Game Boy Essentials: Donkey Kong

You know Donkey Kong, right? Classic Nintendo arcade game, origin of Mario? Sure you do.

Donkey Kong is a classic with good reason: it’s solid arcade fare. Its mechanics are simple and straightforward to understand, it’s friendly to quick play sessions, it’s enormously addictive and it consistently challenges its players with just minor, progressively more difficult variations on the same four levels.

The 1994 Game Boy version surely can’t be anything particularly special, right? Or could it? Well, it came out thirteen years after the arcade original, so either someone at Nintendo was really confident in the staying power of its early arcade games — actually not all that unreasonable an assumption — or something interesting was going on.

It was, of course, the latter. Donkey Kong ’94, as we shall refer to it hereafter, is a great example of how to take a classic game and bring it up to date. Or “up to date” for 1994, anyway.

The game begins as you might expect, with a pretty straightforward and competent port of the original Donkey Kong arcade game. The titular giant ape has kidnapped Pauline (whose design, by this point, looks exactly as she appears in Super Mario Odyssey), and it’s up to Mario to make his way up a series of girders, through a perilous arrrangement of conveyor belts and over some even more precarious platforms and ladders before reaching the summit of the building. Once there, he has to loosen a series of bolts to bring Kong crashing down to Earth — and Pauline into his waiting arms.

The arcade version “ended” there — or, more accurately, at that point it looped around again at a higher difficulty. In the Game Boy version, however, Kong recovers rather more quickly than anticipated from his fall, snatches up Pauline once again and escapes into a door with Mario in hot pursuit. At this point, the game “proper” begins.

Donkey Kong ’94 is actually a puzzle platformer, unlike its predecessor. Rather than simply jumping over enemies and reaching the top of each screen, each level challenges Mario to make his way to a key, pick it up and finally exit via a door. As you might expect, both the key and the door are positioned in particularly inconvenient locations, and to further complicate matters Pauline has dropped a parasol, a handbag and a hat in each level. Collecting all of these before unlocking the door to progress allows Mario to play a bonus game and earn extra lives, though after the initial “arcade” segment has been completed the game also features a save system allowing the player to continue from the level they left off at upon reaching various “checkpoints”.

The game is split into numerous worlds, each of which are themed around a particular type of scenery, and each section of which introduces a new gameplay mechanic. Initially, the puzzles are fairly simple matters of traversal, but over time more and more level gimmicks are introduced, beginning with special blocks that allow you to “build” horizontal platforms or vertical ladders at a location of your choosing on the screen, and continuing with movable springs, Super Hammers that can break down walls and arrangements of hazards that require the use of various special moves.

Mario is a little more mobile than he is in the original Donkey Kong, and mastery of his additional moves becomes essential in the later worlds. While his running and jumping are pretty much the same as they always have been, he can now fall a bit further without dying. He’s also able to perform a handstand to protect himself from objects falling from above, backflip, perform flying somersaults to launch himself into the air, hang from wires and swing himself around. Each of these moves are pretty straightforward to accomplish with the Game Boy’s limited arrangement of buttons, and the game does a great job of gradually introducing you to situations in which you’ll need them.

Modern Nintendo games — Super Mario 3D World is a good example — are known for gradually introducing level gimmicks a little at a time and allowing the player the opportunity to experiment with them in a relatively “safe” environment before tasking them with more complex combinations of manoeuvres. Donkey Kong ’94 shows that this practice has been going on for quite some time; each new level introduces something new to the player, and the cutscenes that occasionally pop up at the end of a world or after a “mid-boss” confrontation with Donkey Kong provide explicit demonstrations of what newly introduced level elements are actually for.

There’s a certain amount of Super Mario Bros. 2 DNA in Donkey Kong ’94, with this being particularly evident in the boss fights, which generally require either negotiating an arrangement of platforms while avoiding attacks, or picking up and throwing items at the giant ape. There are also a number of graphical elements that look like they were lifted wholesale from the NES classic — most notably the keys for the doors that complete each stage, which look very familiar indeed.

The game as a whole looks great, whether played on the monochrome screen of an original Game Boy or with the additional colour added by the Super Game Boy device or Game Boy Colour. Donkey Kong ’94 was also the first game to include Super Game Boy enhancements on the cartridge, including a custom pixel art border and a specific colour palette for the game to use. If you have the opportunity to play it in this way, it’s worth taking; it looks lovely.

It sounds great, too; Donkey Kong’s synthesised growling is surprisingly menacing, Pauline’s howling keeps you motivated, and the musical accompaniments for the levels are catchy but unobtrusive, generally adopting an enjoyable “jazzy” feel to them that is firmly in keeping with the overall tone of the game.

Donkey Kong ’94 is a game that will keep you busy for a long time. While the original arcade game was designed to be played for short sessions of a few minutes at a time, this particular incarnation is intended to be enjoyed over a longer period as you gradually learn new skills and refine your ability to make good use of them in various contexts. It’s a great example of how a classic, simple game can be used to form the framework of something much greater — and it is, without a doubt, one of the finest Game Boy games out there.

More about Donkey Kong

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4 thoughts on “Game Boy Essentials: Donkey Kong”

    1. Thank you! And I recommend the experience if you have some means of doing so. It’s also worth checking out the two Mario vs Donkey Kong games; I haven’t played them myself yet but they’re supposedly spiritual successors to this specific version.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I had NO IDEA that this game was so special. I always just assumed it was no-frills port of Donkey Kong. The Gameboy really is a curious lil’ system in retrospect.

    Liked by 1 person

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