Review by Ryan Harrison
"How high can you get?"
Anyone who is familiar enough with Nintendo will know that some of their video games and franchises rate amongst the best, and there are so many titles and series that have helped to boost sales, ship consoles and rake in the dough for them. Yet, back in the days of the golden age when the simple arcade games ruled the roost, Nintendo were actually still trying to break it big in the gaming world until a young fellow by the name of Shigeru Miyamoto decided to make a game with a simple story to it - a carpenter whose girlfriend was kidnapped by a runaway ape and taken to the top of a tall construction site. Not only was this game the one that announced Nintendo's arrival on the world stage of gaming and raked in millions of dollars almost overnight to save a despairing company from bankruptcy, while also kick-starting the legacy of the hero and villain of the game, which over a vast multitude of games, continues to thrive to this very day. The game was Donkey Kong.
Originally planned to feature the characters of the Popeye franchise (which fell through at the time although Nintendo did eventually revisit this idea a short while later) and also notorious for receiving media attention in a court case against film makers Universal due to their alleged 'plagiarism' of the King Kong storyline, Donkey Kong originally hit the arcades in 1981 and stands out as one of the all-time most popular games from the era. Fast forward to the mid-1980s when the Nintendo Entertainment System finally reaches the United States and Europe to galvanise home video gaming. In the early days of the system's immediate success, a few new original adventures would help get the system going, but some old arcade favourites were ported to the NES as well, so fans of the company's most popular arcade hits could finally enjoy them in the comfort of their own home. So, as one would expect, Donkey Kong would be one of those very games.
The NES port of Donkey Kong is not quite an exact remake, however - a few minor tweaks had to be made to compromise for the lack of memory in an NES cartridge so that the game could be made. The one major change that almost everyone would bring up is that one whole level - the 'Cement Factory' stage is completely dropped from this version, in addition to some animations and screens. This said, though, the NES version of Donkey Kong still plays and feels like it always did, and with a fun factor and simplicity of a game such as this one, is still a joy to play and a recommended title for your collection.
The storyline remains the same - the player controls Mario, who of course, will certainly require no introduction. In his first ever starring role, you will take control of our hero as the objective is to climb throughout several levels of a construction site to reach Pauline. Mario's first love has been kidnapped by the jealous ape and title character Donkey Kong, who continues to scale the site while keeping Pauline nearby. It's the same usual damsel-in-distress story with a very slight take on the King Kong story. Of course, this was one of the very first games that actually uses a story to explain the setting and objective of the game, so a good deal of credit has to go to Nintendo for coming up with a feature for a game that is common throughout almost every game in this day and age.
The graphics are simple, yet decent. Everything in this game looks just like it is supposed to. There are no backgrounds used, while you have red and blue girders, and ladders of the same colours linking them together. These are the main graphics used in the stage designs, and there is a small range of colourful enemies. There's no mistaking the characters, either; Donkey Kong looks like a huge, angry ape; Mario can be made out from his primitive design (which, back then, was for restrictive graphical reasons) of red cap and overalls with a blue shirt to make his arms show up better, as well as big nose and moustache for more recognisable facial features. The graphics do have the typical look of early NES game graphics, but they do the job very well.
The game has a small soundtrack of different background themes for each level, as well as a nice opening theme to it. A lot of the music is simple, but there is a small amount of variation between stages. It's rather quiet and low-key, mostly, but this isn't too much of a bad thing as this at least allows you to concentrate on the gameplay itself. There are also a few high-pitched and memorable sound effects, like the squeaky sound Mario's shoes make as he runs along, the "bashing" sound of enemies as they are defeated with a hammer, and the sound of gaining points as you grab the pickups in each level.
In order to get through the game's three stages, Mario must reach the area where his beloved Pauline is held captive. By climbing angled girders linked by ladders and leaping across floating platforms and elevators, the path to get to the goal is really straightforward and linear. The main obstacles standing in your way are the weapons and enemies Donkey Kong will send after Mario, the merest contact with which results in lose of one of his three starting lives. These include rolling barrels that speed down the ramps, occasionally taking a detour down the ladders to possibly catch our hero off-guard while he climbs them. In the second stage, DK also uses speedy, bouncing springs to attack, which bounce in arcs and fall down the screen, so it's also important to keep an eye out on where these things go as you make your way up and over. The further you get into the game, the quicker these things get and the more hand-eye co-ordination and sharp reflexes it takes to dodge/destroy them. There are also a few fireball enemies that patrol certain areas that can also chase Mario up or down ladders. They are strategically placed in various spots throughout each level and likewise also become quicker and smarter the further you get, to add to the challenge factor of the game.
Although it may sound like the odds are stacked, Mario can obtain a handy equaliser that he can use to destroy most of these hazards; the hammer. By jumping into the air to touch one, our hero can snag the large hammer and swing away wildly in front of him, giving any nearby enemies no chance of survival if they are dumb enough to walk into its path. The hammer is a handy item to use, however it has a short attack range and the player is unable to jump or climb while using it; meaning one has to wait for a few moments until Mario loses the hammer (as its use is only temporary). It can also mean losing a few precious seconds and fewer points from the bonus timer.
The control is quite good in this game, and there isn't really a whole lot to get used to. With the use of the D-Pad, Mario can move left and right, and climb or descend ladders at your command. He moves and climbs rather sluggishly, which could potentially lead to being caught out by quicker enemies, so it can take a while to actually master and understand Mario's movement capabilities. With the use of the A button, Mario can also jump; either straight up if he's standing still, or forward in a small arc motion if he's moving. One minor problem is that Mario's movement cannot be controlled while he's jumping, and if he falls from too high a height, he can also lose a life. The control is otherwise tight and responsive and very instant.
The game has a decent challenge factor. There are two different difficulty settings (referred to as 'Game Modes' from the Title Screen) that can be selected upon starting up, with the difficulty getting higher as you progress through the game. Each of the three levels will at first be easy, but as the game loops over and returns to the first stage after you see the 'ending', enemies become faster and trickier to evade, and Donkey Kong's weapons will also be faster. Gameplay skills come into it the further you get, so it will go from really easy to really hard.
With that said, though, as there are only three actual levels, the game lacks variation and replay value somewhat. It can be good if you are looking to improve upon a high score or seeing how many levels you can get through before losing all your lives, but other than this, there isn't really anything else the game has to offer. The arcade version did at least randomise level orders, as well as have a fourth stage that could be played - which was a favourite of most players.
Overall, the NES port of Donkey Kong is inferior to its arcade counterpart, but maybe to a higher degree than what it should have been. Still, if you enjoy those single-screen arcade oldies that Nintendo were most well-known for making in the early-to-mid 1980s, then the NES version is still by all means worth picking up and trying. It's a very decent port, plays well and still feels like the Donkey Kong game we all know and love. This one isn't the definitive version, but it's still a worthy part of a fan's collection, and because it sold really well back in the day, finding a copy shouldn't be too difficult if you know where to look, and it'll more than likely be a low and affordable price. Also worth getting to check out how Mario and DK got their starts in gaming.
As for Pauline though, wonder whatever happened to her?
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 12/07/12
Game Release: Donkey Kong (EU, 10/15/86)
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