Mario has always been a hero. Since his first appearance in Donkey Kong, he’s been known as a sort of short and stocky Italian plumber with a will to do good and a heart of gold. Meanwhile, Donkey Kong, now one of the most beloved of Nintendo’s characters, began as the angry villain atop the tower throwing barrels at the lovable “Jumpman” and endlessly taking “Pauline” away. It’s interesting how, as time has changed, so has the appearance of the kindly ape and what that appearance tells us about our perception of our heroes.
There has always been something deeper to Donkey Kong, and considering the extremely obvious reference to King Kong present in his character is a great first step in this regard. Nintendo wanted to create in its audience an immediate feeling of nostalgia and familiarity with the villain of its new game, so they emulated a successful monster from film. Yet this also reveals something about Donkey Kong’s character as a misunderstood beast. King Kong is a tragic figure, misunderstood and tortured, who relies on his instincts, which are all he has, until his fatal fall. Similarly, we can assume that Donkey Kong is a misunderstood tragic figure in Donkey Kong, though the plot is so loose we may never fully understand his motives. Yet, just as King Kong is the main character of King Kong and more interesting than any of the film’s human characters, Donkey Kong is obviously a stronger character than Jumpman, which is why Nintendo had to bring him back for his own game.
But Donkey Kong in Donkey Kong form could never cut it as a hero. After all, he is a gorilla, prone to fits of anger, lacking in rationality, and known as a rabid animal to gamers. So when the call came to make Donkey Kong the hero of his own game something had to change; they had to domesticate him.
The first step in domesticating Donkey Kong was giving him a family. Thus, in Donkey Kong Country, we are introduced his nephew Diddy Kong, a chimp wearing a baseball cap to emphasize his youthfulness. This focuses in on the reliability of Donkey Kong as a sort of “father figure” to another ape as well as making Donkey Kong look like a mature character next to the childlike Diddy. As more games appeared, Donkey Kong gained a grandfather, Cranky Kong, and a sort of “niece” in Dixie Kong. All of this emphasizes that Donkey Kong is a family man, who takes care of others, not a villain who kidnaps stray women.
But more important than his new-found family was Donkey Kong’s appearance. Nintendo festooned the beast with a tie. A seemingly innocuous cosmetic change made all the difference in our perception of him, for what made Donkey Kong a villain was his lack of clothes, lack of position within the world. Every Nintendo hero is recognized by their clothes. Mario and Luigi wear overalls to represent their blue collar background, Link wears a tunic to represent his medieval roots and heroism, and Samus Aran wears robotic armor to represent the future and the technological advances of her time period.
Nintendo villains are simple, they are animalistic and ruled by impulse, and they also don’t wear much clothing. Ridley, the primary villain of the Metroid series, wears no clothes, and Bowser, the head honcho of all video game villains, wears no clothes. Those that do wear clothes refuse to relate to the player. Often they are royalty like King Dedede (from the Kirby games) or Ganon (from the Zelda games). In western culture particularly, a lack of clothing demonstrates inhumanity and otherness. When Adam and Eve are in the Garden of Eden and eat the fruit of knowledge, thus separating themselves from animals, the first thing that they understand is that they are naked, and this is something to be ashamed of. Clothing separates the domestic sphere from nature. Nude or almost nude characters have traditionally been used as inhuman others, whether because they are primitive or unsophisticated like Caliban in The Tempest or Gollum from Lord of the Rings or so intelligent that they transcend mankind like Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen. Donkey Kong and King Kong certainly fell into the former category.
In order to allow Donkey Kong to relate to the player, he wears a tie. While he is an ape, and therefore must be kept at arm’s length, at least we can see that he is trying to conform to our society, as opposed to King Kong, who we can only believe may be misunderstood, though the average citizen watching his rampage surely wouldn’t think so.
By giving Donkey Kong a tie, Nintendo, in their minimalistic and simple fashion, changed everything about his character. The neck tie represents responsibility, self control, maturity, and sophistication, the opposite of an impulsive gorilla. While we could never say Donkey Kong is a “sophisticated beast,” his complete lack of social understanding in Donkey Kong is remedied when we see him in his tie in Donkey Kong Country. We immediately know that this ape is a good guy. He’s responsible, and his goals are “noble” in a sense. This is only made more clear by the existence of K Rool, Donkey Kong’s nemesis, who acts as impulsively as Donkey Kong did in his first game and, as an alligator, represents an animal even less sophisticated than a gorilla.
Donkey Kong shows us that we not only need a hero who acts out the ideals of heroism and maturity but that we also need a hero who looks like they are mature. His representation as a character and his success as a hero is important because it keys into what we want in an avatar, someone who is responsible, who puts on a tie in the morning, and does the selfless dirty work necessary to get by. By wearing a tie Donkey Kong becomes something to aspire to, not despise.
It’s interesting how now I can’t even picture Donkey Kong now without a tie. Looking at arcade pictures of him seems foreign, but this alteration has worked. Donkey Kong will never not be a little impulsive, a little bestial, and a little thick headed, but with a tie around his neck, we’ll always perceive him as a hero and that is a valuable lesson for other game creators wishing to create an iconic hero to learn. That clothing informs the player of how they should relate to a character and even a neck tie can turn a villain into a hero.