My wife asked me over Whatsapp “Is Donkey Kong good or bad?” which is a perfectly expected question and entirely consistent with the sorts of questions I find myself fielding from friends and family all the time. I’m lucky I have spent so long playing games, reading about games and listening to podcasts about games for otherwise I would be ill equipped for life, which apparently requires the successful answering of these sorts of questions.
If this question is actually “Is Donkey Kong, the arcade game from 1981, good or bad?” then the answer is very simple. Yes. It’s very good. It’s the first game I ever played and it’s great.
An explanation in which I use the words “Donkey Kong” 27 times
In the Donkey Kong arcade game, ostensibly, Donkey Kong is the villain. He has captured Mario’s girlfriend, Pauline, and Mario is trying to rescue her with the irate gorilla perpetually carrying her further away whenever Mario gets close.
In the sequel to Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior, you play as Donkey Kong’s son and you are trying to rescue the original Donkey Kong from Mario, who has him locked up.
It turns out that Donkey Kong is actually Mario’s captive and in the first game has escaped and is trying to run away. Mario is therefore trying to recapture him and the second game sees him recaptured with his son trying to free him once more. There was even a short lived cartoon series where Mario was trying to capture and return Donkey Kong to the circus.
This makes Donkey Kong much more like a good guy, or at least an innocent, with Mario probably being the bad guy at this point. Keeping gorillas in a small cage is probably not a great look these days anyway.
Donkey Kong saw a return to the video game world with Rare’s Donkey Kong Country in 1994 on the SNES, which had you playing as Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong, but this is unlikely to be the gorilla from the arcade. Unofficially, the elderly Cranky Kong at the beginning of the game is more likely the Donkey Kong from the original arcade game and the Donkey Kong of Donkey Kong Country is the son of Donkey Kong Jr. The whereabouts of Donkey Kong Jr. is unknown, but there is speculation that in the new Mario game that is coming out for the Nintendo Switch later this year that Donkey Kong Jr. will be featured in that in charge of “New Donk City” which is possibly the setting from the original arcade game.
I find it a little distressing that Mario and Donkey Kong are pretty much the vanilla of video games in my mind. A diminutive Italian plumber who fought a gorilla and now crusades against giant lizards and turtles in the mushroom kingdom upon the back of a friendly dinosaur is just a normal every day thing to me. It’s like phrase “standard fantasy setting” – we have taken outlandish fantasy and made it commonplace, even boring in some cases.
More Mario as villain nonsense
The Mario hero/villain thing gets a bit weirder actually. A recent fan theory is that Mario becomes corrupted and turns into Wario, the evil counterpart to Mario. The short version is that whilst he starts out as liberating the Mushroom Kingdom from Bowser, by the time you get through to the mobile game Super Mario Run, he’s not just liberating a kingdom but building his own, bringing large numbers of Toads to the kingdom to serve as vassals.
Ultimately he becomes corrupted by his constant collection of coins, becomes distant from his brother Luigi, and ultimately becomes the bloated yellow-dungareed imperialistic Wario. The newer Mario games are therefore Mario’s son, also named Mario, and now estranged brother Luigi fighting to liberate the Wario kingdom – which might even be what the “New” in New Super Mario Bros. refers to.
The longer and thoroughly entertaining version of that theory is from Idle Thumbs – an excellent video games podcast that keeps me company on my morning commute. (Some light swearing in case that’s not your thing.)
And now I’m going to look up how much buying a Donkey Kong arcade cabinet would cost again and imagine having that much spare money and space.