Square Roots: Donkey Kong (NES)

The inaugural entry of Square Roots, a biweekly column that explores Nintendo antiquity through Virtual Console.

By Pierre Bienaimé. Posted 01/13/2012 17:00 2 Comments     ShareThis

Hello, Nintendojo readership! As you must be aware, we’re bringing back biweekly columns. Yes, a new year brings new approaches.

My own column idea came from an emotion more than an idea: games today are more demanding than ever. With the increasing standards for realism, depth, and size (of both game worlds and scripts), it’s difficult to reap reward from most single-player ventures without investing a sizeable amount of time into the experience. At least such is the case with triple A titles and sequels, those that dot our calendars with fanfarous midnight launches.

At the same time, it is the games of yore that are more demanding. The time we now spend wrestling meaning from modern games – the world isn’t always your oyster – used to be spent trying and retrying one’s luck on sadistically difficult levels and ruthless boss battles. There certainly are outliers to the trend of games getting both easier and less straightforward. But when we talk about them, we usually associate their difficulty with a retro-streak. And yes, there are outliers on the other side of the equation, too, as The Legend of Zelda delighted and frustrated gamers 25 years ago with the onus to explore. Still, you get my point (how monstrous it must be to be a historian, beating back absolute statements from every direction).

For the love of those simpler days, of concise and pixelated menu screens, and of clear-cut goals, I’ll be playing Virtual Console titles and reporting my findings in a biweekly column. My choices will often be games considered Nintendo classics, and I’ll be ruminating on how the game stands the test of time. I’ll also be digging into the game’s role within its series (if it belongs to one) and its place in gaming history, exploring the elements and mechanics that made these games the pioneering gems that they so often were.

Before we go on, I’d like to mention Steven Kent’s “The Ultimate History of Video Games” as well as Daniel Sloan’s “Playing to Wiin” as great resources for the writing of this article and others.

And now onwards, into the future! Or is it backwards, into the past?


There is no better starting point than Donkey Kong. Nintendo had known some success before the ape’s kidnapping of Lady/Pauline (read: proto-Peach), but none of the company’s arcade games– be it Space Fever or Radar Scope– cracked the nut that was the US market. Nor did any game spawn iconic characters that have remained relevant through the present.

In fact, before the windfall that Donkey Kong proved to be, Nintendo underwent some doubt as to whether it could effectively follow a handful of other established Japanese game makers– Namco and Taito– into the bountiful West. Thanks to the brilliance of a certain Shigeru Miyamoto– invited to create his own game in 1979– such concerns became, by the end of release year (1981), absolutely laughable. Donkey Kong sold some 67,000 arcade cabinets in two years, making two of its American distributors sudden millionaires thanks to paid commission. As a barometer of success, know that Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man are the only arcade games to have sold over 100,000 units in the United States.

In a pre-NES world, Donkey Kong‘s availability on consoles splintered into numerous directions: Atari consoles, ColecoVision, Commodore 64, and the Apple II, to name just a few. Each platform brought stringent specs to be met, and the result is legion aesthetic redesigns of the game.

Donkey Kong Classic Box Art

And of course, it saw release on Nintendo’s own NES, to which the graphics made a faithful leap from Jumpman’s (read: proto-Mario) arcade origins. That’s the version made available on the Virtual Console since Wii’s first day.

It’s also a version to be avoided.

You read right. Though the arcade graphics made the leap, more important things did not, and the result is appalling. The original coin-op games debuted in two Seattle bars, featuring four levels to be scaled sequentially. The second of those four levels is inexcusably absent, as are the cutscenes of DK’s determined ascent between game levels.

Without them, it’s hard to be swayed into the damsel-in-distress trope: you’re not turning the story’s pages, they’re scattered across the room. This is especially criminal when you stop and consider that Donkey Kong was the first game to offer plot and advancement.

Nintendo fans have every right to cry foul at such a flawed package being made available on Virtual Console. But a better rallying cry might be: why did it ever make it onto the NES in this form? It all makes for a bitter first episode of Square Roots, I tell you…

But let’s focus on what’s here rather than what’s not. Donkey Kong makes for a deceptively simple game with a rather tricky learning curve to it. Jumpman doesn’t have the aerial prowess of Super Mario, so players have to be flush with oncoming barrels in order to clear them. Another tough feature is the extreme sensitivity to fall damage; landing from even the slightest height is enough to rob you of a precious life.

Visually, the game has polish in places you might not expect, as when Jumpman enters or leaves a ladder. He doesn’t just blink into existence at either end; he really gets his booty up in the air to clear that last rung. Hey, impressive for 1981, especially seeing as many characters still appear to be jogging forward to get anywhere on a ladder.

Then there’s Lady’s design, akin to a piece of visual culture somewhat more distant to us than the golden age of video games. I don’t mean to draw a striking resemblance between the two, but I think both wear their two-dimensional restrictions with a certain comfort.

In the arcade offering, Jumpman reaches Lady and, as tends to happen when true love is afoot, a pink heart manifests out of thin air. Donkey Kong then seizes Lady and climbs ever higher – the heart cleaves in half. Behold the tender, wordless origin of “Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle!”

Also worth nothing are those motifs that did not make it into future Mario lore. Some are obvious: Donkey Kong’s role as villain, Jumpman’s name and profession (carpenter!)– others less so: the protagonist’s death animation being honored with a pious halo, his use of hammers and ladders to move from bottom to top rather than left to right. Perhaps Miyamoto alone holds insight into why some elements carried over while others were left behind. What’s certain is his early resolve to make of the red man a recurring character:

I called him ‘Mr. Video.’ My plan was to use the same character in every video game I made [...] I thought the way Hitchcock cropped up in all the films he directed was really cool. [Source]

The tie-wearing ape got the same treatment, making a cameo among the audience members of Punch-Out!!. Over 30 years later, he and his once-nemesis continue their romp through the video game world.

2 Responses to “Square Roots: Donkey Kong (NES)”

  • 960 points
    penduin says...

    It’s a bit unfair to call out the NES version of Donkey Kong as being broken. As can be seen in the linked video, many versions of the game were made, and nearly all of them (including the ones which kept the story animations and pie factory) radically altered the gameplay: mid-air direction changes, just-plain-wrong level layouts, all manner of hammer weirdness, wild speed incongruities… Plenty of broken Kong out there.

    The NES version, even with its first-generation, puny-ROM-size chip, retained all the gameplay mechanics perfectly. (Not to mention the graphics and sound, let’s see those Atari and PC versions again…) It’s missing some stuff, to be sure, but DK64′s cabinet emulation aside, it’s definitely the most faithful of all the home version.

    Thumb up 0
  • 1230 points
    lukas85 says...

    ” In the arcade offering, Jumpman reaches Lady and, as tends to happen when true love is afoot, a pink heart manifests out of thin air” hahaha clever!

    Thumb up 0

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