Another Take – Donkey Kong (Game Boy)

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A barrel blast from the past.

The first console my family ever owned was the Atari 2600 and this would have been great… if it wasn’t the early 1990s and I hadn’t asked for a NES. The Mega Drive and SNES were out, there were still new games coming out for the NES and Master System, and yet I had an Atari 2600. One game I owned was a port of the original Mario Bros. Even without the “Super” this was a decent little game but I of course wanted the one with “Super” at the front. I wanted it so much that I used to imagine that if I got far enough, it would turn into Super Mario Bros. This was just wishful thinking from a kid who wanted a NES, but it did inspire me to try harder and harder and get further and further.

What is the point of the painful childhood memory above? Well, the subject of today’s Another Take served as a reminder of it, simply because it starts off as something simple and soon becomes something else. Donkey Kong is almost certainly the wrong name for this Game Boy game, because only a tiny portion of the game really is the classic arcade game. And I do mean tiny because each of the following nine worlds in the game have at least eight, to the arcade games four levels. This is what Super Mario Bros. 3 is to Mario Bros., the latter being a diverting mini-game within the humongous whole. If it were on SNES it would have been called Super Donkey Kong*… but I think another Donkey Kong might have come out on the SNES in 1994.

Donkey Kong ’94 as it is often called (and shall continue to be referred to here), is a full-on expansion to the Donkey Kong formula along with a few ingredients borrowed from later Mario titles. Getting to the damsel Pauline is still required but usually only every fourth stage. Mario spends many of the first three stages chasing Donkey Kong through locked doors. Most of the levels task Mario with finding a large key and carrying it to a door. Of course, our intrepid plumber is hindered in this task by enemies, locked doors, levers, spikes and conveyer belts which are all combined together in a variety of puzzling ways. When Mario eventually faces Donkey Kong, it’s done so in stages more reminiscent of the original classic, in which Mario has to avoid thrown obstacles to reach Pauline. But even this formula is shaken up for the last stage of each world where Mario gets to throw Donkey Kong’s barrels right back at him.

Nearly every one of the nine worlds following the original stages adds a new mechanic or aspect to the gameplay. Whether this is slippery ice, water or monkeys with climbable tails, each world feels different. The difficulty generally scales as the game progresses but there are always a few more straightforward stages in between particularly challenging ones. The challenge is not always found in the same way either, as some stages will be puzzle orientated, others will require careful platforming and some will just require you to make very judicious use of time. The levels are also short enough that the game can be played in very short bursts, and thankfully there is an option to save after every four levels.

Being a Game Boy game, Donkey Kong ’94 does have one particular problem I’ve come to associate with many games on the system: poor collision detection. I’ve experienced this with more than a few games and I hope I haven’t been alone in noticing it. You sometimes brush an enemy without being hurt and other times you will seem to escape unharmed but a hit still registers. Many times throughout the game, I lived when I felt I should have died and died when I felt I should have lived. You do get used to this and quickly learn which enemies and obstacles to take care with, but it is an unfortunate (although occasional) strike against a game that would otherwise play flawlessly.

Donkey Kong ‘94 is lengthy, challenging and varied. Apart from the notable flaw described above, the only real complaints are technically tied to the system it was created for. The original cart is one of the first to support colour for the Super Game Boy, so it can be played in colour on a big screen which neutralises two limitations of the Game Boy. Whether you plan on playing it this way, in its original form or as a 3DS VC download, it is well worth a look.

One final thing I simply must mention: while playing Donkey Kong ’94, I couldn’t stop thinking about Super Meat Boy. Though its design is not exactly the same, the goals of each stage and the varied challenges certainly had me comparing the two. So if you’ve played and loved one, but not the other, the other is more than well worth a try.

Fun Fact: Donkey Kong Country was called Super Donkey Kong in Japan.

July, 2013

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