Call me strange if you like, but I used to think that if you
cleared enough levels of Donkey Kong you actually got to meet the Donkey.
Sixteen years and three-thousand-pounds-worth of 10p's later, I realize there
is no donkey, and quite frankly I feel cheated.
But, considering the game’s popularity, perhaps I wasn’t the
only one expecting more from it. Donkey Kong has probably done more for
Nintendo than Mario and his whole dysfunctional family put together. In 1981,
Shigeru Miyamoto's classic coin-op
took the industry by storm. To many the game remains the definitive platformer,
frustratingly addictive with distinctive graphics and packed full of variety
unmatched by other games of the era.
The machine’s huge popularity meant it quickly spawned a
sequel. Donkey Kong Junior may look similar, but the, barrel-jumping is exchanged
for rope-swinging, the levels are even more varied, and for the first time
Mario is depicted as an enemy as he guards the locked cage housing Junior's dad
from the first game.
Nintendo were the first to release home versions, in the
form of their Game & Watch machines in 1982, and, following huge sales,
Donkey Kong 2 and color versions in 1983.
It didn't take long for the rest of the games industry to
try to cash in. Handheld and console manufacturer Coleco needed a flagship
title to launch their new Colecovision machine, and Nintendo's license was
their first choice. Released in 1983, the Coleco's hi-res color and powerful architecture
meant the conversion came as close to the arcade original as you could get. The
packaging depicted a particularly scary fanged Donkey Kong looking down at the
first ever artist's impression of Mario. Dressed in a Lycra suit complete with
'M' armbands, black slicked-back hair and gritted teeth, he looks more like Tom
Selic that the plump dungarees fan we're used to. Released as a pack-in game
with the machine, significantly it was the first Nintendo game actually to sell
a console, and by the bucket load too. There's little doubt that, if it wasn't
for the DK license, and subsequent conversions fron Nintendo's soon-to-be
enemy, Sega, the highly priced Coloecovision would have sunk without trace.
The success of both Donkey Kong and the Colecovision quickly
spilled out into the rest of the industry. The threat of impending 'copy cat'
imitations forced Coleco to make possibly their biggest mistake: sub-licensing
the game to others. A torrent of released ensued - DK Jnr on the Colecovision,
and DK and DK Jnr conversions on both the Mattel Intellivision and Atari 2600,
the Colecovision's biggest rivals.
While the Coleco original remained definitive, sales of all the conversions were high and the thirst
for Donkey Kong could be quenched on far cheaper consoles, or even computers
thanks to an Atari 400/800 version.
Perhaps this is where Nintendo learned their most valuable
marketing lesson. Mario Bros sold the NES, Mario World sold the SNES, and Mario
64 was selling the N64. DK sold the Coleco until exclusivity was revoked.
Meanwhile, in the UK, Donkey Kong could really go home, and
Nintendo's conversion of the two original games helped to sell the NES into
countless US households. Donkey Kong 3 followed a year later, along with Donkey
Kong Jnr Math, the ape's first stab at an educational title. And, as if that
wasn't enough, Nintendo eventually released the original games on the
cartridge. Further Game & Watch inventiveness saw the release of Donkey
Kong 3, Donkey Kong Circus, and even Donkey Kong Hockey, but by now our hero
was looking exploited.
In 1988, in a relatively shocking move, Nintendo granted the
ex-giant Atari the rights to release their original games on their 7800
machine. While it was a valuable license for Atari, the games were by now too
tired to have any effect on hardware sales, and the 7800 was stillborn. Donkey
Kong's popularity began to wane for the first time. Nintendo's own next
installment in the NES series, The Return of Donkey Kong, was completed but
It wasn't until 1991 that our hero was awakened from
hibernation, this time quietly in the highly underrated Game Boy version of the
game. Though never a huge seller, Game Boy DK is based on the arcade original,
a single-screen game packed with hundreds of deviously cunning levels, batter
back-up, great music and hours of challenging entertainment. A guest slot in
Mario Kart followed, but this was like a torch with dead batteries compared
with the limelight that was around the corner.
Enter Rare with their Donkey Kong Country series, games that
would propel Donkey Kong back to the dizzy heights of Nintendo stardom. DKC not
only revitalized the ebbing SNES and Game Boy markets, and not only gave him an
entire family, but got DK's face on lunch boxes, cereal packets... even his own
set of Pogs. Nintendo even re-released the original Game & Watch machine
that helped to make him famous. Since then things have been getting quieter.
Mario has dominated the N64 so far, but DK is on his way.
It's just a shame about that donkey...