Before we begin, I’d like to thank Wolfman for providing edits and offering commentary.
Donkey Kong Country barrel blasted onto store shelves – and into our hearts – exactly twenty-three years ago. Rare’s classic platformer revitalized the Donkey Kong brand, giving it a new, distinct personality unlike anything else in Nintendo’s roster. Mario, the other prominent character from the original Donkey Kong, had likewise previously been given the same courtesy in Super Mario Bros., which codified his series’ aesthetics and tone.
Rare’s Super NES classic has been discussed and dissected all across the internet, but there is one aspect of it I appreciate which people often overlook: its time skip. As you may recall, in our first episode of “Continuity Corner,” we discussed the modern Donkey Kong and his relationship to Donkey Kong Jr. Is our incumbent hero a grown-up Jr., or is he Jr.’s son? Either way, that conundrum is one consequence of the time separating the arcade titles from Rare’s installments. (I still prefer the former theory, by the way.)
So, we’re going to have a succinct chat about Donkey Kong Country’s generational leap from two different perspectives. First, we’ll cover it purely through the lens of the Donkey Kong franchise and if it makes sense within its parameters. Afterwards, we’ll attempt to examine it in relation to the concurrently running Mario franchise.
Donkey Kong Jungle Climbs Up In Years
Donkey Kong graced arcades back in 1981, with two direct sequels following in 1982 and 1983. Afterwards, the Donkey Kong series effectively went into hibernation. That’s not to say the Donkey Kong Sr. and Jr. characters were completely inactive or that there wasn’t a single Donkey Kong title released during those years, but they were far from the forefront of Nintendo’s lineup.
Donkey Kong’s lull ended in 1994, however. As a primer for Rare’s impending side-scroller, Nintendo released an excellent remake of the original title for the Game Boy in June. Then, on November 21, the series was redefined in an unignorable way. This context is easily forgotten in modern times – Donkey Kong has never since underwent an equivalent stretch of inactivity – but reflecting those missing years through an in-universe time skip was a clever way to contextualize the brand’s period of hibernation. Its impact could immediately be discerned, as Donkey Kong Sr. and Jr. visibly aged since the general public last saw them.
And, while this could’ve been achieved without moving time forward, it was nonetheless an effective tool to help facilitate worldbuilding. Country expanded Donkey Kong’s scope beyond the “few ladders and girders” that predominantly characterized it, introducing a “totally new” Donkey Kong who represented its new generation. Our protagonist was surrounded by an all-new supporting cast, from his established romantic counterpart Candy Kong to his inexperienced, preppy sidekick, Diddy Kong.
However, whereas Jr. matured into a revered paragon amongst his namesake island, the titular antagonist from the arcade-era shriveled into an elderly, embittered ape longing for his prime. Becoming of his grouchiness and aged physique, he adapted the Cranky Kong moniker. Cranky’s antiqued worldviews were also essential to how he was written under Rare’s tenure, from wondering why Dixie Kong wasn’t a token “damsel in distress” to his more general lamenting of modern gaming conventions.
Country’s handling of time even pioneered how the Twycross-based studio would later handle their fiction. Rare’s franchises seem to operate in real-time, with Banjo-Tooie set two years after Banjo-Kazooie, and Nuts & Bolts following eight years after Tooie. Furthermore, Conker casually referenced dates and the passing of years when he introduced himself during his Live & Reloaded discourse.
Super Mario Doesn’t Advance In Age
As noted, Mario was the other major figure present in the arcade classic, and he’s gone on to lead a tremendous career. He’s Nintendo’s enduring mascot, continually starring in new, genre-defining titles.
Yet, according to a Shigeru Miyamoto interview from 2005, he’s always been 24 to 25. Mario’s design stabilized with Super Mario Bros. and it’s been refined over the years, but little indicates he’s canonically aged in any significant capacity in the thirty-six years since his debut as a young adult. Thus, if you’re looking for a clean, in-universe reason to reconcile the Kongs, who unambiguously did age, with Mario’s eternal youth, then there really isn’t one.
However, I can offer a real-world explanation: Super Mario and Donkey Kong are different properties with different internal logic, exemplified by how they address their respective series’ continuity. I wouldn’t argue Mario doesn’t have any continuity – it does – but the passage of time and its affect on people demonstrably functions differently in the Mushroom Kingdom than on Donkey Kong Island. Mario’s means of managing its continuity and canon unquestionably have merit – Wolfman wrote a thoughtful piece exploring the very topic – and it’s a style that allows the plumber to remain a timeless, static icon with unparalleled versatility.
So, yes, both franchises have a mutual point of origin. Yes, there’s considerable crossover between them, usually realized through the countless Mario spin-offs. And, yes, an unprecedented degree of cross-pollination just occurred in Super Mario Odyssey’s New Donk City, which we’ll explore together someday.
However, both franchises have and should continue to operate and evolve on their own terms. The pair of mascots will happily continue to intersect at opportune moments, usually for a party, round of sports or a kart-racing tournament, and any discrepancies that arise therein are simply something we needn’t harp on. When multiple studios produce works based around the same characters, snares will eventually emerge, but Cranky Kong’s aging in relation to Mario’s agelessness isn’t one worth stressing over.