Why is Donkey Kong (94) SO Genius?

Updated on February 13, 2017

Itsa he, Mario!

This vertically challenged, little plumber has been around almost as long as the pixel. Mario is one of those characters fortunate enough to appear in countless innovative games. Anyone who played the original Donkey Kong knows of Mario's persistence, if you have spent any time at all with Super Mario 64 then you know how acrobatic the little guy is, and if you spend any time with any Mario game you'll learn just how vast the game world turns out to be. Donkey Kong for GameBoy pioneers and integrates many of the traits that we know Mario for today.

Mario collage

Many Marios of Ages Past
Many Marios of Ages Past

From the Top, Shall We...

Donkey Kong for GameBoy was one of the first games I owned. I'll never forget the first time I turned the GameBoy on with that cartridge in it. I was quite happy to see that familiar arcade game right there in my hands. I got through the game and was finally reunited with my beloved, only for that S.O.B. to knock my world out from under me and run off with her! BAH! "How dare you!", I say. Only then do I see it, the game just started.

This is incredible, beat the game only to find that the game has only begun. The chase is on and you have some serious concepts to learn to keep up. Everything gets real when you see that your nemesis intends to keep her behind lock and key. Now it is laid out for you, you have to navigate the level and whatever varying challenges to get the key. Only after you get the key can you proceed to get the girl. While I was playing the game, the game ended up playing me. That was a whole buncha SIKE!

Did you play the original arcade classic Donkey Kong?

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Ringling Bros. and Mario & Luigi

Okay, so maybe Luigi has nothing to do with it but it is funny. Mario is an acrobat, no matter how you look at it. He must have taken classes or something because this little dude is getting it. You can do a back-flip which proves useful for dodging projectiles and navigating platforms. It is pretty neat when you have an enemy coming at you from both sides and limited room to navigate around them: enter the back-flip.

Another interesting Mario move is the handstand. If you have played Super Mario 64 then you know about the triple jump. For those that do not know, you take off running and jump then right as you land you jump again, if you time it right you'll get a third jump that is quite high (with a complimentary flip). With the handstand in Donkey Kong, you can jump to flip upright and with good timing get another jump that yields more air. Mario obviously does his homework.

How Do You Do That?

One of my favorite things is the fact that in an era of games-without-tutorials and a complete lack of YouTube, this game had many demonstrations spread throughout. You start out getting a grip on walking, jumping, and climbing. Once the chase begins, the game introduces the concept of the key, Mario is shown grabbing the key and running to unlock the exit door. After that, the high-wire is introduced along with the idea of electrical shock on the power wires. By the time you get to your first Donkey Kong encounter after the chase starts, several concepts have been introduced and after almost every one of the Donkey Kong encounters you are shown another skill of Mario's. By the time you finish the entire first stage (Big City) you are introduced to the barrel fight along with a few acrobatics.

All the way from the start of this game, you are shown a good bit of what you can do with Mario and just what he is capable of. In between some levels your are shown (essentially) a cutscene that depicts Mario doing some acrobatic Mario shtuff. If you turn on the game and just let it set idle for long enough, there is an acrobatics demonstration that Mario comes out and puts on for a crowd (and you too if you're watching). He does everything, spinning on the high-wire, handstands, front flips and back flips, it's great.

Does This Game Ever End?

I am the oddball that enjoys that feeling of 'does this thing have an end?', especially when the game is worth playing. Considering the hardware involved at the time, this game is seemingly endless. It was cool because once you get past the initial fake out of the arcade version, the game evolves big time and so does your approach to each level. The level design is fantastic when you stop to think about the fact that the entire game is a chase and the entire game feels like a chase. Once it is all said and done, you feel like Donky Kong ran you all over Hell and back to try and keep that woman from you. The levels within each stage are all appropriately themed to mach that stage; when you're running through the jungle it feels like the jungle (you hang from vines for poopsake), the levels on the airplane show the effect of wind (you get blown from one side of the map to the other).

As you make your way through the game it becomes quite apparent that the developers put a great deal of effort into this creation. It is a masterpiece and it landed on the friggin GameBoy. The acrobatics evolve to keep up with the evolution of the levels themselves. DK does not want you to win and each stage is more difficult than the last, this is no accident. You MUST get better at understanding the puzzles and integrating your tricks when navigating every next level. You have to keep up with elevators, belts, switches, moving platforms, gates, platform gaps, spikes, enemies, falling platforms, wind drag, deadly falling objects, rolling barrels, a big ugly ape, and you're against a timer. This little game is loaded.

For Those That Had or Played This Game:

Did you ever get all of the way through it?

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It's Coming Right For Us!

Any game that has enemies in it needs to have good ones. A good opponent is a good challenge which equates to a good experience. Sometimes the thrill of the game is in navigating multiple types of enemy, sometimes all at once. The developers did a wonderful job with the pacing of this game. It gives enough simple levels at the beginning, with simple enough enemy movement, to allow the player to ease into the proper mindset for the game. After a while, the enemies grow from simple horizontal movement. Some of the critters in the game will walk up the walls, some act as a transport from one part of the level to another, and some enemies will charge at you and push you around.

The level design gets pretty clever by making use of (what looks like) ladybugs to act as moving platforms for the player. One level cannot be completed unless you squat down in front of (what seems to be) a knight that charges and pushes you under a set of spikes that would otherwise kill the player if they were standing. When talking about enemy AI you have to include the boss fights and they definitely push the player. At first, you need only to get near DK for him to run away. Things change a bit when you have to contend with barrel fights that increase in difficulty as you move forward. Sometimes you have to avoid DK stomping the ground, sometimes you have to avoid falling debris, sometimes he throws friggin gators at you. No matter what, you have your work cut out for you.

Look at Those Graphics!

Even if you play this game on that green and gray original GameBoy screen, it is quite easy to tell everything apart visually. With or without color, this game is quite clear and that is impressive to me. If you are fortunate enough to play with color, you'll see that the developers took great care to showcase this game visually. The coloring of the backgrounds opposing the coloring of the foregrounds without looking forced and limited. The way they achieved this was impressive too but that is an entirely different article.

The colors are vivid throughout the game with the exception of the bleak beginning levels (0-1 through 0-4). A small and easy to miss detail is the lack of detail. There are no backgrounds on any of the first 4 levels in this game, mocking the early arcade days of Donkey Kong. It is much like my argument for using silence as the soundtrack in Metal Gear Solid, the lack of a background image is the intended background. To me, it is a clever way to emphasize growth and evolution in the game. Not only is this more than the original Donkey Kong Game, the idea is reinforced by the visuals.

So much color

What a game

All in all, Donkey Kong for GameBoy is a fantastic game. There aren't very many genuine glitches that have been discovered (the key glitch is handy though), the soundtrack is a versatile winner, the level design is clever and interesting, the visuals are quite stunning (especially for GameBoy Color), Mario is fun to control. This game is loaded with near 100 levels, several boss fights, tons of music, and everything a good platformer could ask for. Much care was taken with this game, there is no doubt about it. I recommend playing through this game to anyone, especially to Mario fans, as it is a worthy trial.

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