The ape that started it all! Donkey Kong was one of the first video games that Nintendo ever put out on the market. To this day it has significant cultural impact and has gone on to spawn one of my favorite documentaries: The King of Kong. Donkey Kong is not only Nintendo’s first real character but it’s amazing to see that he’s still a fan favorite even 33 years later. So what are the best Donkey Kong games? There have been quite a few over the last three decades, so it was hard to pick. Here’s what I take to be the five best.
5. Donkey Kong ’94 (GB, 1994)
Some of you out there may not even remember this game, but back in 1994 it was seriously awesome. DK94 was a spinoff of the original Donkey Kong. When Nintendo created the Super GameBoy in 1994, this was the flagship game to get. You could play DK94 on your SNES or on your GameBoy. What’s great about DK94 is that it broke away from the normal stages of the original Donkey Kong. While those stages are the first few that you play through, you then break out into a platforming-style adventure. This game takes what the original 1981 Donkey Kong built and expands it into a brilliant puzzle platformer. I remember playing this game on my brick of a GameBoy during every road trip my family took in the mid 1990s. With over 100 stages to play through this game took FOREVER. In the end Mario saves Pauline and happiness ensues, but to play a “Mario” game that wasn’t all about mushrooms and starmen was a cool change on the GameBoy. You can get DK94 on 3DS these days and it’s worth the five bucks. It’s also easy to see where Nintendo got the ideas for it’s Mario vs. Donkey Kong series, as this game laid the groundwork.
4. Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii, 2010)
I remember when Nintendo announced that Retro Studios was working on a top secret project back in 2009-2010. Gamers across the world all imagined it was just another Metroid game. We thought that it may be the 2D Metroid that had been “secretly” in the works. However, at E3 2010 Nintendo showed a very different game, Donkey Kong Country Returns. Retro tried their hand at DK and it paid off. DKCR is a fantastic 2D platformer. The Donkey Kong Country games ruled the SNES generation as Mario took a backseat to three years of 2D DK platforming. Retro’s contribution is a love letter to that generation. While Nintendo lost Rare (the company that made DK games for a decade) to Microsoft, Retro was the perfect company to get to pick up this series. DKCR is challenging, bright, and addicting. Excellent adjustments to the DK formula. Diddy was given some perfect support skills, the stages were inventive and new, while it all feels like Donkey Kong should. Sadly we lost the Kremlings in the divorce with Rare, but DKCR is worth its time and frustration. It was the perfect platforming compliment to New Super Mario Bros. Wii. I’d say it’s a better game than NSMBW and has much better co-op. Donkey Kong Country Returns: Tropical Freeze is also another terrific Donkey Kong platformer for WiiU. Retro Studios has started quite the little franchise with their take on Donkey Kong. I hope that DK doesn’t fade away though, it’s nice having him back in the limelight.
3. Donkey Kong Country (SNES, 1994)
For many of us this is the game that “started it all”. We children of the 1990s didn’t have great access to the Arcade scene; when we did there was almost never a Donkey Kong machine there. We were forced to play Donkey Kong on its weak NES port which didn’t feel much like a real game at the time. Donkey Kong Classics was a bit stripped down and felt a little hallow. While he was then considered a villain the world was ready for a new mascot character. Mario was still Numero Uno, but Sonic had taken some of the wind out of his sails. Nintendo needed an animal mascot, so why not turn to DK and the Kongo Jungle.
In 1994 I remember getting a video tape (yes…video tape) in the mail that was all about Donkey Kong Country: a new platformer starring Donkey Kong. The VHS was called Donkey Kong Country Exposed. It introduced me to the new Donkey Kong with his slicked hair, banana hoard, and the tropical island he lived on with all of his new friends. It also was so painfully set in the 1990s that it makes me sick now. The wonders of the Internet have allowed us to save this tape FOREVER!
This was the first game that gave us Diddy Kong, DK’s sidekick and best friend. What we get out of DKC is two different methods to play. The tag-team allows for different playstyles: DK is heavier, slower, and more powerful, while Diddy is quick and can do awesome cartwheels. In the end DKC doesn’t offer much to the player, it’s a fairly “vanilla” platformer with pointless collection and bonus stages that have little purpose. In many ways DKC is a way to collect lives. What gets Country on this list is that it was the originator, it made DK a sympathetic hero after many years of being the villain. I also really like the design work that Rare did with DK and I like that it stuck. Both DKC sequels are better games, but this guy made it all possible. Mine carts and barrel blasters forever!
2. Donkey Kong (Arcade, 1991)
It would be wholly unfair if I didn’t include the original Donkey Kong. It was the first popular Nintendo game! It introduced us to Donkey Kong and Mario and has had some of the most cultural significance of any game that has ever been made. There’s a movie about Donkey Kong champions and their quest to the top. While this game does have that pop-culture prowess, it also happens to be a great game. What DK shows is how much Nintendo cares about solid game design. Even today when you look at the original Donkey Kong in its arcade cabinet you witness something special. Nintendo designed their arcade cabinets to have a very distinct design and feel. As you peer into the cabinet you grow acquainted with these bright characters. Donkey Kong smashes onto the screen and steals Pauline from Mario, you then have to chase down the big ape. Very few games are this pure in their design, feel, and fun factor. DK is also as challenging as any of its successors and has become a right to passage. As I play DK on one of its original cabinets, I feel like I’m playing a piece of history. It’s like watching Steamboat Willie.
DK is incredibly deep for a classic arcade game. There’s a certain level of expertise and finesse that you can learn by playing endless hours of Donkey Kong. There are tricks as well as strategies, which sounds insane when talking about a one-button game, but Nintendo knows how to make a jump count. I’d stress that any gamer should go and try to find an arcade cabinet of DK and just invest some time into it. It’s old, but it’s not outdated. Luckily, I have a friend like Brendan who can fill me in on the tricks and history.
1. Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest (SNES, 1995)
This was IT for me. I remember the Christmas morning when I ripped open the wrapping on Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest. It was the winter of Fourth Grade, I cracked open this game and the Brady Games’ guide that went along with it. I could find every secret, get every DK coin, and even venture to the Lost World of the Kremlings. DKC2 just took everything its predecessor did and made it better. Rumors fly through the Internet that Nintendo (especially Miyamoto) was upset that the original Donkey Kong Country had very little purpose. It was a beautiful-looking game but was sold more on its graphics than its gameplay. DKC2 changed that. Every little collectible had a purpose. The Kremcoins would unlock the Lost World, DK coins would give you some nice end-game easter eggs, and banana coins bought you stuff. This game took everything that Rare did in DKC and just made it better. It also introduced us to the superior Dixie Kong. I’ll say this, Dixie may be the BEST Kong. She’s got range, she can helicopter glide, and she’s much more versatile than any of the other Kongs. While Diddy is the hero of this game, Dixie steals the show, she also SHREDS on electric guitar!
Donkey Kong Country 2 was a much needed shot of adrenaline for the series. Its pirate theme is a great plus for DKC as hours and hours of jungle stages can be a bit tedious. Diddy’s quest brought some much needed variety to the mix as well. Not only are the items useful and serve a purpose, but the stage types are all quite interesting. There are pirate ships, jungles, mines, swamps, carnivals, and my favorite briar patches.
I can’t get enough of that song! Rare was challenged by Nintendo to make a better DK and they did with DKC2. It was such a memorable experience and it still sticks with me. I get cravings to play games sometimes, and DKC2 always hits me around Thanksgiving. I may actually go and play this game right after I finish this post up. What DKC2 represents is the culmination of everything DK was about on the SNES, it’s a beautiful game. What’s funny is that it doesn’t even have the big guy in it, you SAVE him, which is also a nice touch. DKC2 is the most timeless of the DKC games, and I’m so happy that Dixie is now back in the series with the recent Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. I’m glad that she’s stuck around, I didn’t like Tiny much.
I would like to take a second and apologize to Graves, and say I do enjoy DKC3 and I’ve played it again recently. It’s a great time and it’s much better than Donkey Kong 64. I don’t care much for Kiddy Kong though, but having Dixie as the main hero rocks. Also…gyro-copters.