There’s Something Wrong with Donkey Kong
Contributed by DJMMT
My first encounter with Donkey Kong was the original Donkey Kong Country (1994) on the SNES. While I know that I’ve seen the original arcade machine in the wild more than once, it was not until 2002 with the release of the Nintendo e-Reader that I actually got to play the original Donkey Kong (1981) for an extended period of time. Meaning that by the time I got to play the original Donkey Kong, I had already encountered what I’ll refer to as the “Classic DK” several times in multiple games and an animated series. Yes, there was a Donkey Kong Country cartoon, which I used to watch. Also note that when I encountered the “Original DK”, it was a one-off experience that was already quite dated and in no way affected my contemporary vision of what DK is supposed to look like. And they continued using the Classic DK look well past that e-Reader throwback experience in 2002. So consider that for more than 20 years Donkey Kong has looked the way we’re all used to him looking.
In the recent Super Mario Bros. Movie trailer reveal, Miyamoto stated that the “New DK” is meant to have a more comedic look inspired by the original game. I don’t like/agree with that declaration because, assuming I’m not way off base with my understanding of the statement, the original 8-bit DK model is too pixelated to apply a direct comparison to either the Classic or New DK models. You can say both look like that model. Or you can say neither do. And again, I’m only talking about the face. This leads me to believe that Miyamoto must be talking about the cover art for the game/machine, which is an artist’s rendering of DK that’s external to the actual in-game model. Assuming that’s correct, I don’t really think it’s relevant to the discussion, because the reality is that you can kind of see how they got from the model in the original game to the model used in Donkey Kong Country, but you can’t necessarily see how they got from the cover art design to that same model, other than the fact that they’re all big, brown gorilla characters. I would argue that the hairstyle of the Classic DK might be inspired by the cover art, but the teeth are absolutely inspired by the in-game model. Really the point is that they have changed the DK model, and based on the way that Miyamoto talked about it in the presentation, I could see this new model also being used as the basis for DK in future games featuring the character. For me, that would be a bad thing. Or more accurately, a sad thing.
Here’s where things are going to start to get a bit weird for some readers. My first console was an NES, but my first serious Nintendo first-party multiplayer experience was actually Mario Kart 64. While I did play a bit of Super Mario Kart with friends occasionally, I never owned that game and wasn’t really into it. I actually didn’t beat it until several years later on the SNES Classic. It was Mario Kart 64 (1997) that first got me into what I’ll call party gaming. Which I’m differentiating from 1-v-1 gaming. The thing about 1-v-1 gaming is that the characters tend to matter a lot. Meaning that players, at least in the classic conception of the gameplay design model, tend to choose the character they play best with as opposed to the character they like the best. For example, a lot of people use Ryu in Street Fighter, for the Hadouken, among other moves, but Ryu isn’t actually their favorite character as far as designs go. A more personal example would be that I mained Talim in Soul Calibur 2 though there were several other characters I liked a lot more in that franchise. In 1-v-1, performance is king and the characters tend to play much differently from each other. In 4-player party games, characters might have small design differences that one may prefer, but ultimately they play much the same. Smash Bros. being the biggest exception, which makes sense given that it’s a fighting game more than a party game. But when we’re talking about group play oriented games like Mario Kart, Mario Party, and even more performance-oriented ones like Mario Golf and Mario Tennis, character choice becomes a lot more about personal preference of character design than actual character performance. And this was even more true back in the earlier iterations of these franchises where subtle gameplay design differences were much harder to implement to any noticeable degree.
Mario Kart 64 was released in the USA in 1997. It had eight playable characters on the roster. The list included Mario, Luigi, Peach, Toad, Yoshi, DK, Wario, and Bowser. This is how kids picked their characters in those days, with such a limited number of options. You had the basic players who just picked Mario because his name was in the title, and he was the main character of Nintendo. This is still true today, and kids still like to pick him for this reason. He’s also the official “first player” character in Nintendo games going all the way back to the original Super Mario Bros. (1983). Or better yet Donkey Kong (1981). Both basic boys and basic girls, especially when they were only children or the oldest child, picked Mario. For the basic girls that wanted to play as a girl, they picked Peach. Back in those days, very few boys picked Peach. The “performance” players, who genuinely believed the character affected the outcome of races, always picked Toad or Yoshi. These were the eSports kids before that was really a thing. Though competitive gaming has existed since arcade machines. Little brothers, cousins, and kids who never got to be first player picked Luigi. Essentially these were the basic kids who didn’t “own” the console. And that goes all the way back to playing Super Mario Bros. (1983) with two players. The “rogue” kids picked Bowser, because many of them, myself included, were too young to know that DK was also technically a villain at one point, because we grew up with Donkey Kong Country being our first iteration of DK. If you wanted to play as a villain, you played as Bowser. Let’s just be real, no one picked Wario unironically. Occasionally if you had a third or fourth player that wanted to pick Mario but couldn’t because it wasn’t their house, and there was already a younger brother to play as Luigi, that person might pick Wario if they were just really basic and didn’t want to deviate from Italian plumbers with mustaches. But nobody wanted to play as Wario. People still don’t. There’s a reason Waluigi has such a huge following. That just leaves DK.
Remembering that many people didn’t choose DK because they thought Bowser, Wario, and him were slower, there were really only two types of people who picked DK. The first were Donkey Kong Country fans who liked those games more than Mario games. The second were people who identified with DK in some ultra-specific way that they couldn’t get from any of the other characters. I was one of those kids. I mained DK because for me he was the closest thing to a Black character available in a Nintendo game.
Now it might sound weird or even a bit ironically racist to you reading that a Black kid identified most with the character that was a gorilla. But you have to be aware of a number of factors. The first was that there were literally no other viable options. I just laid out the roster for you. If you were a Black kid that wanted to play Mario Kart 64 as a Black character, who would you have chosen at that age? I think it’s important to note that when Mario Kart Wii came out, I always raced as Mii. Because that fixed the problem. Even with that much larger roster, there still weren’t any Black characters, with the possible exception of Funky Kong, who ironically is also a gorilla. But with the ability to play as my own custom avatar, I could literally play as myself, a Black guy. And I still use Mii when I play Mario Kart today. But also consider the supporting evidence of why a kid at the time might identify Donkey Kong as Black. The music in the DK franchise has always been coded Black. It’s African drums and other stereotypically tribal music styles. The characters all look and act a bit Black. Again, Funky Kong. But also characters like Candy Kong and Swanky Kong. You can pretend all you want, but you know that if these characters were human, looking at their models and behaviors, they’d be Black people. Donkey Kong 64 (1999) literally starts with a rap song. But even the Donkey Kong Country cartoon, which ran from 1997 – 2000, had DK voiced by a Black actor. It makes perfect sense that a Black kid that grew up in a white neighborhood would not only code DK as a Black character, but choose to play games as DK due to a lack of better Black representation options. And at least we Black kids had that. Latinos, Asians, Indians, and everyone other than white people had nothing. But I digress.
For me, DK has always been a Black character in his own way. Look at the spin-off games DK has. Donkey Konga and Donkey Kong Jungle Beat. Two examples of games where if the main character was a human they’d either be Black or maybe Latino. At this point, younger readers might be thinking that this coding of DK is all based on stereotypes, and that’s absolutely true. But it doesn’t change the fact that those are the stereotypes that my generation was raised with in our entertainment media. And we didn’t have the discourse we have today on those issues. So tons of kids, of all races, absolutely would have seen DK as a Black character in the same way that tons of anime fans saw the aforementioned Piccolo as a Black character. I didn’t choose to perceive DK as Black. The presentation of Black people in the mainstream entertainment media I consumed, as well as from my own personal experiences growing up, coded DK as Black for me intuitively. And Nintendo has clearly continued to play up that characterization for all these years. It’s only with this New DK model that I no longer identify DK as Black when looking at him. This is the point in the post where I will probably lose a lot of you.
When I look at the Classic DK model, I see a Black guy. When I look at the New DK model, I can’t exactly explain why, but I see an Italian guy. I know that sounds ridiculous, but that model reminds me of actors in old Martin Scorsese mobster movies like Goodfellas. I’m reminded of a young Paul Sorvino or Frank DiLeo. I’m definitely not reminded of Seth Rogan, though I do think it’s telling that Seth Rogan is doing the voice. They absolutely could have used a Black voice actor, like in previous voiced iterations of DK, but I assume intentionally chose not to. Now of course there are multiple reasons they might have decided not to cast a Black actor, given the current state of online discourse. People would absolutely be commenting about a Black guy playing a gorilla today. And that might very well be the reason for the redesign as well. I could see Nintendo acknowledging internally that DK was coded after a Black guy and choosing not to do that anymore for fear of online backlash as they plan to do more with the character in the near future. It’s about time for a new DK game after all.
For me, this is a painful experience. Nintendo sucks at human representation. There are literally no non-white humans in the Mario universe. In Nintendo first party games in general, there aren’t many non-whites. It’s basically the characters from Punch-Out, the characters from ARMs, specifically the Gerudo tribe in Zelda games, and a few extras you catch but quickly forget in games like Xenoblade Chronicles, F-Zero, and Metroid: Other M. So for me, having DK altered to no longer come off as Black, both in appearance and voice, is kind of like having the little bit of Black representation in mainstream Nintendo being ripped out of it. After more than 20 years of looking to DK as that character, and Nintendo not adding any other meaningful Black representation outside of the Kongs, it kind of sucks. It shouldn’t be this way, because there should be Black characters in Nintendo games, as well as all the other races, but there just isn’t. And it hurts. Because I’ve been a Nintendo far since the beginning. I’ve owned every Nintendo home console and more than one handheld. I’ve spent thousands of dollars over paying for Nintendo games. But my demographic still doesn’t matter to them. Donkey Kong looks wrong to me, because Nintendo hasn’t done right by Black gamers since 1981. And to be clear, I’m saying that as a fan of Nintendo.