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.
Note that I did skip the non-video game arcade installments (such as medal-based amusement Donkey Kong: Jungle Fever), and some of the less inspiring Kong spinoffs have been lumped into single entries that represent those games in aggregate. However, keep these qualifications in mind and I’m sure you’ll agree that this list is ... well, it’s absolutely correct.
23. Donkey Kong Jr. Math
About the only good thing to come from Donkey Kong Jr. Math is that it proves game companies tried the “no, video games can be educational and good, honest” sales tactic even in Japan. Otherwise, this is a huge waste — a seemingly half-finished edutainment title created to pad out the Family Computer library in Nintendo’s early days as a console maker, built from graphical assets recycled from Donkey Kong Jr. Ironically, since no one wanted to own it back in the day, it’s become extremely coveted (and expensive) among collectors due to its rarity.
22. Donkey Kong 3 Dai Gyakushuu
Possibly the most esoteric entry on this list, this Hudson-developed sequel to Donkey Kong 3 (released on only Japanese PCs) abandoned the unique platforming elements that made the third Kong arcade title something more than merely a vertical shooter. It basically turns Kong into the villain of a Galaxian clone, made somewhat more interesting (if not actually more fun) by the surreal background images that seem to tell the story of Kong and protagonist Stanley the Bugman being abducted by aliens. Maybe that’s why he never showed up again in any other games?
21. Donkey Konga series
Even Nintendo wasn’t immune to the allure of music games built around plastic instruments. The best thing you can say for the Donkey Konga series is that it showed up before the world’s closets had become crowded with disused Guitar Hero and Rock Band peripherals. The DK Bongo conga drum controllers basically made this a jungle-themed clone of Namco’s Taiko Drum Master series (it was even developed by Namco!), except with less enjoyable music. These games are packed to the brim with a hodgepodge of dated dad rock, children’s ditties and other toothless tunes. The conga controllers would find other, better uses, and Nintendo would eventually nail the music game genre with Elite Beat Agents. This effort, however, was pretty uninspiring.
20. Donkey Kong Circus
(Game & Watch, 1984)
A handheld Game & Watch LCD title, Circus was mainly notable for being one of the few units to boast a color screen. History repeated with this one: Just as the arcade Donkey Kong came into being when Nintendo bid for a Popeye license, this one replaced a Mickey Mouse game. It’s the same simplistic routine either way: Kong (or Mickey) balances on a ball while juggling objects, avoiding some rather rude interruptions by Mario. It’s fine, but the appeal quickly wears thin.
19. Donkey Kong Barrel Blast
This drum-powered (almost) racing game was not the conga controller redemption you were looking for. Aside from the fact that it wasn’t a great racing game by any means, a change in platform from GameCube to Wii during development meant that Nintendo ditched the original control scheme (which centered on the DK Bongo controllers) in favor of a Wii remote and nunchuk setup. It didn’t even let you plug in the barrels to use as a backup option, despite the Wii’s ability to support GameCube peripherals. Talk about a mess — and hardly a satisfying successor to Diddy Kong Racing.
18. Donkey Kong 64
(Nintendo 64, 2000)
Rare struck gold with the Donkey Kong Country series, but it delved too deep with this follow-up and woke the Balrog of tepid 3D platforming. Donkey Kong 64 embodies all the worst excesses and design choices of this era of gaming. Its occasionally clever level designs become bogged down by the tedious need to search for a seemingly infinite array of pointless collectibles, spread across stages that sprawl entirely too far and require multiple playthroughs with the use of different characters to capitalize on their distinct abilities. The only thing DK64 really has going for it is the fact that it includes the only official home release of the original arcade edition of Donkey Kong, hidden here as an unlockable bonus.
17. Donkey Kong Land series
(Game Boy, 1995-1997)
These monochrome semi-sequels to Rare’s Donkey Kong Country trilogy are real technical marvels. It’s amazing that the developers managed to squeeze those games into the Game Boy! But Nintendo’s scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could they forgot to ask if they should. The rich visuals of the Super NES games become completely illegible on Game Boy, rendering these games borderline unplayable: a blurry grey soup of pixel-junk. Donkey Kong Land 3 did see a Game Boy Color conversion that worked much better, but sadly it never made its way outside of Japan.
16. Mario Vs. Donkey Kong series
Essentially a remake of Donkey Kong for Game Boy with ugly pre-rendered graphics, this revamp lost something essential in the conversion process. It’s not bad, but it’s hardly as good as the source material it was built on. Really, the Mario Vs. Donkey Kong series is most notable for spawning its own puzzle-platformer spinoff series featuring miniature toy Marios. I haven’t broken these games out one by one, but they’re all pretty similar and in the aggregate land riiiight around here in the rankings.
15. Donkey Kong 2
(Game & Watch, 1983)
Don’t come into this expecting a sequel to the arcade game — it’s actually a continuation of the Donkey Kong Jr. Game & Watch, which only included a rendition of the first level of the arcade machine. Donkey Kong 2 would be more honestly called “Donkey Kong Jr., Pt. 2”, like the way they broke the final Harry Potter book into two movies. This one uses the dual-screen Game & Watch format to include two levels at once (the third and fourth arcade stages of Donkey Kong Jr.). It’s an OK rendition, but like a lot of Game & Watch units its appeal diminishes in an age where handheld games aren’t nearly this limited.
14. Donkey Kong 3
By the time Kong’s third game came around, Nintendo had earmarked Mario for greater things than simply being a monkey’s nemesis: He would go on to star in his own self-titled adventures (along with his brother, um … well, you know, the green guy). Mario was replaced here with a less memorable hero named Stanley the Bugman, who found himself at odds with Kong when the ape decided to take over his greenhouses. For some reason. Donkey Kong 3 also inexplicably abandons the platforming genre mechanics the original game helped create in the first place, playing instead as a shoot-’em-up reminiscent in some ways of an early Nintendo arcade game called Space Phoenix. Stanley can still platform a little bit — the greenhouses have multi-level risers on their floors — but it’s really more about zapping bugs, protecting plants and blasting Kong in the butt with Agent Orange. Not a bad game, but an extremely strange one … and a total outlier within the franchise.
13. Donkey Kong Hockey
(Game & Watch Micro Vs. System, 1984)
Long before Mario starred in his own series of eponymous sports titles, he hit the ice to take on his simian nemesis in this early portable game. Donkey Kong Hockey is one of the most ambitious and interesting Game & Watch handhelds ever created, almost a precursor to Switch’s tabletop play in its own limited way: It came with two detachable controllers so a pair of friends (or rivals) could play it head-to-head. As such, it’s one of the rarer and more expensive Game & Watch creations, but all the more interesting for its unique design. And it’s not bad as a primitive take on hockey, at that.
12. DK: King of Swing
(Game Boy Advance, 2005)
In another demonstration of Donkey Kong’s curious ability to subsume any and all other Nintendo franchise ideas, King of Swing basically saw Kong reprising the mechanics of NES maze title Clu Clu Land. It takes some getting used to, but Kong gets about by grasping pegs set within the stage and rotating around them. The idea would be done better by its own sequel, but it’s still more fun than the idea of “Donkey Kong meets Clu Clu Land” might sound.
11. Donkey Kong Jr.
You have to give Nintendo kudos: It could have done like every other arcade manufacturer in the early ’80s and simply churned out a “Super Donkey Kong” or “Donkey Kong 2” that amounted to more of the original game with a few negligible changes (now with faster fireballs and super hammers!). But no, instead it went in and radically overhauled the platforming mechanics, giving players a completely new hero (the eponymous Junior) with totally new abilities (like the ability to climb vines). The effort was well appreciated, but alas, DK Jr. doesn’t play nearly as well as its legendary predecessor. Controlling a lumbering baby gorilla feels less precise and fun than guiding around Mario, and the level designs lack the inventive punch of the first game’s. It’s good, but not timeless like its predecessor.
10. Donkey Kong Country
(Super NES, 1994)
Although time hasn’t been entirely kind to this game — its pre-rendered graphics looked a lot better on blurry old tube TVs than they do in perfect high-definition fidelity — it deserves a place of honor simply for putting Kong back on the map. Country also kept the Super NES (and Nintendo) alive for a couple of years in the face of superior hardware offerings from Sony and Sega. Developed by the British tech wizards at Rare and presented with glossy, computer-generated graphics, Country finally put Kong in a platformer of his own after a decade of lurking in Mario’s shadow. The Donkey and Diddy Kong tag-team mechanic, which allowed players to soak up an extra hit or swap out characters as the situation warranted, added a little extra variety to the action. This first Country chapter admittedly features quite a few arbitrary and unfair design choices, and the game feels pretty repetitive after a while, but the atmospheric visuals and music go a long way toward making up for these flaws.
9. DK: Jungle Climber
(Nintendo DS, 2007)
Taking the basic premise of King of Swing and greatly expanding on it, Jungle Climber allows a promising idea to truly sing. (Or swing, maybe.) A simple set of abilities — Kong can swing clockwise or counter-clockwise, he can leap and he can perform a charging aerial dash — makes for some interesting adventures through dozens of intricate stages. The new ability to play as multiple characters performing different tasks within certainly levels adds even greater depth to the action. An under-appreciated jungle gem.
8. Donkey Kong Country 3
(Super NES, 1996)
A strong continuation of the Country saga, although one that betrayed hints that the series was perhaps starting to overstay its welcome. For one thing, it starred neither of the original Country’s protagonists, having replaced them with Donkey Kong Country 2’s (likable) Dixie Kong and (the extremely unpleasant) Baby Kong. Though short on fresh ideas, Donkey Kong Country 3 still works thanks to the high level of polish on display, some thoughtful level design … and, of course, that magnificent music. As one of the last big-budget releases for the Super NES, it’s a worthwhile if not precisely jaw-dropping creation.
7. Diddy Kong Racing
(Nintendo 64, 1997)
Released the same year as Mario Kart 64! That’s a fact that would normally count against a mascot racer … but in this case, it actually worked in Diddy Kong Racing’s favor. While Mario Kart 64’s visuals, track designs and rubber-band A.I. left many fans unsatisfied, the Kong family’s take on the sport hit the mark. Not only did it look a far sight better than Mario’s contemporaneous kart outing, it also switched things up with the inclusion of additional vehicle types. It even had boss battles! Sure, developer Rare’s homegrown characters lacked the appeal of the core Mario crew. Still, there’s no denying Rare did a much more entertaining job of creating a game about driving (and flying) in circles.
6. Donkey Kong Country 2
(Super NES, 1995)
Easily Rare’s finest moment with the Donkey Kong franchise, the second Country adventure addressed many of the shortcomings found in its predecessor. Level designs retained their steep challenge while feeling a lot less unfair, and the scenery varied quite a bit more than the repetitive themes of the first game did. Best of all, the decision to swap out series leading man Donkey Kong in favor of sprightly young Dixie Kong turned out not to be the bewildering disaster it seemed at first but rather a masterstroke, giving players control over a nimble character whose Princess Peach-like hovering ability made her a joy to play. On a platform crowded with 2D platformers, this still stands out as one of the best.
5. Donkey Kong Country Returns
A breath of fresh air at the time of its debut, this leap back into to Kong’s proper platforming antics for the first time in a decade saw Rare pass the torch over to Metroid Prime developer Retro Studios. Retro nailed it. A rock-solid platformer with lovely visuals and a more Nintendo-style approach to level design and progression than was ever seen in the series’ Rare-made outings, Returns truly did live up to its name. It was Donkey Kong Country, recreated the way your fuzzy nostalgia remembered it: that is, with all the rough edges sanded down to silky perfection.
4. Donkey Kong
Sure, this ancient arcade creation seems limited by modern standards, what with only four stages to play. You can clear a single loop of the game in less than five minutes. But there’s so much going on here, especially in the context of an arcade game from 1981! Each stage has its own look, its own theme, and its own particular play mechanics. Donkey Kong tells a small story with a beginning, four chapters and an ending, and it demands the player learn the ropes of four different obstacle courses in order to succeed. So yes, maybe it’s limited, but it’s still brilliant. There’s a reason this game has been surrounded by high-score competition drama for years: It’s a compact, challenging little adventure packed with charm. It essentially created the platformer genre. It gave us two of gaming’s most enduring characters. And in doing so, it became enshrined as a permanent part of pop culture.
3. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
(Wii U, 2013)
The arc of Donkey Kong Country releases trends steadily upward, and this most recent entry in the series — newly reissued on Switch, where people might actually play it — continues that progression. While it may have lacked the new and exciting sensation Donkey Kong Country Returns radiated its debut, time has proven Tropical Freeze to be the better game. Somewhat surprisingly, really, given that ice levels in platformers are usually a miserable chore to play; the frozen-jungles theme of this game essentially begs for non-stop ice stages. It should have been a disaster. Maybe the secret is in the involvement of Nintendo veteran Kensuke Tanabe, who slipped his love for Super Mario Bros. 2 in here with a pluck-and-throw mechanic that adds a bit of variety to the action. Or … maybe it’s just that Retro Studios makes great games.
2. Donkey Kong Jungle Beat
With Jungle Beat, Nintendo’s EAD Tokyo team took the unloved, unwanted conga controllers from the Donkey Konga series and gave them redemption in an unlikely form: A platform action game. While you wouldn’t think a platformer could properly be controlled with nothing more than a pair of drums, Jungle Beat defied the odds to create a take on the genre like no other. It’s a little bit like an endless runner, a little bit like a QTE brawler and a little bit like a rhythm game … which is to say, it’s a one-of-a-kind thing that really shouldn’t work but absolutely does. Little wonder, then, that the company tapped EAD Tokyo to head up future 3D Mario adventures: The wonders they worked here within the constraints of an improbable and limited control scheme translated into unbridled genius in Mario Galaxy’s cosmic sandbox.
1. Donkey Kong
(Game Boy, 1994)
Perhaps the least impressive-looking Donkey Kong game for its era, Donkey Kong on the humble monochrome of Game Boy belies some of the most brilliant game design Nintendo ever concocted. This isn’t just the best Donkey Kong game; it might also be the single best Game Boy game ever made. What begins as a black-and-white remake of the 1981 arcade game — notably, a Kong home port that doesn’t cut the cement factory! — quickly proves to be something far greater. Once you complete the first four stages, Kong scampers off into a vast world of complex puzzle-platforming.
Spanning roughly 100 stages, Donkey Kong ’94 incorporates ideas from across the entire series to that point, with some absolutely brilliant nods to the likes of Donkey Kong Jr. in later levels. It also gives Mario a whole new arsenal of skills to use, all of which are present from the very beginning of the game and would go on to define his 3D move set in Super Mario 64. An extraordinary interpretation and reinvention of an arcade classic, Donkey Kong ’94 demands skillful play and incisive puzzle-solving. It’s a true masterpiece of the medium, and an absolute must-play for anyone who even vaguely cares about Donkey Kong.