Ultimate Clash: Mario vs. Donkey Kong – Battle of the Titans!

Ultimate Clash: Mario vs. Donkey Kong – Battle of the Titans!

The history of two video game characters is rarely as intertwined as Mario and Donkey Kong. These icons are protagonists of two of the longest-running video game series ever, both getting their starts back in the early 1980s. But in this classic battle of Mario vs. Donkey Kong, who comes out on top? We’re taking a look back at every era of games from the duo, to see who has the stronger past, present, and future.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong: The Early Years

A promotional image for Donkey Kong.
Mario and Donkey Kong have been adversaries for over four decades.

©Nintendo – Original

Given his reputation nowadays, it seems hard to believe that Mario started off life as an enemy in the original Donkey Kong game. He was very much the hero of the piece, with Donkey Kong still the de-facto villain, but he was an enemy nonetheless.

The original Donkey Kong was released in arcades in 1981 and was followed up a year later with its sequel, Donkey Kong Jr. Both were extremely popular with gamers, and the character finally made his way into homes with 1986’s Donkey Kong 3 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. A repeated criticism in the trio of games is that the general gameplay is repetitive and the games aren’t quite as fun to play in this day and age.

Compare this to Mario. After his appearance in the first two Donkey Kong games, Mario’s popularity was at an all-time high. He needed a game of his own – step in Super Mario Bros. This NES release was a true game-changer for the platformer genre and turned Mario into an instant Nintendo mascot. It’s a credit to the game’s design that it’s still fun to play to this day, with speedrunners taking a particular liking to Super Mario Bros. While Donkey Kong has the quantity during this era, Super Mario Bros. gives Mario the point for quality.

Mario 1:0 Donkey Kong

Mario vs. Donkey Kong: The Mid-90s

A promotional image for Donkey Kong Country.
The 1990s were a good time for Donkey Kong.

©Nintendo – Original

After the duo carved out a space in the games industry during the 1980s, the early to mid-90s proved to be an equally important time in the battle of Mario vs. Donkey Kong. Once again, Donkey Kong during this period released many more games than Mario, but there’s still one important question to answer – were they any good?

1994 saw the beginning of the Donkey Kong Country series on the SNES, with sequels coming in both 1995 and 1996. At the time, the games were viewed as groundbreaking with particular praise reserved for its visuals. Many at the time actually compared the overall design of the trilogy to the Super Mario games, which was seen as huge praise. The Donkey Kong Country series was such a success, that Nintendo went on to purchase a large minority stake in Rare, locking the studio to Nintendo platforms for the foreseeable future. 

While this was happening, the Super Mario series was cooking up something special of its own. The result was 1996’s Super Mario 64, which brought Mario into the 3D era for the very first time. It was rare that you’d find a gamer that hadn’t played the game, such was its popularity. Like Super Mario Bros. before it, Super Mario 64 was genre-defining. This one is close. Despite the greatness of Super Mario 64, we’re giving a point to the Donkey Kong series here. So many great games in such a short space of time is an achievement very worthy of recognition.

Mario 1:1 Donkey Kong

The 2000s

A promotional image for Super Mario Sunshine.
Mario saw a return to form in the 2000s.

©Nintendo – Original

In the battle of Mario vs. Donkey Kong, the 2000s were an interesting time, mostly because of the way the characters were used during this time.

It was an enormous period of innovation for the Super Mario series. Super Mario Sunshine was released in 2002, taking everything that was great about Super Mario 64 and expanding on it with new gameplay innovations. After a hiatus, Mario was back. New Super Mario Bros. followed for Nintendo DS, utilizing the console’s dual screens to improve the Mario formula. That’s not even mentioning 2007’s Super Mario Galaxy, which to this day remains one of the most critically-acclaimed Super Mario games of all time. Mario had both quality and quantity; it was a true golden era.

After a strong 1990s for the Donkey Kong series, the 2000s weren’t quite as fruitful. After Microsoft purchased Donkey Kong‘s original developer Rare, Nintendo relegated the character to low-budget spin-offs that did little to help his reputation. There was the Donkey Konga series of rhythm games, as well as standalone titles like DK: King of Swing and Donkey Kong Barrel Blast. It wasn’t a pretty time at all for the character. It’s an easy point for Mario.

Mario 2:1 Donkey Kong

The Final Donkey Kong Games

A promotional image for Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze.
The Donkey Kong series went out with a slight whimper.

©Nintendo – Original

After the 2000s, the 2010s saw another leap in graphical power on home consoles. The WiiU in particular presented more opportunities for both Mario and Donkey Kong to keep audiences hooked. So out of the duo, who took advantage? Let’s see.

The Super Mario series found itself with an extremely tough act to follow after the 2000s. It was such a stellar run of games, so how do you top that? Well… you don’t. The likes of Super Mario 3D World and Super Mario Maker were incredible games in their own right, but after titles like Super Mario Galaxy, reaching that standard consistently was always going to be a challenge. Still, it was clear by this point that the Super Mario formula had a floor on quality that has yet to be lowered.

Around this point, the Donkey Kong series would release its final two games to date: 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns and 2014’s Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Reviews for both were good, but not good enough to justify a long-term continuation of the series. Given the long history of the franchise, it would be a sad end to Donkey Kong if it wasn’t to return in the future. Despite Mario not living up to its own history during this time, it still tops what Donkey Kong had to offer gamers. One more point for Mario.

Mario 3:1 Donkey Kong

The Future of Mario vs. Donkey Kong

A promotional image for Super Mario Bros. Wonder.
One character has a much brighter future than the other.

©Nintendo – Original

It’s almost unfair to compare the future of this duo. Both are undeniable gaming icons, each with their own legacy in the industry. But right now, there’s only one among the two that seems to have a bright future with standalone titles; let’s take a look at the pair.

When it comes to Mario, there’s an argument to be made that the character is more popular than ever. He recently appeared in his own blockbuster movie that was an enormous hit at the box office, and this is without a mainline release since 2017. His enduring popularity continues to be massively impressive. With the upcoming Super Mario Bros. Wonder, the series will make its return to side-scroller platforming for the first time in over a decade, coming as always with a set of fresh gameplay mechanics to keep things interesting for returning players. After all, who hasn’t played a Super Mario game before?

Compare this to the Donkey Kong series. The character has seen no new release since 2014, with no announcement about anything forthcoming. At this point, he’s used more as a second-rate villain to Mario. In fact, the only time he seems to appear is in the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series of games. There’s no reason why Donkey Kong can’t make a triumphant return at some point in the future, but right now the facts are that Mario is looking at a much brighter future.

Mario 4:1 Donkey Kong

So there it is. Mario comes out on top in the ultimate battle of the gaming titans: Mario vs. Donkey Kong. Considering the legacy of the Super Mario games, it’s always going to be tough for anyone to beat him in a head-to-head battle.

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