Retro Profile: Donkey Kong Classics (NES)

In every historical era, there always came a time for change and innovations that would eventually affect a major aspect of life. German engineer Karl Benz designed the first combustible flat engine. The British created the first mass-produced toothbrush. And the Japanese invented the platformer genre in video games, putting a new spin on how we can go about saving the day. In 1981, the now-legendary Shigeru Miyamoto was a mere young staff artist for Nintendo. But after being assigned the task of creating an arcade game that would capture the attention of the American audience, he proved to be a perfect fit for the job. The finished product starred a portly carpenter, a damsel in distress, and a stressed out monkey who had an infinite supply of barrels and wasn’t afraid to use them. As you all know by now, I’m talking ‘bout Donkey Kong (DK).

Donkey Kong
The main gameplay elements involve climbing ladders, jumping barrels, and combating moving flames; all of which culminates to a showdown on the steel girders where Mario must send DK falling on his crown. The concept is simple enough, but things can get challenging when barrels unexpectedly roll down ladders, and those flames keep finding ways to multiply and cause you grief. Fortunately, these two obstacles can be demolished by grabbing a hammer and smashing them into oblivion. The downside is that you cannot climb ladders or jump over gaps while utilizing the hammer.
And speaking of jumping over stuff, one of the first things that stood out to me about this game was the fact that Mario was a bit vertically-challenged. 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. Is it still bothersome? Very much so. It was a dynamic of platforming that needed improvement before it could be just right.

The graphics, like the rest of the game, are simple but still good for its time. Every character and moving object is distinguishable and well animated. At times DK will tauntingly beat his chest, as if daring Mario to come up there and challenge him. Those fireball creatures even seem to have a life of their own, being depicted with eyes and bouncing movements independent of what’s going on around them. There’s a surprising amount of personality to be found here, and that’s what mostly holds my attention when repeating the same 3 levels over and over again.
Before reaching the final scene on the steel girders, the arcade version had a level featuring conveyor belts transporting cement “pies” which Mario had to overcome to get to the top. Unfortunately, it had to be cut from the NES port due to space limitations of the early cartridges back then. Still, I think it sucks that other home consoles like the ColecoVision got all 4 levels. It’s pretty ironic that the very developer of Donkey Kong never made the full game on their own 8-bit console. While the game otherwise imitates the arcade original pretty well, the missing cement factory scene was a key component to enjoying the game, and having to do without it puts a noticeable blemish on the almost perfect NES port.

Donkey Kong Jr.
Being the first and [so far] only game to feature Mario as the bad guy, Donkey Kong Jr. proved that villainy and heroism is in the eye of the beholder. This time around, Mario finally gets the upper hand against Donkey Kong and puts him in a cage. So now you must step into the roll of is son Junior and rescue your dad from the carpenter’s clutches. Your main enemies are mechanical Snapjaws, egg-launching Nitpickers, and sparks of electricity. Instead of climbing ladders and riding elevators, Junior scales vines, bounces on springboards, and rides on small horizontal platforms to get around. Junior can climb up or down on either one vine, or two at a time. You’ll climb slower using only one vine, though descending on it is a breeze. Making use of two vines will allow you to reach the top faster, but mobility in transferring from vine-to-vine is hindered a bit. For beginners, this method of control may present a real challenge at first because it takes some forethought when coordinating you moves while avoiding the increasing bombardment of enemies.

Junior doesn’t move around as nicely as Mario did in my opinion. It’s not so bad when moving from vine-to-vine, but it just doesn’t feel quite right when leaping from a stationary platform to a moving island, or bouncing off the springboard. Stage 2 in particular is where I have the problem. Sometimes after using that springboard to propel him forward, Junior will end up clipping the edge of the platform just above where I wanted to go and once he lands, it’ll register as a “fall” causing him to lose a life. Unless you make a pixel-perfect leap, he’ll also be very likely to clip the enemies as well. These are all fairly mild annoyances, but it can still potentially turn away gamers who enjoyed the relative fluidity of the original Donkey Kong.

Visually, DK Jr. is a notable improvement over the first game with brighter colors and heavier amounts of animations going on at once. This time the NES port is on par with arcade version in terms of the levels in the game. We get all 4 of them, instead of being stuck with only 3. The first level features vines and small platforms at the bottom that Junior can jump across. The second area features the springboard, chains, and a moving island. The third section is Mario’s electronic fortress, complete with sparks running all over the place. And finally, the fourth level is where Junior must unite all 6 keys with the locks that hold DK captive. Much like the first game, you start back over at the first area once you free your dad form the cage. The game itself proves to be an interesting concept in reversing the rolls of villain/hero, but the gameplay elements fall just short of the fluidity that was found in the original Donkey Kong.

Play or Stay? Well, after proving that both were formidable enemies, Mario and the Kongs eventually parted ways, only to reunite during racing and fighting events. Mario quit the carpentry business in favor of being a plumber with his brother Luigi. It wasn’t long until they went off to save a princess who always seemed to be “in another castle”. Later, the Kongs moved out to the country where Donkey Kong would grow old and cranky, and his descendant would grow up to become the DK for a 16-bit generation.
From Sonic the Hedgehog to the Ratchet & Clank series, many of the basic aspects of the modern-day platformer can be traced back to a menacing gorilla and an Italian carpenter. The Donkey Kong Classics cartridge perfectly preserves both games as they were when first released on the NES. While the pre-Super Mario Bros. gameplay mechanics leaves much to be desired, it cannot be denied that the vast majority of platforming games in recent years owe their existence, in one way or another, to Mr. Miyamoto’s monkey business.

Jamie Alston is somewhat of an unusual gamer. While most people crave the visual delights that can be found in many of the current generation consoles of today, he actually prefers the 8-bit & “super 8-bit” (SNES) glory days of yesteryear. This is probably due in part to the fact that his brother chose the Nintendo Entertainment System over the Sega Genesis back in 1989…or maybe it had more to do with that time when he fell and hit his head on the blacktop in elementary school. Whatever the reason might be, Jamie has an undying love for those unnecessarily big cartridges he spent so many summer afternoons playing.When he’s not raiding trucks that “have started to move” for rations and key cards, he stays busy supporting his gaming hobby by working as a Policies & Procedures Analyst for a financial company in Baltimore, Maryland. And when he’s not working for “the man”, he’s working on the next retro review for the week. And when he’s not fighting off writer’s block and much needed sleep, he’s raiding trucks that “have started to”—well, you get the idea.Currently living in Randallstown, MD, Jamie sums up his life long dream this way:“If I one day find myself driving on the highway in a 2004 Honda Accord with an NES directional pad for a steering wheel, you can bet that I’ll be holding the up direction for that turbo boost on the straight-aways. That’s when I’ll know that I’ve finally made it in life”.