The Original Donkey Kong Series Ranked

When it comes to Donkey Kong, Nintendo’s empire-founding ape, there is a B.C. (Before Country) and an A.C. (After Country). The Donkey Kong series had its origins in the arcades, with the first game releasing in 1981 on hardware scraped together from the commercial failure RADAR SCOPE (1980), with a concept spun up after a Popeye license was lost. The change to an original character didn’t prevent Universal from suing Nintendo for infringement on the “King Kong” name, however. And of course, DONKEY KONG was the introduction of Jumpman, the carpenter who would soon become known as Mario the plumber. In the series’ original run, players never actually controlled Donkey Kong himself in any one of its five games, released in the 13 years from 1981 to 1994. And so we come to the DK B.C. and A.C.; also in 1994, DONKEY KONG COUNTRY totally reimagined the character and franchise into the incarnation its been ever since. While the original Donkey games are in fact platformers, they are of a different era and kind, and so removed from the “canon” (insofar as there is a cohesive story to the Donkey Kong saga), characters, aesthetic, and gameplay of today’s series that they deserve evaluation on their own, more specific terms. Hence this piece, which ranks those five B.C. games.

All games developed and published by Nintendo.

When making this list, I considered leaving off DONKEY KONG JR. MATH, but I suppose it is a major point in the original Donkey Kong series. This edutainment game was released for the Famicom very early in its life, and then on the NES in 1986, and followed just over a year after DONKEY KONG JR. proper. It twisted the gameplay and assets of its predecessor into a clunky, boring math game. Of course, there’s an argument to be made (and won) that DONKEY KONG JR. MATH was not made for me, but even for children, this had to have been a source of major frustration. The game is hard to control and its integration of the educational portion into the structure of DONKEY KONG JR. so poor that it doesn’t really have any value as a learning tool either.

Although it fared pretty well at the time, in recent years, some derision has been applied to DONKEY KONG 3. It pretty radically shifted the concept of the series, replacing Mario with an exterminator named Stanley, who faces off against Donkey Kong and his swarm of insects. DK hangs from the top of the screen and sends his minions down against the pesticide-wielding Stanley, making DONKEY KONG 3 more like GALAGA (1981) than DONKEY KONG. But in its own right, the game is pretty fun. Its pattern of play is satisfying and ramps up in difficulty nicely, and it’s pretty funny to shoot Donkey Kong in his butt with puffs of what is essentially poisonous gas every once in a while. DONKEY KONG 3 is an overlooked entry in the DK series.

Rightfully revered and considered one of the best/most important games of all time, DONKEY KONG is what set Nintendo up for the massive video game industry- and medium-shaping success it would gain in the mid-1980s. There are wide arrays of stories documenting its development, some of which were already mentioned in the introduction of this article. DONKEY KONG is an early, pure, and effective example of icon Shigeru Miyamoto’s game design prowess, and Nintendo’s ability to develop groundbreaking gameplay concepts and visually powerful, if “simple,” aesthetics. DONKEY KONG was a huge success, and can still be used as a sort of shorthand for even non-gamers who grew up or came of age in the ’80s. It was brought to the NES in a notoriously abridged form, notorious because it was often the only officially available version of the game brought to later platforms. Even still, its home console version is quite fun and a comparable experience, but the arcade version of DONKEY KONG is the original thrilling platforming experience. The single screen layout is given depth across four increasingly difficult stages, which loop until you get as far as you can (not much farther than the first four, in my case). DONKEY KONG is a perfect example of the “easy to learn, difficult to master” design ethos of early arcade games, and leaping across barrels, climbing up ladders, wielding hammers, and saving Pauline from the clutches of the villainous ape is still as fun as it is iconic today.

It should be noted that a central way in which the B.C. Donkey Kong differed from the A.C. Donkey Kong is kind of obvious: he was a villain originally, and although the series was named after him, DK was the antagonist facing off against Mario, who would have his own series in a few years. But with DONKEY KONG’s sequel, Nintendo was already flipping the idea on its head. Here, Mario is the villain (the only time he has been such), kidnapping Donkey Kong, presumably as some kind of revenge. So the ape’s son, Donkey Kong Junior, has to rescue his father. The character has been the source of great discourse and theorizing over the years when it comes to the A.C DK world. For example, the original Donkey Kong might be Cranky Kong and Junior the protagonist in the Country games. In any event, Nintendo also wasn’t just quickly following up their massive hit with an unoriginal clone. DONKEY KONG JR. takes the central concept of its predecessor (climbing up to the top of a structure and reaching the villain) and twists it so as to make sense for a primate protagonist. The four stages are more jungle-like than city-like, complete with little snapping crocodiles and other enemies, as Junior traverses vines and grassy platforms. The little guy’s shimmying up the vines, which can be sped up by grabbing onto two at once, is such a satisfying gameplay concept that JR. has to take the edge on DONKEY KONG. DONKEY KONG JR., even by the relatively static terms of early platforming controls, just feels a bit more fluid, and its whole escalation of the first game’s concept is so clever, that it almost takes the cake as the best game from Donkey Kong’s original run.

The best B.C. Donkey Kong game was nearly A.C. DONKEY KONG (1994), mostly referred to as DONKEY KONG ’94, came out just a few months earlier in the same year as DONKEY KONG COUNTRY, and as such, the Game Boy game is often overshadowed by the groundbreaking, franchise-evolving Super Nintendo game. And that’s a shame because, although DK ’94 isn’t better than COUNTRY in my opinion, it’s a tremendous interpretation of the Donkey Kong games that came out more than a decade before. Indeed, DONKEY KONG ’94, the final game in that original incarnation, came after the biggest gap in the series’ history, just a few months shy of 11 years after DONKEY KONG JR. MATH. Someone coming to DONKEY KONG (as the Game Boy game is officially known) in 1994 may have just thought it a port of the classic arcade game, playing as Mario once again. But after playing the four levels of the first game in adapted form, DONKEY KONG ’94 opens up into an incredible puzzle platformer that stretches across nine worlds and 101 stages. It is seen as a kind of inspiration for the Mario vs. Donkey Kong subseries, thanks to its puzzle leanings, but DONKEY KONG ’94 is also thrilling in its action. The integration of concepts from DONKEY KONG JR., like climbing vines, the ability to pick up and throw items, the weird enemies, and the bizarro version of Earth (not really the Mushroom Kingdom everyone was used to by this time) all make for a really great game and an improved ode to what began Nintendo’s streak of greatness. DONKEY KONG ’94 is not just a novelty piece of Nintendo history, but also a fun and nuanced one. It’s incredibly playable today and the perfect distillation of the thesis and gameplay of the original Donkey Kong series.

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