Whereas Coleco only had non-exclusive toy and electronic game licenses for Pac-Man, the company had grabbed almost all rights to Nintendo’s Donkey Kong. The primary reason for this was to ensure that the game would be the first game packed in with the ColecoVision game console. But Coleco also took advantage of the license to produce small PVC figures of three main characters from the Donkey Kong games in 1982.
Other licensees turned out Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. goodies as well, including the almost pre-requisite puffy stickers and board game.
Unlike the ever-changing face of Pac-Man, the Donkey Kong toys had a consistent image. Coleco’s figures and the depictions of the characters in other merchandise were all drawn from Nintendo’s artwork – the first indication that the video game manufacturer (and future rulers of the video game roost) had crystal-clear, strict-as-Disney ideas on character merchandising and licensing. The products even at this early stage almost seemed to have sprung directly from the mind of Shigeru Miyamoto himself.
Coleco also released two tabletop LED games based on the first two Donkey Kong titles, both of which Coleco also held the rights for home video game versions. The Donkey Kong tabletop was very similar in style to Coleco’s Pac-Man tabletop, but the graphics (such as they were) and game play were simply atrocious. Donkey Kong Jr. turned out to be the last electronic game Coleco would manufacture, and it showed signs that Coleco was hoping to widen the appeal of its tabletop games by including other functions – in this case, an alarm clock.
When the third game in the Donkey Kong saga bombed, Nintendo hastily redirected the focus to Donkey Kong’s roly-poly nemesis, Mario, and his twin brother Luigi. Nintendo also changed Mario’s image slightly, making him look a little more cartoonishly cuddly and less swarthy. The difference is illustrated by this pair of photos: on the left, Coleco’s original Mario figure, while two newer Marios, manufactured around 1991 by Applause, are on the right.
But the Donkey Kong toy legacy doesn’t end there. As recently as 1999, Donkey Kong action figures and plush characters could be found on store shelves. With the high profile of such remakes as Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong 64, the big ape and his offspring have never been far from the public eye. Donkey Kong cartoons in various forms – ranging from a 1983 animated version as part of CBS’s Saturday Morning Supercade block, to an all-CGI, Re-Boot-esque cartoon in the early 1990s – have kept the character in plain sight. Mario and Luigi haven’t done badly either – they graduated to the big screen in a Super Mario Bros. live-action movie, and Mario continues to grace everything from racing games to paint programs as the staple of Nintendo’s digital diet.
It’s possible that Nintendo’s obsessive shepherding of Donkey Kong and Mario licensing are the difference between these characters’ near-immortality in current pop culture…and the obscurity in which Pac-Man and Q*Bert now languish.
But it seems that someone remembers where it all started. Basic Fun recently manufactured a rather unexpected little gem in the form of a plastic keychain which makes a valiant attempt to replicate an original Donkey Kong arcade cabinet. A tiny joystick rotates a lenticular picture of the game screen, giving the illusion of motion, while an even tinier “jump” button triggers a sound chip with samples of the original game sounds. Given that quite a few kids today probably have no memory or knowledge of the orignial Donkey Kong games, this keychain is a surprise.
And with some new version of Donkey Kong and/or Mario inevitable with the launch of Nintendo’s new Game Cube console due in 2001, it seems unlikely that we have heard the last of any of these characters.