The first time I played Donkey Kong was in the mid-80s on an Atari 2600. I wasn’t terribly impressed then and I’m still not impressed by it now. But before I get to the Atari port, I should talk about where it started.
I’ve never liked arcade games, so we’re off to a bad start, but when Donkey Kong came out in July of 1981 (the year I was born), it appears arcades were filled with nothing but garbage. It is the only way I can imagine how this game ever got popular. Unfortunately for that theory, countless games I consider good or excellent were released before, the same year, or the year after Donkey Kong. If I went to an arcade that had Space Invaders, Galaxian, Asteroids, Battlezone, Berzerk, Centipede, Missile Command, Pac-Man, Pheonix, Defender, Tempest, Frogger, Galaga, Qiz, Dig Dug, Joust, Pole Position, or Q*Bert, I could light a firecracker, keep holding it in my hand, blow off three fingers, and still count on that hand how many quarters I’d put into the Donkey Kong cabinet. I would’ve given it a try, but that would’ve been it.
First of all, I don’t like how the game controls. Every game mentioned above handles better. Also, I know it’s an old school arcade game, but I still feel that calling it boring and repetitve is justified. Sure, arcade games are repetitive and it’s hard to fault them for it, but it’s different with Donkey Kong. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was having trouble finding anything positive to say about the game, a few people mentioned that the game introduced stories to video games, as it is often cited as the first game to have had a story before being designed, which…I don’t know, it sure seems like Atari made some video games with stories and some of them must’ve had the general story come before the programming. I may be wrong, but it’s beside the point. I think the fact that the game has a story at all makes the game more boring and repetitive.
When you play Pac-Man or Missile Command, there’s no story, at least not that I was aware of when I played. You just have to eat all the pellets or shoot down all the missiles because they’re there. Your goal is to do so for as long as possible, and that’s fine. Yes, it can get repetitive. The only real difference as you keep playing is that things get more difficult. Most arcade games were like this. Things got faster, or there were more enemies, or you had less time. It didn’t matter. You could tell yourself in Space Invaders that you were fighting another wave of aliens and it was enough to keep playing. Maybe they moved faster because they’d just witnessed you wiping out the previous wave, so now they were angrier or more frantic. It was terribly important.
In Donkey Kong, you’re pretty much given the story from the start. Donkey Kong kidnapped a woman. She screams for help. Ok, go help her. That’s it. THAT is your goal. So, you work your way through four terrible “levels” and save her. The end? Nope, do it again. Why? Because the exact same 4 levels are a little more difficult this time. Ok, fine, I’ll beat it again. Finished? Nope, do it again and again and again and again, and each time it’ll be a little more difficult. Forever? Not quite.
Why the fuck would anyone want to do this? Because they can? That’s not a good enough reason. You give me a story, so I finish the story. You can give me a couple skill levels to play it through, but it is just ridiculous in this game. You can’t praise Donkey Kong for having a story and then not admit that the game is painfully repetitive. For me at least, there is absolutely nothing compelling me to keep playing once I’ve saved the girl. A secret ending, playing as a different character that might move different, new levels: these are things that will keep me playing a game. Donkey Kong has 4 shitty levels you can plod through as an aggravating loop of bleeps plays forever. This doesn’t sound like a fun game. It sounds like torture.
The Atari 2600 version is worse in every possible way. Clearly, it looks and sounds worse than the arcade version, which is to be expected. On top of that, the game is much easier, especially since it only has two levels. As I said earlier, I had this game as a kid. I played it a bit, but it was probably the 2600 game my brother and I played the least, and we even owned Pac-Man and E.-T., just to give you an idea of how little we thought of Donkey Kong.
However, despite my feelings, the game wasn’t only a hit, it was a massive hit. According to info I found on Wikipedia (so, definitely the absolute truth), it became, in terms of hardware units sold and gross revenue (while factoring in inflation), it sits in 4th and 3rd place respectively all-time among arcade games, which, when you think about it, is pretty good for a game I think is kinda shit. Meanwhile, sure, whatever, fine, the game introduced Mario for the first time, who would later become the most recognized video game character ever. Also, Donkey Kong himself didn’t too bad either, with sequels Donkey Kong Jr. and Donkey Kong 3 coming shortly after. Then there’s the Donkey Kong Country series, where the original Donkey Kong is now known as Cranky, which should make the character we call Donkey Kong really Donkey Kong Jr., I guess.
I like the DKC games. They’re fun. I suppose I could forgive how bad the arcade game was since it did result in a pretty great trilogy of games for the SNES, but then I remember Donkey Kong 64, so no, I refuse to forgive the arcade game for anything. But seriously, I’d be lying if I said that I wish the orignal Donkey Kong arcade game had never existed if it meant that there wouldn’t be any of the other Donkey Kong and Mario games.
All of this and much more, like all the games Donkey Kong has appeared in with other characters, like Mario Kart and Mario Party, or his less universally praised games like Donkey Konga or Tropical Freeze, are enough justification for the original Donkey Kong to make the cut. The game could even be worse than I already think it is and its historical importance alone would still be enough. Luckily for fans of the game, most people don’t feel the way I do about it. In fact, Donkey Kong landed in the impressive 40th spot. I still don’t like it and I refuse to accept “it’s historically important” as justification for calling a game good, but “it’s historically important” is definitely a good enough reason to tell people they should play it at least once.