Next to a tree house on Donkey Kong Island, sits an old Jumbo Jet Barrel that has seen too many flights. Its owner, however, refuses to upgrade.
"Haven't even considered it," says Funky Kong as he lovingly rubs its wooden staves. "We've been through so much, and it's much more than a level warp. She's a friend."
Funky Kong invites me into his home. He offers a drink, and pours himself up a scotch. His cigarette's smoke clouds the few rays that have penetrated the canopy into his home.
"Well… where to start," he muses.
Funky Kong is a well known support character from the Donkey Kong series, seeing his first appearance in Donkey Kong Country for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. At the time, it was considered a revolutionary game, although it has not stood up well after all these years. The once awe-inspiring graphics are now considered grainy and ugly, while the gameplay is often vilified as "where Rare began their collectathon". And much like the series in which he appears, Funky Kong has had his share of up and downs.
Originally cast to play the lead in the game for his cutting edge style, he was eventually relegated to a support character after focus testing.
"No, I don't think it was because I'm gay," he says after some thought. "I think I was too much, even for 16 bit era sensibilities. In those days attitude got you places, but look at all the failed mascots. There is such a thing as too much attitude."
Funky Kong is an openly gay video game character, a fact many Nintendo fans may find surprising. While he has never "been in the closet", his sexuality has never been widely publicized, a fact Funky is thankful for.
"I don't want my sexuality to be any sort of topic," he states. "I'm just am who I am and I'd rather not have to talk about it all the time."
* * *
Funky Kong got his start in the video game world when he was cast as the lead by Rare in Donkey Kong Country. Sporting his patented shades, bandana, fur-tight tank top and daisy dukes, the development team figured he was a shoo-in for mascot success sporting every "cool" aspect imaginable. But in focus tests, children found him to be obnoxious, trying too hard, and simply too Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
"My God, I was surprised," admits Funky with a laugh. "I didn't even do anything! The tests were just based on stills. I was the Poochie of video games!"
Despite the poor tests he was kept on as a support character, one with some prominence, given to him due to the importance of the role he was initially given. While not a crucial role, he teleported the player between worlds, an often used mechanic.
Since then, he has been a constant in the series, though his role and appearance have changed multiple times.
"When you have my style, you need to adapt. You can be too 'in your face', you know?"
He has been a pilot, merchant, ammunitions expert, and even a playable character from time to time, and is thankful for his modest but consistent career.
"Video games can be a tough business and I'm happy I've carved out a niche of my own."
As for his various roles, he does inject a lot of his own personality into his character. He has made no secret, in real life or in the games, that he is the best dancer on Donkey Kong Island, and he had been able to hold true to his Buddhist believes. As for his sexuality?
"I'm not really in games where that needs to be explored," he says, although someday he hopes to find a venue to do so.
"Sonic was able to explore sexuality, maybe Donkey Kong can too someday."
He denies any interest in working outside the Donkey Kong franchise, saying the people at Nintendo have been aces and he loves all the other Kongs like family. "I can't see myself doing anything else."
* * *
While he dismisses claims that he was bumped from the lead role in Donkey Kong because of his sexual preference, Funky does admit that it hasn't all been smooth sailing. "I think Donkey Kong had a little trouble getting used to it. He's from a small town, and while he is a progressive thinker, the reality of it all had some trouble sinking in. He never said anything, but he stared a little too long when I'd bring my boyfriend to the studio."
These days, they are the best of friends and the rest of the cast is just as close.
"He is a true professional," says franchise favorite Candy Kong. "He nails everything on the first take and I can't picture the games without him. We are a well oiled machine, and Funky is the engine."
While the female characters have been called "fag hags", and every male character has had rumors about an affair with Funky run around the office, Funky says it's unfair for such talk to occur. "I don't get anything said to my face, but it's just sad to hear these things go around just because I'm gay. You hear 'gay' and all the old stereotypes get conjured up and all anyone can think about is sex, when that should be the least of their concerns. I'm in a loving long term relationship with my boyfriend, Charles, and I don't think people actually see that like a heterosexual relationship, when that's exactly what it's like."
As for his name, that also came about as hidden reference to his homosexuality. "They couldn't call me Homosexual Kong or Queer Kong, my God, can you imagine? Sounds like a bad porno," he laughs. "So they called me 'Funky', about as close as you could get to 'different' as the marketing department would allow."
The fact that they decided to give him a name based on his sexual orientation disappoints Funky, but "they did it and the name stuck," he says while rolling his eyes.
* * *
As for being bumped from the titular role, Funky does wonder what could have been.
"Donkey has all sorts of stories about go karts, sports and just about everything. It would have been nice to be in Super Smash Bros Brawl. I've always had a little crush on those Fire Emblem boys. Not that there's anything to it, of course, but I'm a fan and would like to meet them. But Diddy is in the game these days… maybe I'll get a shot."
But those are just daydreams. "I'm happy where I am, and I am thankful for every day I wake up and get to be part of the Donkey Kong Franchise."
Funky also finds it tough being perceived as a variation on a theme.
"I'm the cool and/or gay Kong, but let me tell you that all the Kongs bring vastly different qualities to the table, and it is unfair to all of us just to lump us together. We are as different from each other as we are from Kritters and there is no need for labels. Sure Diddy is go-lucky and Chunky is a gentle, simple Kong, but you needn't think you have us all nailed down. We'll surprise you every time, us Kongs."
* * *
Does he find it hard being a homosexual in a testosterone fueled industry?
"I have it a lot better than most gay video game characters," Funky says while pouring himself another scotch, an old vice. "I can be who I am without any definitions."
That being said, he does say that there is a large and strong community of homosexual characters, albeit shrouded with some secrecy.
"Yeah, we all talk to each other, hang out. I'm a bit of a confidant to some, being openly gay. But that's the industry, just like Hollywood. If some of the guys came out they'd lose everything. It can really get to some of them, and we all hope there will be a time when they can all come out of the closet without sacrificing a million sales."
But the market requires a forward thinking and accepting audience, which is far from the current reality. Video game enthusiasts are notorious for cruelty, bigotry, and narrow mindedness. While there is a community of gay gamers, publishers fear that open and frank discussions of sexual orientation is too much for mass appeal.
"I mean people debate endlessly on the color of Master Chief's hair. What would they say if he- Oh shit. Are we still on record?"
I say "Yes" as Funky passes me a drink.
"They wouldn't believe it if I even confirmed it. Sad, really."
GamesBeat 2014 — VentureBeat’s sixth annual event on disruption in the video game market — is coming up on Sept 15-16 in San Francisco. Purchase one of the first 50 tickets and save $400!