May 19, 2018 9:35 AM   Subscribe

The Definitive Ranking of Donkey Kong Games [Polygon] “Mario had his turn in the spotlight last year, so why not his lifelong rival? To commemorate the rerelease of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, I’ve dug deep into video game history to track down and evaluate every Donkey Kong video game Nintendo has made (and one or two that someone else published). Whether for arcades, home computers, consoles or Game & Watch: if it’s Kong, it’s on this list.”
23. Donkey Kong Jr. Math
22. Donkey Kong 3 Dai Gyakushuu
21. Donkey Konga series
20. Donkey Kong Circus
19. Donkey Kong Barrel Blast
18. Donkey Kong 64
17. Donkey Kong Land series
16. Mario Vs. Donkey Kong series
15. Donkey Kong 2
14. Donkey Kong 3
13. Donkey Kong Hockey
12. DK: King of Swing
11. Donkey Kong Jr.
10. Donkey Kong Country
9. DK: Jungle Climber
8. Donkey Kong Country 3
7. Diddy Kong Racing
6. Donkey Kong Country 2
5. Donkey Kong Country Returns
4. Donkey Kong
3. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
2. Donkey Kong Jungle Beat
1. Donkey Kong
• The Donkey Kong Timeline Is Truly Disturbing [Kotaku]
“Are you sitting down? I’ve got something to tell you—something that may shock you. Between the events of the various Donkey Kong games, the Kong family was involved in a bitter and vicious war. Among its many casualties, this war may have claimed the life of a classic Kong character, explaining his disappearance from all future games in the series. You won’t find mention of this Great Ape War in any of the Donkey Kong games, in their supplementary materials, or even in developer interviews. But none of that has stopped some fans from charting out complex histories of the war and its implications for the classic Nintendo franchise, in a fascinating example of how fandoms can run away with the smallest bits of narrative available.”
• Is Donkey Kong good or bad? [Chaotic Tortoise]
“My wife asked me over Whatsapp “Is Donkey Kong good or bad?” which is a perfectly expected question and entirely consistent with the sorts of questions I find myself fielding from friends and family all the time. I’m lucky I have spent so long playing games, reading about games and listening to podcasts about games for otherwise I would be ill equipped for life, which apparently requires the successful answering of these sorts of questions. If this question is actually “Is Donkey Kong, the arcade game from 1981, good or bad?” then the answer is very simple. Yes. It’s very good. It’s the first game I ever played and it’s great.
If the question is however “Is Donkey Kong a good guy or a villain?” then it gets a bit more interesting.”
• The most terrible things Donkey Kong has ever done [Looper]
◦ He kidnapped Mario's girlfriend
◦ He joined the mob
◦ He joined Mother Brain's wrestling team
◦ He profited from his relatives' misfortune
◦ He cheated on his wife
◦ He left Candy Kong at the altar
◦ He throws a temper tantrum whenever he doesn't get what he wants
◦ He spearheaded an alien invasion
◦ The DK Rap
• The Secret History of Donkey Kong [Gamasutra]
“As we reach the 30-year anniversary of the title that made Shigeru Miyamoto a superstar developer, a complicated tale of secret development contracts and protracted legal battles emerges from the ether. Donkey Kong is perhaps the greatest outsider game of all time. It broke all the rules because its creator, the now-legendary Shigeru Miyamoto, didn't know them to begin with. It not only launched the career of gaming's most celebrated creative mind, it gave birth to the jump-and-run platform genre as we know it, and established Nintendo as perhaps the industry's longest standing superpower. Thirty years later, Donkey Kong remains one of gaming's most recognizable icons, and still much of its story is untold. Most accounts of its development treat Miyamoto as if he was the only man in the room; that his sketches, ideas, and sprites were brought to life either by magic or some worker bees too unimportant to even mention. For many years, the question of who developed Donkey Kong went unanswered because it was seldom even asked. Back before credit rolls were a common part of video games, developers used to find other ways to sign their work, usually in the default high score tables, but sometimes with messages or initials embedded in the ROM itself. These are sometimes the only clues left to help connect these games to their authors.”
• The History of ‘Donkey Kong’ Ports is the History of the Gaming Industry [Variety]
“Games are often moved from one platform to another because there’s money to be made when a title, already designed and completed, can be released to an audience who hasn’t had a chance to play it. But more interesting are those ports that result in fundamental changes to the game itself, providing new life to what had become just another old thing on the growing heap of history. With “Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze” getting a second chance on Nintendo Switch after releasing to critical acclaim but muted sales on the beleaguered Wii U, it’s high time to reconsider the agile ape and his legacy of games that are constantly reconfigured for a new audience, platform, or playstyle. In many ways, DK and his evolutions have been a bellwether for the larger gaming landscape. “Donkey Kong” is the ur-game for our modern industry. While many earlier games relied on a single-screen playfield, a kind of digital board game where you moved pieces around and tried racking up a high score while destroying an abstract threat, “Donkey Kong” was built around a story. And so it followed a narrative arc, requiring new locations, an evolving conflict, and an ending.”
• The RetroBeat: Appreciating Donkey Kong Country, decades later [Venture Beat]
“I’m not saying I hated it. I thought it was OK. Donkey Kong Country seemed like a neat, if traditional, 2D platformer. I thought its prerendered characters looked neat. But I didn’t fall in love with the game the way so many others did. And I do mean a lot of others. The original Donkey Kong Country is the Super Nintendo’s third best-selling game after Super Mario World and Super Mario All-Stars. That means DKC sold more than hits and classics like The Legend of Zelda: The Link to the Past, Super Mario Kart, and Final Fantasy VI. Even its two SNES sequels are both in the top 10. The last of them, Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble, managed to sell over 3 million copies even though it came out a couple of months after the Nintendo 64! So why do people love these games so much, and what wasn’t I understanding? At its heart, Donkey Kong Country is simple. You play as one of two characters — Donkey and Diddy Kong — as you jump and roll your way through stages, avoiding pits and enemies. You have some powerups in the form of animal friends and occasional stage gimmicks like mine carts, but it isn’t super innovative.”
• Funky Kong Has Been One Of Donkey Kong’s Friendliest Faces [Siliconera]
“Things are getting Funky. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is heading to the Nintendo Switch, and one of its most notable new features is taking Funky Kong and bringing him to the forefront. He is being brought in as a means of making the game, which does offer a challenge for those who want it, a little more accessible. What is interesting is how Funky Kong’s history has set him up for this role. Funky Kong initially established himself in the series as someone players could count on. In Donkey Kong Country, he debuted as owner of Funky’s Flights. This is a free service that lets you go to spaces Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong have already completed. While this is not having a major impact on difficulty, it establishes him as a trustworthy face that can aid the player. This continues in Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, where the Biplane Barrel can be rented for coins, and Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble, where Dixie and Kiddy Kong can have him create vehicles or give him DK Coins to get the Gyrocopter. This appears to translate to Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, where he becomes a reliable, playable character.”
• Feminist hero dad hacks Donkey Kong for daughter [Salon]
“Mike Mika is a gamer dad, so it's only natural that he would try to pass on his deep, nerdy love for all things videogame to his offspring. But while the allure of Atari didn't fully take with his young son, Mika says his daughter "jumps at the chance to play games with her old man." The 3-year-old has a particular affection for Donkey Kong, but wasn't so wild about always playing the Mario character. In fact, she wanted Pauline to save the plumber for a change. She wanted to "play as the girl," as Mika wrote for Wired Magazine. In a civilian household, this request may have been added to the pile of kid questions that are acknowledged and promptly ignored. ("I understand you want to eat Pop Rocks for every meal. It must feel frustrating that you can't.") But this wasn't any old household, this was a bonafide cool feminist geek kingdom. And Mika, a game developer by trade, knew he could actually do something about his daughter's request. So he set out to hack Donkey Kong and let his daughter save Mario from the barrel-tossing gorilla. And bam. Just like that you have one little girl who doesn't have to imagine herself as the damsel in distress being saved over and over, but as the one who gets to jump barrels and rescue her short, mustachioed plumber friend instead.”
• Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze re-review - an exceptional platformer that rivals Nintendo's best [Eurogamer]
“Poor old Donkey Kong. Despite having helped make Nintendo a key player in the world of video games in the 1981 arcade title bearing his own name, he's always been cast in Mario's shadow. I've often found it hard to fathom exactly why his character doesn't have quite the same appeal - it's a gorilla in a necktie, for heaven's sake! - but the apathy has snowballed over the years, so that when Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze came out some four years ago on the Wii U it was met in some quarters with little more than a shrug. Some of that apathy is understandable, admittedly. The Wii U's paltry install base meant it was never going to get a rousing reception, regardless of its quality, and there's always been a slight stigma around the Donkey Kong Country series. Rare's original SNES trio were fine games - and fine looking, of course, thanks to the ACM technique responsible for their unique look - but they never really displayed the same level of craft and ingenuity as the very best of Nintendo's output of the time.”
• 'DKC: Tropical Freeze' Is Special Because It Respects Skill And Curiosity [Waypoint]
“The game marries two key elements: satisfying game mechanics and level design that brings out the best in them. There is a constant loop here, in every level: new elements and features are introduced, iterated upon, and spun into new challenges. The game keeps moving with this, so each new stage offers a steady drip of surprises and challenges. There’s a level in world three (Cannon Canyon, if we’re keeping track) that introduces swinging ropes with bombs on them. At first, you’re introduced to the concept in a nice, safe way, with a big beefy platform underfoot. On the very next platform, you have to make a little jump to avoid its arc. Within seconds, you’re already learning how to deal with this new thing. From those humble beginnings, the level adds new ways of splashing your guts on the canyon walls until you are feverishly firing from barrel to barrel, timing your traversal perfectly to avoid lines of swinging bombs hanging seemingly everywhere. It’s a rush, and it feels amazing when you start to get the hang of the timing and nail it. It makes you feel like a Kong God, and it’s really all down to that kind of atomic level design. That, in turn, makes playing this game a tremendous pleasure, even when things get tough.”
• King of the frozen jungle. [Gamespot]
“Retro Studios' second Donkey Kong Country game doesn't deviate too far from the series' familiar foundation. It presents you with six worlds and a handful of levels in each, as well as a bunch of optional challenges that considerably ramp up the difficulty if you're in the mood. You can attempt to beat stages as Donkey Kong alone, but you can also team up with his fellow Kongs: Dixie, Diddy, and Cranky. Riding on DK's back, each sidekick offers a slight advantage that he wouldn't have on his own; Dixie can extend the length and height of jumps, Diddy can hover in place, and Cranky can bounce off of his cane to attack enemies. There's also the option to play with a friend controlling one of the secondary Kongs independently from you. Surprisingly, the coordination required to find success as a pair can make things more difficult than playing alone, despite the extra set of hands. Regardless of how you play, the Kongs' abilities are dutifully tested by Tropical Freeze's tightly orchestrated gauntlets of obstacles and enemies. There's little room for hesitation, and the emphasis on commitment is one of many factors that makes Tropical Freeze's charming cartoon world so stressful.”
• The History And Evolution of Donkey Kong [Nintendo Life][YouTube]
“Few gaming characters have hung around as long as Donkey Kong, and over the years we at NL towers have garnered a healthy respect for the giant, tie-wearing ape. That's why we decided to throw together a short audio-visual retrospective to take a look at how DK managed to get where he is today.”
posted by Fizz (22 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Has there been a struggle session yet about how Donkey Kong has aged in to Cranky Kong but in the same time Pauline and Mario are still as youthful-looking as ever?
posted by Space Coyote at 10:12 AM on May 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

There's probably only one video game journalist that can claim to have the definitive ranking of every game in a series, stretching back to the arcades, and can plausibly mean it, and that's Jeremy Parish. Thing is, I know for a fact it's not with a straight face.

He is also sorry that 'metroidvania' caught on.

Either Tropical Freeze or Rayman Legends is the best 2D platformer released this decade. I lean towards Tropical Freeze, but will accept arguments for Rayman Legends. But the takeaway is that we can now do what Earthworm Jim was going for back in the 90s, except we can also make levels that are paced like an episode of a TV show rather than just looking like it.

Man, videogames have gotten so goddamn good.
posted by Merus at 10:12 AM on May 19, 2018 [8 favorites]

As one does with any ranked list, I went into that Polygon piece ready to grar about the placement of the objectively best Donkey Kong games: Jungle Beat and the 1994 Game Boy version. Jeremy Parish's excellent taste deprived me of that simple pleasure. Instead I'll give a tip: Jungle Beat runs beautifully in the Dolphin emulator, so you can play it without the racket of the plastic bongos, and even at an HD resolution if you have a bit more horsepower. I like to bind left and right shift on my keyboard to the bongo inputs, and enter to clap.

Funky Mode in the new version of Tropical Freeze is an interesting point in the ongoing conversation over easier game modes. It uses flavor to feel less condescending than many easy modes: the game isn't taking it easy on you, you're Funky Kong, who is just too cool to die.
posted by skymt at 10:18 AM on May 19, 2018 [7 favorites]

Wait, so the author would rather play Donkey Kong 3 than listen to the DK Rap one more time?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:33 AM on May 19, 2018

RobotVoodooPower, you should know that I intentionally avoided linking to that odious piece of so called 'music'.
posted by Fizz at 10:37 AM on May 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 10:38 AM on May 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

DK 94 is a towering, brilliant achievement. Off to play it on my 3DS right now.

Only quibble I have with the list is how they lumped in the excellent GBA Mario vs Donkey Kong (a spiritual sequel to DK 94) with the later, less-great DS versions.
posted by porn in the woods at 10:42 AM on May 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Huh, I didn't expect to see DK64 so low on the list. Maybe I'm just biased because I grew up with and loved Rare games of that era. Now that I think about it, it was pretty annoying to have to go back through an area with every single character to get the bananas.

But it did give us OHHHHH, BANANA so it's not all bad I guess
posted by scruffy-looking nerfherder at 11:23 AM on May 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Huh, I didn't expect to see DK64 so low on the list. Maybe I'm just biased because I grew up with and loved Rare games of that era. Now that I think about it, it was pretty annoying to have to go back through an area with every single character to get the bananas.

I actually wrote something for Parish's online zine that touched on the problems with Donkey Kong 64 (framed as 'why did a game with such a high Metacritic score become so unfondly remembered?'). I reproduce, house snark included, the list of things to collect in Donkey Kong 64:
  • Item: Five-hundred (500) bananas per level, colour-coded and thus only collectable by the appropriate character. These are spent to unlock a boss in each level.
  • Item: Banana coins, used as currency to buy new moves, also colour-coded so that only one character can collect each different color.
  • Item: Twenty-five (25) golden bananas per level, five per character, used to unlock the entrances to new levels on the hub.
  • Item: Five (5) blueprint pieces per level, which are worth one golden banana for each handed in, and give you extra time to complete the final level. Also colour-coded!
  • Item: Five (5) banana medals per level, one per character, earned by completing a mini-game for each character and used to unlock the Jetpak game.
  • Item: Two (2) banana fairies per level, and four (4) in the hub, used for unlocking items in the bonus menu.
  • Item: One (1) battle crown per level, and two (2) in the hub, earned by completing a mini-game in which you kill a bunch of enemies, used to unlock a door in the final level.
  • Item: One (1) Boss Key per level, usually found by defeating a boss, used to unlock the final boss fight.
  • Item: One (1) Rareware coin, earned for reaching a particular score in an emulated version of Rare's first game, Jetpak for the ZX Spectrum.
  • Item: One (1) Nintendo coin, earned for completing eight boards of an emulated version of the Donkey Kong arcade game. Both coins are used to unlock a door in the final level that contains a Boss Key.
  • And all of this is ignoring the ammo for weapons, the musical instrument charges for special music-based attacks, the orange grenades for shits 'n' giggles, the banana-skin film for photographing (and thus acquiring) the banana fairies, and the crystal coconuts for special movement abilities.
  • If you've noticed that the battle crowns and banana medals are pretty much the same thing, give yourself a point. If you've noticed that the two branded coins appear to be rewards for going through Rare's cheap filler, give yourself a point. If you've noticed that the battle crowns and branded coins have the exact same job, give yourself a point. If you've noticed that the blueprints are pretty much equivalent to a golden banana, and thus could safely have been a golden banana so long as you had some other way to set the last level's time limit, give yourself a point. If you've noticed that you basically have to go through the same level five times to get everything, give yourself a point. If you've noticed that there are more varieties of ammo for weapons and abilities than there are for most first-person shooters, give yourself a point. If you've noticed that a platform game appears to have grenades, something that makes absolutely no sense for a game where health is plentiful and enemies mostly only have melee attacks, give yourself a point. If you've noticed that Rare is really flogging the banana theme for all they're worth, and are wondering why they didn't come up with anything else that could appeal to gorillas (for instance, the original Donkey Kong was awfully fond of Pauline), give yourself a point. Now, add up your score. If you scored 1 or higher, congratulations! You scored higher than Rare's designers did.
These days, being more solution-focused, I would say that DK64 would have benefited from a major streamlining. No-one likes Lanky Kong. Cut basically everyone except for Donkey, cut a bunch of the useless abilities and collectibles and chop the levels up.
posted by Merus at 11:50 AM on May 19, 2018 [9 favorites]

I reproduce, house snark included, the list of things to collect in Donkey Kong 64:
I appreciate the snark quite a bit, thanks for sharing. It gets at something I often think about when it comes to these types of games. Do the list of items serve any kind of purpose? Is it to reward exploration/skill? Is it vanity? Look at me, I 100%-ed this game, I'm a "real" gamer. Is it just filler because we need some thing to go in search of. Most games are quests. Hmm...

Maybe a combination of all these. Anyways, not trying to derail the conversation into a whole new topic. Maybe I'll have to craft a post specifically about this as it has me thinking.
posted by Fizz at 12:38 PM on May 19, 2018

Based on that list, I never got into collectathon games and I guess I'm glad, though every AGDQ/SGDQ crowd seems to adore DK64.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:50 PM on May 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

That’s less because it’s a non-terrible game and more because it’s a great speedrun full of crazy bugs
posted by DoctorFedora at 2:58 PM on May 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Based on that list, I never got into collectathon games and I guess I'm glad, though every AGDQ/SGDQ crowd seems to adore DK64.

DK64 is definitely one of the low points of collectathons - the two Banjo collectathons are marginally better, but they're still very much of their era. This was in an era where game length was directly equated with quality, and it wasn't just collectathons - RPGs of the era were notorious for using long, featureless rooms and hallways with random encounters to pad out the run-time. Before the N64/PlayStation era, 2D platformers were starting to get collectathon elements but were still essentially platformers with defined level endings; in the PS2 era, 3D platformers had a better grasp of 3D level design, but the collectathon design was falling out of favour. That awkward bit in the middle has its fans, but as far as I can tell it's almost entirely nostalgia-driven; new games made to that template, like Yooka Laylee, don't spark the same kind of joy.

Tropical Freeze does it well. There's only two types of collectables the game tracks per level, each are rewarding something different, and the levels have enough colour and background animation that even if you're retracing your steps, you're probably seeing something new.
posted by Merus at 9:03 PM on May 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

No "Donkey Kong" (Game & Watch version) on the list? That seems like a curious omission. I was in awe of that little console as a small kid. I realise that it isn't as impressive compared to some of the later instalments, but there is a beauty in simplicity and brevity as well
posted by cx at 12:12 AM on May 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I love DK64, and this is absolutely a hill I am willing to die on.
posted by Literaryhero at 3:02 AM on May 20, 2018

They're pretty close to correct here but if you take pure nostalgia out of the calculus then DKC2 and Tropical Freeze are definitely the top two, though I'm not sure in what order.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:35 AM on May 20, 2018

Nope. I own Donkey Kong Jungle Beat and the bongo controller, and it definitely deserves second place, and only if it's denied first. It is amazingly full of ideas and wonders. The Gamecube has so many awesome things like this. Note that it got a Wii remake, but that took out the bongo support and made it more of a basic platforming game, which is saddening.
posted by JHarris at 9:46 PM on May 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Ugh. I've barely scratched BOTW, in the post game of Odyssesy, working through Bayonetta (let alone the sequel), and straight murdered Golf Story.

I got the 3ds rerelease of whatever the last DKC was when Nintendo cancelled their old points program. I hate water levels more than ice levels, but I've heard mixed things here, so I gotta ask...

What's the deal with DKC Tropical Freeze? Is it dope or is it wack?
posted by lkc at 7:05 PM on May 21, 2018

Dope, by all accounts (I've heard from a few folks who lamented that the title implied lots of terrible ice levels, because it discourages people from checking out what is apparently an amazing 2D platformer overall)
posted by DoctorFedora at 7:08 PM on May 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

(I've heard from a few folks who lamented that the title implied lots of terrible ice levels, because it discourages people from checking out what is apparently an amazing 2D platformer overall)

I guess it's going to vary from person to person but at no point did this pop into my brain as something that might deter me from playing/purchasing. I just assumed it was about the story and had something to do with some ice monster or something like that.
posted by Fizz at 3:31 PM on May 22, 2018

I mean, I know that I certainly was deterred by the phenomenon I described. Now that I know it's mostly not ice levels, I may well pick up the Switch rerelease :0
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:43 PM on May 22, 2018

Worth noting that Donkey Kong Country 3 sold a few million units because it's good. Objectively, DKC2 may be the better game, but I always go back to the third installment when I feel like revisiting DK because it's fun.
posted by ersatz at 2:07 PM on May 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

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