Donkey Kong, sometimes referred to as Donkey Kong ’94, or Game Boy Donkey Kong, is a re-imagining of the original 1981 arcade smash. I say a re-imagining because, though the game includes the original 4 levels of the arcade game, it also includes an additional 97 (!) levels beyond that, taking place over the course of 9 “areas”, comprising of stages in multiples of 4. It’s an ambitious move for Nintendo, considering that it comes over a decade after the original game’s release, and a solid 8 years after the incomplete NES port of the game. Despite the original titles modest graphics and sound, can that successfully translate to the small Game Boy screen? More importantly, can Nintendo devise that many levels that are worth playing through? The answer to both is, unsurprisingly, yes.
It is perhaps poignant that I cover Donkey Kong first, considering that the Game Boy’s architect, Gunpei Yokoi, produced the original arcade game, supervising a then young Shigeru Miyamoto. There was no Mario yet, only Jumpman, a relatively generic protagonist with just enough personality to make him interesting. The tried and true formula of “man saves damsel in distress” hadn’t been overtly done in video game form yet, in part because, until Donkey Kong came around, most game characters were space ships, save for Pac-Man himself. So while the damsel in distress trope had been widely used in film and television throughout the 20th century, video games were still a burgeoning market, teeming with all manner of untapped potential. To say that Nintendo invented the “platformer” genre with Donkey Kong is to do them a disservice. Nintendo revolutionized the gaming industry with the game, and the innovative approach of a semi-realistic human protagonist.
The game starts out simply enough, reprising the original 4 stages that made up the arcade game. After that, however, rather than reuniting with Pauline, Mario (now obviously the protagonist in this reboot) watches as Donkey Kong scoops her up in his hairy arms and carries her off to the Big City, the first set of levels designed specifically for this title. Things get interesting very quickly, as Mario is given a limited set of moves and abilities from which to pull. Mario has a new jumping mechanic he can employ, and can duck to miss some enemies or dangerous obstacles, as well as using a hammer (as in the original), climbing ladders, jumping over barrels and enemies, and so on. A fall from too great a high results in Mario’s death, and touching an enemy results in either temporary paralysis, or instant death, depending on the foe. During boss battles with Donkey Kong himself, don’t get close enough to let him get his hands on you, or Mario will die immediately.
The basic goal is to pull levers, jump on platforms, run, and climb to reach a key, found in each level, and then pick up that key Super Mario Bros. 2-style, and carry it back to the locked door to open it and progress to the next level. Do this 3 times, and you’ll face off with Donkey Kong himself in a sort of boss battle. Some of the boss battles play out like stages from the arcade original, where you simply have to make it to the top without getting hit by flying barrels, enemies, or other obstacles. Other boss battles give you the opportunity to confront the giant ape by picking up stationary barrels he throws down, and then throwing them at him. After 3 hits, Donkey Kong retreats with Pauline to the next stage. These boss encounters are varied and enjoyable, because the tactics change from one encounter to the next, and you won’t be using the same strategies throughout the game.
Much of the innate complexity of this game revolves around the balance between 2 levels of time management, semi-precise platforming and jump mechanics, and figuring out in what order to do certain things or take certain actions. For example, you may be in a level that has multiple levers to pull that do things like opening the gate where the key to exit the level exists. However, pulling that lever activates a hidden platform which blocks the key from the easiest path to reach it. You may need to find another lever to pull which will open a path to reach the key from another vantage point. You’re always working against the clock, so that’s a time management scenario, but then, sometimes you need to employ temporary items like a ladder or floor that can be activated by touching the icon floating on the screen. Once activated, those only stay on screen for a limited time, so that’s time management scenario #2 – figuring out how and where to use those, and do so before their time limit is up. You’ll occasionally find that the time required to complete a task, and the time allotted by the temporary floor/spring/ladder/etc. is nearly equal, so the pressure is on to find the most efficient and expedient way to accomplish a task.
If you’re like me, you’ll also find that less-than-perfect jumps will result in a lot of untimely death for Mario. You may burn 10 lives or more on a single stage, before you figure out what sequence of events you need to trigger in order to get the key and make your way to the exit door with key in hands. Did I mention the key is on a time-limit as well? Yes, if you drop the key for any reason, it only stays accessible for a short time as well, and then reverts back to where you obtained it from. If you fall from a platform, and fall too far, you drop the key as well. Sometimes you’ll fall far enough to drop the key and go paralyzed, but not enough to where Mario expires, so you might have enough time to get the key before it disappears, though depending on the stage’s layout, you may or may not be able to reach the area you need to. It’s a constant shuffle between managing your time and finding the path that will lead you to the exit door with the key. Because you cannot climb while holding the key, and because the extended jump mechanics don’t work with the key either, you’ll be finding creative ways to get from one point to another.
There’s a deceptive simplicity in the level design, especially early on. Some levels can be accomplished in a couple ways, based on what obstacles are in the way. Most, however, require a fairly concise and specific set of tasks to complete in order to obtain the key, and open the way to reach the exit. Once you expend a few lives on a given level, you’ll start to see the pitfalls and paths form, and some manner of logic to the design will start to appear. I found myself stumped a couple times, and had to consult a walk-through, though out of nearly 100 levels, that only happened 2 or 3 times total. The majority of the levels will slowly reveal their solution to you as you play through it and think critically about Mario’s abilities, limitations, and especially what you can and cannot do once you have the key. You’ll find that some levels seem easy at first, because obtaining the key is a snap. The challenge often presents in getting the key to the exit, rather than obtaining the key itself, and vice versa. And then sometimes, both things seem nigh-impossible.
Graphically, the game is solid, with little bits of animation here and there to highlight the action. When Mario falls and gets paralyzed, you’ll often see Mario look dazed and confused, or if he gets squished by something, he’ll end up flat and float to the ground like a piece of paper. The attention to detail, given the platform’s limited capabilities, is impressive. Another thing I noticed is that, while some levels have busy backgrounds or areas, most of the stages have a minimalist approach, where the bulk of the graphics are in the foreground, so as to allow the player to concentrate on the puzzle solving aspects. This was a smart design decision, because the graphics then enhance the experience, rather than trying to do too much and distract from the player’s ability to learn the levels. Donkey Kong is well animated, and most enemies and obstacles have some subtle animation that works well. Some of the animation sequences between areas and stages also serve to demonstrate abilities that Mario might have to use in the coming stages, which is a nice touch.
The sound design in the game deserves some recognition as well. While many of the background tunes aren’t overly memorable, they are fitting to their respective levels, and mostly unobtrusive. The sound effects, on the other hand, are where this game often shines. The little Game Boy speaker and sound hardware isn’t overly capable, but with the right programmer, can do fun things. The “voice” of Pauline yelling “Help!” is a nice touch, though after hearing that yell 15 times in a row on the same level can add to the frustration. Donkey Kong’s grunts and growls are nicely approximated on the hardware as well, in similar fashion to the laughs and other voice work in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!! on the NES. The rest of the sound effects all make sense, and are a nice addition to the game. I appreciate the nod to the original with the level intro music, and the tune that plays when selecting a stage on the map screen, as well as the sound that plays when you successfully jump over an enemy or obstacle.
I found the difficulty curve to be rather manageable, until toward the end of the 7th area. Particularly, I struggled a lot with Stage 7-9, and then again with 8-9. Thankfully, some of the more difficult levels contain 1Up icons to collect, so you can have a few tries to figure them out. There are also 3 special items you can collect during each level: a hat, an umbrella, and a handbag. Collect all 3, and you’ll get to play a mini game where you can win extra lives. You’ll need them, because some of the levels will require multiple deaths and attempts before you know just what to do to complete them. I found that many stages could be completed on the first try with little effort, because the way to get the key to the exit was obvious. Others are real head-scratchers, and make you work your brain to determine how to approach them. I will say specifically, patience is a virtue with this game. Don’t go in expecting to barrel through (pun intended) a level with your highly refined platforming skills, because it takes more than a mastery of jump mechanics to get the job done. Take your time, watch the activity in a level to see how and where enemies appear, where moving platforms go, how long it takes for certain things to happen, and you’ll be that much farther ahead in being able to plan your next move.
All in all, the inclusion of the original levels, nods to the original (andDonkey Kong Jr.) throughout the game, and all the level design ingenuity make for a really fun and rewarding experience. You might feel like launching your Game Boy into the stratosphere a few times after you’ve lost 12 lives in a row, but keep pressing on and don’t let the frustration overtake you; you’ll find that once you figure out what is stumping you, there’s an overwhelming sense of victory and accomplishment that is the big payoff for taking the time to figure those hard stages out. Keep in mind, too, that this game has a battery backup to allow you to keep up to 3 consecutive games going at a time. Burn through all your lives trying to figure out an area? Just power your Game Boy off and back on to load the save and keep trying. Add to that the Super Game Boy compatibility, and you have a pretty complete package that should please both fans of the original arcade game, and puzzle platformer fans alike. I would highly recommend this title to anyone with even a passing interest in Mario, Donkey Kong, or platforming games in general. Something this well designed and executed should be in any Game Boy collector’s library. Highly recommended!
Originally posted on the official Game Boy Guru blog: