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Donkey Kong Review Rewind

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On 07/09/2021 at 09:00 AM by Jamie Alston

More fun than a barrel of monkeys.

Most enjoyable when played for historical context, but don’t expect much beyond that.

It all began on this day 40 years ago, in 1981. Nintendo- a then-obscure arcade machine manufacturer- had a problem with their latest game, Radar Scope. The machines weren’t selling as well as hoped, so the company decided to refit the unsold units with a brand new game. Young staff artist Shigeru Miyamoto was tasked with creating an arcade game that would capture the attention of the American audience. The finished product starred a stressed-out gorilla with an infinite supply of barrels who wasn't afraid to use them. It's the stubborn monkey himself, Donkey Kong.

The game exceeded expectations, and Donkey Kong became an international blockbuster. So it only made sense that it eventually get ported to the NES after a successful console launch in the US. Unfortunately, this version of Donkey Kong lacked the one thing it needed to be arcade-perfect- the cement factory level.

Before we touch on that, let’s go over the basics of the game. You are placed in the overalls of Mario, a carpenter in quite a predicament. In a nutshell, his girlfriend Pauline is snatched away by Donkey Kong, and he’s holding her high atop a construction zone. The main gameplay elements involve climbing ladders, jumping over barrels, and battling walking flames, all of which culminate in a showdown on the steel girders where Mario must send Kong falling on his crown.

The concept is simple enough, but things can get challenging when barrels unexpectedly roll down ladders or those pesky flames multiply and cause you grief. Fortunately, Mario can demolish these two obstacles by grabbing a hammer and smashing them into oblivion. The downside is that you cannot climb ladders or jump over gaps while using the hammer. And unlike in his future adventures in the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario is bound by the laws of gravity. 

Taking leaps or falls greater than Mario’s height will lead to his demise. Sometimes, this can be a little hard to judge, especially when negotiating a jump from a moving elevator to a stationary platform. Does it keep the game challenging? Sure, but it can still be bothersome nonetheless. It was a dynamic of platforming that needed improvement before it could be just right.

The graphics are simplistic but still represent the arcade version reasonably well. Every character and moving object is distinguishable and well animated. At times Kong will tauntingly beat his chest as if daring Mario to come up there and challenge him. The fireball creatures are lively, depicted with eyes and bouncing movements independent of what’s going on around them.

As mentioned earlier, the cement factory level is missing from the NES port. It had to be cut due to the space limitations of early cartridges back then. While Nintendo did eventually produce a digital re-release with the missing level restored, it was only available for a short time on the 3DS eShop to those who purchased select games at the time. Currently, there is no official way to get it in the US. It is a sad reflection of how the company treats its older IPs (and the fanbase that supported them).

Controlling Mario feels a little stiff, especially when climbing ladders. It often leads to the problem of thinking you’ve reached the very top of a ladder only to realize you still needed to hold the up direction for a moment longer before the character pixel completes the animation. It isn’t uncommon for me to lose a life due to a hazard overtaking me while stuck on the ladder.

I think it’s fair to say that Donkey Kong hasn’t aged as well as other vintage hits over the decades. It’s highly repetitive and gives few reasons to keep replaying the same three levels beyond the goal of just seeing how many loops you can playthrough before getting the eventual Game Over screen. The missing content and stiffness in the controls aren’t doing it any favors either. However, that isn’t to say that the game doesn’t deserve the reverence it has received over the years. And the game can be fun in short bursts so long as you approach it with managed expectations.

Donkey Kong birthed an entirely new genre that never existed before it. Crossing chasms, elevator platforms, fall damage- all concepts that originated here. From Super Mario Bros. to Blaster Master to Ratchet & Clank and beyond, no one can deny that the vast majority of platforming games past and present owe their existence in one way or another to Mr. Miyamoto’s monkey business.

Review Policy

In our reviews, we'll try not to bore you with minutiae of a game. Instead, we'll outline what makes the game good or bad, and focus on telling you whether or not it is worth your time as opposed to what button makes you jump.

We use a five-star rating system with intervals of .5. Below is an outline of what each score generally means:

All games that receive this score are standout games in their genre. All players should seek a way to play this game. While the score doesn't equate to perfection, it's the best any game could conceivably do.

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A game that gets this score is fundamentally broken and should be avoided by everyone.




07/09/2021 at 11:02 PM

I never loved the NES version because it only had 75% of the game, and I didn't like how the NES rendered the game's sounds. The best home version I saw was the Atari 8-bit version, which had all four levels and sounds that were much closer to the arcade than the NES version, despite decreased graphical fidelity compared to the NES version. The physics also felt rather "off" on the NES compared to the arcade or even the Atari 8-bit version.

Miyamoto designed DK under orders from Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi to make a game geared towards Americans - originally, DK was going to be a Popeye-themed game, where Bluto would have filled the role occupied by DK. However, the actual coding was done by a company called Ikegami Tsushinki, who also manufactured the arcade boards. DK was a success, and Nintendo went ahead with a sequel. Unfortunately, Nintendo utilized Ikegami's code in making DK Junior without permission from Ikegami. Ikegami sued Nintendo, and it took the case almost ten years to work its way through the Japanese courts, after which they settled. However, Nintendo effectively lost the lawsuit, because the court acknowledged Ikegami's ownership of the code. Nintendo still had the copyright to its characters (though Mario Segale once joked that he was waiting for his royalties in one of the few interviews he ever gave), and since the code for the NES versions of DK and DK Junior was done by Nintendo itself, the NES versions are the versions they re-released. So other than what was likely an innocent mistake in not understanding still-nascent copyright and patent laws as they pertained to software, Nintendo wasn't really to blame for not releasing the arcade versions of those two games. Even the 3DS "ambassador" version was the NES version with the extra level added.  I wonder if Nintendo was worried that tangling with Ikegami in court again might give Ikegami some kind of legal hold on Mario, which would have been very bad for Nintendo. That's not as far-fetched as you might think. Bandai Namco has been involved in a long-running lawsuit with AtGames over the code to Ms. Pac-Man, which is why we haven't seen her in the past few years.

With that said, you actually can get the arcade versions of DK, DK Junior, DK3, and Mario Bros legally on the Switch. They were all released as Arcade Archives titles by Hamster, with Mario Bros coming a few months after the Switch launched. DK came out in the summer of 2018, and DK Junior (the game which originally caused the Ikegami lawsuit) somewhat later that year. I'm guessing that Nintendo and Ikegami finally buried the hatchet and decided it wasn't worth fighting over, especially since Ikegami is no longer in the games business. The Arcade Archives version includes the original Japanese version, the revised Japanese version, and the US version. The US version is structured so that Level 1 only contains the barrel and rivet screens, Level 2 adds the elevator screen, and Level 3 adds the cement factory screen. Level 4 adds a second barrel screen between the cement factory and jack screens, and from level 5 onward, there is another barrel screen between the jack screen and the rivet screen, for a total of 6 screens. So the US version does better at upping the challenge for progression.   To this day, Donkey Kong is my favorite arcade of all time, and it may possibly have been the first game I ever played. Its colors and the personality of the characters always captured my attention away from Pac-Man.  My second favorite arcade game was Mario Bros, which also held the same allure as DK. 

Nintendo regaining the rights to the arcade version of Donkey Kong even reflected itself in Super Smash Bros Ultimate. The music for the hammer now sounds like the arcade rather than the NES version, which was used for the first four generations of Smash, and the hammer now does the same effect when you hit someone with it that the arcade version does.

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

07/10/2021 at 12:13 PM

Good points about the history of DK and the legal issues surrounding it. I currently have the arcade version on my Switch, as you mentioned in your comment. My comment in the review regarding the lack of means to play the 4th level was strictly aimed at the NES port (since there's no legal way to play DK Original Edition which reinstated that 4th level on the NES port).

I should get the arcade version of DK Junior on my Switch. I only have the NES version. While I know it probably isn't super different, I'm a sucker for those bright colors of the arcade.


07/10/2021 at 02:43 PM

Donkey Kong Junior NES is a much better port than DK NES is. The sound is still off and the colors don't pop as much as the arcade version, but the gameplay feels all right. I still got the Arcade Archives version. I missed out on the Original Edition, but I'm not too fussed about it especially now that the real DK arcade game is available.

Mario Bros arcade is also day and night compared to the NES counterpart, and again, that game's appearances in Smash Ultimate take more of their cues from the arcade than the NES compared to older Smash games. It wasn't a bad port for the time, but I'm not going to play it when I have the real thing to play. 

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

07/13/2021 at 01:24 PM

Oh yeah! Mario Bros. is another arcade classic I should check out if I can.

Cary Woodham

07/10/2021 at 08:06 AM

I have a lot more respect for Donkey Kong now, but as a kid, I didn't like it as much.  It was just too hard for my little kid head to wrap around.  Games like Pac-Man just were more appealing to me.  I guess when the Famicom version of Donkey Kong came out, it must've been pretty impressive, especially since that system was originally designed to play a near perfect version of Donkey Kong.  But by the time it came to the US, it wasn't so impressive especially since it was missing a level.  Did you know that 'Donkey Kong' was one of my little brother Jeff's very first words?  Although that has more to do with Donkey Kong Country.

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

07/10/2021 at 12:23 PM

Yeah, the fall damage aspect of Donkey Kong confused me as a kid because I had already played Super Mario Bros first before DK. So you can imagine my surprise when I learned the hard way that Mario couldn't survive a fall from major heights. Back then, I didn't know that the original arcade game came waaaay before the mechanics of the Mario series were ironed out.


07/10/2021 at 04:34 PM

i was the opposite. I was like "is this the same Mario that died if he fell 3 feet?" 

Cary Woodham

07/11/2021 at 08:26 PM

I forgot to mention it, but even though i wasn't a big fan of the original DK arcade game, I love, love, love the Game Boy game.  Have you ever played it?  It's still one of the best arcade classic updates to this day!

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

07/13/2021 at 01:27 PM

Yes! I slept on the GB version of DK for soooooo many years because I assumed it was just that same game in black and white. But I had noticed over time how many high review scores it got and I couldn't figure out why (I never bother to actually read the reviews). Then one day I decided to purchase it on the 3DS eShop to see what all the fuss was about. Man...after that initial 4th stage when the game reveals a city map with so many more levels, I was hooked!

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