DONKEY KONG 3
In 1983, Nintendo did a curious thing. They took the Donkey Kong series – their major cash cow at the time – and destroyed it with Donkey Kong 3. No more Mario. No more platforming. In Mario’s place, Stanley the Bugman, a one-off exterminator character who never got the chance to develop any personality. Instead of platforming, shooting. Stanley the Bugman shoots Donkey Kong up his butt, level after embarrassing level. Seriously, poor Donkey Kong. That bug gas looks painful.
No matter how cartoonishly evil Donkey Kong is, nobody deserves poison gas up the butt.
Indeed Donkey Kong 3 didn’t look, play, or feel like either Donkey Kong or Donkey Kong Jr. Upon release, this made the game a critical and mostly commercial failure (the arcade cabinet did relatively well in Japan, but was a flop in the US). Today, Donkey Kong 3‘s rebellion against the previous two games’ formula works in its favor. DK3‘s more immediate arcade action is considerably more enjoyable to return to than the previous titles’ rudimentary platforming.
Donkey’s swarm of insect minions descend upon poor Stanley.
Let’s be honest: all three original Donkey Kong games are old as sin. All are hard to play again if you don’t have some nostalgic affinity for them, or if you’re not a die hard points junkie who loves beating high scores. From an early 80s perspective, Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr.‘s levels are well-designed and engaging, but there’s only four of them. Once they’re beaten, why play them over and over? Even if your nostalgia is strong for the Donkey Kong games, we can’t imagine many people playing them for more than a few minutes at a time. Turn on the Famicom (or NES, if you like), go for a round of DK, systems off, sigh, feel your thinning hair, and quietly muse, “Those were the days…”
It’s amusing, but will it get them off their tractors?
But if you have to play one remarkably old Donkey Kong game for more than five minutes, Donkey Kong 3 is the one. Charm and story are out the window. Addictive gameplay is in. Spraying Donkey Kong relentlessly in the butt, while protecting your plants and your person from ravenous bees and caterpillars is a chaotic blast. Yes, there are only four level layouts that repeat as you move further along, and yes, the levels all look basically the same. We don’t care. Donkey Kong 3‘s pace is so frantic and tense that it’s easy to get swept along in its insanity.
So that’s why the bees are so upset.
As early platforming attempts, Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. are simple, quaint, and beautiful in their own right. They also don’t really hold up. Over the next decade, Nintendo would go on to perfect the 2D platformer as we know it with the Mario franchise. Nintendo’s understanding of the platforming genre progressed so quickly that Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. moved from “addictive arcade game” to “historical artifact” by the early 90s. Not so with Donkey Kong 3. DK3 is an outlier, an outcast even, a game that doesn’t sit well in Nintendo’s vast back catalog, and certainly not within the Donkey Kong franchise.
Nintendo didn’t even foot the bill for poor Stanley’s funeral.
Donkey Kong 3‘s lack of recognition from Nintendo is a stone-cold shame. Sure, it’s not a perfect arcade game, and it’s a horrible Donkey Kong game: the levels are too short, Stanley is forgettable, and Donkey Kong seems confused and bewildered, like he’s not sure where he is. Still, Donkey Kong 3 is the only game in the original trilogy that stands apart, that has no equal, superior, or even inferior. Nintendo never looked back on Donkey Kong 3 and said, “We can perfect this style.” Intentionally or unintentionally, Nintendo let DK3 exist as its own awkward anomaly. God bless them for that.
PLAYERS: 1-2 alternating
RELEASE DATE: 07/04/84 (JP), 06/1986 (US), 09/15/87 (EU)
ALSO ON: Arcade, e-Reader, Virtual Console (Wii, 3DS, Wii U), NES Switch Online, Nintendo Switch (Arcade version)