1994: The Return of Donkey Kong

1994: The Return of Donkey Kong

I remember 1994 pretty well. I was in the Second and Third Grade on Long Island, NY. I played a whole lot of video games on the Genesis and SNES and NES. I typically stuck with Mario games because he was (and still is) my favorite video game character. Super Mario World was my favorite game at the time and I would play it ad nauseum. In 1994 I was familiar with Mario’s history and I had played a bit of Donkey Kong on my NES and at the arcade at my neighbor’s batting cage/family fun center. I didn’t know much about the ape, but I knew he was important to Mario’s history. I remember being a little younger and wondering if they would ever make a game STARRING Donkey Kong. Why not!? He’s such a classic character! Then like the return of Punk Rock in 1994, DK rose from the ashes like a barrel throwing Phoenix and now he’s here to stay.

When looking at DK’s past, it’s odd to see that he’s now considered one of the most popular heroes in video games. In 1981 he was essentially the antagonist of his titular arcade game, but his sprite was so good and so full of life that I always wished he was more present in video games. In Nintendo’s first crossover game, Super Mario Kart, DK wasn’t featured, instead Donkey Kong Junior raced alongside the other Nintendo characters. DKJ (the current DK’s Dad) is hardly even used by Nintendo these days. Before 1994 it was hard to find Nintendo’s first character outside of his 3 arcade games of the 1980s. Then, somewhat out of nowhere, he came back into the forefront of video games in the mid 90s, or that’s how it felt to 7 or 8 year old me at the time. 

His history starts with the brilliance of the first Donkey Kong game in the Arcade. This game made Nintendo a household name and created one of the first, true video game characters. DK was big and mean and had an animated face, all thanks to the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto. The then, 28 year old designer would change the world when he created this rather stubborn (hence the donkey) ape and the “hero” Jumpman (later changed to Mario). While this iteration of Mario looked incredibly different on the side art, you can see his classic sprite with mustache, hat, and overalls. Donkey Kong took off in popularity and was a multi-media powerhouse. There were toys and cartoons and even a breakfast cereal! With the crash of the Video Game Industry in 1983 DK vanished from existence. There were a few ports to consoles like Famicom and NES, but outside of a few of those instances, DK was gone. Mario reigned supreme over the video game industry and DK spent close to 9 years in hibernation. 

In the mid 1990s the Game Boy was everywhere. The handheld console was the perfect companion piece to the NES and SNES. The Game Boy boasted a giant library of great games and titles like Super Mario Land 2, Metroid 2, and Link’s Awakening led the charge of handheld greatness into the 90s. We were also introduced to new series like Kirby, Mana, and SaGa. Wario had received his first game by 1994 in Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3. Game Boy also had Mega Man, Double Dragon, and Castlevania. With the handheld console firing on all cylinders it made sense for Nintendo to reanalyze the its position and broaden the market. Many gamers who didn’t like to play games via a handheld may have wanted to experience Game Boy games, and Nintendo answered the call with Super Game Boy in June of 1994. You could finally play your Game Boy games on the TV in color, though the palettes were quite limited. As someone who didn’t play as much on the go and preferred a big TV style of playing, I was all about the Super Game Boy. Releasing alongside the Super Game Boy in June of 1994 was Donkey Kong or Donkey Kong 94 as it’s known in the industry. Some Super Game Boy games were optimized for the console like Metroid II and DK94. DK94 was essentially the new, launch title for Nintendo’s newest add on. With the release of DK94 the classic Donkey Kong gameplay was recreated in the first few levels, but the game expanded upon its predecessor by creating a compelling and expansive puzzling platformer experience. I consider this game to be one of the most underrated games in history and possibly the best of the Donkey Kong titles. It feels like the original DK while bringing new aspects to the table and forcing the player to think and figure out all these wacky puzzles as Mario chases his once pet Gorilla around the world to save Pauline. The game has 101 stages…each unique, fun, and different. While many gamers may not bring this title up when waxing poetic about the journey of DK, it’s vastly important to how he has been handled at Nintendo.

DK94 put the Donk back in the public eye in the mid 90s and the big guy was once again the topic of conversation. While Nintendo was crafting DK94 for Gameboy, they were working with Rare on a new way to reinvent Donkey Kong for the modern generation. While DK94 was a callback to the days of the arcade, Nintendo and Rare were working on something new, different, and beautiful…Donkey Kong Country.

I remember getting a preview tape of Donkey Kong Country back in early 1994. It was sent to my house and I popped it into my VCR and watched it constantly. Similar to how Final Fantasy was sold in Nintendo Power, this VHS tape made me want DKC more than anything else for Christmas that year. WHAT!?!? A game where Donkey Kong is the hero!?!? I need it! The graphics looked so different and original that I needed to have it. DK was also redesigned to look cooler, in a 90s way and his new friend Diddy seemed like he’d fit in with Sonic the Hedgehog and Bart Simpson, two characters who ruled the decade.

Donkey Kong Country hit the SNES in the Fall of 1994 and most kids like me spent their holiday vacation digging through all the levels and bonus stages, trying to overturn any and every secret we could find. We were all taken aback at how amazing the game looked, even if it’s gameplay was fairly shallow. DKC is a GOOD game in that it handles well and plays well. Sadly, it lacks the necessary expansion and depth that other platformers from Nintendo had at the time. Regardless of its shortcomings DKC was a massive and runaway success and gift wrapped the console wars to Nintendo and the SNES. The only way to beat Sega in the mid 1990s was to release one of the best looking games ever made. Nintendo’s fresh take on Donkey Kong caused the game to stand out to those of us who missed DK over the past decade. Just like that DK was a mascot for Nintendo again and all was right in the world.

After the Release of DK94 and Country, Nintendo saw how Kong resonated with fans just as he did in the 80s and continued to make his games a flagship series. DKC was spun out into 3 games which vastly improved upon the first title. I still regard Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest as one of the best 2D platformers of all time and one of the best SNES games of the lineup. It upsets me that DKC2 isn’t on the SNES classic…but I’ll get over it.

DKC created a new legacy for Kong as he continued to show up in almost every Mario spinoff. He’s a mainstay in Kart and Party and Smash Bros. The Donkey Kong Country series was revived in 2010 and has produced two games that outshine their predecessors, especially Tropical Freeze! The Spirit of DK94 continues onward as well in the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series, a franchise that I hope makes a valiant return on the Switch at some point. Though a lot of the DNA from MvDK has found its way to Captain Toad, it would be fantastic to see Mario traverse a landscape full of puzzles to square off with Donkey Kong again. 

DK is important to the fabric of what Nintendo does and fits their goofy, fun motif rather well. Donkey Kong is one of my favorite video game characters behind Mario and Mega Man, and I think we owe a lot to Nintendo for bringing him back in 1994. If these two games never released I’m not sure if we’d still see the big guy as much and I’m happy he’s been back for 25 years now. Let’s celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Donkey Kong! Share your favorite DK moments.

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