Arcade Archives: Sky Skipper

Over the last eight years, I’ve watched some incredible indie developers pour their hearts and souls into their projects, often only to be met with tumbleweeds or apathy. Whether anyone believes it or not, it always hurts my heart to see a game fail to find its audience. I don’t personally understand the demoralization. I can’t. I’m not a creator of games. I put everything into my work as Indie Gamer Chick, but it’s nowhere near the artistic spirit that goes into so many games that never catch on. A lot of those devs go on to be my friends. Some of them even close friends. I try to be encouraging and comforting when the greatest of efforts fails, but more often than not it feels like my words fail me.

With that in mind, have a look at Sky Skipper. This is an actual Nintendo coin-op from 1981 that was designed by the man himself, Shigeru Miyamoto. Well, actually there’s a sticky bit a business involving a guy named Ikegami Tsushinki who claims he’s the real creator and designer of all the Nintendo games up to Donkey Kong, and possibly Sky Skipper too since it was developed alongside DK. There was a lawsuit. Nobody knows what the result was. Having played Radar Scope and Space Firebird on my MAME, I’ll say that the difference between those games and the 1981-onward Nintendo titles is night and day. I’ll buy that someone else programmed them at that phase of Nintendo’s existence, but the design of Donkey Kong and Sky Skipper seem a little too original compared to everything that came before it. And, let’s face it, at the end the day, Miyamoto is revered among his peers while Tsushinki is barely worthy of being the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question. There’s always going to be people who say legendary creators didn’t really create their work. They say it about Shakespeare too.

Sky Skipper ain’t much to look at. In fact, with the jaggy straight-lines and overly bright blue background, I can’t help but wonder if the graphics were unfinished as well. It’s so.. ugly. Also, this picture shows what I mean about how sometimes the cards refuse to free themselves even if the thing guarding them is out cold. Yea, I think it’s safe to say Sky Skipper was unfinished.

Whatever happened, Donkey Kong was a big hit. Sky Skipper? Not so much. It was given a very limited release in Japanese arcades, where it was ignored by players and hated by operators. Ten units were made for testing in North America, but because the game air-balled in the Japan, the USA test was apparently cancelled and the cabinets were instead turned into Popeye units for distribution. A single Sky Skipper cabinet was saved and kept by Nintendo of America. After years of restoration efforts, Nintendo allowed the ROM of their cabinet to be dumped by Hamster for this Arcade Archives re-release. One that apparently few people bought. I’m currently among the top 50 on every online leaderboard in the game (#18 in Caravan Mode!) despite my skills leaving a lot to be desired, which tells me it sold about as well as the Pontiac Aztek. Maybe if Nintendo had actually put out some kind of “hey, check out this lost game rediscovered of ours by the man who created Mario and Zelda” campaign it would have gotten some traction. But Nintendo really doesn’t seem all that interested in promoting ports of their own work. How peculiar. Maybe they’re as embarrassed by the $7.99 price tags as everyone else is.

Now, I’ve played my share of lost games. More often than not, they tend to suck. That’s why they found themselves lost in the first place. Look at Star Fox 2. I imagine many a slobbering fanboy with an SNES Classic had to spin with all the fury of a tornado in order to convince themselves they were having fun playing that clunky piece of shit. But I’ve had a lot of luck in 2019 with games like Joy Mech Fight and Kid Dracula (both Famicom games unreleased in the United States), and now Sky Skipper. A lot of people are shitting on it calling it confused or directionless. But honestly, this was easily my favorite of the nine Arcade Archive releases of Nintendo coin-ops I’ve played. It’s still original in 2019. There’s nothing quite like it. I also totally get how a game like this could bomb in 1981. You can be too original.

This is not a photoshop. The game says “damn it!” I was ten times more excited over this development than anyone in their right mind should be. I was practically doing cartwheels. Look! It’s a 1981 Nintendo game saying damn it! That is objectively FUCKING AWESOME!

The basic idea is you command a biplane that has to rescue sentient playing cards and a royal family from the clutches of evil gorillas, some of which look just like Donkey Kong but are most certainly not Donkey Kong nuh uh no sir not Donkey Kong at all how can you even say that?

Sorry.

You have limited gas (though I only once in dozens of sessions came close to running out) that can be refilled by flying into the starting flag of each stage. The cards and royalty are stuck in little compartments and will begin to leap up and down if you incapacitate the Notkey Kongs guarding it. Flying into them rescues them (presumably, that or you’re purging the royal blood blind and shredding them in your propeller. This can’t be ruled out) and scores points. Rescue all of them to advance to the next level. There’s four levels total, at which points stages recycle, just like every other Nintendo coin-op. Of all the early Nintendo arcade games, Sky Skipper is the most complex. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t a hit. The levels are sprawling, the object not entirely clear, and sometimes it doesn’t work exactly the way it should.

For example, sometimes the cards won’t start to jump even after their guards are temporarily knocked out. Other times, they’ll jump even when the patrolrillas are active and right above them. It makes me think the game wasn’t ever properly finished, because it’s never consistent from one round to the next and makes trying to shoot for high scores in the five minute caravan mode a chore. If it were finished, it’d actually be a nice gameplay style that features a deceptively complex scoring system build around the order you rescue the cards. Getting all the matching suits in a row scores extra points, while getting cards of matching colors in a row scores lightly less extra points. In theory, the royal family should act as wildcards, but they don’t seem to. Still, the relatively complex scoring was ahead of its time. It was even adapted to the Atari port of it.

Yea, if the name sounded familiar to older gamers, it’s because Parker Bros released a port of Sky Skipper for the 2600. I don’t think they actually wanted it. The deal they made was for Popeye (which Coleco, normally Nintendo’s partner during this era, passed on because of the cost of licensing the Popeye character). Nintendo threw Sky Skipper in with it. This was the first time I played an emulator to check a 2600 version of a game. It was fine. The cards are replaced with animals and the level design and enemy danger is toned drastically down, but it certainly passes for what they were aiming for. That really had nothing to do with this review, but you try making an interesting article out of an unreleased 1981 arcade game that was skipped for a reason.

This is the Atari 2600 version. Honestly, it’s no worse looking than the VCS version of Donkey Kong.

Actually, Sky Skipper is genuinely fun. I can also totally understand why this wouldn’t fly in 1981. Defender had already reached arcades by time Sky Skipper was ready for release. Defender, which I still hold up as the gold standard of arcade games, was fast-paced and white knuckle. Even with the throttle up on Sky Skipper, the pace is slow and plodding and the combination of Pac-Man style mazes and cutesy graphics with flying and a bombing giant cartoon gorillas just doesn’t seem like the type of thing that would catch attention on either side of the Pacific Ocean. But still, it’s a crying shame that a game with real entertainment value was trashed while actual garbage like Donkey Kong 3 was given a green light. Don’t get me wrong: Sky Skipper isn’t exactly incredible. It’s just alright. If the situation where the cards jumping to be rescued were fixed-up so that they behave more logically, it might even be a good game.

The gorillas throw baseballs that explode at you, but these don’t kill you directly. They cause you to lose control of the plane and crash into walls. Actually, the most lethal objects in the game, for me at least, were clouds. I lost more lives flying into them on accident than anything else. What kind of airplane can’t survive a cloud? Hell, what kind of pilot wouldn’t thrive on flying into clouds?

The Arcade Archive package isn’t exactly stellar either. I’d go so far as to say the five-minute Caravan Mode is functionally useless as a measuring stick of ability. There’s a lot of downtime between levels in Sky Skipper, but, the timer doesn’t stop between levels or when the plane is taking off at the start of new stages. It easily shaves a minute off the time and is so painful to sit through. In fact, most Arcade Archive games don’t stop the timer. Only Mario Bros. does as far as I’ve noticed, where the timer stops during the explanation screens. But in other games, like Vs. Super Mario Bros. the timer runs even if you’re not in control between stages. The obvious explanation is that Hamster has gotten lazy and complacent since Mario Bros. was released in October of 2017 and maybe some effort was made, while everything from Vs. Super Mario onward (with the exception of Donkey Kong, which has extra ROMs) was phoned in. Why bother with special features when anyone who would buy the port would do so either way, right?

As much as I’ve hated on Hamster and the Arcade Archive series (seriously, it’s 2 for 9 following this review, and the only other game in the series I actually liked was the universally hated Urban Champion, go figure), I really like what this release represents. In fact, it’s the first Arcade Archives game where I’m okay with the $7.99 price tag. I’m all about preservation and giving gamers and game developers access to lost or unfinished games to take apart like a digital autopsy. Maybe in the future, developers can finish cancelled games, BUT, also include things like the last stable build before it was cancelled. Imagine what students creating new games could learn if they had the ability to play the unfinished parts of Duke Nukem Forever or the original tech demos of Mario 64 or Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Weirdly enough, nowhere in the advertising does it mention the game’s lost status. That’s strange, because it’s literally the only reason anyone in their right mind would want this. I mean, I had fun, but it’s not even that legendary. I hadn’t even heard of Sky Skipper until last week.

You see, we’re all products of every game we’ve played up to this moment, and the same goes for developers. All of them are inspired by their favorite games, but the best of them learn from their least favorites and study those that they know to be bad. If every game is an opportunity for education, having access to the unreleased failures of those who came before them is invaluable to their progress. There’s lessons to be learned in them. So on this, my 30th birthday, I want to share this advice with everyone: you will fail sometimes, and that’s okay. Shigeru Miyamoto probably felt dejection when Sky Skipper was ignored by players and loathed by arcade operators. Look what he went on to accomplish. Dreams are always out of reach to those who quit. Not everyone who perseveres will find success, but you can be proud of yourself knowing that you didn’t fail you. And, if you press on, maybe one day a future generation indie critic will look back on your early work and say “well, that sucked, but I’m happy they didn’t give up.”

Arcade Archives: Sky Skipper was developed by Hamster
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99 took the sky from me in the making of this review.

Sky Skipper is Chick-Approved. Non-indies and retro games are not eligible for the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. BUT, the IGC Retroboards are coming very soon.

Arcade Archives: Ice Climber

THIS, my friends, is the worst Nintendo game. Well, maybe not. Donkey Kong 3 is pretty damn shitty. And Nintendo has made a lot of games that are uninspired at best, if not actively horrible. Now granted, I haven’t played Stack Up, and unless Nintendo does a digital simulator for R.O.B. it’s unlikely I ever will. I’m not sure why Stack Up has such a bad reputation besides being a game that requires players to keep score via the honor system. It seems like totally functional concept that wouldn’t be bad if it weren’t controlled by an accessory so slow that you have to measure its movement speed in epochs. I know that part is true because I have played Gyromite. With actual gyros. It’s plodding, but it works. But, I don’t think the NES robot games should be in the discussion. They were never meant to be good. They were part of Nintendo’s trojan horse strategy to get the NES into retailers. Expecting them to be good would be like a pothead giving glaucoma a positive review because at least it gives them a legal excuse to smoke weed.

We’ll never see Stack Up again. I mean, that Ron Howard likeness license ain’t cheap.

Well hell, shouldn’t part of the requirement for a worst-game contender be that the game had aspirations of high quality? People find charm in Ed Wood’s failures because he was trying so gosh-darn hard to make something good. That he was giving his maximum effort and still ended up with Plan 9 from Outer Space is adorable in how pitiful it is. That’s why I found Press X to Not Die so obnoxious. It’s not just because it was bad, but because it was trying to be deliberately 90s FMV-bad. But those games like Sewer Shark or Night Trap weren’t trying to be badly acted or horrible to play. That’s just how they turned out. They have camp value specifically because everyone involved didn’t know they were making bad games. Being bad on purpose takes no skill or effort. Anyone can do it. Being remarkably bad takes ambition and the belief you’re making something good. Remember, it’s not really failing if you didn’t even try. Which, coincidentally, is what New York Knicks management have to say to themselves just to sleep at night.

The one less-negative thing I can say about Arcade Archives: Ice Climber is that it controls not-as-horrible as the NES version. I don’t want to use the word “better” to describe anything related to this game. It doesn’t deserve even the slightest hint of positivity.

I suspect Ice Climber was considered a high-prospect game at Nintendo. In the immediate aftermath of Super Mario Bros., they probably thought jumping and scrolling were the keys to its success and decided “well, Super Mario worked horizontally, so let’s quickly make a vertical scroller and corner that market too!” If true, that’d be a solid theory. But the problem is Super Mario Bros., for all the shit I’ve given it for its relatively bad control (compared to how the series evolved at least), was probably the best controlling game Nintendo had ever made up to that point. Ice Climber goes the other way. It has bizarre jumping physics that severely limit how much horizontal distance you can cover each jump, presumably to make it clear that this is the vertical game. It honestly feels like something is physically pushing into your character while you jump. So the characters can jump fairly high vertically but not to the left and right. Fine. And then they built a game not tailored to these specific physics that requires you to jump up and to the left or right. Not fine.

Ice Climber is so putrid that it’s insane to think anyone could have been satisfied releasing this in the state it’s in. It’s horrible. Maybe with tight level design built to the strengths of the jumping mechanics it could have been something. But Ice Climber often requires quick jumping reflexes and precision movement. Some of the floors are like conveyor belts that push you one direction. Sometimes there’s wind blowing against you in addition to the strange leaping physics. Sometimes progress is dependent on waiting for slooooooooowwwwwww moving platforms. If there’s multiple moving platforms, they obviously weren’t programed with any form of synchronization in mind. You might end of having to wait a long time for them to line up in a way that’s useful. That mostly happens in bonus section of levels, where if you fall to your death you don’t lose a life. But, sometimes you end up getting stuck waiting in the actual level part of stages. And mind you, there’s a penalty for lingering. Simply atrocious. Gaming has come a long way and we should all take a moment to be thankful that little things like moving platform design have evolved to the point they have. But, even when everything seems like it’s working right, something will happen like trying to jump to the level above you and clipping through the floor instead. Really, Ice Climber’s most amazing aspect is how little time you spend playing it where nothing is wrong or off at that specific moment.

Pictured here: the climber clipping right through the blocks. This is incredibly annoying. The NES version of Mario Bros does this too. The arcade version of Mario doesn’t, which is the only reason why I bought Arcade Archives: Ice Climber. I figured if Mario Bros’s coin-op fixed my biggest complaint about the NES port, maybe Ice Climber’s would too. It doesn’t. I was constantly trying to jump to above platforms only to go straight through them because I didn’t land flush-enough, even though the majority of my body was over the platform. If Ice Climber was a little more forgiving, it might be a fun game. Probably not, but you can’t rule it out. Also, in Japan, instead of furry little monsters, you club seals. I’m not kidding.

And so, yeah, this is the worst Nintendo game. The most annoying mechanically. The most boring in level design. The least rewarding to complete. And it’s not even historically important. Finally, it’s not even fun in a campy type of way. Being a bad game isn’t like being a bad movie. Movies are a passive experience. You just sit back and watch them. Games you take an active role in. I never thought there was value in bad games. Ice Climber is worthless in every way a game can be. If not for the fact that they wanted some obscure gag characters for Smash Bros. Melee and thought Mr. Game & Watch was too obscure, Ice Climber would be completely inconsequential to gaming today. Donkey Kong 3 is bland, but Ice Climber is bland AND bad. It’s the worst combination imaginable. It’s terrible in ways that almost defy reality. This was developed alongside Super Mario Bros. Someone looked at both games and said “yep, we’re on the right track!” It’s unreal that nobody said “look at how the Super Mario project is going. We can do better!” Ice Climber deserved to be lost to history. It almost was. And then Sakurai needed a joke for Melee and snatched it from oblivion. Funny joke, but not that funny.

Oh, right, Arcade Archives release. This cost $7.99. HAH. There’s, that’s my review of this port in its entirety.

Arcade Archives: Ice Climber was developed by Hamster.
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99 said honestly using a gun would be a kinder form of robbery than charging $8 for Ice Climber in the making of this review.

Arcade Archives: Urban Champion

Reputations are a fickle thing. They happen for a reason, are usually rooted in some form of reality, but just as often as not, are completely inaccurate. I have a reputation for being a tough but fair game critic, which I take great pride maintaining. But among some, my reputation is also that I’m anti-retro and anti-Nintendo. Those are fiction. The anti-retro thing comes from the fact that I don’t bend the knee to every legendary older game based on their legacy alone. I hated Super Mario Bros. I hated Centipede. I owe them nothing and have no problem telling people I think they suck. But anti retro? Are you kidding? If the rep were true, would I have needed to pause my session of Gunstar Heroes just to cry tears of joy at how awesome it was? Because I totally did. It was so good and I was so blown away. And I even wrote a two-thousand word essay on how amazing Super Mario Bros. 2 is. If that’s hate, by all means, hate me that way.

The anti-Nintendo rep comes from the fact that I’ll criticize Nintendo when I think the situation calls for it. That’s really it. That alone makes you “anti-Nintendo” to the generation of latchkey kids raised by an NES or a Wii who live their lives under the delusion that Nintendo is their bestie. Or, even worse, an insecure deity, and if they stop kissing its ass for even a split second, they might end up never seeing more entries in their favorite franchises. Because, right, Nintendo is totally going to stop making Metroid or Zelda games if anyone expresses even the faintest hint of rejection. Uh huh. By the way, my rep there is, again, obviously untrue. I’ve named two Nintendo-developed titles my Game of the Year since starting IGC (Link Between Worlds in 2013, Mario Odyssey in 2017) and my site has been focused recently more on Switch indies and releases. Strange way of being anti-Nintendo: covering games that would serve to help their bottom line. So, I’ve learned to take reputations with a grain of salt and judge people and things by my experience with them.

“I told you to make my hair look like Elvis! This isn’t Elvis! His hair wasn’t green!”

I bring up reputation because Urban Champion is, by reputation, the worst Nintendo game ever made. There’s of course outliers who argued that the title belongs to Ice Climber, Clu Clu Land, NES Baseball, Stack Up (the R.O.B. game), or even later stuff like Wii Music or Pokemon Channel. Hell, I’d throw Kid Icarus: Uprising into that mix. The fact that they had to include an accessory just to play it without causing damage to your hands should have been a warning to them that maybe the game needed serious re-thinking. But, Urban Champion is the game that comes up most, at least from what I can tell. It’s not even close. The argument is never that it’s unplayable or broken, but rather that it’s so bland and uninspired that it almost defies belief. Even while I was playing it and uploading videos today, people pointed out that, after five seconds, you’d seen everything the game had to offer. A baffling argument in my opinion. I mean, how many seconds do you need to see everything Pac-Man has to offer?

I’d never played Urban Champion properly. I’d played it as part of NES Remix or a microgame in WarioWare, but I’d never played the real deal. I wasn’t sure what to expect. And then I turned it on, and I started playing it, and now I’m sitting here wondering how in the world this of all games became the worst Nintendo game title holder. Because it’s not. It’s not even the most bland early Nintendo game I’ve played. It’s fine, honestly. There’s not a whole lot of depth here, but the concept of two guys throwing punches on the street, high and low, jabs and heavy punches, works. And, in fact, being a fan of games where attacks feel like they have real world weight and impact, I liked Urban Champion’s violence a lot. The punches feel like they’re connecting and hurt. I’d be nice if the characters looked like they had damage, like a black eye or swollen faces just to really sell it, but still, it’s not bad. It’s almost unreal that a rushed, half-assed 1984 arcade game genuinely feels like a real fist fight between two angry people, but Urban Champion pulls that off.

You’ve got to appreciate that citizens of Urban Champion City keep confetti by their windows so that if someone below their apartment happens to punch some other poor SOB into a sewer, you can help them to celebrate their almost-certain manslaughter.

And it’s slightly more than a button-masher. It’s basically rock-scissors-paper with a fourth option. There’s two types of punches: a jab and a “knock-out punch” that, if you land it, always knocks a person to the ground. Both types of punches can be thrown to the face or to the gut, giving you four total attack methods. Every landed punch moves your opponent backwards. After a character is knocked back two screens, the third screen will always have an open manhole, where to win the fight you have to punch them into it. It’s a novel version of the round format, and really, a sort of precursor to Smash Bros when you think about it. They’re both fighting games where you’re trying to knock your opponents off the screen. I’m not saying Urban Champion is the grandfather of Smash Bros, but there’s some shared DNA for sure. In the same way humans are related to sea sponges, but it still counts.

Of course, the problem is that there’s not a lot of meat on these bones. Each opponent is identical in model with only the coloration changed. The difficult does ramp up, but rounds of Urban Champion are still long and slow. I can’t imagine arcade operators ever liked this. Then again, most of my fans weren’t even aware this was an arcade game. In fact, this (along with other current Arcade Archives releases like Clu Clu Land, Ice Climber, and Excitebike) were part of the Nintendo Vs. System that were basically made of slightly upgraded NES hardware. The games were interchangeable, with operators simply being given different marquees and other decorations to change the look of the cabinet. This is why the arcade version of Super Mario is called Vs. Super Mario Bros. It was a hugely profitable set-up, but it was limited to one, maybe two games, per unit. Nintendo eventually discontinued it in favor of the PlayChoice-10, which many of my older fans describe as “playing an NES, five minutes for 25¢ at a time.” Anyway, Urban Champion was part of the Vs. Series, though it’s so rare that not a single person registered to the Killer List of Video Games owns one, or even the board for it. As an NES game, it’s not hard to find, but it’s not exactly wanted as anything but a curio either.

Imagine how hilarious it would be if Urban Champion was announced as the next Smash Bros DLC. There’d be an internet riot.

I think history was a bit unfair to Urban Champion. If this had come out for something like the Intellivsion or Colecovision, it might have been remembered as one of the all-time greats. It even feels like it belongs more on one of those consoles. Maybe if it had been, today it’d be considered the rightful patriarch to games like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. Instead, titles like Karate Champ or Yie Ar Kung-Fu hold that distinction, even though I think Urban Champion is a better game. Compared to other early NES titles like Super Mario Bros. or Legend of Zelda, Champion feels so damn primitive. Maybe it was the victim of the worst timing in gaming history. And being slightly bland or limited in play mechanics aren’t the only flaw. The police periodically resetting a round, seemingly at random, is annoying as fuck. The people dropping pots out the window, sometimes in your favor and sometimes not, break up the game’s flow terribly. There’s no special moves and I hate having to move manually after every knock-down and to start every round. But, I liked the no-frills fisticuffs it offered. Urban Champion isn’t the worst Nintendo game. It’s not even a bad game. It’s genuinely decent. I liked it. I’m sure people will think I’m being sarcastic or taking the piss. I’m not. Urban Champion is underrated. It has the most undue reputation in all of gaming, positive or negative. I’m dead serious. Check it out if you get the chance.

Now, having said all that, the package and value of the Hamster release is pretty terrible. There’s only three modes. The first allows you to mess with options, though the game defaults to easy so really the only thing you can tinker with is your life count. Which, even if you do, you can post a high score to online leaderboards with it. The second mode is high-score, which you have to use the default settings. The third is caravan mode, which is the typical five-minute timer mode with online boards. Thankfully, for this release, the timer actually stops when the action does between rounds. Nice touch. The problem with this mode is that you’re playing a game where you’ll be hitting the buttons a lot, including the B button. If you’re doing that and the time runs out, you reject your own score and it doesn’t get posted. I had a top 50 score and threw it away, and I’m fucking pissed off about that. It’s such careless, lazy, stupid design. Have a fucking warning screen or something before tossing a score out. It’s just common sense. Just because your company is called Hamster doesn’t need you need to display the brainpower of one.

And finally, there’s the price tag: yet another $7.99 game. And that’s what presents a problem for me. If the game had been $1, I’d considered it one of the best dollars I’ve spent on a game in recent memory. EIGHT FUCKING DOLLARS FOR THIS? I bought six discounted Switch indies for that last night. All these Arcade Archives releases (and their Johnny Turbo cousins) are terrible values. $5 is a good price for an old game. That’s an impulse buy. $7.99 is something most people will want to think about. And that’s where I’m struggling here. You see, I liked Urban Champion. I just detest the price. But, my rule here is that price and value are not what I’m deciding on. I’m reviewing a game as a game, not a product. So, for that reason, I have to give Arcade Archives: Urban Champion the Indie Gamer Chick Seal of Approval. And I have to tell people to not buy it for $7.99. If you get a chance at $5 or less, give it a chance with an open mind and you’ll probably walk away agreeing that Nintendo not only has done a lot worse, but that Urban Champion shouldn’t even make the list. But for $7.99? Urban Champion and this whole series (which I’m not done with yet, two more to go) can jump in a manhole and become part of a fatberg. A fatberg is a congealed mess of wetwipes and cooking grease that clogs up sewers. There’s also dozens of overpriced arcade relics on home consoles holding it together. I’m almost certain of this.

Arcade Archives: Urban Champion was developed by Hamster
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99 (TOO MUCH, DON’T BUY IT, IGNORE THE SEAL OF APPROVAL) said “maybe if I make the seal of approval smaller nobody will notice” in the making of this review.

Arcade Archives: Urban Champion is Chick-Approved but as a non-indie isn’t ranked on the IGC Leaderboard.

Arcade Archives: Mario Bros.

One thing I’ve noticed while playing Mario Bros: people either love and defend the 1983 arcade original and its direct ports, or they love and defend the numerous remakes of it, some of which happened in games like the Mario Advance series, as a competitive minigame in Super Mario 3, or even as a Virtual Boy game. Regardless of the quality of the coin-op (spoiler: it sucks), that tells me that the fundamental concept is one of Nintendo’s biggest home runs during their formative years as a game maker. Of all their early titles, it’s certainly the one with the most staying power. And that’s kind of amazing, because Mario Bros really sucks. Sorry for those that I didn’t give proper spoiler warning to above.

For those that say “you’d of had more fun if you played (name of game) co-op”, I played Mario Bros. co-op. I didn’t have fun and dragged an innocent child’s weekend down with me. I’m a monster thanks to your peer pressure. Hope you can sleep at night now, because I won’t be able to. Also, you can’t play the high-score modes or caravan modes co-op. Maybe an option for a version of both would have been nice, but so far the only game in the Arcade Archive series that seems to have gone the extra mile is Donkey Kong, which includes three different ROMs for the game.

Okay, that’s a bit unfair. Mario Bros. actually has a lot going for it, including co-op. People have complained that I don’t always play these arcade games the “best way”, IE with a partner. Because I guess miserly loves company. But the thing is, my family doesn’t really like misery. They get enough of it from me. But, I conned my nephew C.J. into playing a round with me. He couldn’t quite comprehend what the game in question was. “Mario Bros!” “Mario Maker 2?” “Mario Bros!” “New Super Mario DX?” “Mario Bros!” “Mario 3D World?” “Mario Bros!” “I uh.. Mario Maker 1?” That’s not a joke, by the way. He couldn’t compute the concept. Then I showed it to him and I’m convinced he played deliberately poorly just to escape. He’s a shifty one.

By the way, if not for how bad the emulation for Punch-Out!! seems to be, this would be by far the worst of the Arcade Archives releases. Not because the emulation is bad. It’s not, except for the sound. My understanding is that all the authentic pre-Donkey Kong 3 Nintendo arcade games had strange sound programming that requires emulators to take actual audio recordings in .wav files in order to have, you know, noise. It made the sound effects of Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. sound strange. But at least the audio was clear for those. For Mario Bros, sometimes the sound effects sound washed out, like they’re coming from another room. I’d show you a 30 second clip, but video capture is disabled for this one. It’s the first time that’s happened during this mini-series I’m doing. Which really means my fans are just being spared seeing me post roughly two-thousands videos of me dying in a fire(ball).

Probably the biggest difference between all these arcade games and their NES counterparts are the lack of cut scenes. NES Donkey Kong doesn’t have the “how high can you get” screens. Donkey Kong Jr. is missing cut scenes and animations. Mario Bros. is missing explanation screens. It made me wonder why they couldn’t do these things on the NES. The NES went on to do impressive things graphically. Well, I found out that it was a cost-cutting thing. Back in 1983, every KB cost extra money.

Yea, those fucking fireballs. I get why they’re there. Being an arcade game, Mario Bros. was expected to generate revenue for arcade operators. You can’t do that if players last too long. Ideally, you want a fun game where players last just long enough to make them think they’ve got skills, then die in a way where it sure seems like the player, or those watching, think they could have done better. They drop quarters, then die again in the same spot because it’s close to fucking impossible. That’s Mario Bros, only they forgot the fun part.

After a few stages, fireballs start to spawn with such breakneck frequency that it felt like there was no opening to flip the enemies over. I’d go to jump over the fireballs and they seemed like they’d always zag straight into me. You can kill the fireballs the same way you flip enemies over for lots of bonus points, but the vulnerable surface area of them seems very small, and the timing of even being able to stop them is so short that you’re more likely to die pursuing it than you are to succeed. And while all this is going on, the actual enemies you’re supposed to be targeting are still walking around, doing their thing.

The POW block isn’t as useful as you’d think. The crabs take two hits. The flies can’t be hit if they’re not on the floor. For the five-minute mode, I found I did better when I burned it early to shave time.

Mario Bros. goes from simple, reasonable challenge to unmanageable cluster-fuck of shit happening with so little transition in-between that I can’t believe this isn’t remembered alongside Defender or Smash TV as one of the all-time hardest arcade games. It’s insane how tough it is. And this isn’t helped by some of the most slippery, imprecise movement controls of any Golden Age of Arcades title. I actually longed for the lumbering, heavy movement of Donkey Kong Jr. multiple times while playing this steamer, because at least that was accurate. Mario Bros. actually introduces little sentient ice monsters that, if not stopped, will freeze platforms and cause slipping. To quote Dorthy Parker when she heard Calvin Coolidge died: “how can they tell?” Because this shit is already buttered-floor levels of slick to begin with.

There’s less bonus stages in the arcade version too I think. You certainly get the bonus levels faster in the NES version, which only opens with two turtle waves. The arcade game has three before you get to the first bonus round. I pictured a seedy arcade operator, shirt stained, cheap cigar hanging out of his mouth, saying “BONUS STAGES? FREE LIVES? DO YOU THINK I’M RUNNING A FUCKING CHARITY HERE?”

To Mario Bros.’s credit, the framework for something special was laid here. I didn’t like it, but at least the foundation gave rise to Super Mario Bros. and the modern game industry as a whole. And actually, the five minute caravan mode is best with Mario Bros. because it takes about four minutes for everything to become out-of-hand. When things get unplayable then, at least the game is going to end within a minute. Funny enough, I fired up the NES/Famicom version of Mario Bros. to compare to the arcade original. The graphics are a major step down on the NES, more-so than any other arcade game I’ve played so far. And, while the movement is more accurate and less slippery, the home version has a horrible Ice Climber-like glitch where you clip right through the platform if you jump in a certain way. So there were tons of times where I was trying to jump onto the platform above me and went straight fucking through it and back down to the level I was already on, or even lower. That doesn’t happen in the arcade version. That really sucks because now I have to turn my six-game marathon into a seven game one and buy Arcade Archives: Ice Climber to see if the clipping isn’t present in the arcade version of that, which I consider the NES version to be the worst Nintendo game ever. Fuck you Mario Bros. for making me do that.

Fine, but I draw the line at Clu Clu Land. I think that’s reasonable.

Arcade Archives: Mario Bros. was developed by Hamster
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99 said the crabs and flies sort of got the shaft in the Mario universe in the making of this review.

While all indies I review are purchased by me out of pocket, a fan paid for Arcade Archives: Mario Bros. for me. I matched their purchase price with a donation to Direct Relief. Last year, they provided relief to my home state of California, and they’ll sadly have to do it again this year. They need money though. Give them some, please.

Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong 3

I’m going a little out-of-order here, but I wanted to get all the Donkey Kong games out of the way. Then again, I sort of already did that. Because Donkey Kong 3 is such a radical departure from the first two games that it really has nothing to do with them. I look at it and I wonder if people at Nintendo sat around thinking “I can’t believe we were the only company that didn’t successfully cash-in on the Space Invaders craze. Fuck it, we’re successful now. We can do this guys!”

They couldn’t.

The beauty of a screenshot is that you can’t tell that it’s Stanley the Bugman shooting DK here. For all we know, Donkey Kong’s coconut gun just fired in spurts and Stanley is about to be Bukaked on.

Once again, Hamster has put together a well-emulated package that’s all for naught, because Donkey Kong 3 is a terrible game. How come it never comes up in the discussion of potential worst Nintendo developed titles? Because it’s pretty fucking sorry. The aim here seems to have been to combine platforming with space shooting, but the platforming elements really aren’t a major factor in the game and the shooting elements leave a lot to be desired. Instead of dealing with space bugs, you’re dealing with garden-variety Earth bugs in a greenhouse that attack in waves and sometimes just straight-up shoot you with a stinger with seemingly no visual or audio warning it’s coming. Between these and the caterpillars that serve no purpose but to block your attacks, Donkey Kong 3 really didn’t seem to have a vision for the  type of fast-paced, white-knuckle gameplay that the genre required by this point. All it has going for it is the hilarious idea of shooting bug poison up Donkey Kong’s bum. Which is funny. Don’t me wrong. I’m not a complete ogre.

But seriously, three levels Nintendo? Three? Until this point, I can’t remember playing a Nintendo-released game where it feels like they just gave up. (Okay, fine, maybe Wii Music.) Donkey Kong 3 is the “weird one” in the series, but it’s also one of the very worst Nintendo games ever made. I genuinely disliked my experience playing Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr., but, I was never bored playing them. I was bitching the entire time, but they were always interesting. The one interesting mechanic of Donkey Kong 3, shooting a centralized, heavy target enough to push it past a goal, is just not well implemented. There’s a powerful bug spray that, while it only works temporarily, carries over between stages if you have enough juice left in it. Getting the bug spray in the first stage carries over to the second stage, where you can hit DK enough to beat that stage in a couple seconds.

The problem is that they wanted a “climax stage” like Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. had with the rivets and the keys. But there was no way to implement a unique finale mechanic the way they designed Donkey Kong 3. So the climax stage is just a short wave where you push DK’s head up into a beehive. It’s lame as fuck. Which means it fits-in perfectly here. Is this the low point of Shigeru Miyamoto’s career? Actually, no. But this is probably the game where he found out he can’t work miracles. Nintendo tried for years to get their hands on that sweet, sweet space-shooter cash. They had Radar Scope, a game so boring they had to turn it into Donkey Kong to save the company. They had a game called Space Firebird that allegedly Donkey Kong 3 is based on, though I honestly couldn’t see it myself when I watched gameplay videos. There was a game called Sky Skipper that was so hated by players and arcade operators that they rushed Popeye through production to convert the Sky Skipper cabinets into. Really, I think Donkey Kong 3 was the last straw before they realized where their bread was buttered. History has sort of forgotten it, and those who remember it call it the “weird one.” That’s unfair. It’s the bad one. The really, really bad one.

So, what else can I say about Donkey Kong 3? It’s $7.99, like all Arcade Archive releases. It’s not worth it. Not just because that’s too much to pay for a small, short, obscure 1984 arcade game that sucks. But because they really should have just combined all these Nintendo arcade releases into a compilation. When I was complaining about the lack of fairness of the out-of-nowhere stingers on Twitter, longtime IGC fan Tobby Watson had the following astute observation:

This is pretty much the case for all early arcade stuff. It’s the main reason I’d say compilations of these sorts of titles are the best way to experience them now. The patience required to “get good” at something that is often luck based can be miserable, and having more games to play mitigates that disappointment a bit. Quarter munching obstacles like this are just a real by-product of the time and the industry.

I was born in 1989, and by time I was into gaming, arcades were pretty much dead. I wasn’t there to experience “quarter munchers” but shouldn’t the ability to munch quarters be predicated on the game, you know, being fun?

He’s right! I blitzed through every title in Midway Arcade Origins and Capcom Arcade Cabinet earlier this year and was downright shocked by how brutal they all were. Most of the games aged poorly (especially the Capcom stuff), but as miserable as I was, at least I paid one low price for everything in those sets. With Donkey Kong 3, I’m now $24 into this six-game project I foolishly committed to that overall $48 was spent on. Each game costing $8, none of them worth it so far even with online leaderboards and special challenges like the five-minute caravan mode. Mind you, a $20 a year Switch Online subscription nets you over 50 NES games with more coming (and Famicom too if you create a JP account to download the launcher for) AND Tetris 99, my current 2019 Game of the Year front-runner. Maybe if we were talking the best games ever made, $7.99 would be a good price. For Donkey Kong 3? I feel like Stanley was pumping MY ASS full of poison.

Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong 3 was developed by Hamster Co
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99’s coconut gun can fire in spurts in the making of this review.

Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong Jr.

Donkey Kong Jr. is this baffling anomaly of a game. I like it even less than Donkey Kong, but I also find it so much more interesting. At least from a gameplay perspective. I think that’s because we’ve seen tons of platform games that involve jumping over stuff and climbing ladders. But the vine mechanics of Donkey Kong Jr., while not completely unique to the game, still feel like they’re exclusively the property of DK Jr’s legacy. Fundamentally, Donkey Kong Jr. isn’t as big a departure from Donkey Kong as fans of the game would have you believe. You start at the bottom left corner of the screen and zig-zag your way to the top. It’s the way you get there that feels so different. And somehow, get this, still feels fresh 37 years later. How is that even possible?

It struck me that the gameplay of Donkey Kong Jr. often feels more like trying to cross a busy highway than Frogger, a game that’s literally about trying to cross a highway. What could be done to fix the controls? I wish it was smoother to transition between vine to vine. That’s it. The idea of using two vines to climb faster and one to slide down faster is brilliant. It also creates all kind of defensive options. Donkey Kong Jr. is deceptively complex as far as early 80s games go.

Well, it’s the Super Mario 2 Rule: since nothing quite like Donkey Kong Jr. has been done by Nintendo in the nearly 40 years since the game came out, it’s able to retain the charm it had from the start. This in the face of decades of gaming evolution. That’s probably Junior’s greatest achievement. And yeah, Donkey Kong on the Game Boy (aka Donkey Kong ’94) had vines and the little alligator head things. But, you controlled a completely different Mario than you did in the early 80s arcade games. One that did backflips and handstands with silky smooth accuracy, and it was a puzzle game where you took a key to a door. It’s as far removed from Donkey Kong Jr. as a 2D platformer can be. There’s never been anything quite like Donkey Kong Jr.

And I hate it. Because movement is so slow and clunky. Now, there seems to be confusion over what that means to a game from retro enthusiasts. Yea, if you put enough time into a game with poor controls, you can get used to them. Maybe even to the point that you instinctively compensate for the shortcomings the controls have and they become a total non-factor for you. This is absolutely possible. But that a player can get good at using bad controls doesn’t change the fact that the controls are bad. Donkey Kong Jr. controls the worst of the original “trilogy” of Nintendo games. Donkey Kong and Popeye control bad, but they’re Mario Worlds apart from how bad DK Jr. feels. It’s always sluggish, and it hurt my enjoyment of it so much.

Both Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. really stand out because the best levels are the “climax” in terms of the narrative. I prefer removing the rivets in Donkey Kong’s final board to pushing the keys up into the locks in Junior’s. That’s the one gameplay mechanic from Donkey Kong that I feel has legs for more stages.

Such a shame, because it feels like it has the highest ceiling for enjoyment of any of those original Nintendo arcade games. And the most potential for more stages not yet created. Myself and others have been pondering on Twitter how viable it would be for Nintendo to bring out new releases of these arcade games, not in arcades but as downloadable titles, that simply add dozens, maybe even 100, new levels. Not like Donkey Kong ’94 did, but using the actual arcade hardware. Hell, find a ROM hacker and do it. It worked for Sega and Sonic Mania, which became probably the best 2D Sonic game ever. It sold great. It was critically acclaimed. Nintendo could do that with Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr and it would get attention and sell. There’s really no reason not to do it.

I guess any discussion of Donkey Kong Jr. has to include talking about Mario being the villain. Or is he? I mean, what did we know about Donkey Kong? He apparently kidnaps women against their will and tries to murder their rescuers by crushing them with barrels or burning them alive with fireballs. That’s who you’re trying to rescue in Donkey Kong Jr. Mario is NOT the villain. Junior is! This is the first verified game where you play as the person who is trying to make the world a worse place! It’s historic in ways nobody realized!

But, I’d want more fixed with Donkey Kong Jr. than adding levels. I’d want more responsible controls. The classic gaming fans would scream bloody murder over that, saying “that’s not MY Donkey Kong Jr.” And.. yeah, it wouldn’t be. It’d be better. It’d be Donkey Kong Jr. finally realizing its potential. Actually, Donkey Kong the character is just fine. He’s a staple in gaming still, in 2019. Junior is the one that history kind of screwed. He was a racer in the original Mario Kart, but they shit canned him for Donkey Kong. He was in Mario Maker, but that was one of the most meaningless cameos ever. This concept of making a new version of Donkey Kong Jr. with the original arcade graphics but more levels and better controls would be the perfect way for him to come back. Otherwise, the character is just sort of rotting on the vine.

Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong Jr. was developed by Hamster Co.
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99 (too much) noted the emulation again is perfectly fine in the making of this review.

Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong

I want to get the technicalities of this release out of the way first: I hated the previous two efforts in the Arcade Archives series that I played. Punch-Out especially felt like it had butchered the original game, with the timing all off and input lag from Hell. And I really like Punch-Out and would probably accept even the most mediocre game in the series, which tells you how bad the Arcade Archives release had to have been. The second game, Vs. Super Mario Bros. (which my sadistic fans chose for me), also suffered from slight control issues. I confirmed those issues were tied to the emulator Arcade Archive used and not part of the original game by checking other emulators in a way that was, ahem, totally legal. Cough.

Very unfortunate luck on my part, because it made me assume all the Arcade Archives releases were trash. But I’ve been monkeying around (see what I did there?) with Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. for the last two days. I’ll get to Junior in the next review, but right now I want to talk about Donkey Kong. Yea, this is going to be one of those preachy not-really-a-review reviews I sometimes do like the Mario 2 piece from a few months back.

Review of the actual product: if you want a version of the actual arcade Donkey Kong from 1981, and not the mediocre NES port that’s missing an entire level and tons of animations, this is what you’ve been waiting for. The shit authentic arcade controls are replicated in all their putrid glory here, so you can’t blame the emulator for this one playing like clunky shit. And it even has online leaderboards, the Japanese version that changes the ordering of stages, and an earlier version of the DK ROM that’s easier. And, like other Arcade Archive releases, there’s the five-minute time limit “Caravan Mode” that is a LOT more fun for Donkey Kong than it is for other games. So, nice package Hamster. Bravo.

This is the legendary “pie factory” level that was deleted from the NES port of the game. The truth is, it’s the easiest BY FAR of the four stages. I could often just run straight up to the top in just a few seconds. But, if you care about your score, you actually do have to use the hammer and get smashes. Of course, the second hammer is positioned in a location so as to be functionally useless. The neatest thing about playing Donkey Kong in 2019 is that it’s the learning curve game for what became, let’s face it, the most important game designer of all-time. And you can see the learning-on-the-job unfold before your eyes.

The thing is, you can’t polish a turd.

But, you can put that turd on a pedestal and say it’s one the most important turds ever. It’s still a turd, but look at it! Wow! What a glorious, important turd!

And Donkey Kong is important to gaming history. Hell, to world history. It put Nintendo on the map. It gave us Mario. It launched the career of Shigeru Miyamoto. It drew one of the most important trademark lawsuits in history that’s still taught in law schools to this day. Donkey Kong as a franchise is still popular and profitable to this day.

But, the 1981 arcade game and ports of it being fun and relevant to gamers today?

Nah.

This is NOT a port of Donkey Kong. This is a completely unrelated platform-puzzle game that had the first four levels of Donkey Kong shoehorned into it. Like taking an otherwise healthy person and skin-grafting a cancerous tumor to them.

Over the next few reviews, all of which will be Arcade Archive releases that I’m doing as part of my self-discovery/reflection via games from before my time journey I’m on, you’ll be hearing the phrase “gaming has come a long ways” a lot. That’s because it has. And while Donkey Kong has possibly aged better than I previously gave it credit for, it’s still not really a well made game. In fact, while playing it over the last couple days, I found myself baffled that it’s become this staple of high score chasing among classic gamers. You can probably thank that on the 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

I didn’t realize how silly it is trying to explain Donkey Kong score chasing until I typed everything below. It’s absurd. Mesmerizing, but absurd.

So, let’s talk about that flick and why I found myself so bewildered.

In the movie, the defending world champion of Donkey Kong, Billy Mitchell, has his record chased by an unemployed engineer/school teacher named Steve Wiebe. It’s an absolutely engrossing film in part because of how big of losers everyone in Mitchell’s camp are portrayed. Especially Billy himself, who comes across as someone who tried to ride his fifteen minutes of fame long past the expiration date. When Wiebe breaks his world record on his own Donkey Kong machine, people show up to his house to inspect his Donkey Kong (that sounds like something a urologist would do), without him apparently knowing it. Twin Galaxies, the self-appointed governing body of high scores that was given legitimacy by Guinness World Records, disqualify his completely legit score citing a “gummy substance” on the board and a guilt-by-association taint because Wiebe had interacted with a guy who called himself “Mr. Awesome.” Mr. Awesome was persona non grata for, among other reasons, calling Mitchell and his camp a bunch of cheaters.

So Wiebe flies to the destination of all classic gaming high score chasers: an arcade in Bumfuck, New Hampshire and AGAIN breaks Mitchell’s record. For a day. While this is happening, a video of a previous high score Mitchell claims he had been holding onto is sprung on Twin Galaxies immediately following Wiebe’s victory. Despite the tape being of poor quality and having seemingly weird edits made to it, the head ref of Twin Galaxies, Walter Day (who fawns over Mitchell like a love sick puppy for most of the movie) declares it a legit game and score and Billy once again the World Champion of Donkey Kong. The favoritism displayed for Mitchell is made perfectly clear to the audience. Since the movie’s release, that side of the equation has claimed they got a “bad edit” and the order of events was distorted. The movie ends with Billy no-showing a challenge to play Wiebe live, but Walter Day issuing a completely meaningless apology for the way they treated Steve. No happy ending.. until the epilogue, where Wiebe once again passes Billy and becomes the undisputed Donkey Kong champion.

Besides Mitchell, Wiebe, and Day, the person most people remember most from King of Kong is this guy. He was one of Billy’s lackeys. He’s the one who went to Wiebe’s house uninvited to “inspect” the arcade machine. When Wiebe traveled across the country to set the new record in New Hampshire, this guy was there, trying like a total rat to psyche him out because he aspired to be the first person to reach the Donkey Kong kill screen at that particular arcade. When it becomes obvious that Wiebe is going to make it, his last ditch attempt to cause Wiebe to fail (at least as it’s framed in the film) is to lure a crowd around Wiebe and add to the pressure. He walked around annoying other players by telling them “there’s a Donkey Kong kill screen coming up.” When Wiebe sets the record, Kuh makes a HILARIOUSLY sad face about it. It’s the type of face you’d expect to see from someone who just got notarized message from their parents declaring them to be an accident. Kuh has gone on to call the movie distorted or fake and edited to make him look bad. I mean, for that to be true it’d require flagrant cherry picking of footage with a lower moral footing than Homer Simpson wanting to grab the babysitter’s sweet-sweet can. But hey, it might be true. Guys in Mitchell’s camp would know a thing or two about doctored footage!

That was 2007. Now, while I have a TON of friends who are into that scene and know a lot of the players in King of Kong personally, I’ve never really given two squirts about high score chasing. King of Kong was a fascinating movie, but my interest in the culture was limited to that.

AND THEN..

The domino effect started in early 2018 when a guy named Todd Rogers was exposed as a cheater and all his high scores were wiped by the new ownership regime at Twin Galaxies. A regime that had no loyalty or fanboyism for Mitchell and his crew. His most famous high score, for the Atari 2600 game Dragster, was proven to be impossible. The evidence was indisputable, and Rogers also claimed other scores that nobody could possibly achieve. Not only were his scores wiped, but he was banned from competition. He’s not even allowed to submit new scores even if those scores are certified by the Pope.

Rogers also happened to be one of the only “witnesses” to some of Billy’s Donkey Kong scores. While the Donkey Kong world record was now well out of reach of Billy’s skill level (the strategy he used had long been abandoned by experts of the game when new tactics had been discovered), Billy’s scores were still on the scoreboard. When people put those under a microscope, they decided that they had really been done with MAME, the most popular arcade emulator in the world. Why does that matter? Well, the great thing about emulated games is you can use these things called save states. Anyone who has followed my look into gaming’s past knows about these well. I’ve been abusing the SHIT out of them in order to complete some very hard classic games. Of course, I’m actually admitting I’m doing it. Mitchell had claimed that his scores had been done on a real Donkey Kong cabinet. The score in particular that sunk his battleship happened during a pre-planned event where he also claimed to have set the Donkey Kong Jr. record, and they staged a video of them switching the boards used, but the video clearly shows they just took one board out of the machine and put it back in, essentially revealing that at least one of the two high scores couldn’t have been possibly done at that time.

But the kill screen on Billy Mitchell’s records came in part from the tape he submitted to beat Steve Wiebe in the King of Kong. People realized that older versions of MAME load Donkey Kong’s levels differently than a real arcade machine. It’s subtle, but it’s there, and it’s easy to see once you know what you’re looking for. And while not all MAME versions load levels this specific way, NO real Donkey Kong arcade cabinet does. In all the tapes that were examined that Billy Mitchell submitted, of which the only live witness was a guy already banned for cheating, the levels loaded like they do in MAME, and not an arcade machine.

Billy Mitchell’s scores.. ALL his scores, even ones not disputed like his perfect score in Pac-Man.. were removed from Twin Galaxies and he was banned from further competition.

My high scores I have here, which are pathetic (I set out to break 50,000 and barely got past 30,000 twice at my best) would be considered legally higher than the highest score by the guy who was recognized internationally as the best Donkey Kong player ever for decades. I’m also, as far as the governing body of baseball is concerned, a much better baseball player than Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose too.

I can’t stress enough how damn riveting this entire fiasco was. It was fascinating. It was by far the most interesting gaming story I saw unfold in 2018. Even more fascinating was how Billy’s camp really didn’t want to believe any of it. And they still don’t. Watching this thing play out made me realize how a televangelist can get caught with a roomful of prostitutes and crack and keep their flock. Flocks are made of sheep, and sheep don’t care what the shepherd does. That’s what makes them sheep. They just follow. Mitchell has since claimed he was railroaded, but now the people in charge of the scores aren’t susceptible to Jedi mind tricks. Seriously, in King of Kong Walter Day says Billy can just distort the truth like a Jedi and people will listen, and he says it with a gleam in his eye. Well, that cool kids club is on the outs and now getting high scores is held to a higher standard. Then again, since the guys setting the records in the 80s and 90s were also apparently the ones running the scoreboards, the standards weren’t high to begin with. It’d be like the office workers at the PGA saying “hey Bob, did you see Tiger Woods won the Masters?” “No he didn’t.” “He didn’t?” “No! (types into computer) BECAUSE I DID!” As absurd as that sounds, that’s basically what happened with multiple video game records and a guy who was not a champion got to walk around calling himself a champion for over thirty years.

And now that I’ve actually put more than a few minutes of playtime into Donkey Kong, all I can say is “I don’t get it.” Because I don’t. Why would people get worked up over high scores in a game where the scoring is determined by complete random chance, Thanos style.

Because seriously, it is. Most people don’t realize this about Donkey Kong. It wasn’t covered in the movie.

When Mario gets the hammer and smashes pies or fireballs, the score you get for doing so is completely random. You have a 25% chance of scoring 300 points, a 50% chance of scoring 500 points, and a 25% chance of scoring 800 points. Smashes are keys to world record chasers, but players have no control over what they get. People who are emotionally invested in that pursuit look at me like my head is on backwards when I say that it’s a meaningless world record that in no way signifies who is truly the best Donkey Kong player. The best of the best players all are capable of reaching the “kill screen” where the game runs out of memory and simply crashes 22 levels in. Since the scores you get along the way are out of their hands, shouldn’t the best player be considered the player that crashes the game the fastest? Or maybe the fastest player to the kill screen but requiring players to reach a scoring benchmark that you’d reach even if you ignored the RNG and just smashed X amount of pies, barrels, or fireballs per stage just to prove they have the chops to score points and complete the game at a fast clip. So, like, call it 500,000 points + fastest to the kill screen = undisputed best in the world at Donkey Kong.

Well, even that idea wouldn’t work because the enemies and barrels spawn randomly as well. Honestly it just should be fastest to the kill screen.

It’s worth noting that in one of Billy’s high scores, he got an ABSURD amount of smashes. A statistically unlikely amount, especially considering that none of the other documented high scores could even get a fraction of the smashes he got. Fun fact: with emulation, you can use a technique called “stitching” which allows you to use save states to “stitch together” perfect videos of games. If you mess up, or if the RNG lottery isn’t on your side, if you reload a previous save state, the video being created of the game in the emulator (which really just maps button inputs and isn’t the type of video you’d get using a camera, but more like a record of what buttons were pressed at what times during a particular gaming session) won’t even mark the spot where the save/reload happened. In fact, that stitching technique is the secret sauce that made the coolest special feature in SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, the video mode where you can take over the controls at any point, possible.

Oh wait, I forgot: nobody made a movie about the person who got to the kill screen fastest, so nobody cares about that record. But really, any prestige on being the Donkey Kong champion seems like it’s somewhat tainted because so much of the game is random. It’d be like calling the person who won highest Powerball jackpot the most skilled lottery player in the world. All games have random elements, but Donkey Kong is almost always governed by randomness, from enemies to the scores. While skill matters, each new record is owed in a larger part than other games to those skilled players having lady luck give them a reach around.

That’s what’s so weird about Donkey Kong to me. I’m not talking about the franchise or the game’s historical achievements, but rather the game as an entity unto itself. The one thing that keeps it relevant today, in 2019, thirty-eight years after its release, is so completely meaningless. Remove the mainstream knowledge of the high score chase from the equation and all you have left is another historically important Golden Age game that aged badly. Really badly in Donkey Kong’s case. The controls are terrible. The movement is uncomfortable. It’s not entirely clear to me why sometimes when I jumped over a barrel I would get 100 points and sometimes nothing would happen.

And man, that collision detection is absolute dogshit. You know how with some games, you set off the detection when you’re well away from an object? Donkey Kong goes the opposite direction. There were multiple instances where I was clearly striking barrels or fireballs with the hammer and registering no damage at all, leading directly to my death. It never seems consistent from one moment to the next, and unlike the King of Kong crowd, I don’t find the game compelling enough to put in the time to figure out what pixel on a barrel or fireball I’m supposed to be striking that destroys it and grants me my random score. I’d rather chase scores in WarioWare. At least that’s still fun today.

Nothing mean (but completely fair) I say about Donkey Kong takes away from what it accomplished. It was the Little Engine that Could of gaming. It gave birth to multiple icons, real and fictional, and even took down Universal Pictures in a court of law while it was at it. Hot damn, that is so fucking cool. I can’t think of any other single game that directly caused so many important chapters in our community’s history than Donkey Kong. And that’s why it should be remembered and celebrated.

But playing it today? Meh, whatever floats your boat. Just don’t tell people my age or from generations after me that we’re assholes if we don’t have fun doing so. Because Donkey Kong really truly isn’t a good game, people. Not in 2019. And honestly, based on the games from that era I’ve played, not in 1981. If all you’ve ever got to eat for years is bread and water and someone offers you a plate of tofu, you’re going to remember that tofu as the best fucking meal you had long after you started to eat real food. Maybe Donkey Kong stood out to you because there was nothing like it at the time. It would seem pretty sweet then and the memories would only grow sweeter. But I can’t believe people would actually defend a game with so many horrible design problems. If I paid for a game with rules that say hitting something with a hammer destroys it and instead the hammer went right through the fucking thing multiple times, I’d ask for my money back. But I’m not suggesting that’s what classic gamers should do. Donkey Kong was shit, but it gave us everything we love. That debt has long since been paid.

Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong was developed by Hamster Co.
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99 (are you fucking kidding me??) said there’s a Donkey Kong kill screen coming up if anyone is interested in the making of this review.

Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong was purchased by a fan for me to review. Indies I pay for myself out of pocket. Retro games I’ll accept from fans. Because $7.99 is a gigantic waste of money for this, so much so that I feel a little guilty about it, I’m matching the purchase price with a donation to Direct Relief. It’s fire season in California, everyone. Please donate. These guys show up to help when people actually need it.

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