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. UPDATE: By popular request, I reviewed this. There, I think I’m covered on my vintage Donkey Kongs. At least until someone bitches at me to review Donkey Kong Country.

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. And, all the enemies and objects that you can gets smashes on are spawned by random chance to begin with. 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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