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What's the Donkey Kong Story? History of an 80's Arcade Legend

Updated on September 22, 2013
Donkey Kong
Donkey Kong | Source

Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong is probably one of the most recognisable characters in video game history, giving rise to a series of games spanning over 3 decades, as well as a merchandising industry ranging from clothing to board games and cuddly toys.

The game also introduced an even bigger video game legend, a plumber named Mario, who went on to became Nintendo’s official mascot and star in his own series of games that are being played on the current generation of consoles.

Donkey Kong has made the transition from the arcade into popular culture, recognisable to people the world over, but few people however are aware of Donkey Kong’s almost accidental birth, or the origins of the Donkey Kong name itself.

Birth of Mario

Although the original Nintendo release described the hero as a carpenter known only as Jumpman, he was renamed in home versions and subsequent releases as Mario. This is alleged to be due to a resemblance between Jumpman, and the landlord of Nintendo’s US first warehouse, Mario Segali. He was also later referred to as a plumber rather than a carpenter.

Arcade Origins

In 1980, Japanese game company Nintendo launched their very first arcade game, Radarscope, a Space Invaders clone that was very poorly received, and only sold around 3,000 units. Looking to salvage something from this disaster, Nintendo tasked Shigeru Miyamato with conversion of the failing Radarscope video game cabinet into something more appealing to North American audiences.

The resulting game, telling the story of a carpenter referred to as “Jumpman” who must rescue his kidnapped girlfriend from an evil Gorilla, really stood out amongst all of the Space Invaders clones of the time, and was incredibly popular with arcade owners. At a time when new arcades were opening all over the US, Donkey Kong became one of the biggest selling games of the early 80’s. Nintendo's faith in Shigeru Miyamato and his unique arcade game paid off, with total sales of over 60,000 units.

2 versions of the cabinet were available, the first being the red converted Radarscope units, which are much rarer than the later dedicated cabinets which were blue. Both featured the classic Donkey Kong cartoon graphics showing Donkey Kong and the kidnapped Pauline.

Donkey Kong Level 1
Donkey Kong Level 1

Playing Donkey Kong

The game itself is a classic platformer, the objective being to run, jump and climb up a building whilst avoiding obstacles such as barrels which are being thrown at you by Kong. Careful timing was required to jump the barrels, or you can smash them with your hammer. Reach the top, and you rescue your girlfriend Pauline, only for her to be kidnapped again on the next level.

The original Donkey Kong had 5 different levels to complete, each requiring a different route and obstacles to overcome, including flaming barrels, bouncing springs and some tricky escalators to navigate. The game featured a high level of difficulty, and required a lot of practise (and coins) to master each of the fiendish stages.

Donkey Kong Jr
Donkey Kong Jr
Donkey Kong 3
Donkey Kong 3

Arcade Sequels : Donkey Kong Jnr & Donkey Kong 3

The popularity of the original game meant that sequels were inevitable, and 2 further arcade games were launched in subsequent years.

The first of these sequels, Donkey Kong Jr, was launched in 1982 and turns the tables on the protagonist of the original game, requiring him to be rescued by his son after being captured by an unusually evil Mario. Donkey Kong Jr must climb up creepers to get to the top of the screen, whilst avoiding the patrolling creatures, and had the ability to jump between ropes or use two at a time to climb quickly. This was a great sequel and was very popular with fans of the original, if not selling in the same volumes.

The final arcade sequel from 1983 features a completely different game mechanic, more of a shooter than a platformer. In Donkey Kong 3 you play Stanley the Exterminator rather than plumber Mario, and you had to defeat a swarm of bees before blasting Donkey Kong with insect repellent. Defeat all the Bees without them stealing all your flowers, or blast Donkey Kong to the top of the screen to move to the next of 3 levels.

Both games were popular with arcade gamers, and featured in numerous home computer and console conversions.

Home Conversions

Due to the huge popularity of the arcade version of Donkey Kong, Nintendo launched a number of home conversions, including a classic Game & Watch handheld version, which used a liquid crystal display to represent the game graphics across twin screens.

One of the most popular home versions was released as a launch title for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), a very faithful reproduction of the arcade original. Donkey Kong Jr also got its own conversion on the NES as part of Donkey Kong Classics in 1988. Official and not so official versions of Donkey Kong were released on virtually every home computer and console of the early 80’s, personal highlights being the BBC Micro version entitled Killer Gorilla, and the Atari 2600 and ColecoVision console editions.

Due to the popularity of Donkey Kong many millions of these games were sold, and as such can still be picked up for relatively modest prices today.

Donkey Kong Game Timeline

1981 - Donkey Kong (arcade)

1982 - Donkey Kong Junior (arcade)

1983 - Donkey Kong 3 (arcade)

1994 - Donkey Kong (Game boy)

1994 - Donkey Kong Country (SNES)

1995 - Donkey Kong Land (Game boy)

1995 - Donkey Kong Country 2

1996 - Donkey Kong Land 2

1996 - Donkey Kong Country 3

1997 - Donkey Kong Land 3

1999 - Donkey Kong 64 (Nintendo 64)

2004 - Donkey Kong Jungle Beat (GC)

2005 - DK: King of Swing (GBA)

2007 - DK Jungle Climber (DS)

2007 - Donkey Kong Barrel Blast (Wii)

2010 - Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii)

Donkey Kong Game & Watch
Donkey Kong Game & Watch

Modern Donkey Kong Game Series

After a break of almost a decade Donkey Kong was to return on the Super Nintendo platform in 1994, with 3D platformer Donkey Kong Country. The game was developed by Rare in the UK, and featured revolutionary CGI graphics which gave the game a unique look. Donkey Kong Country introduced a number of new members of the Kong family, who featured as playable characters. One of these new family members, Diddy Kong, went on to feature in his own game, Diddy Kong Racing. An new all 3D adventure game, Donkey Kong 64, was also released on the last of Nintendo’s cartridge based consoles.

The first handheld game (not counting the hugely successful Game & Watch) was released on the Game boy in 1994, a faithful rendition of the original arcade version from 10 years earlier. The Game boy Advance was host to the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series of games, which returned to the classic platform formula, and also featured a number of puzzles incorporated into the levels.

With the introduction of the Gamecube a new series of Donkey Kong games was created based on the popular “rhythm” game format, requiring the purchase of a pair of dedicated Bongo drums which were used to beat in time to the music.

The most recent game to feature everyone’s favourite Gorilla was Donkey Kong Country Returns, released for the Nintendo Wii console in 2011.

The Donkey Kong Family
The Donkey Kong Family

World Record

Plastic surgeon Dr Hank Chien currently holds the DK world record with a score of 1,090,400.

King of Kong - Donkey Kong at the Movies

Competitive arcade gaming is still popular, 30 years after the original games were released. Organisation such as Twin Galaxies were formed, to ensure that record scores were correctly recorded and officially verified. The high score for Donkey Kong was always fiercely contested, and the rivalry between gamers Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell actually made it onto the big screen. The movie "King of Kong : a Fist Full of Quarters" followed the two men as they tried to beat each other to the highest score on an official Donkey Kong cabinet. The newcomer Wiebe is portrayed as the plucky underdog, pitting his skills against the manipulative titleholder Mitchell, as well as highlighting the politics and cronyism of competitive gaming. The film created a minor controversy, due to the exaggerated portrayal of the real life characters in the film, particularly the operation of the Twin Galaxies organisation, generating arguments as to who the real champ really is. Despite the seemingly niche subject of the film, this controversy has resulted in King of Kong becoming a cult classic.

King of Kong Trailer

And Finally - Why "Donkey" Kong?

Several theories exist as to origins of the word "Donkey", the most popular being that it is a simple case of mis-translation from the word Monkey. Shigeru Miyamato has however claimed that it was intentional, a Donkey being associated with "stubborness" and "stupiditity". Either way the title stuck, whilst Mario changed both his name and his career from the arcade original.

Nintendo's first move into the arcades was a complete failure, one that could have seen them exit the video game industry after just one game. Yet the almost accidental creation of Donkey Kong, and his nemesis Mario, set Nintendo on a path to becoming one of the biggest names in video gaming.

Donkey Kong Games - Which is the Best?

What's your favourite Donkey Kong Game?

See results


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    • SimilarSam profile image

      Samuel Franklin 

      5 years ago

      So many great hours were spent in a Donkey Kong game.

    • RolyRetro profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Brentwood, Essex, UK

      I wish there were still arcades in the UK where you could play these games but sadly the machines have all been sold off or scrapped.



    • trusouldj profile image

      LaZeric Freeman 

      7 years ago from Hammond

      Spent hours playing Donkey Kong and his son during the 80s. Good times.

    • RolyRetro profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Brentwood, Essex, UK

      That was a bad, bad thing your husband did! I remember playing this game on my Nintendo 64. Shame about the music!



    • RolyRetro profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Brentwood, Essex, UK

      The Coleco tabletop games were great - I have Galaxian and PacMan, still on the lookout for the Donkey Kong machine.



    • profile image

      Charlton Hero 

      7 years ago

      My face version of Kong was the Coleco table top version as it was the one I played the most from home. Love this game!

    • Skylanders profile image

      Suzanne Kirkhope 

      7 years ago from California

      We owned the orange game and watch Donkey Kong. I thought I had a brown one too, but can't quite remember.

      My husband wrote the music and sound effects for Donkey Kong 64, and always gets a lot of stick for the Donkey Kong rap!

    • Geekdom profile image


      7 years ago

      Thanks for the trip down memory lane. There was a lot of great information in this article.

      Vote Up!

    • RolyRetro profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Brentwood, Essex, UK

      This article took me a long time, I just kept thinking of new information to include! The SNES version was very different from the arcade original but a really playable game featuring (then) unique graphics. My kids are now playing the wii version...


    • Logos831 profile image


      8 years ago from somewhere, ca

      This was a fun article to read. You really did your research! I remember playing Donkey Kong Country on super nintendo with my brother when we were kids. Good times!

    • RolyRetro profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Brentwood, Essex, UK

      Thanks John, I wanted to do the game justice!



    • JohnGreasyGamer profile image

      John Roberts 

      8 years ago from South Yorkshire, England

      Loved this timeline, I'm surprised you got it all right and up to the highest detail. Voted up, useful, awesome and interesting ^^

    • RolyRetro profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Brentwood, Essex, UK

      Thanks @Anurag2008 - I'm taking advice from many people around HubPages, and trying to present my posts in an interesting way, as well as spending time getting the content just right, so that's good feedback!



    • Anurag2008 profile image

      Anurag Ghosh 

      8 years ago

      Great post. Loved the way you presented your trivia.


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