Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

#160 – Donkey Kong

DK –- Donkey Kong is here!

A well constructed title!

To Beat: Reach the ending
To Complete: Beat Loop 6
What I Did: Completed the game
Played: 6/16/20 – 6/17/20
Difficulty: 2/10
My Difficulty: 4/10
My Video: Donkey Kong Longplay

Donkey Kong is a special NES game for several reasons.  It was Nintendo’s first huge arcade hit.  It was the debut game for Shigeru Miyamoto, who went on to create countless new series and characters, including some of the best games of all time.  This is part of the “Black Box” series of games which were the first set of games released on the NES in 1985.  Large chunks of gaming history can be traced back to Donkey Kong.  I may not be able to do full justice to this pivotal and essential video game, but I am happy to cover it today.

The history of Donkey Kong begins with Radar Scope.  Space Invaders was a gigantic hit in the arcades and companies raced to create their own clones of Space Invaders to cash in on the hype.  Radar Scope was Nintendo’s answer to Space Invaders.  It did well in Japan and they wanted to release the game in North America.  The problem was that the arcade machines took 4 months by boat to reach the US and by then interest had waned.  Nintendo sent 3000 machines to the US but only 1000 sold, with the other 2000 units languishing in a warehouse.  Nintendo’s president Hiroshi Yamauchi had the idea to convert the unused Radar Scope cabinets into a different game, so he tabbed Shigeru Miyamoto to come up with a replacement game, and thus Donkey Kong was born.  

Donkey Kong was first released in arcades in July 1981 in both Japan and North America, with a European version appearing later in 1981.  It was published and developed by Nintendo.  This is one of the few Nintendo games to be ported to other consoles and computers.  It appeared on all sorts of home computers, as well as home console ports for the Atari 2600, Colecovision, and Intellivision.  Coleco developed a mini arcade version of Donkey Kong, and Nintendo made a Donkey Kong Game & Watch handheld.  Donkey Kong was one of three launch titles for the Famicom, alongside Donkey Kong Jr. and Popeye.  Those three games and the Famicom console was released in July 1983 in Japan.  Surprisingly, Donkey Kong was not a launch title for the NES in 1985, instead releasing in June 1986 in North America and October 1986 in Europe.  This version of Donkey Kong was re-released several times in various forms.  The NES has a compilation cart, Donkey Kong Classics, that contains both Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr.  It was released in 1988.  The game appeared within Animal Crossing on Gamecube in 2002.  It was a downloadable title on Virtual Console for Wii, Wii U, and the Nintendo 3DS.  It has a GBA port as part of the Classic NES series, and it even had an e-Reader version on scannable cards.

Iconic platforming action!

The plot and outline of the game are very simple.  You play as Mario who is ascending a construction site to save Pauline from the clutches of Donkey Kong.  Our antagonist has several traps to thwart Mario, including rolling barrels, fireballs, and bouncing jacks.  The game takes place over three rounds, all single-screen levels.  The original arcade version has four distinct stages, but famously the cement factory stage was omitted from this version of the game entirely.  Clear all three stages to beat this game.

The title screen is a simple one.  It does include a tune that was created new for this port of the game.  You can select from either single player or two-player alternating play, and you can also choose from Game A or Game B.  Mode A is the standard mode, and Game B starts off more difficult.  Press Select to choose which option you want, then press Start to begin the game.

This is a simple game to play.  You use the D-pad to move Mario around.  He can move Left and Right with the respective buttons.  He can climb ladders by pressing either Up or Down, but he must be positioned pretty close to the center of the ladder to move successfully.  You can move partway up or down on the ladder and Mario will hold on.  He can jump by pressing A.  Mario can jump across gaps that are two girder tiles wide — about the width of Mario himself.  He is only permitted to jump down that same distance.  Any falls further down and Mario dies.  He also cannot jump off ladders, only climb up and down.

Some information is displayed at the top of the screen.  The top row contains your score.  The left side, labeled with an I, is score for the first player.  In a two-player game, the second player’s score is shown on the right side, labeled with II, otherwise it is omitted.  The high score for this session is in the center.  On the right side there are three boxes with more information.  The M shows how many extra Marios you have in reserve.  The game begins with two extra lives and you can earn an additional life if you reach 20,000 points.  The bonus is the number of points you get added to your score when you finish the stage.  This acts as a timer as well, counting down from 5000 slowly as you play.  If the bonus reaches 0, the timer runs out and you lose a Mario.  The L is the loop counter.  The game starts off on Loop 1 and this counter increments every time you clear the game.

The final approach in this stage is the hardest.

The first stage is the iconic climb to the top.  Donkey Kong hangs out at the top next to a stack of barrels, dropping them down.  Mostly he rolls them down the slanted girders as they zig-zag down the screen.  Sometimes he throws one directly down, skipping the girders.  He can also throw a barrel that bounces down diagonally.  There is an oil drum at the bottom next to where Mario starts.  When a barrel strikes the oil drum, it catches fire and a flame pops out that patrols the bottom two girders.  There can be two flames going at once, forcing you to climb up quickly to avoid them.  Mario can avoid the rolling barrels by jumping over them, which nets you 100 points.  Sometimes the barrels can roll down ladders instead of continuing on their natural path.  Also, there are broken ladders that Mario can climb up or down partway, but the barrels can fall through no problem.  You always should be prepared for an unexpected barrel drop either down a ladder or thrown down by Donkey Kong.  Mario has a form of attack with the two hammers located in this stage.  Simply jump into it to collect it.  Now Mario will temporarily swing the hammer around, destroying barrels at a 500 point bonus.  The downside is you cannot climb ladders when wielding the hammer, so you have to wait until the effect wears off.  This is a simple screen by appearances but has a lot of complexity to it.

The second stage throws some new tricks at you.  To start, you have an elevator to the right that moves upward.  Mario must jump onto the moving platform as it is rising to cross over.  At the top is Pauline’s parasol that you can collect for an 800 point bonus.  There is another elevator that moves down farther right, and in the island in between are two platforms connected by ladders and a flame that patrols the area.  Mario dies if he touches either the top or the bottom of the elevator.  Once you time your way through this section, now there is another climb up to the top of the screen.  Here you will have to deal with the bouncing jacks that you have watched up above.  They enter the screen from the top left, bounce along the top girder and fall all the way down when they reach the end.  The jack’s path crosses the platforms Mario uses to get to the top.  There is also another patrolling flame along a side path to the purse, another point-netting item.  Once you get to the topmost girder, now you have to time your approach and ladder climb to the top without getting hit by the constantly spawning jacks.

Avoid the fireballs and bring DK down.

The third and final stage takes a different approach.  Donkey Kong is at the top-center, next to Pauline, on a simple screen of straight girders and ladders.  Fireballs appear off the sides of the screen, which wander around the playfield.  There are 8 orange bolts on this screen, and your task is to remove all of them.  Simply walk over them to pick them up, leaving a gap behind.  The gaps also block the fireballs as well, which can sometimes trap them on the edges of the screen.  There are a couple of hammers you can use for some extra protection.  Once all 8 bolts are removed, there is a cutscene where Donkey Kong falls to the bottom and Mario and Pauline are reunited again!

Since this is a short game, the experience is extended through looping the game.  There are six distinct difficulty settings in this game.  Once you get to Loop 7 and beyond, the difficulty caps and you can keep playing for a long time if you are good enough.  In general, the enemies and traps move faster.  On the first screen, Donkey Kong throws barrels more quickly.  You will see them stack up in groups of two or three sometimes, and if there are too many some of them quietly roll off the edge of the screen before they reach the bottom.  In stage two, the fireballs move faster and the jacks appear slightly more often.  That becomes a major issue when trying to reach the top ladder.  In the final level, there are up to four fireballs and they move more quickly.  While the first loop isn’t too difficult, it gets trickier in the higher levels.

Donkey Kong on NES is a game I played a lot.  I got the Donkey Kong Classics cart early on when I was a kid.  As I remember it, we went to visit my aunt and uncle for Thanksgiving, and my cousin had a bunch of NES carts he didn’t play.  I got to take three of them home with me.  I chose Mega Man 2, Ironsword, and Donkey Kong Classics.  I had decent taste!  So, I played a fair amount of both DK games on that cart, never really getting much further than Loop 3 or 4.  This was the first time I tried to grind out the full six loop experience.

Things become a lot more hectic in later loops.

I expected this to be a more challenging goal than it ended up.  I actually completed my goal on the very first try, having not played the game in quite some time.  I reached the second stage in Loop 8. However, some technical issues prevented me from accepting that run.  First of all, I didn’t capture a picture of the Game Over screen in time to show the loop counter.  Second, I had messed around with OBS and accidentally had my voice commentary included in the recorded video.  The following night I played two more times to replicate the feat.  I ended up with a higher score, losing the game at the exact same spot as the first time.  I got my picture this time too.

Both the NES and arcade versions of Donkey Kong have a kill screen, where the game glitches out to the point when you can no longer clear it.  While the arcade version ends in Loop 22, the NES version goes all the way out to Loop 133!  The kill screen in both games happens due to an overflow bug in the bonus point calculation.  You start the game with 5000 bonus points possible, and it increases by 1000 each loop until it gets to 8000 in Loop 4 and after.  The calculation for the increase continues to take place, but after Loop 4 it is intentionally rounded down to 8000.  At Loop 133, the calculated value becomes greater than 255, the maximum value of an 8-bit number, at which point it loops back around 0.  Since this value would set the bonus lower than 8000, it is not rounded down.  In this particular case, Loop 133 begins with the bonus at 400 points.  Since this acts as a timer too, it is impossible for Mario to reach the top before the time runs out, causing Mario to lose all his lives.  There is a video by Tom Votava where he covers the kill screen and gameplay strategies for playing Donkey Kong at the highest level.

The arcade version of Donkey Kong is a timeless classic.  While not the first platformer, it was the first one to reach mainstream and inspired many other classic platformers.  The NES version plays very well, but it does feel incomplete missing the pie factory stage.  When you consider the time this game was made, the NES port was done very well.  The graphics closely resemble the arcade version.  The music is basic, and mostly just sound effects, but it is still iconic in its own right.  The controls work well, though climbing ladders requires a little bit more precision than you might expect.  The game is short and repetitive, but I think it holds up well enough.  There is enough randomness in the game to keep it appealing when the levels stay the same.  All that said, I don’t really recommend the NES version of the game when better, more complete versions of the game are available.

#160 – Donkey Kong

Posted In: Finished
by :
comment : 0

Leave a Reply