The original Donkey Kong game was based off Popeye
Before Nintendo created Donkey Kong in 1981, they were actually asked to create an arcade game based on Popeye the sailor. However, they lost the license to Popeye, prompting Shigeru Miyamoto to turn the concepts they had for the game into Donkey Kong.
The villainous Bluto became Donkey Kong, damsel-in-distress Olive Oyl became Pauline, and the heroic Popeye became our beloved Mario.
Who is Donkey Kong?
Speaking of Donkey Kong, the Donkey Kong family tree, along with Donkey Kong’s identity, can be a tricky one.
According to Rare employee Roderick Arbuthnot in a Q&A from 1999, Donkey Kong Jr. (from the follow-up to the 1981 arcade game, Donkey Kong Jr.) is meant to be the current Donkey Kong we recognise from the Donkey Kong Country games as well as Mario’s sports games. In turn, this would make the original Donkey Kong from the eponymous 1981 arcade game what we know today as Cranky Kong, his father.
However, due to a mistake in the dialogue in the first Donkey Kong Country, Cranky Kong refers to Donkey Kong as his grandson, making the current Donkey Kong the son of Donkey Kong Jr. instead of Junior himself.
Nintendo accepted the information and ran with it. Thus, the current Donkey Kong is canonically the grandson of the original Donkey Kong. And Donkey Kong Jr. is never seen again today.
Mario’s cast: A troupe of actors
Bowser regularly kidnaps Princess Peach, yet Mario and Peach still race go-karts and play tennis with Bowser. Why is that?
Harkening back to his inspiration from Popeye, Shigeru Miyamoto recalls how we would often see their cast of characters take on different roles depending on the comic or cartoon. Likewise, Miyamoto sees the cast from Mario games in a similar manner, and can take on different roles in different games.
At the end of the day, the characters are a troupe of actors akin to one big family. You can see evidence of their acting in a blooper reel from Mario Power Tennis.