In 1981, Shigeru Miyamoto and his team at Nintendo R&D1 created Donkey Kong, an arcade title that was not only one of the earliest examples of the platform genre but also introduced gamers everywhere to two of Nintendo’s most recognisable characters: Mario and Donkey Kong. Mario, of course, shot to super stardom but today’s a day to celebrate everyone’s favourite King Kong knock-off and to say: Happy birthday, Donkey Kong!
Released: September 2018
Originally Released: 15 July 1983
Developer: Nintendo R&D2/Ikegami Tsushinki
Also Available For: Game Boy Advance, GameCube (via Animal Crossing (Nintendo EAD, 2001)), Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Nintendo Wii (Virtual Console)
Early into 1981, Nintendo had run into a bit of trouble; their plans to expand into North America with Radar Scope (Nintendo R&D2/Ikegami Tsushinki, 1980) had failed and then-president Hiroshi Yamauchi turned to young designer Shigeru Miyamoto to create a new arcade cabinet to turn their fortunes around. When plans to base this new machine on the popular comic strip character Popeye fell through, Miyamoto, inspired by Beauty and the Beast (Barbot de Villeneuve, 1740) and King Kong (Cooper and Schoedsack, 1933), retooled the concept into Donkey Kong, a classic tale of man versus ape that would see gamers guide the character of Jumpman across conveyer belts and up construction sites to rescue Lady from the clutches of a cranky, stubborn ape.
Following some suggestions from Nintendo’s American distributors, “Jumpman” and “Lady” were renamed to “Mario” and “Pauline”, respectively, and Donkey Kong was released across the United States in July 1981 and became the financial and critical success Nintendo desperately needed to break into the U.S. Naturally, ports soon followed; versions of Donkey Kong showed up on the ColecoVision, Atari 2600, and Intellivision as well as other home systems like the ZX Spectrum and MSX. A modified, scaled-down version of the game was also released as one of the launch titles for the NES, the console which dragged the videogame industry out of its darkest hour, and it is this version of the game which was later released for the Nintendo Switch Online and which I’ll be discussing today.
The cantankerous ape Donkey Kong has kidnapped Pauline and taken her to the top of a construction site! Her only hope is Mario, a plucky carpenter with the jumping skills necessary to scale Donkey Kong’s tower and rescue the maiden from his hairy clutches.
Donkey Kong’s genre is a bit difficult to define given that videogame genres hadn’t really been fully established back in the early eighties beyond space shooters and obscure puzzle games but it is, essentially, a vertical action/platformer in which an early iteration of Nintendo’s flagship character and mascot, Mario, must run and jump up and across a series of platforms while avoiding hazards in order to rescue Pauline from Donkey Kong’s clutches at the top of the screen.
Generally, I find Mario to be quite a slippery and unwieldy character to play as but, in his debut appearance, he moves more like he has lead weights in his shoes; his default movement is a steady but weighty jog and his jumps constantly feel like he’s struggling against the pull of gravity. The game also employs little to no momentum-based physics, meaning it’s easy to clip hazards and lose a life as a result.
Gravity continues to be the bane of your existence as Mario takes a ridiculous amount of fall damage in Donkey Kong; drop from any height, be it one platform above or from the top of the screen, and you’re going to die. Leaping from a moving conveyer to a small platform that’s slightly below you? Instant death. Accidentally fall down a hole when you remove the rivets from stage three? Dead. As a result, there’s little margin for error in Donkey Kong and, if you screw up, you’re gonna die; there are no second chances here.
As you play, you’ll notice a ‘Bonus’ score counter in the game’s limited heads-up display (HUD). This continuously counts down as you play, reducing the bonus score you’ll get upon completing a stage if you take too long. Also, if it reaches zero, guess what? Yep, you lose a life, making it a combination bonus score/time limit for additional pressure.
Unlike the original arcade game, the NES version of Donkey Kong features only three stages: the first is a construction site, the second features conveyor belts, and the third and final stage has you removing rivets to bring Donkey Kong crashing to the ground. Each time you complete these three stages, the game continues on a loop, getting faster and harder with each subsequent playthrough, however there is no true end to the game; Mario simply keels over and dies once you reach stage twenty-two, meaning that your main incentive to play the game again and again is to beat your own personal high score.
Graphics and Sound:
Donkey Kong is as 8-bit as 8-bit can be; stages consist of a stark, blank black background and are dominated by the iconic red girders and the large, looming, grinning features of the titular ape. While the arcade original was one of the first games to tell an onscreen story through the use of simple animations that we would, today, describe as cutscenes, the NES version omits these entirely but the game is charming enough to look at regardless.
Mario is an extremely simple and yet surprisingly expressive bit of sprite work; unlike other avatars like Pac-Man, he has clearly-defined features such as a prominent nose, moustache, and his signature overalls and cap meaning that he easily stands out against the game’s otherwise-limited colour palette. Pauline looks like a bit of a mess but, luckily, Donkey Kong makes up for it by being big and full of character despite his obviously-limited frames of animation. The game features some iconic and simple melodies, boasting such features as separate tunes for the title screen, each of the game’s three stages, and for completing a stage. It’s limited by the hardware of the time, clearly, but it’s enough to have you humming along as you play.
Enemies and Bosses:
Far from the Goombas and Koopas that would later plague Mario’s every waking hour, Donkey Kong mainly has you avoiding barrels tossed at you by the giant ape. These can roll along, drop off ledges, and fall down ladders seemingly at random, meaning you constantly have to be on your toes to make split-second decisions about when to jump or climb a ladder.
These barrels can also bounce around the screen, drop down vertically, and take a dip into some oil to transform into anthropomorphic flames. In stage two, Donkey Kong will also toss bouncing springs at you; as the game speeds up, these can be extremely difficult to avoid as the window of opportunity is so small and the game’s hit boxes are deceptively big. In stage three, you’ll also have to watch out for more troublesome balls of fire that wander around the stage seemingly at random, going up ladders and suddenly changing direction to cost you a life.
Of course, the game’s primary antagonist is Donkey Kong himself; should you brave his many hazards and attempt to tackle him directly, you’ll lose a life. As a result, the only way to defeat him is to get to the game’s third and final stage. Here, you’ll have to avoid the aforementioned fireballs while jumping over eight rivets. Once all eight are removed, the girders will vanish from beneath Donkey Kong and he will crash comically down onto his head so you can make love hearts with Pauline. Honestly, it’s probably the game’s easiest stage as the first two can get pretty hairy when the game speeds up, making the climax a little anticlimactic even for an 8-bit title.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
As you jump your way to rescue Pauline, you’ll be able to earn points by leaping over enemies (whatever you do, don’t jump on to them like you might expect Mario to do!) and collecting (what I assume are) Pauline’s parasol and purse from across the stages,
Mario’s sole method of fighting back in this game is his trusty hammer; two hammers can be found in stage one and three (you’ll just have to fend for yourself in stage two) and collecting one will send Mario into barrel-and-fireball-bustin’ frenzy as a frenetic tune plays. The hammer will destroy anything it touches, allowing you to clear the way for your progress, but you cannot jump while holding it which, honestly, makes it kind of useless as hazards will have respawned by the time you’re ready to progress further.
Being an 8-bit title, the main motivation for playing is to achieve, or beat, a high score. The game does offer four gameplay modes: two for a solo player and two for two players but I don’t have anyone to play with so I was only able to play the one-player game. From what I can tell, though, the two-player mode is a case of each player taking it in turns to play rather than a simultaneous co-op mode.
When playing Donkey Kong on the Nintendo Switch, you get a few extra options that dramatically reduce the game’s difficulty thanks to the Switch’s ‘suspend menu’ mode, which allows you can create a save point at any time and rewind the game back so you can correct and miss-steps you might have made.
I’ve played Donkey Kong before; I’m pretty sure I had it on the Amiga back in the day and I remember sucking at the version that was included as a mini game in Donkey Kong 64 (Rare, 1999) but this is the first time I’ve properly sat down and put some time into the game. It’s a simple bit of 8-bit fun and an enjoyable slice of nostalgia; gameplay is easy to get to grips with and the controls are responsive even if Mario does feel a bit weighty in his movements. The sprites and music and charming and indicative of their era and the game offers a fair amount of challenge thanks to it speeding up the more you play. It’s obviously limited in terms of its features and options, which does affect my rating of the game, but it’s a fun enough title that’ll keep you occupied for as long as you feel like playing (in my case…about half an hour or so).
Could Be Better
Did you ever own Donkey Kong for the NES back in the day? Perhaps you played the arcade version out in the wild; if so, when and what was that like? Which port of Donkey Kong is your favourite? Which Donkey Kong videogame is your favourite and why? How are you celebrating Donkey Kong’s anniversary this year? Whatever your thoughts on Donkey Kong, feel free to leave a comment below.