09 Jul 2021 1:21 PM +00:00

Happy 40th Birthday To Donkey Kong, Nintendo's Saviour

Nintendo's got a mixed track record with anniversary celebrations. After last year's big Super Mario focus saw most 3D entries come to Switch, this year's looking at The Legend of Zelda, offering Skyward Sword HD next week and a Game & Watch with Link's earliest adventures. That's not forgetting Metroid Dread either, which arrives two months after Metroid's own 35th anniversary, but today marks another big one. On July 9, 1981, Japanese arcades first experienced the original Donkey Kong game 40 years ago, changing Nintendo forever.

For the unaware, Donkey Kong's arrival came during a turbulent time in Nintendo's history. Having shifted away from toys and playing cards, Nintendo began expanding towards video games and for President Hiroshi Yamauchi, arcades were the next logical step. As one of Japan's most formidable businessmen, Yamauchi was always looking at expansion and around 1980, he looked to establish Nintendo of America, offering his son-in-law, Minoru Arakawa, NoA's presidency.

Read More: Donkey Kong Switch: Leaks, Rumours, News, And Everything We Know So Far

Happy 40th Birthday To Donkey Kong, Nintendo's Saviour

Where everything started.
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Where everything started.

Among his first acts, Arakawa placed an order of 3,000 units for Radar Scope, a game similar to Space Invaders and Galaxian but with a 3D perspective. However, when those units arrived four months later, interest was low and NoA only sold 1,000. For a recently established branch with modest finances, that was a disaster, so Arakawa formed a new plan. Rather than cut their losses, he asked Yamuachi to create a new game to implement within those old units, and Yamauchi obliged.

Marking Shigeru Miyamoto's debut as lead video game designer, he began working with Gunpei Yokoi into creating a new experience on the same hardware, doing this off a small $100k budget. Though Miyamoto initially looked at making a Popeye game, licencing rights negotiations failed, so he adapted this into an original plot. Replacing Bluto with a gorilla, Popeye with Mario, and Olive Oyl with Pauline, Donkey Kong was born.

Even now, it's an experience that holds up. Moving across construction site platforms as Mario, avoiding barrels and other obstacles thrown by Donkey Kong, it became a huge success worldwide. Batting away legal challenges by Universal City Studios, Nintendo's gamble paid off and soon enough, sequels appeared with Donkey Kong Jr., Donkey Kong 3 and the Land sub-series. That also led into Super Mario Bros, and I'm certain you don't need me telling you how that went.

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Donkey Kong Country offered a fresh start.
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Donkey Kong Country offered a fresh start.

As we approached the SNES-era though, DK's original premise felt tired out by those sequels, which weren't nearly as popular. He was ready for a reinvention, and Rare delivered that gracefully. Creating a side-scrolling platformer similar to Super Mario, this became a showcase title for the SNES, using pre-rendered 3D graphics many thought a 16-bit console couldn't handle. Launched in 1994, Donkey Kong Country was another major success, and two sequels immediately followed.

Since then, DK's history has been a little more sporadic. We've had four further main entries - Donkey Kong 64, Jungle Beat, and Retro Studios' two Country follow-ups - but for the most part, it's been full of spin-offs. Diddy Kong Racing is still beloved to this day, Donkey Konga was an inventive musical series using those famous DK Bongo controllers, while King of Swing and Jungle Climber added puzzle elements to platforming.

That's not forgetting the Mario vs. Donkey Kong sub-series either, harkening back to the original games by reigniting that classic rivalry. However, recent years have been quieter, and the last main entry we saw was Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze's Switch port, back in 2018. Truthfully, we've not actually seen a new DK game since 2015's Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Tipping Stars, and he's mostly joined the wider cast in different Mario spin-offs.

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Tropical Freeze was DK's last main adventure, back in 2014.
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Tropical Freeze was DK's last main adventure, back in 2014.

However, if rumours are to be believed, Nintendo's got big plans for their top gorilla. With rumours about a new Switch entry circulating from Super Mario Odyssey's team, there's also talk of a theme park expansion within Super Nintendo World, merchandise and a brand new animation. For now, that remains officially unconfirmed so please take this with a grain of salt, but if true, it'd be a huge way to celebrate Donkey Kong's 40th anniversary.

Without the original arcade game, Nintendo simply wouldn't be what it is today, and 40 years on, Donkey Kong remains loved by an incredible fanbase. Though it's looking like a quiet anniversary today, his legacy cannot be understated and I'm looking forward to seeing what the future brings. For now though, I'm feeling up for a round of Tropical Freeze.