By pressing the special move button, Donkey Kong will start swinging his arm around, automatically charging a wind-up punch that, when thrown, causes great damage and knockback if it hits, especially when fully or nearly-fully charged.
For every time that Donkey Kong swings his fist, the charge advances to its next stage, entailing an increase in the damage of the punch. After any one of these swings, the charge can be cancelled and stored to be continued later: by pressing the shield button while charging, Donkey Kong will shield, and moving the control stick left or right will cause him to roll. If Donkey Kong suffers knockback while charging, he will invariably lose all of his charge.
At any time while Donkey Kong is swinging his fist around, the button can be pressed again to deliver the blow. If the button is not pressed, then after ten swings, Donkey Kong will drop his fist and his head will begin to smoke, indicating the punch is fully charged. At this point the button only needs to be pressed once to administer the attack. From Brawl onwards, a fully charged Giant Punch grants Donkey Kong armor when used, allowing him to power through an enemy's KO attack while he uses one of his own in the process. However, a Giant Punch that has just one stage below full charge has noticeably higher knockback.
From Melee onward, the move becomes markedly weaker if used in midair, and also causes Donkey Kong to become helpless, making it very risky and much less rewarding to use in aerial combat compared to its utility on the ground.
Aesthetically, the move has been through a few changes. In Smash 64, Donkey Kong has his right hand directly behind him while his fist winds up. From Melee to Smash 4, Donkey Kong uses his left arm for the attack, while also winding up his arm beside himself. The move was the slowest in Smash 64 with some notable recovery, though the animation for both the actual attack's startup and its recovery has been sped up in later games.
In Ultimate, Donkey Kong now charges Giant Punch with either arm due to his mirrored stance. It also no longer puts him into a helpless state, similar to Smash 64.
As explained above, Giant Punch's charge goes through stages. These are visually recorded in the swings of Donkey Kong's arm; each time he swings, the punch's damage and knockback is generally increased. The charge has eleven stages in total; the eleventh stage is the fully charged stage. A fully charged Giant Punch will have a quicker animation, resulting in a quicker punch, and do the most damage, but is weaker in knockback than a few of the stages below it. From Melee onwards, all stages of the punch are weaker when used in mid-air.
Smash 64 stages
A video showcasing all the stages of Brawl's Giant Punch.
Special Move customization was added in Super Smash Bros. 4. These are the variations:
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