The Strange History of the Mario vs. Donkey Kong Rivalry

It's one of the most iconic rivalries in video games, but why are Mario and Donkey Kong feuding in the first place?

Mario Rivalry
Photo: Nintendo

While the upcoming Mario vs. Donkey Kong remake for the Nintendo Switch is one of the console’s most notable 2024 new releases, Mario and Donkey Kong’s rivalry has been going on for decades. The two characters have been both enemies and allies across numerous genres and franchises.

The characters are integral to Nintendo’s growth on a global stage, and their respective rises to fame have often been the source of the animosity between them. Yet, this rivalry has never been as clear-cut as you may think it is. Mario and Donkey Kong’s relationship might be legendary, but there’s a lot more to know about the plumber and the gorilla. 

A Double Debut 

The 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong would prove to be a significant turning point for Nintendo and gaming. It was not only the first proper platformer, but it featured the titular gorilla capturing the protagonist’s girlfriend (known first as Lady and then later as Pauline). To rescue her, players controlled the heroic Jumpman: a suspiciously familiar character who had to evade barrels and other such obstacles in the quest to rescue his damsel in distress from the dastardly Donkey Kong. 

This was Donkey Kong’s first video game appearance and the introduction of Mario himself. Well, kind of. While he might have been known as Jumpman at the time, the popular plumber would quickly be catapulted to stardom. That rivalry between the two characters thus began here, with Jumpman overcoming Donkey Kong’s challenges and rescuing Pauline from the ape’s clutches. While two-dimensional at the time, the feud clearly had the potential to expand. 

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However, this is also where the rivalry takes a strange turn. Some believe that the original Donkey Kong grew up to be Cranky Kong thanks to Donkey Kong Country’s continuity. Others have suggested that Jumpan is not actually Mario but rather Mario’s father. if either theory is true, then perhaps Mario and Donkey Kong as we know them now haven’t actually been feuding this entire time. Generally speaking, though, the rivalry between Mario and DK is popularly believed to have started here. Of course, if it was truly Cranky Kong in the role, then the Kongs and Mario have actually formed a blood rivalry that spans generations! 

The Retaliation 

You may think that Donkey Kong was enough to launch Mario’s own franchise, especially considering that the super bro is now more well-known than Donkey Kong across the globe. However, Mario’s very next appearance was in Donkey Kong Jr. released in 1982. In a bit of a twist, the title featured Donkey Kong himself getting captured by Mario. Fans got to control Donkey Kong Jr., who essentially fulfills the role of the protagonist in this unique instance. 

1982’s Donkey Kong II also followed a very similar premise, with Mario once again capturing the gorilla and Junior looking to save him. This changing dynamic added genuine tension to the rivalry, with Mario’s retaliation bringing Donkey Kong’s wider family into the conflict. Fans may often assume that Kong always caused the trouble, but Mario showed that he wasn’t afraid to get his own hands dirty in this blossoming frenemy situation. 

A Period Of Separation 

Despite gamers clearly getting invested in the one-upmanship between Mario and Donkey Kong, the two characters soon went their separate ways and were largely kept apart in their respective mainline games. Mario himself was promoted to being the icon of Nintendo, while Donkey Kong was often pushed into the background.

Mario Bros. launch in 1983 would take the company and character to new heights. Mario’s world was slowly being expanded, and Donkey Kong was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Mario faced a new set of reptilian villains that 1985’s Super Mario Bros. would later expand upon. It made sense that Nintendo would want to keep the DK/Mario rivalry from becoming repetitive or stale, but the fact Donkey Kong wasn’t featured in those games at all was shocking. Although Bowser arguably presented more of a physical threat and could be accompanied by a league of henchmen to defeat, Donkey Kong’s absence remains something of a mystery. 

Donkey Kong himself continued to serve as an antagonist in his next title, Donkey Kong 3, but it wasn’t Mario he was battling against but rather the forgettable Stanley the Bugman. Although the 1994 Game Boy iteration of Donkey Kong reunited the characters once more, that remake didn’t add any additional layers to their relationship. However, big things were in store for the characters and soon titles would be flying off the shelves featuring this classic rivalry in all of its glory. 

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The Tie-In Titles 

Although the rivalry might have taken a back seat so that Mario could be established as a franchise star, Nintendo soon looked to capitalize on the lore of its growing video game universe through crossovers.

Over the following years, Nintendo released a seemingly endless array of titles that featured Donkey Kong and Mario in various competitive scenarios. While 1992’s Super Mario Kart might have left out Donkey Kong in favor of Donkey Kong Jr., the 1996 sequel, Mario Kart 64, brought Kong himself to the race track. Soon thereafter, Donkey Kong and Mario both made their first appearances as part of the Super Smash Bros. series in 1999 and have appeared alongside one another in the title in every installment since. 

Nintendo’s subsequent crossover experiences throughout this period established the tradition of including both Mario and Donkey Kong in those often beloved shared-universe titles. From the Olympic Games and Tennis and Golf tournament titles to the Mario Party board, the characters were repeatedly pitted against one another. Gamers embraced their iconic battle and often played the parts in a variety of absurd scenarios. Many modern fans may even be familiar with the rivalry thus far through the characters’ roles in these narrative-lite video games. Soon, though, Nintendo would put the spotlight on the duo in a way they hadn’t before. 

Mario Vs. Donkey Kong

2004’s Mario Vs. Donkey Kong was a massive title for Nintendo and the Donkey Kong/Mario rivalry. It revitalized the feud in a mainline setting and treated it as a historic rivalry in ways that previous games featuring the characters did not.

That game spawned multiple sequels including the likes of March of the Minis in 2006 and Tipping Stars in 2015. Across this notable multi-title run, Donkey Kong is firmly established in the antagonist role once more. In fact, many of the games actually return to the original Donkey Kong premise, with Pauline serving as the damsel in distress waiting for Mario to rescue her again. 

Interestingly, across the course of the titles, Donkey Kong and Mario’s relationship is given some additional layers. Donkey Kong is often given better motivation, with the gorilla fuelled by a jealous rage which comes across as totally believable considering Mario eventually became the icon of Nintendo despite debuting in a Donkey Kong game.

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Indeed, in the original Mario Vs. Donkey Kong from 2004, DK is thrown into a rage after discovering that the mini-Mario toys he wanted ever so badly are sold out. His destructive conquest ends with Mario gifting him one of the toys, forming a bond between the two despite the animosity.

In 2006’s Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis, Donkey Kong becomes the villain again after getting annoyed that Pauline chooses Mario’s toy over his own. The gorilla kidnaps the damsel, but they eventually make peace and apologize to one another. 2009’s Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Minis March Again! features a similar misunderstanding, with DK kidnapping Pauline once more, over a toy-based conflict. 2010’s Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem! finally sees the duo come to an understanding, with the battles subsiding long enough for them to celebrate their newfound peace. Their relationship thus ebbs and flows, with misunderstandings and emotional outbursts leading to new arguments arising. 

It’s clear that Mario and Donkey Kong are seemingly set to do battle forever more, even if that’s just across the competitive sports-based and party titles where a wider roster of characters is included. However, over the years this relationship has gone from a one-dimensional arcade plot point, to a feud based on jealousy and retaliation with many points of crossover. Soon, that renewed rivalry would even make the leap to the big screen.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie 

Over the years, Mario and Donkey Kong had rarely been adapted alongside one another. The 1993 live-action Super Mario Bros. movie didn’t feature Donkey Kong, and the two characters’ worlds were largely kept separate in the various Super Mario/Nintendo animated TV shows that had been previously developed.

But that all changed with the release of The Super Mario Bros. Movie in 2023. The feature-length experience drew from the extensive history of the characters and found a good balance between friendship and rivalry.

Many of the beats that crafted their frenemy status across the games are touched upon in the movie. At first, the pair come to blows in a grand arena scene much like they have done in Super Smash Bros. The duo even race just like in Mario Kart and eventually learned to co-exist as they have done across so many co-op party titles. In one touching scene, Donkey Kong and Mario are isolated from their friends and forced to discuss their conflict head-on, leading to a new, strengthened alliance. The Super Mario Bros. film ends up being a surprisingly perfect encapsulation of the complex rivalry between the two Nintendo characters. 

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Donkey Kong and Mario will undoubtedly cross paths again and there are many more chapters to tell in this ongoing feud. But whether Donkey Kong is the antagonist or an unexpected ally, fans just can’t get enough of this David versus Goliath story. Donkey Kong versus Mario is all about the brawn versus the brain and unfortunately for the gorilla, that chip on his shoulder keeps getting bigger thanks to Mario’s ever-heroic victories.