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CONSOLE: Arcade DEVELOPER: Nintendo PUBLISHER: Nintendo
RELEASE DATE (NA): July 1981 GENRE: Action/Platformer
// review by SoyBomb

C'mon, c'mon! C'mon, c'mon, do the... well, you know.

Donkey Kong is not only considered a classic of the arcades in the early 1980s, but it's also basically the game that saved Nintendo of America from being closed permanently. After opening up the fledgling American branch of the Japanese empire that was Nintendo, the company had begun its business by trying to sell various game cabinets to arcade owners, bar managers, etc., including the ill-fated Radar Scope of 1980, but with relatively little avail. They needed newer, better games. Nintendo of Japan, in a crude effort to assist the ailing subsidiary, appointed a youthful designer to head the development of a new game that would replace the games found in the unsold Radar Scope cabinets. That designer was Shigeru Miyamoto. Maybe you've heard of him.

Miyamoto slaved over many concepts, but his finalized plotline, or what could be considered a plotline in the days of very limited technology, was that a large gorilla would kidnap an Italian carpenter's girlfriend and hold her hostage at a construction site. That carpenter, immortalized at the time with the moniker "Jumpman" and designed to represent the everyman of his era, would then have to climb up and rescue her. Miyamoto would confer with programmers to see if many of his gameplay ideas were feasible, and after much debate, the final game was ready to go public in the summer of 1981. After seeing the success of Donkey Kong at two Seattle bars, measured by its sheer ability to overload with quarters from the locals, thee staff at Nintendo of America worked tirelessly to transform old Radar Scope machines into Donkey Kong arcade games. Overall, Nintendo of America earned hundreds of millions of dollars from that one game alone, and it helped create a foundation for the new subsidiary to proceed with further projects, rather than simply heading into a world of bankruptcy. Donkey Kong saved the day.

But what IS this game that was apparently so popular and saved a company from financial ruin? Donkey Kong stars, unsurprisingly, a gorilla named Donkey Kong who has captured Pauline, the token damsel in distress. Her boyfriend and soon-to-be-hero, Jumpman, must climb the many girders of a construction site to save her. Jumpman would later be renamed Mario, and the rest is history with that character. The game consists of four levels, although you won't see them all on your first playthrough. When you start playing, you enter the legendary first level. Donkey Kong climbs to the top with Pauline under his arm, hops around for a bit (bending the girders), and then begins to toss barrels like they were as light as peanut shells. Jumpman must bravely climb the girders (ladders help, too) and get to her before he succumbs to a barrel to the forehead. Along the way, he will be able to grab a couple of hammers that can bust barrels and give him extra points, though he sacrifices his ability to jump while it is active.

Upon reaching the top, love shall blossom and I'm sure Pauline will be thankful. I'm sure players expected having to immediately start that screen over but were amazed by the technological marvel ahead: a second screen, a new level! This was uncommon in video games, considering the limitations of the hardware. Here, Donkey Kong is perched soundly at the top of a set of girders. Jumpman must sneak over eight rivets and remove them, all while dodging some fireball characters that want Jumpman's crispy head on a platter. If he can remove the rivets, Donkey Kong will fall to his demise and Jumpman can once again reunite with his beloved Pauline. Then the game loops, starting with the barrel-tossing level again, only this time, Donkey Kong is a bit angrier. The barrels move a bit faster this time.


♫ Oh, I would do anything for love... even climb infinite girders. ♫

Gamers who anticipated an infinite loop of two levels were later astounded as additional screens entered the fray with each playthrough! In subsequent visits to the construction site, players will also get experience two more levels. One involves riding on moving elevators and also avoiding bouncing spring-like objects that are essentially leaping from above in an attempt to knock Jumpman out of commission. This is where Jumpman must be particularly careful with his jumps; falling just a bit too far will cause instant death when he hits the ground. The other, commonly referred to as the "Pie Factory" level, requires Jumpman to climb up five stories while avoiding pans of cement slinking by on conveyor belts. The cement looks like a delicious pie, hence the name. Reaching the top lets you move ahead to the next level. If Pauline wasn't enough of an incentive to survive, points certainly were; in addition to succeeding in each level (and racking up the bonus points from your timer), items could also be picked up, including hats, purses, and umbrellas, supposedly the former property of Pauline before she was abducted.

The graphics for the time were quite impressive. Granted, seeing multiple screens of graphics was stunning enough, but to watch the detailed Jumpman climbing those girders for the first time was likely a breath of fresh air for those stuck in the world of Space Invaders and Asteroids. Donkey Kong's audio has also become a thing of legend; its extremely brief but nonetheless merry tunes have entered into the brains of popular culturites and are easily remembered. The control scheme is pretty solid (and simple). A joystick moves you around, and a separate button gets Jumpman to, well, jump. It doesn't get much more simplistic, but for a game like Donkey Kong, there's little else you need. Of course, even good controls can only take you so far. You'll need great reflexes to win each level. There is, however, a problem, one that not even the finest of joystick soldiers can solve.

Level 22.

Many games suffered from this problem for one reason or another, be it a mathematical miscalculation or an oversight on the part of the developers for one reason or another. It is commonly called a "kill screen". On a kill screen, something glitchy happens and the level becomes unwinnable. Pac-Man is most notable for having such an occurence, but Donkey Kong does, too. On Level 22. Due to the formula which determines how much time is placed in the timer for each level, an issue occurs on the 22nd level in which the timer starts out at 100. This sounds like a significant amount of time, but given that the timer decreases by increments of 100, you will see there is a problem. Though the timer will appear to change to 4000 (a much better amount of time), it will still assume time is almost up and Jumpman will perish shortly after. Level 22 cannot be finished, so the game ends there.

For most of us, this is no legitimate concern. It wouldn't be for me: I likely wouldn't be able to get to Level 22 without more practice than I can afford. But for what we do get, the first 21 levels are amongst the high echelon of arcade gaming, and it's because of this excellent start that Miyamoto has become the megastar in the gaming community that it is today, and that Nintendo has its current place in the video game industry. Donkey Kong is not a game to be missed, and while there are many clones and ports out there, the original can't be beat... literally.


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