Barrels And Bananas: The Journeys Of Donkey Kong
November 07, 2005
The original Donkey Kong arcade game was released in 1981, the same year that I was born. By the time I first picked up a controller years later Donkey Kong had largely been retired, his Nintendo all-star position assumed by Mario. Although I had played Donkey Kong and its arcade sequel here and there, I never thought much of the character beyond outright despising him. After all, he's the villain, the boss, the antagonist, the big ape in the way of being able to rescue the pretty girl. It wasn't until 1991's Mario Mania Super Mario World player's guide hinted that there may be more to the big ape: "If [Donkey Kong] ever appears in another adventure, we're sure that his true, kinder, gentler self will come through." Wouldn't you know that they were right.
My first real meeting with Donkey Kong came in 1994 when I was spending a few days in the hospital. All summer long that year my health had been declining until I could no longer keep any food down or move much without dropping over to sleep. This was the time I was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease, and between all of the x-rays and blood tests and other such medical things my grandparents stopped by my hospital room to visit. I'd been tearing through my old Game Boy games during my stay, and my grandparents had brought me a new one to pass the time: Donkey Kong, the one-hundred level reintroduction of the big ape. I'm not sure how they knew that I'd wanted it. My memories of that dehydrated week are still a little fuzzy, but either they lucked out at the store by picking the right game out of a sea of dozens or they knew that anything with Mario on the box was alright with me. I like to believe it's the latter.
Even after the hospital I couldn't put Donkey Kong aside. I'd play it in the backseat during moderately long car trips, while watching television at night, even before going to bed instead of reading some evenings. I was sorry to see the game come to an end, although in all fairness it was much longer than I'd ever expected or hoped. When word that Donkey Kong was coming back so soon, I was intrigued. When I found out the return wasn't an action/puzzle title with DK in the role of the villain, I was even more curious. Then when I saw the first screenshots of 1994's Donkey Kong Country in Nintendo Power, I became downright excited. The November release date seemed an eternity away, and even in the dark days of the Super NES / Sega Genesis wars my Sega-owning buddies had to concede that Country was going to be something special. After playing the demo during a shopping excursion to the big city I resolved that I simply had to have the game. Right now. Ultimately I had to wait until the holiday gift-giving season at the end of the year, but Donkey Kong Country was finally mine. Looking back on the game now it's clearly a little rough around the edges and missing some of the refinements of its peers, but at the time I did not care. All that mattered to me game-wise was recovering that stolen banana hoard.
Then the sequels started. Donkey Kong Country 2 arrived in 1995 during the holidays, and then the following year Donkey Kong Country 3 played second fiddle to my new Nintendo 64. After playing the hell out of Super Mario 64 for a day or two I unwrapped Dixie Kong's latest adventure and wound up completely entranced by it, and until both games were finished I ended up splitting my game time equally between them. The visuals had improved over the few short years, while the music remained one of the most memorable parts of the Country trilogy. The three-disc soundtrack set was the first piece of game music I ever purchased, and even today I take it out for a listen while driving to and from work once in a while.
As the 1990s came to a close I began to move away from video games. I graduated from high school, moved away from my childhood home to a new apartment, started a new job, began classes at the university, and did all of those other things one does after leaving home for the real world. As the Nintendo 64 era began to wind down I made one last N64 game purchase as the stores began to clear their old stock: Donkey Kong 64, although mainly because I wanted the Expansion Pak for all those used titles I knew I'd wind up discovering later on down the road. Many people still look down on Donkey Kong 64's collect-a-thon challenges, but I maintain that it was Rareware's finest hour in the Nintendo 64 generation and yet another game that took away too many free evenings. I never did collect each and every last item in the game (did anybody?), but after two years away from gaming, DK's largest adventure helped move me back towards the controller.
Just as I'd returned, however, Donkey Kong went away. No new solo adventures were scheduled for the Nintendo GameCube, and aside from a cameo here and there, gaming seemed to go on without him. When his old rivalry with Mario was rekindled in Mario vs. Donkey Kong I gladly picked it up as the first of the Game Boy Advance games on which I'd missed out during the initial GBA era once I began to carry my Nintendo DS with me. The game brought back all kinds of memories about my first real encounter with the ape, and perhaps because of that I felt driven to complete each and every last challenge the game had to offer. It wasn't until September of 2005 that I managed to top off the last goal, and once again I was sorry to see the seemingly unending collection of levels come to an end.
Donkey Kong has been appearing all over the place this generation, making monkey music in Donkey Konga, moving to the drum beat in Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, and swinging his way through DK: King of Swing. Even the prime Donkey Kong Country series has been revamped and re-released for the Game Boy Advance. The new version of Donkey Kong Country 3 even has an all-new soundtrack and a new world's worth of levels. For all his moonlighting, however, I continue to look forward to his next traditional adventure. Mario Mania was right. It took over a decade, but eventually Donkey Kong's true nature did shine through.