When someone says, Nintendo, you’re likely to first think of the iconic Mario or perhaps Link, from The Legend of Zelda series, but hardly anyone mentions Donkey Kong. It seems strange, considering that he has been one of Nintendo’s longest serving mascots,and in many ways, he’s been there from the start, playing a role in one the company’s first forays into the video game industry.
So, here’s the basic facts about Donkey Kong. He’s a big gorilla with a penchant for bananas and balloons who wears a rather dashing red-tie. He was Mario’s first nemesis but they have since put their differences aside, which has freed up Donkey Kong to star in many Nintendo games over the last thirty years.
Donkey Kong games are generally much tougher platformers than that of the Mario series and are not for the faint-of-heart or those who want a relaxing experience. However, the Donkey Kong franchise has seen some bizarre iterations and this is a look at some of his biggest outings, from the absolutely sterling to those DK would rather not talk about.
17 Donkey Kong Jr. Math
Do you know what kids find fun after a long day of school, where they’ve already been looking at math textbooks? Well, I don’t think it’s coming home and sitting down to a video game which, as the name suggests, requires you to solve math problems.
Donkey Kong Jr. Math was part of the Nintendo “education series” for the NES and requires players to enter the solution to math problems, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, to score points. Just like the Donkey Kong arcade game, it required players to hop between vines and grab numbers in order to find the answer to the sum.
It was a noble move by Nintendo to provide a video game that would be both entertaining and educational. However, with criticism levied at the tetchy control system and featuring math problems that were far too simple, even for small children, the consensus of Donkey Kong Jr. Math was that it just wasn’t a whole lot of fun or very educational.
Having failed with Donkey Kong Jr. Math, Nintendo didn’t release any further games for the “education series” and seemed to have dropped the concept entirely. Oh well, back to swinging on vines and grabbing bananas it is then.
16 Donkey Kong Barrel Blast
One of the few racing games based on the Donkey Kong franchise, Donkey Kong Barrel Blast for the Wii was a disappointing experience and did little to match the quality of the Mario Kart series.
Instead of racing karts, you would compete using jet-propelled barrels attached to your character. Let's not question the science with this one, it is a video game after all. The premise sounds fun, but when compared to the fast and frantic action of Mario Kart, Donkey Kong Barrel Blast was a dull and tepid experience. It was also let down by use of the Wii Remote and Nunchuck combination, which made the control system feel imprecise and is not exactly what you want from a racing title.
Level design also felt uninspired, featuring a selection of jungle-themed race tracks with little distinctive variation between them. In all, this title crashed and burned just as you would in real life if you were to try and fly using those barrels.
15 DK: King of Swing
DK: King of Swing was a departure from the 3D rendered graphics of the Donkey Kong Country franchise, with Nintendo and developer, Paon, opting for a more cartoony approach to the visuals.
This puzzle-adventure game sees Donkey Kong have to retrieve the stolen prize medals for the ‘Jungle Jam’ competition, which have been stolen by his arch-nemesis, King K. Rool. On this adventure, you are required to climb pegs while avoiding enemies and collecting bananas, crystal coconuts and jumping into the occasional bonus barrel.
While not providing the worst gameplay in the Donkey Kong series, it is an incredibly short experience, featuring only twenty-five levels to the main story mode, five of which are boss-levels.
14 DK: Jungle Climber
The sequel to DK: King of Swing saw few improvements over its predecessor, except for the improvement to the visuals to bring it more in line with the Donkey Kong Country series and making the controls more precise, which is important for a puzzle-platforming game.
Apart from those adjustments, the gameplay remained nearly identical and provided little in the way of fun-factor or innovation. As such, there is not much to incentivize a purchase if you were let down by DK: King of Swing.
Despite this, it is a longer experience, providing six worlds to beat with thirty levels altogether. The problem is that given how lackluster the previous title was, more of the same only served to hurt this sequel.
13 Donkey Konga 2
The issue with the sequel to the rhythm-based Donkey Konga is that it didn’t do much to innovate the fledgling franchise and, frankly, it felt rushed, leaving you with an experience that was short-lived and underwhelming.
Despite offering an ‘expert mode,’ the game didn’t really feel like it required a lot of skill to complete. It was more a feat of hitting the DK Bongo (a controller designed specifically for the Konga franchise) at the right time and getting the combinations, rather than exhibiting any real skill for rhythm timing.
When compared to its contemporaries, Donkey Konga 2 didn’t offer much in the way of audio feedback for mistakes you made and you’d continue bashing on that bongo controller for around thirty-seconds before realizing the mistake had happened and what you thought was a perfect run had been ruined.
Still, you can’t blame DK for marching to the beat of his own drum, or bongos in this case.
12 Donkey Konga
This game has one of the poorest stories of the Donkey Kong Series, even by the simplistic standards of Nintendo. That said, it is a game where you have to hit a bongo, so what did you expect?
Basically, Diddy and Donkey Kong are on the beach one day and find some mysterious objects that look like barrels. They take them to Cranky Kong, who explains that they are – wait for it – bongos. The pair both attempt to play them, but quickly realize they aren’t very good. However, Cranky encourages them to play, which they are reluctant about initially, but they quickly realize that, if they become successful bongo players, they can afford all the bananas they want.
You can’t fault the artistic ambition of these two games, right?
Donkey Konga featured some songs from huge games, but mostly they used themes from iconic Nintendo franchises like Mario and The Legend of Zelda. While they were catchy tunes, it made Donkey Konga feel lacking in variety.
11 Donkey Kong 2
We're going truly old-school now with Game and Watch, one of the earliest Nintendo handheld consoles. If you're not already aware, these were small LCD devices which featured one game on each. Due to this, it was imperative that Nintendo make these games enjoyable and with as much replay value as possible.
Donkey Kong 2 is one of those games. It may look boring by today’s standards, but when this bad boy came out in 1983, you felt like a rock star taking this thing on the bus. I mean, not really, but it was a pretty cool invention for its time.
The game play is pretty basic. You have to control Donkey Kong Jr. to collect four keys and free Donkey Kong, who is chained up. You are required to climb to the top of the screen while avoiding electrical wires. Once you have one of the keys, it would move to one of the keyholes on the chain. You then have to climb down one of the ropes, avoiding birds crossing your path, to unlock the chain. When repeated four times, one for each lock, the game was completed.
While primitive by current standards, this was one of the best games from Nintendo’s first attempt at handheld gaming and is deserving of its legacy.
10 Donkey Kong 3
Much like Donkey Kong 2, the third entry to the Game and Watch series does so much with so little and is a testament to the creativity and practicality of Nintendo.
This entry has you play as Stanley the Bugman, who has the misfortune of having Donkey Kong break into his greenhouse, who then riles up some of the insects nested in the roof. Armed with your pesticide, you must destroy the insects and drive Donkey Kong away.
Donkey Kong 3 was remade as part of Game and Watch Gallery 4, which sees Stanley replaced with the more iconic Mario, which is fitting considering both Donkey Kong and Mario both rose to fame following their battles in the arcade classic, Donkey Kong. The pesticide is also replaced with a bubble gun, probably to be more child friendly and not face criticism that children were being encouraged to blast each other with pesticide, because that's the kind of thing people complain about these days.
9 Diddy Kong Racing
Developed by Rare, Diddy Kong Racing managed to get right what Donkey Kong Barrel Blast failed to do years later. This racing game for the N64 was praised for its excellent controls and gameplay, along with a variety of interesting tracks and outstanding visuals.
It’s a shame that they didn’t move forward with the franchise and while they began work on a sequel for the GameCube, the project, Donkey Kong Pilot, was cancelled after Nintendo opted not to purchase 51% share in Rare, leading to its eventual purchase by Microsoft in 2003.
The purchase of Rare by Microsoft also saw Diddy Kong Pilot become Banjo-Pilot and only saw a release for the Game Boy Advance as Microsoft did not compete with Nintendo when it comes to handheld gaming. While we may never see a follow-up to Diddy Kong Racing, it seems that the legacy of some classics are preserved by being standalone titles.
8 Donkey Kong Jungle Beat
Donkey Kong Jungle Beat saw a release on both the GameCube and Wii, and it was a success on both platforms.
It was the first Donkey Kong 2D platformer on a Nintendo home console since the SNES and was a worthy successor to those titles. The GameCube saw interesting use of the DK Bongos used for the Donkey Konga games, using the left and right drums to move Donkey Kong in either direction. Not only was this an interesting style of play, it also formed a key part of how you progressed through the game, as the goal was not to simply reach the end of each stage but to get as many points, or ‘beats’, as you could.
When ported to the Wii, Nintendo doubled down by including new levels and remixes of older levels, but forfeits use of the DK Bongos. Nintendo have done cross-platform releases before and since, but Donkey Kong Jungle Beat is an example of where the more recent platform sees an improvement not just in performance, but through additional features as well.
7 Donkey Kong (Game Boy)
Donkey Kong for the Game Boy was easily a system seller for their best-selling handheld console and is one of the finest handheld Donkey Kong games ever made.
It has an interesting start with the first four stages playing out in the same way as the original arcade classic, where Mario must avoid the barrels thrown by Donkey Kong to reach the top of the scaffolding to save Pauline. Once these four stages are complete, the game doesn't end as it does with the arcade version, but Donkey Kong instead snatches Pauline and the adventure begins proper.
From there, the game changes completely, with Mario now having to navigate each level to locate a key and unlock a door elsewhere in the stage. Nintendo also played homage to the arcade version by using the original arcade cabinet as the border if you used the Super Game Boy cartridge.
6 Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!
We’re looking back at the true classics now. Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble! stars both Dixie and her cousin, Kiddy Kong, in their adventure to rescue Donkey and Diddy Kong from King K. Rool, who has once again caused the Kong dynasty a bit of bother.
The game moved away from the pre-rendered CGI which set the previous Donkey Kong Country games apart from other games on SNES, but was made to feel special with excellent platforming and making use of both characters in tandem to navigate their way across the world and solve the well-crafted puzzles along the way.
Released in 1996, this entry to the Donkey Kong Country games was the last until Donkey Kong Country Returns was released in 2010 for the Wii, and speaking of which...
5 Donkey Kong Country Returns
Perhaps the most traditional DK platformer since the Donkey Kong Country games for the SNES, Donkey Kong Country Returns marked a – well- return to form for Donkey Kong.
This is one tough platformer, with sections that will test your patience and reflexes. It is made slightly easier when you can make use of Diddy Kong, who rides on your back and has a jetpack, which gives you a few seconds of extra airtime to correct any mistimed jumps.
When in multiplayer, the game allows you and another player to control Donkey and Diddy Kong independently and it's not as chaotic as the multiplayer found in New Super Mario Bros for the Wii and its Wii U sequel. It is arguably the best 2D platformer the Wii has to offer.
4 Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
The tagline for this game may sound like a flavour for a store-brand ice pop, but just as Donkey Kong Country Returns was the Wii’s best 2D platformer, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is the Wii U’s.
Much like its predecessor, Tropical Freeze is a punishing platformer which will test the abilities of the most skilled players. Its boss battles are deep and complex, and a far cry from the three-hit formula Nintendo uses for boss battles in nearly every other game.
Just as you could rely on Diddy Kong’s jet pack in Donkey Kong Country Returns, you can also make use of Dixie and Cranky Kong’s special skills, which allow Dixie to double jump by whirling her long ponytail like a helicopter, while Cranky can use his cane as a pogo stick to navigate hazardous terrain. It refines everything Donkey Kong Country Returns had to offer and delivers the experience with a bright, stylized art style. And you know what that means? That's right, more frames mean more fun.
3 Donkey Kong Country
In many ways, Donkey Kong Country kept the SNES going when the PS1 and Sega Saturn released in 1994, as it managed to retain and even build consumer interest in Nintendo’s console. It’s also the game that put Donkey Kong in the limelight for the first time and standardized the look of the Donkey Kong character and how he appears in every Nintendo game he's been in. From the continuation of the Donkey Kong franchise to his playable characters in Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros, it all started here.
This was a ground-breaking, technical achievement for its time, considering the limitations of the 16 bit SNES. Rare were somehow able to deliver 3d rendered character models – the first of its kind for the SNES - and luscious, detailed backgrounds. Not only that, but it was a precise, fun and demanding platformer. In fact, it was one of the toughest platformers around at a time when Nintendo didn’t shy away from making games that provided even the most seasoned of gamers with a challenge.
It would be reasonable to include this as the number one spot, but there was another couple of Donkey Kong games that just edged Donkey Kong Country out.
2 Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong’s Quest
It is often the case in video games that sequels are better their predecessors and Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong’s Quest is one such case. While not as ground breaking as Donkey Kong Country, it bettered the gameplay experience in almost every conceivable way, from controls to visuals, even providing a better soundtrack.
Unlike Donkey Kong Country, this entry does not feature the lovable gorilla, instead giving players the opportunity to play as both Diddy and Dixie Kong, and to explore their unique abilities.
This is also the first title to introduce Dixie Kong to gamers and she has since been a staple of the franchise, even expanding into other games of the Nintendo universe like Mario Super Star Baseball for the GameCube and, more prominently, the Super Smash Bros series.
1 Donkey Kong 64
Donkey Kong 64 is deserving of the top spot for not just being the only 3D Donkey Kong platforming game to date, but for being one of the finest games to come to the Nintendo 64’s rich game library.
Developed by Rare, who brought us the Donkey Kong Country SNES series and legendary 3D platformer, Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64 borrowed platforming elements from Super Mario 64, puzzle-design from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and cues from the level design of Banjo-Kazooie, resulting in a near-perfect experience.
Donkey Kong 64 also has one of the more unique songs played over its intro, ‘The Donkey Kong Rap’, written as a joke by the game’s composer, Grant Kirkham. However, given that this was 1999 and where rap music was culturally, you can’t blame gamers for thinking that it was a serious attempt by Nintendo to be down with the kids. Still, it was included in the game and is now one of the most memorable video game intro songs of all time.