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Donkey Kong – Atari 2600

Donkey Kong – Atari 2600

b_DonkeyKong_Coleco_frontPlatform: Atari 2600

Developer: Imaginative Systems Software

Publisher: Coleco

Release Date (NA): 1983

Genre: Platformer

Nerd Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed by Space Invader

As with most of us born between 1975-1985, my first Mario experience was Super Mario Bros. on the N.E.S. The first Mario title I ever owned, however, was Donkey Kong, on the Atari 2600.

Too young to fully understand Nintendo mania, I found myself the befuddled recipient of a discarded VCS that had belonged to an older cousin who indeed grasped the cornerstones of Nintendo hysteria. Cast aside like an old glove, the Atari became my first console. Other cousins, who had likewise discarded their own VCS units, soon joined in, s_DonkeyKong_3showering me with their own orphaned game cartridges.

The resulting sea of games for my Atari took quite some time to get through, but the most startling discovery was Donkey Kong.

Donkey Kong was certainly a funny title. I imagined some donkey character running around. I’d never heard of the arcade game, or really of any arcade game that didn’t involve ticket redemption at Chuck-e-Cheese. When I plugged the cart in and switched the Atari on, and saw a stout man in red with sideburns that looked suspiciously like Mario, I fell into silent, digital awe. This revelation, that everyone’s precious Mario had been on Atari before the N.E.S. had even existed, is the earliest paradox I remember discovering.

It was shocking on several levels, from seeing the familiar Nintendo logo on the cartridge to the fact that the cartridge, unlike most black Atari VCS cartridges, was a gray color, similar to the color of N.E.S. games. It was a false correlation that, to my child’s mind, was proof of some vast conspiracy that probably involved everyone’s parents, Santa Claus and all known branches of the government.

Jump, man

Jump, man

OK Mario, we see you

The rest of the world, however, was quite aware of Donkey Kong, and perhaps not too impressed with the fact that it featured Mario.

There’s a chance you don’t know that Donkey Kong was a hit in arcades before it ever made its way to any console, so I’ll mention that in 1981, you had to stand in line at the arcade for your turn to be Mario.

Thanks to Space Invaders, the first arcade game ever to come home, every major arcade hit had to have a console port. In most cases, these proved inferior to their big brothers. While Donkey Kong is no exception, it’s not bad at all.

Save your quarters, buy a $50 cartridge

The graphics are decent, if a bit hit-or-miss. Mario himself is looking pretty good, especially for an age in which a miniature stick figure could well be the hero of a game. But if Mario is instantly recognizable, with his trademark moustache and red hat/coveralls, Kong himself is not. A blocky red figure at the top, there’s little to distinguish Kong as an ape. As a child, I thought he was a red giant. Pauline, the damsel in distress, is rendered in several colors, and looks worth saving, wink wink, nudge nudge, say n’more, say n’more. — for 1982, that is.

Fire ducks are no match for this plumber.

Fire ducks are no match for this plumber.

Uneven though the appearance of the game may be, the level of detail offered in Donkey Kong doesn’t give the impression that it was just haphazardly thrown together to cash in on the license. There are rivets in the scaffolding, for example. And sure, Kong is weird and red, but he pounds his chest every now and again, and the barrels roll rather fluidly. Remarkably, there is no flicker at all in Donkey Kong. That’s quite a feat, especially considering this is the 2600, and many objects tend to wander the screen at any given time.

The Atari 2600 isn’t an audio showcase, and this game is no exception, so don’t bother hooking up the surround sound. The funny thing is, the arcade version of Donkey Kong featured pretty spare sounds as well, and the beeps and bops found in this version are not too far from the original. It’s not spot-on — Mario’s jump always sounded something like a gong to me, for some reason.

Don’t cut the wrong corners

This is 1982. Elements of arcade game are going to be dropped for the home version. Even the most advanced home

It's hammer time.

It’s hammer time.

versions, right up to the N.E.S. incarnation, are missing some elements from the arcade. VCS Donkey Kong features two of the original four stages, dispenses with the “how high can you go?” screen and melody, and, of course, eliminates the animations that open up the game.

To be fair, no console ports feature the animations, nor do they include all the screens from the arcade (N.E.S. and 7800 versions, for example, omit the “conveyor belt” stage).

Happily, the stages eliminated are the two most annoying levels.

Moving Mario around can be a challenge at first. He’s stiff, as you might expect a plumber with his BMI to be. Just getting up a ladder for the first time will be a trial for most gamers. Once you get it, it’s like riding a bike. Control is thus good enough – I’d like it more fluid at a brisker pace, that would require Mario to go on a diet, and in any case, jumps in Donkey Kong are more precise than most VCS games out there.

One aspect I don’t like about this version of Donkey Kong is that the score at the top of the screen is replaced by a timer for the duration of the round. In a game built entirely around the score system, this is a serious hindrance. If I’m playing for score, how do I know when to farm points by jumping barrels at the top of the screen, or just go for the time bonus? I do not. You only sight the score at the beginning of each round, and that’s annoying, albeit understandable.

Meanwhile, back in the twenty-first century …

If you like old timey arcade games, you stand a better chance of appreciating this port of Donkey Kong. In an age in which you can get a working version of the arcade experience on your phone, or perhaps MAME on your home computer, playing a cut-down version of an original experience many will consider too simplistic in the first place is a pretty hard sell. If you’ve got a 2600, though, and want to see an early version of Mario toddling around, you owe it to yourself to give Donkey Kong a shot.


Written by Space Invader

Sometime in the early 1980s, in the heart of the Silicon Valley was born one Angelo. No one knew it yet, but he would grow up to become the mighty Space Invader, master of the old technology and writer of the third-person profile.

The Atari 2600 and Xbox 360 vie equally for Space Invader’s heart, but he can’t seem to choose one and settle down. Something is just so appealing to consoles that have names featuring numbers between 300 and 3000.

Little is known about Space Invader’s past, but he is rumored to drive a Buick and is said to have a tremendous singing voice.


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