It’s nice that Donkey Kong is still around, you know? Still starring in games all these many years since his 1981 debut, still a big part of Nintendo’s pantheon of videogame legends despite pretty much the only update to his character being that he put on a tie, still taking you through his monkey rap. Here in 2018 it’s difficult to imagine just how phenomenally successful the original Donkey Kong was, but a good indicator is that Donkey Kong is one of the most cloned and copied videogames of all time, and that’s what we’ll be looking at today – a collection of cover art from some of the many, many Donkey Kong rip-offs. If you’re a big fan of poorly-drawn cartoon gorillas – and let’s be honest, who isn’t? - then you’re in for a treat.

Donkey King, Dragon 32

First up is a release for the relatively obscure Welsh home computer, the Dragon 32, and yes, it is called Donkey King. The developer should have gone the whole hog and swapped out the gorilla for the Heehaw Rex, King of the Mules, because it would have given the game its own identity and diverted Nintendo’s lawyers from what is one of the least subtle Donkey Kong clones on this list. It’s got everything you associate with Donkey Kong proudly displayed on the cover: gorillas, damsels, barrels, and by the standards of these covers it’s quite competently drawn, even if Donkey King’s expression suggests that throwing barrels at people doesn’t fill him with the pure sense of joy that it used to. It’s always a shame when your hobby starts to feel like work.

King Kong, Atari 2600

A quick detour into the console market with King Kong, an interesting title because it’s a DK knock-off with an official King Kong license. Universal sued Nintendo after Donkey Kong’s original release, claiming that it infringed on their King Kong copyright by being about a large ape that takes a kidnapped woman to the top of a building. It sounds like a relatively solid legal base, but Nintendo won the case because Universal had previously (and successfully) argued that King Kong was public domain while they were trying to get their 1976 King Kong movie off the ground. Thus soundly hoisted by their own legal petard, Universal ended up putting their name on this King Kong game.
As the biplanes buzz around and a player character who looks a lot like Indiana Jones attempts to scale the Empire State Building, an enigmatic emotion flashes across Kong’s face. It’s not a pleasant emotion either. In fact, it’s the expression of someone watching their parents dance at a family wedding.

Kong, ZX Spectrum

Naturally King Kong is a popular theme for these DK clones, with a lot of them leaning more heavily on the themes of the classic ape-meets-girl tale than even Nintendo’s original does. This cover for Kong is no exception. It’s an okay piece of artwork, I suppose, and I like the perspective on Kong’s… paws? Wait, apes don’t have paws, they have hands, right? Yeah, it’s definitely hands. Any time I see a joke about people having their internet history exposed, I breathe a sigh of relief because I know that if anyone does go snooping through my search history they’re just going to find things like “do apes have paws” and “DK Rap video high quality.”

Kong Strikes Back, ZX Spectrum

Kong Strikes Back isn’t technically a Donkey Kong clone, because it’s actually a rip-off of Mr. Do’s Wild Ride. Still, it’s got platforms, ladder-climbing and a giant ape, so I think it warrants inclusion here. As you can see, it takes place in a theme park full of roller coasters, because even colossal gorillas can’t resist the lure of the Nemesis Inferno. This Kong has a more friendly look about him; something about the cast of his face suggests a more playful nature, although because he’s forty feet tall and weighs about as much as the Sheffield-to-Cleethorpes passenger train “playful” still equates to “terrifying.” Surprisingly small hands (not paws) for a giant ape, mind you.

Monkey Kong, TRS-80

That’s more like it. Those are some appropriately enormous hands, although when combined with the especially long arms and that face this Kong looks more like an orang-utan than a gorilla. That’s fine too, of course. You’ll get no monkey prejudice from me, and I’m sure this Kong can hurl barrels with the best of them.
The blurb’s trying to sell Monkey Kong as an accurate recreation of Nintendo’s original, but I’m not buying it. Just look at the way the characters are posed. All I can see it a gigantic orang-utan that is under Mario and Pauline’s control. I think it’s the blank, dead eyes. He has no style, he has no grace, this Kong also has no free will and his held under the thrall of his captors.

Crazy Kong, Commodore 64

Yep, he looks pretty crazy, and absolutely furious that some idiot is running across his freshly-polished metal walkway in dark-soled shoes. The real craziness comes from this cover’s Mario stand-in, however. What the hell is going on with his skin? The red blotchiness implies that either he’s got a monkey allergy or this metal floor is actually one big cheesegrater and he keeps falling over. Then there’s nose and look, someone has to say it so I guess it’ll be me – it’s kinda phallic. Maybe that’s why this Kong is so crazy; you would be too if some dick-nosed weirdo with a suppurating rash and an ear growing out of his temple started causing you grief.

Killer Gorilla, BBC Micro

Or M.C. Escher’s Donkey Kong, if you like. I’ve spend ten minutes trying to figure out the perspective in this image and all I’ve gotten out of it is a headache, so let’s instead focus on the fact that this game’s Mario analogue realised he had to fight a giant ape and turned to his trusty battle-axe to get the job done. Oh, and his very tight shorts. I’m choosing to read this image as the damsel reaching down towards the hero and saying “Jesus Christ, Terry, give me the axe and I’ll sort this out.”

Killer Gorilla, BBC Micro

This alternate Killer Gorilla cover may lack the raw drama of a modern-day barbarian in yellow socks, but at least it takes place in a world where the laws of physical space aren’t complete absent and the hero has swapped his axe for a more DK-appropriate hammer. Also, hey, that gorilla is actually shaped like a gorilla! Just a shame about it’s unnerving face, really. I didn’t know gorillas could dislocate their jaws.

Kongo Kong, Commodore 64

Kongo Kong is intense. The mad, staring eyes of a killer, those are. That fact that he seems to have been partially consumed by a fur-lined parka only increases the power of the piece. The mid-eighties really were a boom time for artists who specialised in nightmarish monkey faces.

Kong’s Revenge, ZX Spectrum

A real bump up in artistic proficiency for this cover, where a very Tom of Finland-esque construction worker who made the embarrassing error of shrinking all his clothes in the wash shoots a gorilla right in the nostril.  That’s his revenge for Kong’s revenge, you see. Obviously the artist has gone for an injection of sex appeal with the scantily-clad damsel, but who chained her up? Surely not Kong, with those hands he doesn’t have the manual dexterity to operate those shackles. So it must be like King Kong, where Fay Wray was chained up to attract Kong in the first place… but they placed the bait at the top of a partially-constructed skyscraper populated by construction workers so buff they’d make He-Man feel self-conscious about walking around without a shirt on? There’s no logic to this giant gorilla story, I tell you.

Krazy Kong, ZX Spectrum

A more cartoonish Kong for this cover, with an ape who’s figured out that climbing up things just makes it easier for the planes to shoot you so he’s sticking to ground level. There’s not much else to say about this cover, except that it’s definitely the one on this list that most looks like an illustration for a kid’s bedtime story.

Krazy Kong 64, Commodore 64

That’s… not a gorilla. I don’t know what that is. A sasquatch, possibly. There’s a thought – I’m surprised there weren’t more Donkey Kong rip-offs that replaced the ape with a yeti or something. Perhaps it was just accepted that the true appeal of Donkey Kong isn’t the charming graphics or fun, precise gameplay but simply that it’s got a big monkey. Whatever this thing is supposed to be, the guy in the red shirt isn’t getting out of this alive.

Wally Kong, ZX Spectrum

“Wally” is a word used to describe a foolish person in British slang, by the way – see also the pioneering computer game Everyone’s a Wally. Of course, that's not to say that this particular ape isn’t called Wally. He might well be. He might have even been bullied at Giant Ape High School for his unusual name, causing him to try to forge a new identity by installing a prosthetic mouth that does not blend at all well with the rest of his features. His gob looks like a pair of ninety-nine pence plastic Halloween fangs made from no-doubt toxic materials in a Chinese tat factory. No wonder the damsel is turning away from Wally with such a disdainful air. “Ai ‘ont ‘oo ‘ook at ee?” says Wally, but she can’t understand him. Because of the mouth thing. Oh well, at least this Kong bothered to comb his hair.

Panic Kong, MSX

Speaking of apes that made an effort, the star of Panic Kong has slapped on a bit of nail polish. Unfortunately, he looks a lot more like a beaver than a gorilla thanks to his big buck teeth and the dots below his nose that imply whiskers. Maybe that’s why he’s holding a tree, he picked it up as a snack. He also looks like someone set a coffee cup down on each of his nipples. You’re a weird one, Panic Kong.

King Cuthbert, TRS-80

Here’s King Cuthbert, which I think is the same game as Donkey King but ported to the TRS-80 and given a makeover to star Cuthbert, a character who appeared in several other home computer games of the time. This is definitely my least favourite cover on this list, because although it’s well-drawn I find these weird, chipmunk-faced homunculi difficult to look at. Like, are they children?  I can’t tell. They’ve got child-like proportions, but Cuthbert’s face is a Cabbage Patch doll of an accountant and if they are supposed to be kids then the girl has a disturbingly ample bosom. No, it’s all wrong and I sincerely hope that gorilla is going to rise up and reclaim his crown from King Cuthbert the Freakish.

Congo, MSX

Of course there were some DK clones that replace the gorilla on a building site with other animals and settings, like the circus-themed Congo. It’s still the same barrel-dodging, girder-climbing action, except the animal is a bear and you play as a circus ringmaster, so you get an additional soupçon of animal cruelty thrown in. At least the cover’s good, clean cartoon fun, a refreshing palate cleanser after King Cuthbert. The only real issue is that the ringmaster doesn’t appear to be wearing any trousers.

Fast Eddie, Commodore 64

Or how about Fast Eddie, which is, well, it’s… this. Victorian beachgoer leaps over googly-eyed blue domes. There are ladders which look very specifically like the climbing frames you’d sometimes get to use in PE class, when it was raining out and the teacher decided you were doing "gymnastics." Eddie holds a heart above his head. It’s his heart, and you can’t take it from him. Not even the dome that’s managed to grow extra-long legs has any chance of catching Fast Eddie. At the bottom of the cover it says “A product of Sirius” and I would not be surprised to learn it mean that this game came down from the stars.

Killer Kong, ZX Spectrum

Moving into the final stretch now with Killer Kong, a cover that has gained some notoriety for being pretty goddamn weird. I appreciate the stark simplicity of the piece – nothing more than a picture of a gorilla who’s just farted and is waiting for the smell to reach you. However, I have seen this cover multiple times in the past and I am only just now realising that the gorilla is wearing a monocle. This pushes the Killer Kong cover to the realms of true art.

Krazy Kong, ZX Spectrum

“Okay, so I drew the cover for our new Kong game...”
“Oh, cool. How’s it looking?”
“Not great. The gorilla looks… weird.”
“And very pink.”
“Well, just throw in a random drawing of a pyramid, that’s what I always do.”
“Do you think that’ll help?”
“Oh yeah, as long as you don’t make the pyramid too detailed.”
“Okay, got it, very simple pyramid. Thanks.”
“No problem.”

Kong, Commodore 64

For their addition to the world of DK clones, Anirog software decided to make their new game unforgettable by giving it a cover that must surely have caused nightmares in any child who saw it. Less a gorilla and more low-ranking demon who torments sinners who over-indulged in life by forever beating them with barrels of booze, Anirog’s Kong is has the unmistakeable air of a Ghanaian horror movie poster and honestly? I love it. I might have to watch Shakma again after this.
However, if you thought Anirog’s Kong offered the pinnacle of bonkers ape-game covers, you’d be… absolutely right. Not with this cover, mind you.

Kong, Commodore 64

That honour goes to this cover for Anirog’s Kong, which I’m sure you’ll agree is a masterpiece of absurdist art. My god, where can you start with this one? There’s Kong himself, with a face that’s just as terrifying as the last cover but in a completely different way – rather than “this monkey will eat my face” it’s an “I’ll wake up and this white-faced ape will be sitting at the end of my bed, silent but for the sound of its drool dripping on the floor” kind of horror. Especially unnerving is the contrast between the overall bulk of Kong and his minute physical features: a minuscule ear, a navel the size of a penny and the merest hint of a tiny, tiny nipple.
And then there’s the “hero,” who equally defies description. A Peppa Pig character dressed as Hugh Hefner is my best guess. What is with that nose? Is he a pig? A pig who gained a commission in the Royal Navy and ended up on an island of hideous mutant apes? And here’s another thing: I realise that those yellow shapes are supposed to be the staves of a barrel the hero has just smashed with him hammer. I know this. However, I can only see them as bananas, as though Kong is nothing but a colossal, banana-packed piñata and our hero has just bashed him open. This version of Pauline nonchalantly inspects her nails, impatient for this debacle to be over and done with.

And it is done. I can bear no more Kongs. I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at some of the many Donkey Kong clones out there, although I’m aware that “enjoyed” might not be the right word. Good night, and may your dreams be free of Anirog’s Kong.

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