In the lead-up to the release of a new Donkey Kong game, and the reveal that the cantankerous Cranky Kong will be appearing as a playable character, the discussion about how Cranky fits in with the overarching narrative of the Kong saga has been re-ignited. No, seriously.
When the old man character was first introduced reference was made to the fact that he is actually the titular ape of the original 80s Donkey Kong, long since retired, making the current Donkey Kong a younger relative.
The wealth of discussion and debate and evidence floating around that seeks to establish a narrative thread between such a hugely varied and numerous collection of games is part of of a pretty weird impulse we as consumers of media share. We’re desperate to find meaning, especially narrative meaning, in the connection between experiences that share commonalities, even if that connection would seem to be overwhelmingly not narrative-focused. Does this imposition of narrative make for a more enjoyable gaming experience? Does it hinder?
The Cranky Kong case is a fun example to look at, as attempts to follow his narrative journey between games clearly not designed with that interpretation in mind inevitably ends in confusion.
Here’s a representative example from MarioWiki.com, in which we have an earnest attempt to sort out Cranky’s exact relationship to modern-day Donkey Kong:
Mario vs. Donkey Kong was advertised by stating that Donkey Kong was Mario’s oldest rival. However, this was refuted by Mario Superstar Baseball (which attributed Pauline’s kidnapping to Cranky), though it remained ambiguous about the two apes’ relationship by merely stating that Cranky was the current Donkey Kong’s “ancestor”. Subsequently, Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis implies that Donkey Kong met Pauline for the first time and becomes smitten at first sight.
Well that clears it up. Although I must say Cranky Kong has aged very poorly compared to Pauline, who appeared even lovelier and more curvaceous when kidnapped by present day Donkey Kong then she was in the original arcade game, the same amount of time it took Cranky to transform from a brawny ape to a shriveled elderly husk. Or perhaps modern-day Pauline is the granddaughter of the original Pauline? And perhaps the original Pauline shacked up with Donkey Kong and eventually became Wrinkly Kong, explaining modern-day Donkey Kong’s love at first sight as a familial connection to his long lost (half?) sister? Oh wait there’s more.
The remake of Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble! stated that Cranky Kong’s first starring role would be called “Cranky Kong Country” (though he may have been talking about the first game he would be playable in). Super Smash Bros. Brawl claims that the original Donkey Kong is the current Donkey Kong’s grandfather, though it does not take place in-universe and is thus not necessarily accurate.
The rules here are very complex and and delicate, and the reliability of the source material is clearly paramount, so let’s recap. As you can see a reference in a baseball game, advertising material, a Game Boy Advance remake of a Super Nintendo game or the intro cinematic of March of the Minis are “in-universe” and so the narrative elements can shed light on both an 80s arcade game and a soon-to-be-released Wii U game. Meanwhile the ridiculous fantasy of a Smash Bros. title is not canon and has no bearing at all.
Now I’m not meaning to poke fun here specifically at the folks from MarioWiki, but rather I’m using their gallant attempt to piece together a narrative as an example of why doing so has a tendency to miss the point.
For many games, including the Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario Bros. series, elements of traditional narrative don’t need to function in a traditional way to serve their purpose. Often they’re only there at all as a shorthand to explain the player’s objectives and purpose. And so it is that these narrative ties are allowed to flop around and not really connect anything to anything, especially between separate games, and not have any negative effect on the experience. In narrative media like film an understanding of the character and their journey helps engender the story with meaning, but knowing whether or not Cranky Kong is the same monkey that was formerly known as Donkey Kong doesn’t engender his ability to cane-jump across spikes with anything.
In fact the ‘meaning’ in these sorts of games, as we all know, is not located in cut-scenes or dialogue boxes at all. Can the story of Super Mario 3D World really be boiled down to ‘the characters find a pipe to the Sprixie Kingdom where Bowser has kidnapped the sprixies’, or is that merely an inconsequential backdrop to the real story of the game, namely the things you do with the characters once you’re given control? When I play Super Mario 3D World perhaps the narrative’s all about the exploration of foreign lands in an epic search for hidden stars and secret stamps. Perhaps next time it’s a power struggle between two brothers that involves Luigi being tossed repeatedly into a pit of lava for trying to steal Mario’s crown.
Our intense interest in continuity and constructed narrative, even at the expense of recognising gameplay as a form of collaborative and partially improvised storytelling, I think stems from the fact that we’ve been trained to spot consistent narrative points and sew them together unconsciously. Luigi in the lava pit can’t be canon because there’s no direction from the game creator giving a context for it, and no narrative consequence. Meanwhile the use of the same character name and appearance across multiple games (be it Donkey Kong or the Legend of Zelda) indicates a direct tie and a continuity we must fill in.
And coming up with theories and looking for little nods in the games that might inform that continuity is clearly fun, but I think the amount of importance we place in it sometimes is skewed, and our engagement with the games could be a little more enjoyable if we had a mode of understanding the connection between titles in a game series that wasn’t strictly narrative-based.
Take a look at Zelda for example, and the many years fans spent trying to piece together the continuity of a series of games that was for all intents and purposes linked more thematically than by a coherent narrative. Nintendo did eventually release an official timeline of the games, which if taken seriously kind of confuses the narratives of the individual games and diminishes the wonder of exploring each world and legend in isolation. It also places serious pressure on an aspect of the franchise that was always pretty insignificant.
The same confusion and diminishing of the source material would probably occur if a game released that definitively let you know you were playing as Cranky Kong in the 80s, or the real reason why Princess Peach would want to play tennis with Bowser after he’d taken her hostage so many times.
The question of Bowser and his relationship to the other characters was once put to Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto in an interview, and rather than laugh the question off or dismiss it as ridiculous, he gave an honest and interesting answer:
If you’re familiar with things like Popeye and some of the old comic characters, you would oftentimes see this cast of characters that takes on different roles depending on the comic or cartoon. They might be a businessman in one [cartoon] or a pirate in another. Depending on the story that was being told, they would change roles. So, to a certain degree, I look at our characters in a similar way and feel that they can take on different roles in different games. It’s more like they’re one big family, or maybe a troupe of actors.
The troupe of actors approach to understand the relationship of these long-lasting game characters is much more satisfying to me than any attempt to connect the games with a traditional narrative. You could view each game as a different Kabuki show and the characters as different recognisable masks that relate information about their place in the world (for example you know picking Bowser in a sports game means he’ll be slow and powerful, it’s a much easier way to do it than have an original character and a chart of stats).
In this way we could see that Donkey Kong is always Donkey Kong. Sometimes he wears a tie. Other times he kidnaps Pauline. In Donkey Kong Country he adopts the backstory of a grown-up Donkey Kong Jr. Sometimes he drives a go-kart competitively. And in the original Donkey Kong, well the ape known as Cranky Kong simply isn’t in that game.