Crocodile Country – A Fan Biography
There are a few different video game characters I might claim to be my favorite. But by virtue of being with me the longest, of inspiring my imagination and shaping my aesthetic and interests the most, there is one who deserves that title more than anyone else. He also happens to be a character that I spent many years expecting to never see again, and is now someone that Nintendo fans across the world have been talking about for months.
This is a personal history of falling into fascination with a crocodile king, of his gradual disappearance, and about how one day brought everything back into alignment. It is also an elaboration of the beauty and worth I see in the Donkey Kong series, which is intimately tied to K. Rool’s character for providing the driving thrust of the saga’s plotlines and a foil to what the Kongs represent.
I’ve been wanting to write this essay since August 8. It’s messy and personal and from the depths of my heart; a tribute to my favorite gaming series and what it’s meant to me, and how this year brought that love back to the forefront. My objective is partially to explain to my friends and followers the reasoning behind the depths of my happiness these past few months; after all, it’s not like I was yelling about Donkey Kong Country constantly before August, but it truly is my most ancient and important of fandoms, and I want to clarify how recent events have brought back a love in me that is primal and core to my very being. Another objective is to throw out some gratitude into the universe to all the people who made this possible, from those at Rare back in the day, to those working on Smash now.
But mostly I wrote this for fans of the King. I hope there are others who can relate to these feelings, and to my story.
There are some things you enjoy as a child that become woven into the very fabric of your being – part of your spirit and imagination, forever and ever, defining some of your tastes and interests for the rest of your life. Looking back, as an adult, you find yourself wondering: “Did something about this movie, this book, this game, this story, grab hold of what was always destined to be there in my brain? Or did it shape me?” Was it just part of my weird genetic makeup that I was always going to be the type of girl who loved pirates and crocodiles? Or did a certain series of games I played as a little child make me into that person? Did I happen to find a game franchise that was made for me, and I made for it… or did it help make me?
This is how I feel about Donkey Kong Country, and the answer is probably somewhere in the middle.
My first foray into the world of video games as a three-year-old was with Mario, and I loved his world and still do. But it wasn’t until I experienced the RPGs, much later on, that I had a true passion for the Mushroom Kingdom and all its residents. I next met Kirby, who – while a cute little friend and all – never became a big part of my life. But the first thing that really made me fall deep, deep in love with video games and what they could do, the first thing that gave me a world that my imagination wanted to inhabit and explore every cranny of, was a game full of monkeys and reptiles.
My parents rented Donkey Kong Country when I was around four or five, and there was something about it that captured my heart and pulled me in instantly. Perhaps because it was the most “realistic” looking game I’d yet played, with those pre-rendered graphics making it all feel like a universe that actually existed just behind the screen, with its rainy jungles and background bird-chirps and sunsets. Perhaps it was the incredible music. But primarily, I think it was something else.
Although I could barely read, I made out enough of the story and vivid descriptions in the manual with help from my parents. Did you know the plot of Donkey Kong Country, a game which at its heart is about a bunch of lizards stealing some bananas, is four pages long? They didn’t have to put in that much effort, but they did, and to a little kid it was an epic tale. I didn’t really understand what was meant by Cranky being the “original Donkey Kong”, but I knew there was history here. This world felt full of depth and secrets, and I’m not just talking about the bonuses.
It doubtless helps that I was getting slightly older as well, able to think a bit deeper than a toddler’s thoughts, but I believe it was the first time I comprehended characters in video games as characters, who had personalities and goals and wants and relations to each other, instead of just silly little figures running around on a screen. DK and Diddy were loyal friends, Cranky was an old grump but he clearly wanted to encourage them in his own way, Funky was chill, Candy was… helfpul? And K. Rool… well…
A funny thing happened when I played this game (or mostly watched my dad play it, at the time), an unexpected thing. I loved the Kongs, yes, and I wanted to know and imagine more about them. But I found myself drawn to the villains even more. They were fascinating and diverse, these crocodile people. Some of them strong, some of them fat, some of them red and some blue and some brown, some of them small, all of them wonderful to me. They were militaristic, they were industrial, they were pirates. They had so much going on, and I wanted to know all of it. What was their side of the story; what did they want with bananas anyway? Where did they come from and why did they do what they did? Were they truly evil, all of them? It was the first time I felt a bit bad about charging through waves of enemies with no mercy, watching their goofy expressions and hearing their iconic grunts as they flew offscreen. They were charming to me.
And here I was born as a villain-lover, one who wants to know what the antagonists are up to, how and why they make their plans. This has been a defining trait of myself as an artist and gamer ever since. And the first true favorite game character I can ever remember having – the first time I was conscious of the thought, “Well, I like everybody, but I like THIS person the MOST”… well, strangely enough, that was the big bad. That was King K. Rool.
We didn’t own Donkey Kong Country for a while, though we rented it more than once. After I fell in love with the series, the one my parents actually bought for me was the one that had just come out – Donkey Kong Country 3. It’s a game that gets some crap for failing to live up to its predecessors in various ways, and while that’s partially deserved (it’s now my least favorite of the original trio), it’s nevertheless very special to me. It was the first game I was able to progress in significantly without my parents’ help (hey, I was just shy of six years old). Sometimes I can’t remember the names of its levels but I remember how they’re laid out, how they feel, where the secrets are… I can see some of them even now when I close my eyes. Dixie became my other favorite DK character immediately, and as a little kid I used to talk about growing my hair out as long as hers and flying around. It meant a lot to me to have a game named after and starring a girl, and looking back, I think it was even more important to me than I could have possibly realized or articulated as a child. Dixie remains my second favorite character in the series. Yet the best remained he who was frightening and fascinating, the king, the scientist.
And then it happened. Some time when I was five or six years old, we rented Donkey Kong Country 2. As the last one I played, for me it was the culmination of the series, and boy did it feel like it.
It was the most perfect, incredible thing I had ever seen.
This is where the Kremlings were from, and where their pirate side was out in full force. It was a land teeming with danger and beauty in equal measure. Ships, beehives, a swamp, a volcano, a theme park, mines, and brambles… those brambles. As a family, we could not in three days get past Bramble Scramble, about halfway through the game (something which I can now do in 20 minutes and glitch my way out of). Time was up; we had to turn the game back in to the rental store.
I was not a spoiled child. My family wasn’t rich and I understood I wasn’t going to get everything I wanted. I was not one for tantrums. But when my parents told me the game had to go back – that was it, we weren’t going to see the rest of it – I lost my mind. I cried. I yelled. Put simply, I threw a fit. And that was because I didn’t want to say goodbye; I had never, ever, ever loved a game so much. To this day that has not changed. I am not sure if the Donkey Kong Country series is the main thrust behind my lifelong love of the animal kingdom, but I’m absolutely sure this game is why I love pirates. I had bonded with Diddy’s Kong Quest; I had chosen it, and it had chosen me. It was my favorite and it has been ever since.
It might have been the next day, or maybe it was a few days later… all I remember is that it was very soon. My mom picked me up from kindergarten and told me she had a surprise in the car. I looked inside the bag and there it was: my very own copy of Donkey Kong Country 2. Perhaps it was wrong of my parents to reward a tantrum, and yet clearly they could see how much the game meant to me, and I couldn’t be more thankful back then or today. That cartridge is currently sitting about four feet away from me and is the one I speedrun with. It is probably the most special and personally valuable object I have. I would grab it in case of a fire sooner than objects that cost hundreds of dollars. If anything ever happened to that cartridge, if it stopped working, I would react as to a death.
There’s a lot to the Donkey Kong Country series that, unfortunately, is almost impossible to pick up on from any outside representation of DK. From Mario sports spinoffs to even Smash Bros itself, you usually get jungle, jungle, jungle, or jungle ruins, and the music is one of eight thousand variations of DK Island Swing. Now, that’s a brilliant song, and the Kongs DO live in the jungle, but there’s really so much more to it and it pains me that the complexity never gets showcased. I don’t consider DK my favorite game series because I really love jungles. That’s only part of it.
At its heart, Donkey Kong Country has always been about what I might call “cartoony realism”. The characters are goofy and light-hearted, and there’s no shortage of nonsensical video game logic, yet the whole thing is grounded in reality. While Mario’s wonderland of growth-enhancing mushrooms and strange species is iconic and delightful, and Zelda plunges us into a high-fantasy kingdom, Donkey Kong is a celebration of what exists in our own beautiful, fascinating world. As a child, when I got to visit the zoo, I would always most enthusiastically look for the rhinos, the ostriches, and my favorite animal: the crocodiles. That’s because through its fun presentation, DKC got me invested in things that actually exist. I’m sure I would have always been an animal lover, so the DK series existed in a feedback loop for me: it made me love real-world nature, and the more I loved nature for what it is, the more I loved the games. That holds true to this day.
A fairly obvious theme that runs through the original DKC games, particularly the first and the third, is the clash of nature versus technology. The Kongs live harmoniously with nature, from their friendship with other animals, to their structures made out of wood and rope. The Kremlings, however, are an encroachment into this peaceful order. They represent disruption from the start: even the ancient temples on DK Island in the first game are not dedicated to monkeys, but to crocodiles, showing that they’ve viewed themselves as being in some way “above” nature and worthy of worship for a long time. More recently, they’ve planted their factories on the Kongs’ own island, spewing out pollution and making a part of the map grey-green and miserable. Despite my fascination with them, they are truly villains, and this is what makes them so. It is not just their stealing of bananas, at least at first. Their antagonism with the Kongs likely goes back further than K. Rool. From their factories to their piracy, it is their desire to take from, and their refusal to work with, the world around them that makes them a frightening group.
Donkey Kong Country 2, however, is in my opinion the apex of the series’ poignancy. It is a story of revenge, of impermanence, of hubris leading to destruction. This game contains a diversity of environments, almost none of them jungle, and most of them balancing hostility with eerie beauty – from honey-soaked beehives where larvae wriggle and Zingers hang out watching you from the background, to haunted forests, to wrecked ships, to a run-down theme park. And all of this is destined for destruction.
DKC2 is where the villain truly comes into his own. My favorite thing about K. Rool is his constant reinvention of himself; never giving up, his psyche rises like a phoenix and forms itself into a new persona after each defeat. Calling himself a Kaptain in the second game (and while I love him in any form, his pirate self has always been my favorite), it is no longer about bananas for him. In fact, while there ARE (somehow) bananas on Crocodile Isle, the instruction manual specifically mentions that they were NOT stolen from the Kongs. The Kongs even consider – but reject – using their own as ransom; for it is Donkey Kong himself who is stolen. This is a game about getting even. And so is Donkey Kong Country 3, and so is DK64. It’s only in the first DKC that the crocodile just wanted some fruit. Everything else is a long, escalating arc of revenge and megalomania that spirals from there, with a clear timeline that can be followed. It is the story of primates who just want to live in peace and a reptile who will not stop until he makes them pay for his humiliation.
The Kaptain’s theme – Crocodile Cacophony – lacks the swagger of Gangplank Galleon and its delightful piratey intro. It’s an intimidating song, constantly driving at something: the sound of a heart that beats only for revenge. It is the song of a man who managed to kidnap the rival who bested him and will shoot him point-blank with a blunderbuss while he’s tied up and defenseless. It is the song of a person who, after one defeat, will challenge the Kongs one more time in what is clearly the most holy of places the Kremlings have. And from his own hubris, from this mad attempt at a bloodbath in a sacred shrine, the Kremlings’ own King manages to destroy their entire homeland.
For in the end, K. Rool manages to get himself knocked into the Kore, the mysterious energy that gave rise to his people in the first place. And from overloading that energy, the island tears itself asunder. The Kongs manage to escape, and DK, Diddy and Dixie watch from back on DK Island as Crocodile Isle collapses. This is not treated in a goofy or congratulatory way (something the GBA remake changes, which is one reason I refuse to acknowledge it), but rather, simple silence as the melancholy Kongs recognize the tragedy of destruction. At the end, K. Rool can be heard laughing as he escapes, glad that he himself has survived. The screen stays silent at the sunset as the Kongs look at the empty ocean where an entire island once stood.
This is an ending that, even though I’ve learned to speedrun it, gets me every time. The fact that my favorite place in the history of gaming is gone forever is powerful symbolism. It seems to represent all those special places and times from childhood that you can revisit again and again in memory. When replaying DKC2, you can call back Crocodile Isle. But in reality, you have to realize it’s gone. You can never truly go back, not ever.
For Christmas when I was eight years old, I received a strange gift. One that I don’t remember asking for, or even being really aware of its existence beforehand (because I probably would have asked for it if so). It was a yellow cartridge in a jungle-green, translucent console. And from the chemical reaction of these two seemingly innocuous elements sprang the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of my gaming life, as frustrating as it was captivating: the massive, maddening, broken and wonderful beast that is Donkey Kong 64.
DK64 is not what, these days, I would call a great game. But at the time, nothing had ever blown my mind quite so much. It was my first 3D experience and it just so happens that it would be hard to pick a more intimidating entry point. It was hard enough just to figure out how to navigate the 3D space, and I well remember my family spending an hour on Christmas morning trying to get out of the tutorial level. It was silly, yet magical, and is one of my favorite gaming memories of all time. Add to that four more characters as the game expanded, and a wealth of barrels, pads, ground-pound switches and gun switches, levers, balloons, animal buddy crates, and more scattered throughout the massive worlds. It was the overwhelming 3D realm that killed my parents’ interest in gaming, and looking back I have to guess that starting with DK64 in particular didn’t help. As my little brother and I were getting older, the N64 became the first console that we truly explored on our own, only calling in Mom and Dad for anything very hard (and I deeply, deeply apologize to my father for making him beat the DK arcade).
DK64 is a mess of contradictions; something whose flaws I plainly recognize, but that was nevertheless a definitive experience for me. It would probably take an entire essay on its own to explain how I felt as a kid, exploring levels and finding stuff I had not the slightest clue how to interact with yet, wondering how to obtain the treasure beyond, and the satisfaction of unlocking each of its mysteries. When I played Breath of the Wild, I joked that DK64 was my original open-world game, but it wasn’t really a joke. Despite the self-contained worlds, it felt limitless. I can look back critically on the game now, and even as a kid it was full of frustration, but back then it was part of my life as a DK fan. I couldn’t even really parse yet the things I feel now about the game having a different tone and “mood” to it than DKC. It was simply the next step in the adventure that I accepted readily. The Kongs were there to guide me into the next dimension of gaming. There had never been such a huge and revolutionary shift in my conception of video games, and barring huge advancements in VR, I doubt there ever will be again.
The N64 saw the blossoming of most of my great loves. I became almost as big a Banjo-Kazooie fan as a DK one, I entered the rich world of Hyrule, and the Mario universe exploded in depth when I played Paper Mario. But I still played my SNES sometimes, because I still loved the DKC trilogy more than anything. And then at the start of the Gamecube era, something… bad happened. Something very bad.
The selling of Rare was a horrible blow to me. I’ve described it before as the feeling of a dear friend moving far away, and coming to terms with the fact I’d probably never hang out with them again. Banjo and Kazooie were those friends I wouldn’t see, but at least they remained in good hands (although I could never have foreseen the path they would take). But there was something even worse about the situation. Rare was the spirit and life of the Donkey Kong world. I knew that DK was staying with Nintendo, but it would never be the same.
And it wasn’t, for a while. I didn’t want Donkey Konga. I didn’t want Jungle Beat. I wanted nothing to do with bongos; there was nothing for me there. (And now that I’ve played Jungle Beat very recently, I can honestly say… it was fine. But I still don’t think I missed much.) There was a little Game Boy Advance game I just played a for the first time a few days ago that I think I would have rather loved, but I didn’t have a GBA.
Donkey Kong has never not been my favorite game series. But between DK64 and Returns, it basically didn’t exist for me. I don’t really want to relive that era, but I will, a bit. Let me paint you a depressing picture. I was very active on the internet by then, and in Nintendo fan spaces, from forums to websites to Nintendo Power itself, a common reaction to the Rare buyout was to assure people that they were never that good in the first place There was some quote that went around from Miyamoto about how people only cared about DKC for the graphics, and apparently he walked that back at some point or something, but I don’t care much about one person’s opinion either way even if it’s someone like him. The developers of Jungle Beat were proud of starting “fresh”, even putting in animal buddy analogues that could have easily been Rambi or Squawks, but weren’t, for no real reason. Everything Rare did for the DK series seemed on track to get buried in the past, a relic of a bygone era, and many people were glad for it.
This is the era I grew up in as an adolescent. In middle school and even into high school, I tried to suppress the nerd I was around my peers, thinking that I would be vastly unpopular if people knew that I was a girl who was still into video games. Instead I had few friends anyway, because I was gonna be an awkward nerd no matter what, but now I was one who shot in the foot my chances to find people with similar interests to me. And on the internet, I dealt with popular sentiment that the things which mattered most to me were dead forever, and people were kicking the corpses. I still had spaces with people who shared my loves, from deviantArt to a few forums; I was never alone. But I sensed that they were always niche passions in niche spaces, and I resigned myself to that reality.
Of course, time was passing, and I was growing up. Worrying about video games was just one facet of a busy life. But bear in mind this period, because it’s of vital importance.
Now can you imagine how I felt when – as a college student – I heard about Donkey Kong Country Returns? I almost cried. There were no Kremlings, and it wasn’t Rare, but when I played this game, it felt almost right. It was 90% of the way there. A little bland in places, but beautiful and ambitious and fun. I played it with my new boyfriend, who had caught my interest by playing the Gangplank Galleon intro on his accordion after band practice. At that time I ran over to him and shouted my first words to him, “I LOVE YOU!” and offered to be his accordion fangirl. We started dating about two weeks later and are still together after eight years.
And then… then there was Tropical Freeze. With Dave Wise back at the musical helm and a host of more inventive environments, with Dixie and Cranky (and eventually Funky) along for the ride, this finally ACTUALLY felt like Donkey Kong Country had returned. It lived up to the huge, huge shoes the series needed to fill in my mind. It is one of the most beautiful, creative 2D platformers ever made, and while nothing will ever match DKC2 in my heart, it may well be the better game.
I like the Snowmads. Fredrick himself is pretty lame and a lot of the earlier bosses are better than he is, but as a group, they’re inventive and fun. As hard as it was for me to believe, having gone through the period I wrote about earlier, it was starting to seem like people were warming up to the concept of “Donkey Kong Country” again, and everything it entailed. What Rare had created was being built upon by people who cared, from the gameplay to the spirit of the world: the silly yet beautiful and detailed tribute to nature, cartoony yet grounded in reality, filled with humor and life. I was happy with this, very happy. I felt almost complete.
But I would never, ever, ever see him again. I began to take this as a given. The farther Retro went with their great games, and doing it all without the Kremlings, the less likely it seemed my crocodile pirates would ever show their faces in the future. And that was… well, it wasn’t ok, really. I missed them. I loved them and I always would. But I recognized that different studios take things in different creative directions. If people didn’t want to use them, well, it wasn’t anyone’s place to beg.
But I missed my king and he was never coming back. I felt it in the depths of my soul. We were never totally getting out of those Dark Times without making some sacrifices, without tossing some ballast. Some things that Rare had made were actually just going to be left behind in the depths, forever. After all, there was an alternate channel by which he could show up, and this too had proved a disappointment throughout the years.
Let me talk about Smash Bros.
I got Super Smash Bros when it was fairly new. I fell in love with this silly, wonderful game where polygonal Nintendo heroes ran around bopping each other and breaking targets. I played it incessantly with my brother and we made up stupid lyrics to some of the tunes. I wanted to know more about all of these characters, and that eventually led to me getting into Earthbound, Star Fox and Metroid.
And not long afterward, I met Melee, and played that game even MORE. Everyone knows that while the original SSB was fun, Melee was… something else. Melee is what Smash is now: a true celebration of everything that Nintendo is. From the widened roster to the concept of trophies, it was a living museum. And there was something new in this game: not just heroes who had already been playable in their own franchises, but villains were here as well! Bowser, Ganondorf… immediately as a kid, my mind went there, of course. “Wouldn’t it be cool if… maybe in the next game, you know… him! My favorite!”
Oh, the Brawl hype cycle. Joyful at times, brutally disappointing at others, and boy did it feel endless. The Brawl Dojo is what dragged my sick, depressed, sleep-deprived high school butt out of bed every morning before band practice. And every day I looked, and hoped, and waited to see one thing. One crocodile.
And of course he never came.
By Smash 4 my hope had died. He hadn’t even been in a game for 6 years by the time that game (…those games?) were set to come out. Oh, I didn’t want to deny completely that it MIGHT happen… I mean, maybe they thought the DK series needed some more representation after all (although that was a franchise that Smash never seemed to look at with an especially deep or loving eye). It was possible, but why get your hopes up?? Why? The DK fan community I was in at the time was riven with bitterness and nastiness at the roster. I personally found a lot to love in the new additions, because even though there was only one character I had ever really and truly wanted, I had given up. I took what was I offered, and I was alright with it.
Now, the Smash Ballot.
I voted for K. Rool. Of course I voted for K. Rool. The ballot gave me a spark of hope, but I still felt like I might as well have filled out a physical ballot, lit it on fire and thrown the smoldering ash to the wind. Nintendo was dedicated to leaving the big boy in the past, that much seemed so clear.
And yet something magical happened with this ballot. The fans, they started to come out of the woodwork. It seemed… he was popular. He was beloved. Estimates of the poll results showed the King was huge in both the west and Japan. As someone whose life on the internet was forged during a time of “Rare is bad and they should feel bad!”, I experienced what I can only recognize in retrospect as cognitive dissonance. I thought I only saw people campaigning for him because of confirmation bias… like I was already in Rare and DK fan communities, so of course I was going to see people who cared. But the poll results… how could I explain that? People don’t LIKE the classic DKC games! People don’t LIKE Kremlings! People don’t LIKE King K. Rool… isn’t that how it is?? Isn’t that the truth? Isn’t it?? But… but maybe… but maybe things were changing… maybe they do…
Maybe time and emulation and speedrunning and the virtual console and Returns and Tropical Freeze and heck, even memes about the cartoon, had brought people around to the DKC games again. Maybe the people like me who had grown up loving Donkey Kong Country were standing up now. Maybe people had always liked those games, had liked him, and for a while, the voices that were the meanest and harshest and least forgiving were simply the loudest…
But a wave of fan support was one thing. A gratifying, validating thing, but… I still didn’t think he’d ever be back. You can tell Nintendo what you want all you’d like, but if it has no relevance to their company today or going forward, why would they put it in? He got a Mii costume in 4. I wanted to believe that meant something for the future, but I’m not sure I really did.
I admire the people who campaigned for him, who raised awareness and told other people to vote on the ballot, who never gave up hope. Because we KNOW now that made a difference. Because we’ve heard that Nintendo had no clue how beloved and missed he still was, beforehand…. hell, even I didn’t know. And because I myself did not put in that effort. My faith was crushed into dust. Even when I talked about wanting him in personally, it had the air of a sad, hopelesss, self-deprecating joke. Perhaps not obviously on the surface, but always in my own mind.
Ultimate came along and I was happy for Ridley. I was overjoyed that “everyone is here!” But Sakurai said to not expect too many newcomers and why would we get a character who had been totally missing for a decade, and hadn’t been in a truly significant game for almost twenty years?
In the early summer someone in my stream chat said something like, “My friend doesn’t want K. Rool to be in Smash.” And I responded, “Well, tell your friend they’re in luck.”
August 8th is now a holiday for me.
The Direct was at seven in the morning where I lived. I woke up ten minutes early, brushed my teeth, and settled back into bed in my pajamas with my laptop on my chest to host the video and react with my friends.
Castlevania meant nothing to me yet, although it does now. So the earlier part of the presentation was fun and exciting – Luigi died in front of our eyes, after all – but not personally meaningful. Then… oh hey, a Klaptrap! That couldn’t… that doesn’t mean anything, does it? I mean Klaptraps have been stage hazards in Smash since Melee. I didn’t have time to process my thoughts on that one, to tease out my hope from my cynicism. There was too much else going on.
And then, just when we thought it was over… at the very end…
Epic images of heroes versus villains were displayed. Would we be getting another villain? My heart began to slam instantly and my brain overloaded. It couldn’t, it couldn’t, it couldn’t… No… I couldn’t get my hopes up, it…
It was DK and Diddy… and somehow my heart was pounding even FASTER. It couldn’t be, it couldn’t be, it-
IT WAS HIM!!!
It was Dedede.
NO IT WAS HIM!!!
IT WAS MY KING!!
I’ve joked several times since that while watching this trailer, I ascended to a higher plane of existence. But it’s kind of true. I lost control of my thoughts and I ceased to see or comprehend what was going on. I had to watch the trailer again later that day after realizing that I hadn’t actually seen a lot of the actual gameplay part of it. I grasped just enough to know that he was there, he looked wonderful, and he was absolutely perfect.
Part of me had always feared that if he did get into Smash, he would be represented like Smash represented the DK series overall: so much more simplistic and one-dimensional than it deserved. I would have still been happy, of course, but I would have ended up doing the work of explaining to people who he really was, since the game didn’t do that itself. I saw him being represented as a feral-minded growly beast of a crocodile, a dumb brute who bites and claws at people. Or I saw him being portrayed as a total bumbling goof. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that they would nail him so perfectly. His unstable brilliance, his swagger and cockiness and his utter maniacal joy at himself and every part of his huge body and diabolical brain, and a heart fueled by anger and a lust for revenge. He’s the perfect mix of goofy and ruthless, just as he should be.
I look at him and I don’t see a character who’s gone through a rock tumbler of Nintendo’s interpretation and come out smooth and sanitized and bereft of all his complex details. I look into his bloodshot eye and I see a character who was researched and lovingly recreated and truly brought back to life. I see him with his pirate blunderbuss and his mad scientist jetpack and his boxing gloves and his blast-o-matic and the little goofy arm flail he does when he’s falling and his strut-walk and his ecstatic evil. I see the ragged cape and the scars of a monarch with a long history, who’s been through so much defeat and humiliation but always gets back up. I see the pirate scientist boxer king, the beautiful mess of contradictions and warring personalities and ambition and experimentation and never giving up. I see someone I recognize and have loved for almost my entire life. I see the villain who’s an old, old friend. I see the King of the Kremlings.
I see my favorite game character of all time and he will never be forgotten again.
There’s something I realized in my king’s long absence. And that was the way Rare set up the arc of their DK games made his disappearance logically reasonable. Unlike, say, Bowser, K. Rool experiences actual setbacks and consequences for his failures. After DKC2, his destruction of the Kremling homeland lost him almost all his followers, meaning he had to travel to a new region and straight-up go into hiding, using the proxy of a robot that was his own creation, to gain any new support at all. His plan to destroy DK Island in DK64 is a direct one-to-one revenge scheme, and by building his people a new home – however ugly and artificial – he managed to get some loyalty back. But after even that failed, it makes sense that he only pulled off fairly small-time schemes with a few loyal minions in the years to come, before falling off the scene forever. Despite being a king, he does not command unlimited loyalty from his own species. The Kremlings will abandon their own ruler if he leads them to repeated destruction, and many of them have. If the Mario games suddenly decided to stop using Bowser, it would make little sense, but K. Rool disappearing from the Kongs’ lives is logically sound. No matter his determination, he himself is a wounded animal who can’t mount a revenge scheme with no army. It was painful, and yet, because it made canonical sense, these long years have been easier to deal with. And it is in these long years that he has been biding his time.
Now he’s back.
We don’t know what the future holds. But personally, I’ve gone from being ecstatic and grateful to see the King again at all, to fully expecting that he’ll be in something else before we know it. As much as I love Smash, when he regains his throne as an actual main villain is the moment that will crack me like an egg and make all the tears flow out. Returns and Tropical Freeze have made up a new set of villains each time, so why not return to the classics?
The past four months have felt like falling into an alternate dimension. Being able to make little doodles of my favorite crocodile, or even just goofy meme posts, and get hundreds of retweets; to see people all over social media with K. Rool avatars… I can still hardly believe this is happening. I don’t need lots of other people to validate the weird things that I’m into, the things that have shaped me as a person and which I care passionately about… but… I’m not going to lie. It is nice. It is very, very nice.
But the most amazing thing is that his comeback has been so thorough, so well-received, that sometimes it feels he was never gone at all. After all, he was never gone from my mind. And now, with Smash, he is enshrined as a Nintendo character of great importance and Donkey Kong’s timeless rival. What’s more, with the incredible new DK series remixes in Smash, from Snakey Chantey to Crocodile Cacophony, and from every perfectly-recreated aspect of his character, I finally feel that Sakurai and team are representing the series with the depth it deserves. The joyful, epic and far-reaching saga that is Donkey Kong Country has finally truly come to Smash, and it comes in the form of a reptile ruler who is equal parts funny and frightening.
Long Live the King.