Game Overkill – Donkey Kong

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.

Game Overkill - Donkey Kong

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.

donkey-kong-arcade

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.

donkey-kong-atari-2600

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.

cranky

Donkey Kong Country instruction manual, p. 6.

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.

donkey-kong-game-over

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.

Series Navigation<< Game Overkill – Faxanadu (Personal Edition)Game Overkill – Tecmo Super Bowl >>
What do you think of this post?
  • Hop! 
visage

About Atsinganoi

Atsinganoi started gaming in the early 80s on an Atari 2600 and still thinks they're kinda neat. You can find him on Twitter if you want, just don't call him a frog.

15 Comments

  1. Yeah.

    Donkey Kong definitely has an important place in gaming history, from its contribution to establishing Nintendo canon to its then-revolutionary platforming. But, really, there’s something about a non-scrolling platformer that feels… wrong, now. You make a great point, by listing other arcade titles of the era — indeed, if I had to choose, I’d pick almost any of them above Donkey Kong, and that’s even knowing I’m a bit friendlier towards “arcade-style” (go for the high score! … no story, no ending, repeat levels, just do it!) titles than it sounds like you are.

    But at face value, pound-for-pound, sitting in front of it and being honest, I have to agree: Donkey Kong just isn’t fun, and that’s pretty bad if you’re a video game, y’know?

    • You’re probably right about being friendlier towards arcade-style games, but I spent tens of hours playing most of those games I listed on my Atari 2600 and loving them. I had Donkey Kong too and hardly played it. I honestly played E.T. and Pac-Man way more and still enjoy them more.

  2. Pac Man and Donkey Kong have one thing in common in my life: I was introduced to both games via the 2600 version. Unlike Pac Man, I can’t play Donkey Kong for more than a few minutes, not even the arcade version where I can easily go play it at the local barcade.

  3. I can understand what you’re talking about. I played a ton of Donkey Kong for the Atari 2600 as a kid. It was never one of my favorites, but I kept going back to it enough that I guess I just got used to the controls and the repetitiveness. It wasn’t until I played the NES version that it bothered me.

  4. This was well written, and I mostly agree. I don’t find Donkey Kong totally boring, but it’s never been one of my favorites. However, Donkey Kong Jr. is much better, so if you get the chance you should give that a try. I still have my arcade cabinet for that one (though it doesn’t display green). I believe it should fix your problem as though there’s still only 4 stages, they’re more unique from each other and more spread out. Plus Donkey Kong Jr. is more fun to play as since he can climb vines and dispatch foes with fruit.
    Secondly, Donkey Kong in Donkey Kong Country is officially Donkey Kong the Third. No one has seen DK Jr. since Super Mario Kart…
    Finally, what’s wrong with DK64!? It’s not the best N64 game, but I still love it.

    • it’s the first member of the DK crew

    • I have played Donkey Kong Jr. and agree that it is a much better game. DK 64 isn’t terrible…I guess. I don’t think it’s very good though. Considering what Nintendo did with Mario 64 and what Rare’s track record, I just thought it was an awfully disappointing game.

      • I can see that. DK64 is probably my least favorite of the N64 3D platformers, and it certainly has its flaws. I’m probably also slightly tainted in regards to that game from nostalgia. I first played it when I was 4, so at the time having previously only played NES I thought all N64 games were the best things ever created. I’d also never heard of Donkey Kong before. For years all I knew was what I could gather from that game, DK Jr., and the DK Rap. (Now it’s a very different story as I speedrun Donkey Kong Country games, which should tell you how much I love them.)

  5. the true KING OF KONG!!!
    also, you can thank Kirby for making sure it remained at nintendo and not Universal

  6. “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.”

    You crack me up XD

    You know, I’ve never really thought about anyone not liking this game. I’ve also never really thought about anyone particularly liking this game, other than for its historical significance or in the documentary about the guy with the world record. It’s a fine game, but repetitive and otherwise ehh. I’m really glad this was your next Game Overkill piece, you voiced an opinion I didn’t really know I had about this game.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *