Donkey Kong refers to two separate gorillas, a grandfather and a grandson, who have a penchant for throwing barrels at foes. The older Kong is a brash and pompous Gorilla who likes to take matters into his own hands. His grandson, however, is a more laid back gorilla who enjoys, almost to a fault, the rest and relaxation that comes with living on a lush tropical island where everyone, except your disproving granddad, is happy to follow your lead.
Donkey Kong Sr was first introduced in the arcade game Donkey Kong, in which a stout plumber who would later come to be known as Mario tried to rescue a pretty lady who was never seen again from the grumpy gorilla the game was named after. It was a huge success and spawned sequels which introduced new characters to the franchise, such as his son, Donkey Kong Jr, who bravely rescued him from the captivity of Mario after the fall out from the first game.
The original DK, after duking it out with a bee keeper in Donkey Kong 3, grew old to become the elderly Cranky Kong of the current Donkey Kong Country franchise. His grandson, Donkey Kong Jr., dropped the Jr. from his name and assumed the role of the leader of the Kong crew before the events of Donkey Kong Country.
The new Donkey Kong had a much different attitude from his old man. While Donkey Kong Sr. was brash and powerful, Donkey Kong Jr. was a lot more laid back and tended to take everything lightly. This ultimately let an entire army of reptiles rob him blind of his bananas and kidnap his then sidekick in training, Diddy Kong.
He was soon tasked with living up the legacy the name brings with it and reclaim his bananas hoard. After doing so, twice even, he thought he'd proven himself a legit video game hero and was more entitled than ever to long naps on the beautiful shores of his tropical home.
Again, his laid back attitude leads to him being kidnapped, after which Diddy had to man up and become a proper video game hero himself, with the help of his girlfriend Dixie. Donkey Kong would go on to repeat this mistake numerous times, however his ability to get things done goes a long way in endearing him in the hearts of all the inhabitants of Donkey Kong Island, except perhaps Cranky Kong.
This matter has always been somewhat hard to figure out due to several things, the most major one being that the stewarts of Donkey Kong have changed their minds multiple times throughout the years about one simple question: Is the current Donkey Kong the GRANDSON of the original Donkey Kong or the SON? Originally Rare said that it was the former (grandson), but by DK64 they'd decided it ought to be the later (son). However when Retro took over the series they reverted it back to grandson.
Currently this is as close to the official explanation as can be determined: Current Donkey Kong is Cranky Kong's biological Grandson HOWEVER Cranky raised him as a son. And, specifically, when he raised him it was not in a barn. Thus explaining why sometimes grandson is used and other times son is used.
Note that some things have never been in dispute. Cranky Kong's entire character is based around being a grumpy old fart from the NES era who can't get over times changing, he is the original Donkey Kong. This has never been contradicted.
What happened to the missing generation no one knows. Who are DK's parents? Perhaps we'll never know. Some believe that while the DK Jr from the Arcade games is DK's father. However there is evidence otherwise - In DKC's manual DK is described an established Video Game Hero despite being a new character. Only way this makes sense is if he starred in DK Jr as a lad.
Role in the DKC series
In 1994, Rare made Donkey Kong Country, the first notable game to star the gorilla after nearly 10 years. It introduced the world of Donkey Kong Island, with its lush pre-rendered scenery and the then mysterious Kremling army. It featured as a younger, more likable Donkey Kong to the older, grumpy gorilla who previously bore the name. The original DK, at this time old and weathered, constantly insulted and degraded everything established in the manual and the game itself to add a little flavor to the proceedings. They also added a tie based on a sketch by Miyamoto himself.
In Donkey Kong Country, DK and Diddy set off to recover their stolen banana hoard from the clutches of K. Rool and his army. In it, Donkey Kong had several abilities Diddy did not have. While Diddy was faster, Donkey Kong had the ability to beat Klumps, Krushas, and Armys by jumping on them once, while Diddy did not. He also held his barrels over his head rather than at his side, and could pound the ground to reveal tiny insignificant secrets. Following a trail of bananas, they tracked the Kremling Army to the Gangplank Galleon, K. Rool's pirate ship.
After a three phase fight including false credits, they reclaimed their bananas and headed home happily. Shortly thereafter, Cranky Kong alleged that he was only able to do it because of the game's new fangled graphics, and challenged him to do it all again on the Gameboy in Donkey Kong Land. Donkey Kong obliged, and tracked K. Rool to Big Ape City where he was defeated once again.
By Donkey Kong Country 2, two successful video game romps had gotten to Donkey Kong's head. Much to his elder's chagrin, he enjoyed long naps on the beach while Cranky thought he should be abducting maidens like a good gorilla. DK shrugged him off, and had his nice little rest, which of course lead to him being abducted by the very angry legion of Kremlings he had embarrassed twice in a row. Faced with a ransom of the banana hoard they'd just spent the last game recovering, Diddy Kong and his girlfriend Dixie set off to find him at the quite ominous Crocodile Isle. After scaling the isle, they saw him tied up on the end of a rope in Stronghold Showdown before he was yanked up to K. Rool's escape vehicle, the Flying Kroc.
However, thanks to it being tangled in some brambles, they were able to climb aboard and rescue DK - who in the end delivered the final blow. Donkey Kong was proud of his little buddy having successfully overcome everything K. Rool threw at him, and ultimately joined him and Dixie to watch Crocodile Isle sink into the ocean. It rose again in Donkey Kong Land 2, but that's a different, though quite similar, story.
In Donkey Kong Country 3, Donkey Kong was again kidnapped with his sidekick (and bona fide video-game hero) while looking around the Northern Kremisphere. While the Kremlings had apparently impeached K. Rool for his repeated failures, it seemed that they were up to their same old tricks with the leadership of KAOS, a large powerful robot. Ultimately, K. Rool was revealed to be the mastermind all along, with DK and Diddy being KAOS's power source. Following the latest triumph over K. Rool, the rescued Kongs were quite impressed by how Dixie Kong managed a good old fashioned adventure. Cranky, unsurprisingly, still wasn't convinced.
Beyond the DKC series
After the third DKC game, Donkey Kong was set to return to a playable role in Rare's Donkey Kong 64 for the Nintendo 64. In it K. Rool, back in charge of the Kremlings, plotted to destroy Donkey Kong Island, kidnap his friends, and to top it off, steal DK's Golden Banana Hoard. Donkey Kong, after being informed by Squawks, set off to rescue the missing Kongs, relocate his bananas, and stop K. Rool.
As it was modeled after the Banjo-Kazooie franchise, the characters of DK64 each learned a variety of moves. DK had his signature barrel roll of course, but he also learned to use a pad that propelled him into barrel cannon levels, pull levers that do miscellaneous nonsense, and turn invincible as long as there were Crystal Coconuts to burn. He also had a Coconut Gun that fired coconuts, and a pair of bongos that KOed every Kremling around when played and had special effects when played on a matching pad. Finally, he had the ability to collect five of every level's golden bananas, as well as every yellow regular banana, yellow blueprint, and yellow Banana Coin.
However, after the switch to the Gamecube, Donkey Kong fell into a bit of a rut. While at first it would've seemed that the franchise was going fine with titles such as Donkey Kong Racing, Donkey Kong: Coconut Crackers, and Diddy Kong Pilot, they were all scrapped or became something else when Rare was bought by Microsoft.
The DK franchise has had a hard time getting back on its feet since then. In 2004 Nintendo took a shot at it with the Donkey Konga series, which involved a bongo peripheral and Donkey Kong playing terrible music on it. It was followed by Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, a platformer that used the bongo peripheral. It was odd in that while Donkey Konga sat snugly in the established canon of Donkey Kong Island and the Kong Krew, Jungle Beat decided it would be better if it threw every characterization of Donkey Kong in the Country series into the wind and start over fresh with a brash and violent ape more similar to Donkey Kong Sr. than Donkey Kong Jr. It also thought it might as well ditch every character and location featured in the series, featuring nothing recognizable for fans of the DKC series.
The old canon however reappeared in Japanese developer Paon's DK: King of Swing, which featured the extended Kong family, including DK's deceased grandmother, Wrinkly, who had died between DKC3 and DK64. K. Rool's latest plan involved stealing the Jungle Medals, which were going to be rewards for a Kong family sports event or something. This put Donkey Kong in the position to do what he more or less had done since DKC - defeat the Kremlings and take back what's his. Paon went on to develop two more Donkey Kong games which were released in the same year: a faster and more robust sequel to DK: King of Swing, DK: Jungle Climber, and Donkey Kong: Barrel Blast, a motion-controlled racing game for the Nintendo Wii.
The Return of Donkey Kong Country
In November 2010, Donkey Kong Country Returns, a game developed by Retro Studios, came out bringing back the Donkey Kong Country series. In it Donkey Kong and Diddy were tasked with retrieving their banana hoard from a race of Tikis who have hypnotized much of Donkey Kong Island's animal life. As in the original DKC, DK made his way up and around the island, tracking the Tiki men to their place of origin, discovering a few things about the Tikis in the process, mainly their relationship with bananas, whose pulp they use to forge additional Tikis with magic.
In DKC Donkey Kong was the main playable character, with Diddy Kong being only playable with the inclusion of a second player, otherwise serving as a power up. Most abilities he has are pulled from the original DKC series, namely the ground pound and the barrel roll, however their are some changes. For a start his Barrel Roll has a finite length now instead of being able to keep going so long as he is hitting enemies (unless he has Diddy Kong, in which case he can roll indefinitely), and second the ground pound has been made much more useful than it was in the original Donkey Kong Country, serving a role in hitting switches and destroying breakable objects. Additionally, he now has the ability to blow while ducked, allowing him to reveal secrets in the environment and blow out enemies that are on fire. DK is also more durable than he was in the original DKC, having 2 hearts where in the original he had one hit before he fell.
The DK Family proceeded to defeat the Tikis bringing peace to the island. That is, until in 2014 when the Snowmad tribe attacked Donkey Kong Island on February 21st which is, the game reveals in the opening, Donkey Kong Jr's Birthday. Him, Diddy, Dixie and, for the first time in a playable role, Donkey Kong Sr himself Cranky Kong.
Super Smash Bros & The Mario Spinoffs
Donkey Kong has appeared in a variety of Mario Sports games over the years, starting with Super Mario Kart in his old leotard. There is rarely a Mario Sports game that doesn't feature the big ape, and on occasion he brings other members of the Kong family and a variety of unrecognizable locations (because they've never appeared in a DK game) in on the fun.
Lately, he's been characterized in the games as grinning and dim witted as opposed to the laid back and classy sensibilities the character once had. The exception to this is the Super Smash Bros series, which tends to treat him well as his own franchise as opposed to a minor subset of the greater Mario franchise.
Mario vs Donkey Kong
Donkey Kong has also appeared in several games which seek to renew the Donkey Kong franchise of old with the Mario vs Donkey Kong series. Featuring gameplay that is at best reminiscent of the Donkey Kong arcade series, it pits Mario against a now cartoonishly villainous and dim witted Donkey Kong. Again, throwing the established characterization of Donkey Kong as a laid back but very capable gorilla out the window, he is again reverted back to the persona of his father, DK Sr., while maintaining the DKC character design of DK Jr.
Yoshi's Island DS
In 2006 a baby version of Donkey Kong appeared in Yoshi's Island DS alongside several baby versions of Mario, Peach and Wario. The infant Donkey Kong wore a red big with his initials on it similar to his signature tie. He also could climb on vines while Yoshi carried him on his back. Some think baby DK's inclusion muddies the cannon a little however these people are a little nutty. It's a harmless cameo.