Then and Now: Donkey Kong (GB)

This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.

All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.

The name Donkey Kong has been a major one in my development as a gamer. Donkey Kong is listed as the first game I have a cognisant memory of, and I have Donkey Kong Country listed as one of my favourite games of all time. People forget this now, but Donkey Kong was actually resurrected elsewhere: on the Game Boy as a reboot of the original arcade game. It was also released as one of the flagship titles for the Super Game Boy, a Super Nintendo peripheral that allowed people to play Game Boy games, some of which had enhancements specifically for the system, on their TVs, with conveniences like actually being able to see what they were playing. In the pre-Internet and pre-emulation days, this was an amazing device, but the Super Game Boy itself doesn’t make sense in 2012.

This week’s question is, does Donkey Kong?

Donkey Kong
Original System: Game Boy
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Original Release Date: June 14, 1994

HOW WAS IT THEN: Donkey Kong stayed true to its original gameplay in this remake for all of about three minutes. Once Mario saved Pauline, Donkey Kong recovered, knocked him down, took her again, and began a wild goose chase that executed more like a puzzle-platformer than the old-school action game of the early 1980s. Across eight worlds and multiple stages, the game broke Mario and the player into its combination of timing-based jumps and selective negotiation of stage layout and use of new techniques, everything from the ability to throw the hammer to catch it elsewhere to swinging on ropes and clotheslines to get to higher places and other actions. Donkey Kong was brilliantly executed for its time and was the rare Game Boy game of that era that stood up favourably alongside 16-bit console games in terms of enjoyment factor. Also notable at the time was the enhancement that the Super Game Boy provided, adding colour to the otherwise black-and-white game, giving Pauline a scratchy but noticeable voice beyond 8-bit squeaks and squeals, and surrounding the game with cabinet art inspired by the original arcade game. It was a brilliant touch.

No matter how the game was played, Donkey Kong was a well designed, smartly executed game on any system, and one that was justly a system seller for both the handheld and Super Nintendo Game Boys.

THEN: B+

Donkey Kong on the Super Game BoyHOW IS IT NOW: Despite obvious graphical issues and the limitations put forth by the tiny Game Boy screen and system, Donkey Kong stands up very well in 2012 due to its focus away from fast-paced action in favour of cerebral stage design which involves more thinking and less reaction. This is a good thing because if the game is being played on the regular Game Boy screen, the blurriness and lack of light will do no favours. On a better screen, even that of a Game Boy Colour, the game looks a lot crisper.

The gameplay itself is still great after eighteen years. Mario’s new tricks are weaved into the game with a solid learning curve, being shown off in little vignettes after getting past a boss checkpoint, and then allowed to be used a couple of times before being incorporated into the game at large. It creates a learning environment of sorts that culminates in the last few worlds putting everything together into one tasty but difficult package. One thing to note is that 1-UPs are common; a minigame comes up after every stage in which all three of Pauline’s items are collected with extra lives as the prize, so it’s easy to collect lives in the first few worlds. However, don’t think that Donkey Kong is easy because those lives will fritter away in the later stages as timing and planning trump the player’s ability to react.

There are 101 stages in all counting the first four retro levels, so there is a lot of game to be had for a small price. The game is available physically for around $7 to $10, but the version I would recommend depends on the experience the individual gamer wants. For those looking for the ultimate way to play the game, I would go with the physical copy along with a Super Game Boy, which is also about $10. But for those who just want the game in an affordable package, Nintendo put this game on the 3DS’s Virtual Console for $3.99. It’s absolutely an acceptable way to play the game on a good screen with the ability to create a restore point in a pinch, but none of the Super Game Boy’s presentation perks made it in; the game is in black and white, and you’ll take it and like it. Once again, Nintendo gets lazy with their online releases, but the game is still highly enjoyable despite that.

NOW: B

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.