In the 1995 film “Billy Madison,” Adam Sandler’s titular character discusses the merits of “Mortal Kombat” versus the original “Donkey Kong” video game. When I saw this movie in the theater as an 8-year-old, the name “Donkey Kong” immediately conjured up thoughts of the character from “Donkey Kong Country,” the 1994 Super Nintendo version of the game. As it turns out, the old Donkey Kong isn’t even the same monkey.
The original Donkey Kong made his video game debut in 1981, where he was pitted against the character who would become Mario. But unlike Mario, Donkey Kong went through an aging process atypical of video-game characters. His son, the grown-up Donkey Kong Jr., became the title character of 1994’s “Country.” The original Donkey Kong became a decrepit relic of video games past, relegated to the sidelines and aptly renamed “Cranky Kong.”
Since then, the Donkey Kong Jr. character has become a ubiquitous image for Nintendo, rivaled only by Mario himself. Donkey has appeared in virtually every “Mario Sports” game, has been referenced in “The Simpsons,” and his trademark necktie is a familiar image among most video-game fans. But what was lost in the climb to fame was the original game that made Donkey Jr. famous. He grew bigger than his supporting cast and had no choice but to venture into the maelstrom of pop culture – leaving behind his largely forgotten friend Diddy, as well as his venerable old dad.
If you pop your time-worn “Country” cartridge into a Super Nintendo system, you’ll understand why the whole game – and not just its well-muscled star – deserves a place in pop-culture history. In 1994, most Super Nintendo games looked worse than the “Parachute” game that comes standard on your iPod, but “Country’s” graphics shine with vivid brilliance that still look impressive today. Navigating Donkey and Diddy through the varied landscapes of Crocodile Isle, you can practically smell the earthy rainforest aroma of Kongo Jungle, and you might even shiver while piloting Donkey through an intense blizzard on Gorilla Glacier.
In addition to its rich scenery, “Country” is highlighted by a dramatic score that varies from toe-tapping jungle romps in early levels to tense, slow-paced funereal marches in menacing cave levels. “Country” is extraordinarily fun to play – its levels are complex enough that an inexperienced player can beat the game while an expert player can derive hours of enjoyment from looking for secret rooms.
It’s impossible to discuss this game without mentioning Diddy Kong, whose first name is now more reminiscent of the rap mogul than the chimpanzee. Why couldn’t Diddy harness the star power of his friend? Americans want their video game stars to be their heroes, strong and dominating. Donkey Jr. fit the hero mold perfectly, but after playing “Country,” players realize that he’s incomplete without his right-hand man Diddy. “Country” wasn’t about individual heroes – it was about two monkeys working together to retrieve their banana hoard from the villainous K. Rool.
But soon no one will remember Donkey Jr.’s supporting cast: Diddy, Enguarde the Swordfish and sad old Cranky Kong, who, at the top of his game, sat in his rocking chair and gradually faded into obscurity.