My original intention here was to review each and every Donkey Kong port, one at a time. What I didn’t fully appreciate when I started this was the monumental size of the task I had set for myself. Donkey Kong has been ported to a lot of different platforms, sometimes more than once. In the interests of keeping this blog interesting, and since I’m burning out a little on dodging barrels and jumping fireballs, we will put Donkey Kong on indefinite hiatus with this review and move on to something completely different. Perhaps at some later date, I’ll come back and finish off the last few DK ports, just for completeness’ sake.
This version of the game is unique in that it is the only port developed and published by Nintendo themselves. All other ports were licensed to third party publishers. It has been released several times over the years. It started as a launch title for the Nintendo Famicom in Japan in 1983. The same game was released in the US for the NES in 1985. In 1988, it was released again in Japan on the Famicom Disk System. The same year saw a US-only release on the NES called Donkey Kong Classics, which bundled Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Junior on the same cartridge. Finally, a slightly modified version called Donkey Kong – Original Edition was released on the Wii Virtual Console in 2010.
Considering this is the only port to be released by the Big N themselves, one would expect it to be just about arcade perfect. While it is arguably the best console port and is among the best ports on any platform, this version has several significant changes and omissions that prevent it from being an exact replica of the arcade version.
In looks and gameplay, this game gets a lot right. The sprites and animations are all pretty much arcade perfect. The feel of the game is also very close to the arcade, everything moves at just about the right speed. Mario is responsive, jumps smoothly, and doesn’t have the twitchiness around ladders that many of the other ports have.
Sound has a very distinct NES character to it, but manages to replicate the arcade sounds fairly accurately for the most part. There are a few odd omissions, however, such as the grunting sound Donkey Kong makes at the end of a level and the “bonus” theme that plays when an object is smashed with a hammer.
Levels are wider than in the arcade, filling the horizontally oriented TV screen, but don’t feel especially squashed. The Barrels level uses the arcade-accurate, 6-girder layout. The only real concession to the screen orientation is on Rivets - the platform above Donkey Kong’s head where Pauline normally stands is omitted. She is placed instead on a floating platform just to the left of Donkey Kong.
The most significant omission in this version is the Cement Factory level. This was a common omission among the console ports, but it is still surprising given the capabilities of the platform and fact that this one was developed in-house. Another major omission is the opening cutscene. The music (which happens to be the Dragnet theme, oddly enough) plays when a game is started, but there is no video to accompany it. The “How high can you get?” screen is also completely omitted. Perhaps a case of Nintendo censoring a perceived drug reference? Finally, the animations at the end of every level other than Rivets, where Donkey Kong snatches Pauline and climbs off screen, are missing.
Interestingly, in the Donkey Kong - Original Edition release on the Wii, the Cement Factory and many of the missing animations were restored. It’s not entirely clear if these existed when the game was first developed and were cut for technical reasons, or if they were developed especially for the Wii release. This game is apparently a real NES ROM running in an emulator, however, so it is not impossible that this is actual deleted content that was restored.
Other quirks in this port include a tune that plays over the title screen, which sounds very similar to the title music in a lot of early NES games. This is not in the arcade version or any of the ports, except the Atari 7800 version which borrows heavily from this version. Donkey Kong’s animation after he falls on his head is also different here. Instead of the googly eyes and cartoon stars of the arcade version, DK kind of flails around comically. Again, this animation doesn’t show up anywhere else except the Atari 7800 version.
Level progression in this version is a little unusual, as it follows a modified version of the progression in the Japanese arcade release. The Cement Factory is omitted, so the levels are Barrels, Elevators, Rivets, and then they repeat. While this made sense for the Famicom release, it likely felt odd to most NES players who were more used to the US level order. Also, with no “How high can you get?” screen to mark the player’s progression, the game starts to feel repetitive sooner than it would otherwise.
For most NES players who first saw this game in 1985, it was a little underwhelming. Donkey Kong was starting to get a little long in the tooth by then, and the game didn’t stand up well compared to more dynamic offerings available at the time, like Super Mario Bros. It seems a little more impressive, however, when you consider that this game was first released in 1983, and was essentially a contemporary of more primitive ports such as the Atari 2600 and VIC-20 versions. Despite its flaws, it definitely captures the spirit of the original and is still a lot of fun to play.