it would take years before any Donkey Kong games would get ported afterwards. While this case was groundbreaking and eye opening for developers and publishers around the industry, it set the stage for Nintendo’s biggest star. Mario had his opening.
While the confusing Kong case continued, Nintendo was moving on. Mario Bros was released in 1983 in Japan, and bridged Nintendo’s arcade/small electronic past and their console dominating future. Mario Bros was both an arcade release and a key Famicom port. The Famicom launched in summer 1983, with ports of Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr, and Popeye as launch titles. All three were older arcade games, now on a home console. However, Mario Bros had only been out in arcades since June of that year, and was ported over by September. Japanese players could now play a newer arcade title at home, while the DK titles were both at least a year old. Mario Bros had made Jumpman, now Mario, a hero again, and put him in line to take over the Donkey Kong mantle as Nintendo’s poster boy.
Mario would follow his success up two years later with the cornerstone of console gaming in Super Mario Bros. Meanwhile, Donkey Kong was still struggling. Donkey Kong 3 was practically a clone of an earlier Nintendo arcade title called Space Firebird. Kong’s still beloved arcade titles were being ported everywhere, but the court conflicted code would continue to put the DK series on the skids. In 1986, Super Mario Bros 2 would add additional, and harder, levels to the Mario side-scrolling world, and in 1989 he would move into the new world of handheld devices with the Game Boy’s Super Mario Land and Dr. Mario. Donkey Kong was rarely seen, not even getting the occasional cameos that Mario would get in games like Golf and Tennis.
It wasn’t until 1994, a decade since his last appearance, when Donkey Kong finally returned. Donkey Kong Country wouldn’t be like his previous games, though. Nintendo had purchased 49% of Rare, a small British developer, and tasked them with creating the next Kong game. Rare would revitalize the ape’s success with a trilogy of games, but it was clear by now that Nintendo considered Donkey Kong as a part of a larger cast of characters and IP. Mario would almost always set the standard for the console he appeared on, and newer series of games centered around him. Mario Party, Kart, and several sports and puzzle games would always star him and a couple other dozen characters, with Donkey Kong occasionally among them. Mario was still the star of the show, and Donkey Kong was now a bit player.
Donkey Kong would wither again once Rare was purchased by Microsoft. Nintendo didn’t know what to do with their ape. He’d serve time in his own games like the rhythm game Donkey Konga, or even the updated take on the arcade original in a series of games called Mario vs Donkey Kong, and in more recent years Retro Studios has taken up the Kong mantle with Donkey Kong Country Returns. However these games are reaching back into the Kong’s past and don’t reach the same level of success as Mario.
Donkey Kong may never have been Nintendo’s intended design. Perhaps they always knew Jumpman would carry the company into the future. It’s clear Kong’s legacy is a meandering one, and has landed him either as a Mario sidekick, or gathering dust in Nintendo’s library of intellectual properties. DK will certainly get himself another chance to return to the limelight on the Nintendo Switch. But no matter what he does, it seems like he’ll be outsmarted, outlasted, and thwarted by Mario like he has been since 1981.