Donkey Kong is one of gaming’s most popular icons. There are few characters that your average person on the street could instantly recognize, but the tie-wearing ape is one of them. As a result, he is one of Nintendo’s most valuable IP. Even as a bad guy, his name got attention. Yet despite a history of successes, his most recent release gained a mixed reception – and the future of the character has been thrown into uncertainty.
It started in 1981. The original Donkey Kong arcade game was a huge sensation, and put Nintendo on the gaming map. This inspired immediate sequels, and soon the original hero of Donkey Kong got a makeover and his own revolutionary game. Mario became the most recognizable video game character in the world.
This left the villain Donkey Kong behind without his own game on the NES. This would not last long; RareWare came to Nintendo with a pitch for Donkey Kong that featured exceptional new technology. Donkey Kong Country was born on the SNES, and suddenly a brilliant, unique world filled with charming characters, a great setting, and exquisitely designed gameplay was born. Soon Donkey Kong had a successful platforming series right alongside Mario, as DKC would go on to spawn several sequels and handheld spin-offs, making insane sales along the way.
As gaming took the leap to 3D, however, things got a bit iffy. While Mario’s first outing in a new dimension found immediate success and long-term reverence through Super Mario 64, Donkey Kong’s later attempt was not quite so admired. Taking Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie formula and ratcheting it up to 11, Donkey Kong 64 featured a ridiculous amount of characters and collectibles, and many parts of the audience just didn’t click with it. That didn’t change the fact that DK was insanely profitable, though; Donkey Kong 64 went on to sell over five million copies, and while the long term reputation of the title has been less than stellar, at release the game received a fairly strong critical reception. Rare released Diddy Kong Racing for the N64 two years before DK64 as well, which also found a strong reception on all fronts.
Then came the GameCube. Nintendo had lost Rare, the creator and developer of every DK solo game up to now, by selling them to Microsoft early in the Cube’s lifespan. What would happen to Donkey Kong now? The answer was, apparently, a spin-off rhythm game with bongos called Donkey Konga. Jungle Beat decided to use these bongos as the core of its gameplay as well, and as a result the new 2D platformer turned out…. well, pretty weird. The fact that developer EAD Tokyo was a new studio and the first to make a legitimate Donkey Kong game since Rare likely helped keep the game from being all it could be. Either way, the titles got a mixed reception – yet reasonably impressive sales once more.
After a horrible new racing game in Bongo Blast for the Wii and a New Play Control port for Jungle Beat, Metroid Prime alums Retro Studios decided to step up and take on the franchise, finally taking it back to its roots. With the stellar Donkey Kong Country Returns, DK found his greatest success yet since the SNES days, selling over six million copies and garnering massive critical and fan praise. A 3DS port soon followed, this time to very solid sales – especially for a port.
So what’s been the point of this little history lesson? To make it clear that Donkey Kong is a hugely influential character who’s got a remarkable amount of selling power. People know who he is, his games have a solid track record (and sales do great even on iffier games), and the world and characters are appealing, marketable ones. Into this environment stepped Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.
Ok – not bombed. But it certainly did not sell amazing; it pulled in a fraction of the numbers its predecessor got, Nintendo never lists it as one of the Wii U’s best sellers, and the reviews (while certainly positive) were a bit tepid.
Yet the game was amazing. I replayed it recently and was awed once again at the marvelous level design, incredible art, and legendary score. But for whatever reason – a general sense of apathy towards 2D platformers after the many indie games and retro revivals from major publishers, a satisfied customer base from 3D World who didn’t need a new platformer so soon, or poor marketing – Tropical Freeze just did not sell that amazing, even by the Wii U’s standards.
There is little chance that is acceptable for Nintendo. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was a major game, with three years of development time from a fairly large team. The tech was pretty complex, the detail was exquisite. This was not a cheap game to make, even if it was a 2D platformer.
So then. You’ve got one of the most famous characters in all of gaming. His world and cast of characters is superb, and many of his games receive great critical and fan response. And yet his most recent title – one which cost a lot of money to make and which garnered a largely positive response – just did not sell that well by the series’ standards. Whether or not it made its money back we don’t know, but it seems likely that it just was not a huge hit as Nintendo was hoping. Now: what happens next?
First of all, what studio could even take on the franchise at this point? It seems almost impossible that Retro would return for a third time; many fans complain that Retro’s talents are being wasted on platformers (an opinion I vehemently disagree with, but it’s a prevalent thought nonetheless), and Nintendo likely would not want one of their most talented developers working on a franchise that costs a lot of money to make and is neither getting much commercial reception nor expanding their consumer base.
Nintendo’s EAD Tokyo team now seems utterly fixed on main series Super Mario games, and unless they have expanded to making two full games at a time, it seems unlikely that they will change course any time soon. Rare is obviously out of the picture by now, and no one else has ever created a main series Donkey Kong game. The only other team with any experience is Monster, who ported Donkey Kong Country Returns to the 3DS with additional levels, but with Xenoblade Chronicles 3D being their following project, it seems unlikely that they would suddenly turn from ports and start work on a new game in such a high-profile franchise.
Anyone else feels like a shot in the dark – Next Level Games (of Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon fame) is possible, though of course they are currently hard at work on Metroid Prime: Federation Force (also a follow-up to a Retro series). One of Nintendo’s internal teams could possibly take it on, though with a team almost certainly working on a 2D Mario game it seems unlikely they would have something so similar in development. No one else comes to mind; the list of studios that could follow-up Retro’s exquisite work on the series – Nintendo affiliated or otherwise – seems pretty short.
Then you have got the question of whether it is worth making a Donkey Kong game on that level, period. Retro set the bar seriously high, and keeping the series at that level will not be a cheap, easy, or quick task, regardless of the developer. With sales seemingly not reflecting the budget or effort, is that sort of game worth doing right now?
It appears to me that there are three ways Nintendo proceeds with the Donkey Kong series at the moment. The first is taking a step back and re-evaluating. Maybe that means a handheld port of Tropical Freeze to make some extra profit and gauge interest. Maybe it means giving the series a break for a while, letting fans and the gaming population get back a burning desire for everybody’s favorite tie-wearing ape (as well as allowing Nintendo some time to figure out what to do with the series.)
The second is that Nintendo drastically changes where Donkey Kong as a franchise is. I suspect we may see the end of Donkey Kong Country, at least for a while, as Nintendo attempts to change genre or style in some way. That could mean a 3D platformer, or a very different kind of 2D platformer a la Jungle Beat. That could mean a totally unexpected genre, via a new spin-off or otherwise. That could even mean – as I most suspect – Donkey Kong will become a handheld series for a while, as a new studio takes over and can afford to use the classic gameplay without having to live up to Retro’s standards. Either way, it is to mix things up and get fans excited about the brand again, or to put it on a platform that can get guaranteed results.
And then there is the third possibility: maybe I’m way off base. Maybe Tropical Freeze was considered a success by Nintendo, and a third game in the Returns trilogy is on the way to the Wii U or NX, from Retro or otherwise. Maybe we’re about to see an exceptional conclusion to one of the best platforming series ever.
It really is impossible to tell where Donkey Kong goes from here. Perhaps we will get lucky and see the franchise continue soon, or perhaps we could see Nintendo step back and evaluate their options. We could see a brand new title, or we could see a handheld port. Right now, the future of the series is uncertain. Let’s just hope that it is still, as the saying goes, on like Donkey Kong.