Donkey Kong – NES
Nerd Bacon’s 100th Review!
Release Date (NA): June 1st, 1986 (original arcade release in ’81)
Rating: 5.5 out of 10
To commemorate our 100th review, I thought it would be fitting to review a seminal title of video gaming history: Donkey Kong. I played this game several times during my childhood, but I never owned it, and it wasn’t until recently that I went to the trouble of acquiring the NES version. Although I have a copy for my ColecoVision (the first home console port of Donkey Kong, back on New Year’s Eve of ’82), I haven’t spent as much time as I should have with it, mostly due to the nigh unusable ColecoVision controllers. Armed with the “Donkey Kong Classics” NES cartridge containing both Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr., I felt it was time to play as the first iteration of Mario, “Jumpman.”
I don’t ever remember insisting that my parents buy Donkey Kong for me as a child, so whatever experiences I may have had with it at friends’ houses, it didn’t make much of an impression on me. Even now, this game is always listed among arcade classics and touted as being one of the most ground-breaking games of all time. I generally prefer older games from the 8- and 16-bit eras (3rd and 4th generations, respectively), but perhaps Donkey Kong is too dated even for me to fully enjoy. To be fair though, the game technically belongs in the 2nd generation, probably accounting for my general apathy towards this vaunted title.
The premise is simple enough. Donkey Kong has captured who would later come to be known as Pauline and confined her at the pinnacle of an arbitrary structure à la “King Kong.” Jumpman begins his quest at the bottom of said structure dodging obstacles thrown down by Mr. Kong, and must ascend the unorthodox edifice in order to rescue Pauline. Seems easy enough, but 2 factors are constantly working against this goal. The first is the unfamiliar nature of the controls, especially when it comes to jumping. After a little practice most of the difficult jumps are doable, but the entire act is hardly intuitive compared to later platformers. The other major hindrance is how easy it is to die. One hit from anything will kill Jumpman. While there are a few powerups here and there, they don’t do much good because Jumpman is unable to move up ladders while the powerup is in effect. Since the whole point of the game is to get to the top, the powerups are never available when they would be most useful. The most ridiculous mechanism of death is when Jumpman “falls.” If he falls from literally any height, he will die. Even the smallest distances need to be jumped down to, because walking off will kill him. This is by far the toughest and most pointless aspect of Donkey Kong.
Additionally, there are only 4 levels in the whole game. Mastering all the jumping and dodging isn’t particularly easy, but once the player meets these demands there just isn’t that much game to play. At the time it was a big deal for an arcade game to even possess 2 screens, let alone 4, however, it severely diminishes any replay value. On the plus side, each of the 4 levels are quite different from each other visually and functionally.
The graphics are the strongest element of Donkey Kong, which at the time were years ahead of its contemporaries. Vibrant colors with suggestions of texture and shadowing are evident in much of the background imagery, and the animated sprites are wonderfully detailed. Donkey Kong himself looks superb, and Jumpman/Mario’s basic design would persist up to and through Super Mario Bros. Sound is adequate for the most part, although I do have a complaint regarding one particular sound effect. Each time Jumpman takes a step there is a generic noise. This noise is played constantly as long as Jumpman is moving and gets extremely annoying in a short time.
While Donkey Kong will remain forever embedded in the minds of those who will discuss the history of video games, I feel like its reputation is a bit undeserved and more dependent on concept rather than gameplay. Sure, it informally introduces Mario, we have Donkey Kong’s debut as well, it is an early version of the platformer which would forever revolutionize gaming in general…but really, there just is not enough game here to play. It’s both arduous and sparse, leading to a unique circumstance where a great amount of skill is necessary to complete a very short game. I’ll continue to play Donkey Kong, and perhaps one day I’ll find something akin to greatness that I’ve otherwise missed, but as for now, it’s only an average release with a clear edge in its visual department.
Donkey Kong Jr. is sure to follow shortly!
Reviewed by The Cubist
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