What's Next For Donkey Kong?
By Vishaal Bedi
Donkey Kong has a long and rich history with Nintendo. Created by legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, the big ape made his first appearance in 1981 as a villain, facing Jumpman who was later renamed Mario. He has since abandoned his wicked ways, taking a cue from his former rival to adopt a heroic role. Now the series is a staple in each Nintendo console generation, with the latest entry Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (a Wii U port) released on the Switch back in May. Although it doesn’t quite have the same following as the Mario, Pokémon and Zelda series, it’s still one of Nintendo’s best sellers, reaching the top 5 of their most popular franchises.
It was in 1994, with the release of Donkey Kong Country on the SNES, that the series truly became a household name. Developed by Rare, DKC went on to become one of the top selling SNES games. It received critical acclaim for its groundbreaking graphics, which used 3D rendered models on an ageing 16-bit system that was facing stiff competition from the more powerful Sega CD, as well as the upcoming Sony PlayStation. Yet, Rare followed up on the smashing success of DKC with two more sequels before the end of the SNES’s lifespan.
The Donkey Kong franchise has had its ups and downs – from the highs of the Donkey Kong Country series on the SNES, to the lows of Donkey Kong 64 on the Nintendo 64. But, today is not for debating the best and worst games in the franchise; today is for discussing where this beloved series needs to go next to remain relevant in such a competitive era of gaming.
There’s no doubting the success of Tropical Freeze. It’s arguably one of the best in the franchise, albeit with a rather high level of difficulty – an issue which Nintendo attempted to rectify with the new ‘Funky Kong’ mode in the Nintendo Switch version. Outside the fact that few people previously played the game, I suspect Nintendo ported it over from the Wii U to get a sense of the excitement in the franchise – historically, we’ve seen them shy away from series that have not sold as well (e.g. F-Zero).
The question we’re left with is, “now what?” We’ve seen two iterations of the refreshed Donkey Kong Country (Returns and Tropical Freeze). It’s not clear who will be handling the next game in the franchise though – whether it’ll be Retro Studios once more, or another development team trying their hand at this iconic Nintendo series.
In this article, I’ll propose three possible directions for the Donkey Kong franchise to take. Toss me a banana and let’s get started!
1. A continuation of the 2D Donkey Kong Country games
This would be an obvious and safe direction for Nintendo. Both previous DKC games have sold very well, but with upgraded graphics (using the Switch’s hardware), some new platforming mechanics, and a somewhat riveting story, it would likely lead to a successful game with good sales margins.
Given that many people found Tropical Freeze to be a bit too challenging, it would make sense to offer a range of modes that cater to both casual and serious gamers. Personally, I think this scenario should be played out, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is. It would be a nice way to wrap up a so-called trilogy of 2D Donkey Kong, even though the games aren’t all directly related.
We’ve seen what Retro Studios has to offer so, if we’re going to see a continuation of this iteration, it would be refreshing to have a new developer who could add their own spin to the games. This would keep the series fresh and engaging, while giving us the chance to see what new mechanics they can introduce.
2. A brand new fully 3D Donkey Kong game
Let’s call a spade a spade here – even though Donkey Kong 64 was my first Donkey Kong game (and I loved that banana yellow cartridge), it was very repetitive with too many characters and far too many items to collect.
I still remember seeing a picture of the cart online. Then, while visiting a cinema one night, they had a demo booth of the game. I noticed the cartridge for the game was a standard green one, so I wanted to make sure I got the more vibrant ‘special edition’. I called the store and the associate gave me a snappy, “they’re all yellow cartridges”. How would I know?
Anyway, after the not-so-stellar reviews of Donkey Kong 64, Nintendo completely backed off on any 3D games featuring the titular ape. It took them another 11 years to bring out a true Donkey Kong game for a console - the back-to-the-roots Donkey Kong Country Returns.
Some have argued that Donkey Kong just doesn’t work in 3D – a notion I wholeheartedly disagree with. Platforming games don’t necessarily need a riveting story – I don’t think the plot for the Mario franchises will win any Academy Awards, so Donkey Kong doesn’t need a stellar storyline either. But, it does need stellar gameplay, and it needs to introduce something new to the franchise, similar to the achievement of Super Mario Odyssey's Cappy mechanic.
Nintendo - or whoever heads up the next DK game - needs to figure out what the identity of a new 3D Donkey Kong game would be. Even if a 3D DK title isn’t fully open-world, it should offer a deeper level of exploration, similar to Super Mario Odyssey. It wouldn’t hurt to look at previous 3D Mario titles for inspiration - Mario has been in multiple kingdoms, on tropical islands and into the far reaches of the galaxy, so Donkey Kong’s next 3D adventure should be open to new locations too.
3. An open-world 3D Donkey Kong game
After the release of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Nintendo realised that the franchise had become stagnant. Fans of the game felt it was too linear and devoid of any real exploration. The series’ producer Eiji Aonuma had long wanted to break the conventions of traditional Zelda games. He wanted to create a truly open-world game, where players can go anywhere they want, as opposed to being confined to a bunch of smaller, but connected, areas.
The lingering issue was mostly technological, but they were eventually able to succeed in this vision with Breath of the Wild on Wii U and Switch. Similarly, Super Mario Odyssey was a bit of a departure from more recent Mario titles. Although it wasn’t as truly open-world as Breath of the Wild, there is considerable freedom and exploration within each kingdom.
This is where I feel Nintendo needs to take the Donkey Kong series. As they are breaking long-standing conventions for their most successful franchises, it’s time to re-examine (and possibly break) the existing conventions of the Donkey Kong series.
Clearly, DK would need to be a bit leaner and more agile than he was in DK64, especially if you’re going to be exploring large immersive areas – unfortunately, Link’s trusty steed Epona isn’t always available for free rides.
I’m visualising a large island that has forest, water, snow, desert, and cave elements, that transition naturally from one environment to the next, similar to Breath of the Wild.
Whether this makes sense for the tie-wearing simian will depend on the new developer’s vision for this franchise. Given Nintendo’s recent comfort with breaking long-standing conventions, I see no reason why the DK crew shouldn’t get the same treatment.
What do you think the next Donkey Kong game should look like? I would love to hear your thoughts, so fire away down in the comments!
Vishaal has a background in Engineering, advocating for users through design research and storytelling. The Nintendo 64 was his first Nintendo console and he’s been a Nintendo kid at heart ever since. His favorite Nintendo game is Super Mario Galaxy 2.