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8-Bit Chronicles: Donkey Kong

Man and Kong’s first steps.

donkey kong

Bleeps, bloops, and pixels: the cornerstones of classic gaming. The innate addiction coded within the circuit board-powered arcade cabinets and NES cartridges render them precious artifacts, their primitive graphics and relative brevity revered even today. But why is that the case? Join Anthony on his 8-Bit Chronicles, wherein he studies the industry’s building blocks in famous coin-munchers, failed experiments, and obscure gems.

Today’s review is based upon HAMSTER’s Arcade Archives release of Donkey Kong for Nintendo Switch, evaluating both the International Version and the updated Japanese Version.

For the birth of a column, it’s only complementary to cover a game representing firsts. Not that Donkey Kong was Nintendo’s original video game, mind — living legend Shigeru Miyamoto (and Donkey Kong‘s creator) points to 1975’s EVR Race for that distinctive title, although others cite 1978’s Computer Othello as their first true electronic game — but it’s certainly the first one that embodied their core gaming philosophies. To even begin discussing Donkey Kong, 1981’s smash-hit arcade title that not merely cemented Nintendo as a gaming giant, but birthed both Mario and Donkey Kong as video game stars — within the confines of a 1000+ word article is a daunting task, yet my eternal devotion to The Big N renders it one I’m willing to take.

Mr. Miyamoto once mentioned his desire to patent “jumping games” following Donkey Kong’s success — such a monopoly would be unthinkable by today’s standards, but to the millennial player engaging Super Mario Odyssey or even yesteryear’s Super Mario Bros., stepping into Donkey Kong is akin to taking our first steps once more. Indeed, even Mr. Miyamoto admits an evident stiffness: Mario, or “Jumpman”, as he was originally known, possesses no variance in his jumping momentum, and that’s not even getting into his inability to survive a three-foot fall! But then why do players return to it time and time again, enough to maintain cutthroat high score competitions for the world record?

From not-so-humble beginnings.

This iteration of Iwata Asks, featuring Miyamoto as a key participant, holds the answer: the multi-tasking of jumping and navigation, expertly appealing to our desires by discovering the quickest shortcuts possible. Recall that Donkey Kong revolves around Mario chasing a runaway ape throughout a ladder-ridden construction site, the titular ape lobbing barrels at our hapless carpenter. As we climb girders to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend, we’re tempted to ascend ladders every chance we get, but the barrels, too, desire a short-cut; sadly, the unsuspecting player often discovers their wooden whims the hard way: a barrel sliding down the very same ladder and costing us a life. Other obstacles, such as sentient fireballs that chase down Mario, subscribe to this randomization, leaving us to think twice about ascending any ladder we happen across. Our tested temptation renders every play session anew.

As opposed to your Pac-Mans and your Space Invaders, the game’s revolutionary design stands out in its four separate screens, but why exactly is this successful? Analyze all four levels, and you recognize each operates under a different goal: all build upon the concept of jumping and climbing, but others like 75m add the twist of gauging distance. The rogue fireballs force split-second jumps onto rising elevators, which may invite disaster should the lifts may be too far down. Yet even if we reach the top floor, victory’s still not assured: the over-confident player, having triumphantly navigated 75m’s up-and-down maze, may foolishly collide with the bouncy jacks guarding Pauline.

Meanwhile, take the all-powerful hammer scattered within the three other stages: to the fledgling player, the surge of power and the thumping chiptune attracts us simply for thrills; to the dedicated player, however, it is a calculated pick-up. Simply grabbing it right away won’t do — our speed and memorization easily overcome any impending danger, and even stray barrels can slip under the hammer frames and slay an unsuspecting Jumpman. Best reserved for 25m revisits or 100m switch-fests when barrels/fireballs are in abundance, what starts out as a miracle of sound and power evolves into a familiar routine, an earned endorphin rush inducing manic grins as we smash our way through.

(Elaborating further on stage goals, I imagine this is why 50m — the pie/cement/whatever factory — was removed from the NES version, as it’s the least distinguished of the four. On that note, as seen above, it’s there I cite Nintendo’s first instance of suspension of disbelief.)

Let’s also not forget Donkey Kong‘s genesis of gaming storytelling, with the core conflict between Donkey Kong and Mario owing more than a little to its Popeye origins. Witnessing the plight of a squat little man chasing gorillas is amusing, but when expounded via game difficulty, it devolves into chaotic hilarity taunting the player. Take, say, us going against better judgment by climbing a ladder too soon — a barrel’s coming, so we quickly descend…only to discover a fireball’s already on our tail! We’re trapped, us screaming “oh no!” as our stranded predicament has us begging, pleading that barrel won’t come down. When accompanied by Mario’s squeaky steps, Donkey Kong is the first Nintendo cartoon — an anarchic storm granting lovable character. (Granted, Pauline’s original “Lady” moniker and this objectifying official synopsis haven’t aged well, but thankfully little to none of that bleeds into actual play. By the way, did you know a loving father produced a Pauline-starring Donkey Kong hack for his daughter?)

Before we know it, the cartoon’s channeled in actual play. In the aforementioned NES Classic interview, Mr. Miyamoto mentions “Your body moves a lot when you’re playing a fun game.” Years of hardened game-playing and watching instinctively recall this image: a player huddled onto the floor, controller gripped as their body ambles about at every reaction, wallops and wide-eyed countenances at new developments adding to the hilarity. Our engagement mirrors the action on-screen, as the levels escalate in frenzied difficult with waves of barrels obstructing our path. (It helps Donkey Kong‘s pixel artwork enforces clean presentation: through clever time-saving tricks like giving Mario a hat rather than animated hair, there’s nothing particularly garish within its charming sprite animation.)

That’s no time to stand around.

All this congeals into one element that doesn’t get enough credit: the death noise. No, not the infamous “do-doo-deet-doooo” lament whenever poor Mario loses a life — it’s the dull “BOOM” instantly preceding it. Everything falls silent in that split second, casting a humiliating spotlight on the latest barrel dropping upon Mario’s head. True to its cartoon identity, it’s the earliest example of Nintendo comedy — one that never incites anger at the game itself, as we simply laugh off our latest gaffe and try again. As we send off Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime into retirement, it’s heartening his favorite mantra of “putting smiles on consumers’ faces” rang true well before his 2006 induction.

A wholesome enough goal, but not one that guaranteed success: Miyamoto and his fellow producers aimed for an American audience — undoubtedly the source of all the King Kong influences — yet a quick browse through David Sheff’s Game Over, Press Start to Continue — a 1999 gaming history chronicle — proved the game was a tough sell. Miyamoto’s freshman status only irritated a desperate NOA president in Minoru Arakawa, whose disastrous Radar Scope investments spelled doom for Nintendo’s burgeoning American branch; naturally, being greeted by the bizarre “Donkey Kong” name did not help matters. (Miyamoto’s team assumed “Donkey” would illustrate a quality of stupidity/stubbornness; needless to say, that doesn’t make much sense, but it does roll off the tongue.)

But through their skepticism, the belabored Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Nintendo Co., Ltd. case, and the Coleco/Atari fallout in licensing the game for home console use (Mr. Yamauchi’s legendary outburst is a must-read), Donkey Kong prevailed. It is the Golden Age of Arcade Games at its finest — an abiding legacy that, nearly forty years later, endures not merely in itself, but within a beloved family tree host to an intuitive ideology: a series of instinctive impetuses situating the player and goading them forward, echoed through the motions of bodily movement.

Aww.

donkey kong

(By the way, despite being a mega-Nintendo fan, I’ve still never watched the lauded King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters documentary. My past month with the arcade masterpiece compels me to seek out a copy, but what does everyone else think about it?)

Anthony Pelone
Eating, breathing and living video games on a daily basis, Anthony is particularly fond of the Nintendo variety, but is by no means a console warrior. Somewhere in the midst of his obsession with cat pictures, he finds the time to pen about his favorite hobby. Having previously written for over three sites, Anthony remains dedicated to spreading the gospel of EarthBound.
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