There was a bit of a 25th-anniversary trifecta for Nintendo over the past twelve months. You may remember the 25th anniversary Super Mario Bros bundle and, for those of you who played the original when it came out, the creeping horror that comes with the realization that was a quarter century ago. Then, of course, came the fanfare over the Legend of Zelda, complete with special editions, free games, and a concert series à la Video Games Live. And finally, always the dark horse, Samus and the Metroid franchise hit the same milestone, though it wouldn't have been news if it weren't for a few anal-retentive nerdfaces who follow these things religiously...like me, for example. From what I've seen, Nintendo still hasn't had much to say about Samus turning 25.
But, as any 29 year-old in the middle of the inevitable and tedious existential crisis that comes at that age could tell you, 25 is young compared to 30, and that's how old the granddaddy of Nintendo games turned this year. That's right. Donkey Kong and Mario himself (aka. Jumpman, his name from the Donkey Kong arcade game) is now thirty years old. Having feted Mario plenty over the past year, though, let's give DK the credit he's due.
It bears remembering that in 1981, when the arcade game that enshrined Shigeru Miyamoto's genius was released, Atari ruled the roost. The PC/console divide that continues ad nauseum hadn't really begun yet; at that point it was consoles versus arcades, and arcades were a booming business. Tellingly, there aren't a lot of games or game characters who have survived to today from that age before the NES - perhaps because there aren't a lot of companies that survived the video game market meltdown between Atari's heyday and Nintendo's ascension, or perhaps because many characters from back then looked sort of like pixellated sneezes, without much actual character to speak of.
But Donkey Kong, in all his two-tone glory, has bucked that trend. Not only that, but in his thirty years he cemented Nintendo as a video gaming company; he and his venture into pre-rendered graphical glory extended the life of the SNES while helping ensure that console's triumph over Sega's Genesis (when it comes to sales and profitability, anyway), and bookended the exospheric rise (Donkey Kong Country) and subsequent decline (Donkey Kong 64 - which forgot what was beautiful about DKC and Banjo-Kazooie in favour of releasing a tedious fetch-quest and the infamous DK rap) of the pairing of Rare and Nintendo. The success of Donkey Kong Country was the catalyst for the creation of such classics as Killer Instinct, Conker's Bad Fur Day, the aforementioned Banjo-Kazooie, and Goldeneye 007.
Yet, over the past ten years it seemed like DK was falling into also-ran territory, only featuring as a playable character in Mario-branded titles and Smash Bros. games, or in peripheral titles like Donkey Konga and Diddy Kong Racing. But only last year another brilliant developer took the reins and proved Donkey Kong can still propel a delightful (if occasionally and purposefully infuriating) and very profitable game - pushing over five million copies since its release last year.. That, and his name has become so popular that Nintendo has felt the need to trademark "It's on like Donkey Kong." (Can I even write that now without paying royalties, now?)
So here's to Donkey Kong, a veteran in this industry, par excellence, who grew from being a brilliant piece of curiously-named pixel art to an essential element in the success of the Nintendo brand.