Been playing a lot of video games in the lazy windup towards July Fourth, but the one that’s gotten the lion’s share of my attention is the Switch release of Donkey Kong. It’s a perfect port of the arcade original, and to the best of my knowledge, it’s the first console version to feature the cement factory level, sometimes referred to as the pie shop (because the beds of fresh cement look like meringe). Apparently this was due to a lawsuit over who owned the original code, so when Nintendo or one of its licensees (Coleco, then Atari) released ports in the past, it had to be slightly different.
What strikes me after playing it for a couple of weeks is that it’s hard AF. I remember never playing it in the arcades because I always died on the first level. In fact, Donkey Kong is pretty much unique among classic arcade games precisely because the first level is the most challenging. If you can get to the top without dying, the rest of the game is a cakewalk. Needless to say, I’m not going to have any documentaries made about my DK exploits. To make things worse, I found myself relying a great deal on strategies I’d developed playing the decades-old ColecoVision and NES ports, none of which apply here. (The Coleco version was pretty generous about how high Mario could fall and survive; the arcade game, not so much.)
It was on a number of levels a major leap forward for game design, and to the best of my knowledge, one of the first games along with Pac-Man that provided your onscreen avatar with a full range of motion. For my parents, who were both video game fans from the Pong days, it was a bridge — or ladder — too far. It was also a major advance in terms of narrative — there’s a clear storyline, with a beginning, middle, and end, and an obvious hero and villain, as opposed to the more abstract protagonists of earlier games. Sure, Pac-Man was a character of sorts, but he was still just a yellow circle with a triangle cut out for a mouth. And his story was that he just kept eating — compulsively, tragically. It’s no surprise that Mario ended up becoming the star of a series of games that helped transformed console gaming from a hobby built on endless repetition to something more narrative-based.
Mario and Donkey Kong are now legends, but their success was incremental rather than an overnight sensation. There was a pop song by “Pac-Man Fever” creators Buckner and Garcia, but it did not chart.
There was also a breakfast cereal, as was the custom of the time.
There was even a short-lived cartoon from 1983, recasting Mario and Pauline as circus folk.
Back in the days before Nintendo brought the NES to North America and the UK, there were a dozens or so DK ports for various consoles and computer systems, some of them decent, others notoriously awful. Coleco’s 1982 ports for the Atari 2600 and Intellivision are virtually advertisments for their superior ColecoVision version, included as a pack-in with the system. And there were also a number of ripoffs.
Mario would go on to superstardom, first in 1983's Mario Bros. and then the long-running Super Mario series, which almost singlehandedly revived the home video game market in the late ‘80s. However, his simian co-star would fade into a has-been for the better part of a decade. After 1982's hugely successful Donkey Kong Jr., the big ape returned in the mostly forgotten, unimaginatively titled Donkey Kong 3, featuring the “lost” Mario Brother Stanley. He wouldn’t headline another major game until Donkey Kong Country, developed by UK studio Rare and released on the Super NES in 1994. The game used a sophisticated 2D sprite system that imitated the look of 3D polygons then just coming into vogue on next-gen systems. It kicked off a series that continues to this day on the 3DS and Switch, though it’s not clear if the “Donkey Kong” in the new games is the original, or a grown-up junior. Frankly the official canon is fuzzy. The current DK may not be Junior, but in fact his long-forgotten twin from a 1988 math game. Original or not, a version of Donkey Kong appears in 2017's Super Mario Odyssey, as part of a 2D level that recreates the look and feel of the 1981 arcade game, and reunites Mario with his old flame Pauline.