When you’ve developed a successful franchise, the natural thing to do with a sequel is to throw everything that made the previous games good out the window and try something completely different.
I’m being facetious, but this is actually something Nintendo has done more than once over the course of several of its classic series’ lifetimes. Sometimes it works indisputably well — few people would consider the reskinned Doki Doki Panic that we Westerners know as Super Mario Bros. 2 to be a “bad” game, for example, despite how different it was from its predecessor.
Sometimes, though, we get something like Donkey Kong 3, and no-one is quite sure what to make of it. And that’s kind of why I really, really like it.
Donkey Kong 3 first released in 1983, two years after we first met Mario (then known as Jumpman) and the titular giant ape, and one year after we turned the tables on the moustachio’d menace as Donkey Kong Jr. It released almost simultaneously for arcades and the Nintendo Family Computer in Japan, but didn’t head West until 1986.
In Donkey Kong 3, you take on the role of Stanley, an exterminator who has been called in to deal with a bit of a pest problem. Not only do there appear to be swarms of angry Beespies and Buzzbees in the local greenhouse, there’s also a bloody great ape hanging from the ceiling doing his best to provoke them. It’s up to Stanley to deal with this problem once and for all. And then deal with it again. And again. And again.
The game’s arcade roots are immediately apparent in its structure. This is very much an early ’80s arcade game in that you’re just expected to keep playing until you can’t survive any longer. There’s no end to it; you just play and play and play in an attempt to beat the high score. Despite the fact that the same can be said of both previous Donkey Kong games also, it feels particularly apparent in Donkey Kong 3 due to the fact that individual stages can potentially be quite short.
All you need to do to win a stage, you see, is shoot Donkey Kong repeatedly up the arse until he disappears off the top of the screen. Every so often, you’ll have the opportunity to acquire a super bug spray which makes this task much easier with longer-range, faster shots — and its duration carries over between levels, meaning you can potentially clear two or three stages in the space of five seconds or less if you’re quick about it.
This becomes more challenging as the game progresses, of course, and that’s where the various enemies come in. At the start of each stage, Donkey Kong rattles the beehives at the top of the screen, releasing the boisterous bastards and beginning the action. At this point, you need to start prioritising what to do: do you concentrate on filling Kong’s bumhole with insecticide, or do you attempt to score some sneaky points by shooting down the bees as well?
Just to make matters even more interesting, some of the bees will attempt to steal the five flowers at the bottom of the screen. Keep all of these safe until you get rid of Kong on that stage and you’ll get a hefty bonus — perfect for high score chasing. But keeping an eye on this, naturally, distracts from the main objective, so you need to try and strike a good balance between all the different things you’re there to do — and keeping yourself safe, of course, since being an early ’80s arcade game protagonist, Stanley is extremely fragile.
Donkey Kong 3 is actually loosely based on a Nintendo arcade title that predates even the original Donkey Kong: a little-known 1980 release known as Space Firebird. This is a Galaga–esque space shooter that, interestingly, actually predates Namco’s popular title by a year — though, of course, Galaga’s source material Galaxian came before them both.
In Space Firebird, the majority of the game consists of fending off waves of erratically flying, diving insectoid enemies, but of particular note was the fact that it had a “boss” confrontation if you performed well enough. Here, you would have to blast a pathway through a large, gradually descending enemy to hit a vulnerable point in the middle; the way you shoot Donkey Kong up the arse in Donkey Kong 3 is clearly inspired to a certain extent by this.
There are more subtle influences from Space Firebird at play too, though — most notably the behaviour of some of the enemies. For example, both games feature an enemy that takes several hits to destroy before exploding into dangerous shrapnel; in both cases, the only safe spot to destroy it from is directly underneath, and this isn’t always easy to remember in the heat of battle!
All sounds pretty fun, right? And it is! It’s just so radically different from the two prior Donkey Kong games that it’s understandable why some people might have found it a tougher sell than its predecessors — especially when coupled with the fact that by the time it released in the West, it was a very dated kind of game compared to many of its contemporaries. That was the year the world first saw Zelda and Metroid, to name but two incredibly high profile examples on home consoles, and meanwhile in the arcades we were treated to the technical wizardry of OutRun and the exciting espionage action of Rolling Thunder.
Looking back from a modern perspective gives us the luxury of considering Donkey Kong 3 on its own merits, however, and you might be surprised to find how well it holds up today. It’s extremely simple in both concept and execution, certainly, but it has an immediate, addictive quality about it that makes it ideal for quick pick-up-and-play sessions — or perhaps even impromptu high score contests with friends.
If nothing else, it’s an interesting piece of Nintendo history — and evidence that the company has never been afraid to be brave and experiment, even with its most high-profile franchises. Plus how many other games let you fill a gorilla’s rectal cavity with poisonous gases, all in the name of good family fun?
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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