Donkey Kong (Game Boy)

Donkey Kong, aka Donkey Kong Game Boy, aka Donkey Kong ’94, aka Donkey Kon-go.. okay I just made that last one up.. is one of the few original generation Game Boy titles that still holds up today. Barely. I actually prefer it to Mario vs. Donkey Kong on the Game Boy Advance or any of the Minis spinoffs that proceeded it after MvDK failed to light up the sales charts. Do you know why Mario vs. Donkey Kong failed, at least in my opinion? The misguided choice to use Donkey Kong Country style rendered graphics instead of cartoonish pixels. No clue why they chose that. Especially since it really needed to differentiate itself from the Country series. And no, morphing into a shitty Lemmings knock-off wasn’t the way to go about it. The formula for Donkey Kong ’94 was perfectly fine. This is a very good video game. Also, I was kidding. It’s those shitty Lemmings stages that killed Mario vs. Donkey Kong. Nobody liked them. Nintendo turned the series into being about them anyway. To quote the name of the watering hole with a black hole in the bottom of it: well that sucks.

Well.. that sucks.. because it’s got a black hole. Get it? Sorry.

I’m really only reviewing this because when I was bitching about how bad the arcade original aged and/or suggesting that Nintendo would be well served to remake it and Donkey Kong Jr. with additional levels, people said “but Donkey Kong ’94!” quite loudly. Even though Donkey Kong ’94 is nothing like the arcade Donkey Kong. This is actually one of the few retro games I grew up with, and the only black-and-white Game Boy title I had besides Pokemon, which I had for the Game Boy Pocket I pestered my parents for and received a mere month before the Game Boy Color came out. And BOY were they happy with me when they found out the device they just bought me was already obsolete. I believe Donkey Kong was a throw-in “buy a Game Boy Pocket and get any Greatest Hits title for free” deal and it looked neat to me. And then I didn’t actually play it until much later. Which is weird because Pokemon Red certainly didn’t withstand the test of time. Donkey Kong has. It does so by the skin of its teeth, but still, it’s fine. (Side note: Donkey Kong cost $3.99 while Nintendo has the balls to charge $9.99 for the old black & white Pokemon games. That’s worse than the Switch Tax!)

This remake of the original final board of the arcade Donkey Kong is neutered by the backflip move. You can seriously beat it in under 10 seconds.

Donkey Kong ’94 gets off to a truly bizarre start as it immediately recreates the four levels from the arcade game. Fine idea, except all the special moves at Mario’s disposal are there from the start instead of being earned as the game progresses. To say this nerfs the difficulty of them is an understatement. Using the handspring-jump-power-jump combo, you can shoot right up the iconic barrel-hopping stage or the pie-factory in no time flat. I’ve had a harder time getting a locker open at the gym than I had with the first four levels. From that point forward, the game moves on to 97 new levels, the main mechanic of which is picking up a key and carrying it to a door, with every fourth level being a direct encounter with Donkey Kong himself. At this point, Donkey Kong becomes one of the most clever and consistently fresh platform-puzzlers of all-time.

And one of the most toothless. Free lives are so abundant that by time I finished level 1 – 8, I had thirty lives. THIRTY! That’s after I got killed a couple times getting myself reacquainted with the controls. Speaking of which, movement seems stiffer and less responsive than I remember it being. I honestly don’t know if that’s due to the tired and true nostalgia drunkenness that I’m normally not vulnerable to or if the emulation of Game Boy on 3DS isn’t spot-on. The only other Virtual Console games I’ve got are the first three Game & Watch titles. It’s completely possible that the controls are identical and this is one of those instances of “gaming has come a long ways.” Which is not to say the controls are crap or anything. I just had trouble getting the timing of the handspring triple jump correct. Too much trouble for it to be on me. I mean, I did beat Cuphead (suck my asshole). Doing the backflip was a bit trickier too.

Sorry there’s not better pics. One of the best parts of modern gaming is the ability to take screencaps and clips easily. I’m spoiled by it. I can’t ever go back. Anyway, count the free lives here. There’s as many as eight, actually. You get one for the 1up, as many as two for the time you have remaining (which gets you a free life for every second you have left after four stages are completed.. it even rounds up doing that.. and as many as five for getting the hat/purse/parasol combo and winning them in a bonus game. That’s batshit.

Well, my family is on-board with this whole Indie Gamer Chick thing, and it so happened we had access to an old school creamed-spinach and pus colored-screen Game Boy, and they tracked down a copy of Donkey Kong ’94. They had to pay $100 for it, but they got fourteen other games with it. I popped in the cart, and the difference was immediately clear. On the very first stage I could spring myself straight up, not once failing to pull-off the triple jump, or any backflips for that matter. Then I switched back to 3DS and the timing window was again much smaller. I had Brian and CJ give it a try too. It wasn’t just me. It was clearly an issue with the emulation. This won’t hurt 90% of games, but if there’s a sequence that has relatively small action-timing windows, you might have trouble getting the hang of it.

So, weirdly enough, while Donkey Kong ’94 is a well-designed (if insultingly easy) action-puzzler, I’m struggling to recommend it on 3DS. I still do, because it’s just plain stupid fun, but I think gamers deserve stronger emulation. While nothing is announced yet, I have to believe some sort of option is coming for Switch. I’ve been playing a LOT of commercial emulated games lately (Castlevania Anniversary Collection, Switch Online’s NES library, Arcade Archives, SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, etc) and I’m used to emulators with cleaner emulation and more bells and whistles. The effort is not there on 3DS Virtual Console. Moreover, Donkey Kong ’94 served as the launch killer app for the Super Game Boy accessory and showed off the capabilities of the device, but none of those color palettes are present here. You get two screen options: black and white or the kava-based-diarrhea greens that the original Game Boy was famous for. None of the more vibrant Super Game Boy colors are here, even though they’re presumably in the game’s code. One thing about Virtual Console: it NEVER went the extra mile (except StarTropics of all games, where the “dip the note in water” shit was digitally recreated).

It’s time for a new commercial Game Boy emulator. I’d even pay extra for it. Or I would have, but considering how hot the NES library started and how much it’s gone to hell over the last couple months (Donkey Kong 3 and Wrecking Crew are the only two new games coming in July), at this point I wouldn’t pay $20 extra a year for the subscription-based service to add Game Boy to the library unless the opening lineup was really good. I’d have no faith that the games they’d add every month would be ones people would actually want. I have their shoddy NES library track record to go off of. Like, seriously, who got excited over TwinBee? Wait, you did? Go stand in the corner for ten minutes and think about what you’ve done.

The map is functionally useless. You don’t move on it. You can’t replay extra levels. It’s just a built-in break between stages.

But, Donkey Kong is good enough to stand on its own even with timing issues. It’s a quick game, too. You can complete most of the 100 levels in under a minute. The most involved puzzles aren’t more complex than “activate lever when enemy is on gate, causing enemy to fall to different platform, allowing you to ride it.” Really, what stands out about Donkey Kong is how fine-tuned the timing is on so many gameplay aspects. You can touch special icons that allow you to place bridges or ladders or single-block platforms that disappear after a short time. But, if you use them right, they always last long enough for you to get whatever part of the puzzle you’re doing without feeling too rushed. The same with the in each stage, which you pick-up Mario 2-style. If you’re not holding it, it resets to its starting position after a few seconds. But, some levels require you to toss the key around or place it on conveyors. It never once felt like there wasn’t enough time. This is a very polished game in terms of gameplay, if not presentation.

I have no clue why Nintendo even bothered with a lives system, since the game practically hand-feeds you extra ones like you’re fucking Caesar or something. Maybe they thought their fans in 1994 would be unaccustomed to using their brains. I kid. If the game was a punisher, I’d get it. But it’s not. I actually have a theory: I think the special moves weren’t originally in the game. Weirdly enough, Donkey Kong ’94 is the turning point in Mario’s evolution. This is first game where he can be considered a full-fledged acrobat. Before DK ’94, his abilities were limited to running and jumping, with everything else requiring a power-up. Donkey Kong ’94, and not Super Mario 64, is the game that introduced Mario staples like the triple-jump and the backflip. Which is awesome in theory. In execution, you can use them to circumvent so much of the puzzling and platforming that it saps a lot of the design logic out of most stages. Like, seriously, it’s crazy how many stages you can spot the elaborate puzzle intent and then completely ignore it. I literally can picture the puzzle designer laying out the steps required to get the key to the door, then seeing someone just do a tumbling act through the level in seconds, leaving them in tears. I can’t help but wonder if these were last second additions that weren’t all the way thought-through, like the running jumps in Super Mario 2 that weren’t part of the original level conception of Doki Doki Panic.

My theory is that Super Mario 64 had began development by time Donkey Kong ’94 was nearing completion. The jump to 3D was going to be a radical enough change without Mario suddenly having all kinds of new abilities related to his leaping. With no other Mario platform games planned between 1994 and the launch of the Nintendo 64, I think Nintendo shoehorned the gymnastics into Donkey Kong at the last second as a way of prepping Nintendo fans for the acrobatics coming within the next couple years. I have no confirmation of this, but it makes sense to me. Donkey Kong was going to be tied to the highly anticipated Super Game Boy with a big marketing campaign, and Nintendo fans being generationally loyal, would be familiarized with the moves, eliminating some of the learning curve of Mario 64.

Or they just thought it’d be fun. Either/or.

The Donkey Kong encounters are the best stages. Each world has at least one that’s simply based around getting to the platform next to Pauline. The final one of each world involves picking up barrels and hitting DK three times. They’re always fun. DK Junior even cameos in some, proving my theory that Mario is NOT the villain in Donkey Kong Jr.

And yea, pulling off a backflip to skip a ladder or a platform and get higher faster is fun. And the “ta-da” style arm-raise Mario does when pulling off the triple jump is just plain adorable. But those moves also cripple the game’s difficulty. I’d go so far as to call Donkey Kong ’94 the easiest Mario game.. well.. ever. It’d probably be a great game to ease young children into more complex thought-process gaming, but even my father, who has taken up gaming in his early 70s as part of his regime to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, made it to the game’s fifth world in around two hours with a maximum stockpile of lives. This is only his fifth game he’s playing to the end. It’s too easy. It’s worth mentioning he had fun with it, and so did I. But I also finished Donkey Kong ’94 in about two hours and with 99 lives left. There’s something spectacular here, and I really wish they’d go back to this style of Donkey Kong or Mario vs. Donkey Kong and drop the boring Mini stuff.

Really, there’s two great lost Nintendo series: Mario vs. Donkey Kong (of which Donkey Kong ’94 launched) and Punch-Out!! I can’t see either coming back. One has been turned into a snore-fest Lemmings knock-off, and the other is a game about punching ethnic stereotypes in the face, which is still fun for the record (take my word for it: slugging a Frenchman wearing a beret is totally worth the fine and probation) but not kosher in 2019. Then again, you’d think the idea of Lemmings being suicidal and directionless would also not be considered politically incorrect. You guys know that’s a bullshit urban legend started by the Walt Disney company, right? It’s not true. Lemmings don’t jump off cliffs.

They jump into deep fryers only.

We call them Chicken McNuggets in America.

Donkey Kong was developed by Nintendo
Point of Sale: 3DS

$3.99 said Mario vs. Donkey Kong is worth the $6.99 on Wii U if you still have one in the making of this review.

Donkey Kong is Chick-Approved, but as a non-indie is not eligible for the IGC Leaderboard. Stay tuned for the Retroboards.

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