Thinking back on the 16-bit era of video games, the Nintendo versus Sega console wars is usually summed up as "Mario versus Sonic", but there's an alternate view of history that sends Nintendo's famous plumber back to the lineup and pits Sega's speedy mascot against a larger, more physically imposing threat: Donkey Kong. Over at Poison Mushroom, David Oxford posits that it was the gorilla with the impeccable fashion sense (that tie!) that took down Sonic and friends in the marketplace, not Mario. How is that possible? Read on.
There was no dancing around it this time; with the pounding of war drums in the background, Nintendo told SEGA directly: “If it’s a war you want, then it’s a war you’ll get.”
To players, another message was also abundantly clear: “This isn’t your father’s Donkey Kong.” They meant it quite literally, too, as one of the series’ most beloved characters, the sharp-tongued elder Cranky Kong, was revealed to be none other than the original Donkey Kong who had squared off against Mario on a construction site all those years ago. While time had been kind to the plumber protagonist, the same couldn’t quite be said about old Cranky, who lamented the ongoing virtual arms race for bigger and more sophisticated video games.
Representing the younger generation was the new Donkey Kong, the ambiguous relative of the elder DK and possibly the grown-up version of Donkey Kong Junior. As the new game began with a scene of Cranky playing the classic Donkey Kong theme song on an old gramophone atop an updated version of the old construction site, DK soon swung in from above, knocking the older gorilla from his perch and dropping in a big honking boombox with a more upbeat rhythm. “Out with the old, in with the new,” it seemed to say… that is, just before Cranky got the last laugh by chucking a barrel of TNT at his successor.
I never really thought of it this way, but Oxford has a legitimate point. After Super Mario World, Mario "went on to do other things"; it was years before he returned to its side-scrolling platformer roots on a home console. While the character appeared in a variety of other titles across multiple genres (Super Mario Kart comes to mind immediately, as does Mario Paint and Yoshi's Cookie). Donkey Kong and Yoshi carried the Nintendo platformer banner through most of the Super NES's life, but Kong went on to spawn two more SNES sequels where Yoshi's Island remained a one-off. Kong was at the front of the company's "Play It Loud" marketing campaign and was positioned as one of the console's hottest, must-own titles for years. Mario and Sonic have an iconic rivalry, but Donkey Kong really was Nintendo's frontman for this era. By the time Mario became a primary force again in the platformer world, the rules were different, 3D perspectives became king, Super Mario 64 changed everything, and Sonic would never again seem quite so relevant. Donkey Kong floundered until a rousing return with a revived Donkey Kong Country series in 2010. Meanwhile, Mario endures.