Just like having an arcade at home... sort of.

Text

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.

DK-NES-TitleThis 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.

DK-NES-1In 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.

DK-NES-2The 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.

DK-NES-3Other 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.

Text

DK-PC-titleIf you came to PC gaming in the last 10 or 15 years, you may be surprised to learn that the PC did not start out as the gaming powerhouse it has become in recent times.  Back when having a PC meant owning a machine actually made by IBM, games were an afterthought at best.  Graphics were extremely limited and sound was effectively nonexistent.  If Portal 2 or Skyrim is a modern masterpiece, the IBM PC port of Donkey Kong is a scratching on a cave wall.

As with the other home computer Donkey Kong releases, this one was published by Atarisoft in 1983.  The game implements most of the features of each level accurately: wild barrels and fireballs are present in Barrels, Elevators has the bouncing jack, the bonuses are all in the correct places.  Barrels, however, does use the truncated “5 girder” layout, with DK on the wrong side.  The “How high can you get?” screen and the final cutscene after Rivets are present, although the first cutscene has been omitted.

DK-PC-1DK-PC-1a

Graphics in this port are pretty much a disaster.  At the time this game was released, CGA was the only graphics option on the PC.  This meant, among other things, that the palette for the entire game was limited to four colors.  The game actually gives you a choice of using “full color” or not.  Choosing “yes” selects “Palette 0” which consists of black, red, green, and yellow/brown.  Choosing “no” gives you an undocumented palette consisting of black, white, red, and cyan.  The non-full color option is actually slightly truer to the arcade version, with the tradeoff that DK himself is red instead of the usual brown.  Neither palette makes for an especially attractive game, however.  The one saving grace here is that the game does not use the eye-searing “Palette 1”, consisting of black, white, cyan, and magenta, as a great many CGA games did.

Hey thereThe sprites are also very crudely drawn in this port, which is unforgivable as CGA uses a higher resolution than many platforms with better looking ports of Donkey Kong.  Everything has an asymmetrical, hand-drawn look, and not in a good way.  Mario’s walking animation just kind of flops along, and he has weird, spindly arms when climbing ladders.  Donkey Kong is almost scary looking in this port, closer to a werewolf than a monkey, with bright green (or cyan, in the alternate palette) eyes.  On the Rivets level in the arcade, he thrashes menacingly during the level and just before he is dropped on his head in the cutscene.  In this version, that translates to Donkey Kong leaning side to side, in a kind of “hey there” pose.  It’s actually kind of creepy.

DK-PC-2Like all PC games of this era, sound is limited to bleeps and clicks from the PC speaker.  There is also a sad, out of tune attempt to play the melody over the “How high can you get?” and Rivets cutscenes, but that is the extent of sound in this game.  Real audio would not be available on the PC until 1987.

The pacing of this game is a little hard to judge.  Like most games of the era, its speed is entirely dependent on the speed of the processor on which it is run.  On a modern PC, an entire game can be played in about 12 seconds.  Using DOSBox to slow the processor speed down to something resembling a 1983-era system makes the game somewhat more playable.  A speed similar to the arcade can be dialed in, but DOSBox unfortunately does not have a setting to exactly match the 4.77 MHz of an Intel 8088 processor, so it’s not clear how accurate this setting really is.

DK-PC-3Even running at an appropriate speed, the game still feels very twitchy.  Mario jumps in a very slow, unnatural arc, making barrels and fireballs difficult to time.  Climbing ladders tends to be finicky, as well, leaving you standing there as a barrel is coming in.  A joystick helps with playability, especially as walking with the keyboard “sticks” - Mario keeps walking until you press up, down, or jump.  Add to that fireballs that are quick and aggressive, especially on Rivets, and you have a game that is more annoying than difficult, one of the few ports to cross that line.

DK-AppleII-TitleThe Apple II port, also published by Atarisoft in 1983, is substantially the same as the PC version.  It seems very likely that both of these games were created by the same developer, and may even share parts of their code.

In features and gameplay, this port is identical to the PC.  It has the Rivets cutscene, but not the opening one.  It has the “How high can you get?” screen, and all four levels with mostly arcade accurate features.  Unfortunately, it also has the same twitchy movement, finicky ladders, weird keyboard behavior, and aggressive fireballs, which means it’s about as much fun to play.

Sound is not much better here than in the PC version.  It is, again, mostly just bleeps and clicks, bearing little resemblance to the arcade sound effects at all.  It even plays the same strangely out of tune melodies as the PC version.

DK-AppleII-1Graphically, this version fares slightly better.  It still has the weirdly drawn and animated sprites, but it appears that the Donkey Kong sprite was redrawn.  He generally looks more like a monkey, and is a hair closer to the look of the arcade sprite.  He still looks a little odd, as he has a toothy snarl and almost appears to be wearing sunglasses, but it’s a vast improvement.  The animations are much less flickery in this version, due to the Apple II’s superior graphics capability.  The only area where this version fares worse than the PC is the “fringing” - when two sprites move near or pass through each other, there is a sort of halo of inverted color that appears around them.  The effect is highly characteristic of the Apple II and is usually not that distracting, but it is especially unattractive in this game.

DK-AppleII-3One interesting quirk: the birthday cake from the VIC-20 port makes an appearance in both of these games.  This time, it’s only in the upper-right corner of Elevators in both cases.  Is it possible that these ports were created by the same developer as the VIC-20 version?  It seems like the most likely explanation for the birthday cake, although both of these versions are lacking the charm of the VIC-20 port.  There have been cases where a later developer borrowed details from an existing port on another platform, propagating features that never existed in the arcade original, but in this case all three games were released at roughly the same time.

Both of these ports are prime examples of platforms that were ill suited for porting arcade games.  The PC was still several years away from coming into its own as a gaming platform.  The Apple II had some fairly significant cred as a gaming machine, but it was better suited to original games designed for the platform, than it was to colorful, action oriented arcade ports.  I never played either of these when they were new, but I have to think that they were reasonably disappointing, especially as they were commercial releases with the Atari name on them.

Text

The Commodore 64 was the only platform to get two completely separate, officially licensed ports of Donkey Kong.  The first was published by Atari, under their Atarisoft label, in 1983.  The second was published in the UK only by Ocean, in 1986.  The Ocean version was developed by a company called Arcana Software Design, according to the title screen.  Atari doesn’t credit a developer, although all of their titles for 8-bit computers other than their own (i.e. all of the Atarisoft titles) were farmed out to third party developers.

DK-C64-titleThe Atari C64 port is really the first one to completely nail the look and sound of the arcade original.  The sprites are lower resolution than the arcade (the C64 only ran at 160 x 240 in multicolor bitmap mode), but are otherwise spot on, well animated and completely recognizable.  All four levels are represented, and all are close to arcade perfect in their layout and features.  They follow the US arcade level progression exactly.  Both cutscenes are also present and are, again, nearly arcade perfect.

Sound in this port also deserves a special mention.  The C64 was (and still is) renowned for its sound capabilities, and they are put to good use in this game.  All music and sound effects are present and accurate.  Beyond that, however, sound in the arcade version had a very dark, almost muted quality for everything other than the sound of Mario walking.  This game manages to capture that quality perfectly, something almost no other port did.

DK-C64-1DK-C64-2

Two major issues keep this port from being arcade perfect, however.  First, the developers chose to use the full width of the screen, presumably to maximize the available resolution.  While this helps with the look of the sprites, it gives the game a very wide, almost squashed look.  The developers also chose to keep the full arcade layout on all levels, making this one of the widest and flattest of all DK ports.

Second, the pace of this game is slooooow.  The levels are already wide, and Mario seems to take an eternity to cross from one side to the other.  Although everything moves equally slowly, barrels and fireballs included, the speed actually makes this game about as difficult as the too-fast VIC-20 port.  Where that port requires quick thinking and reflexes, this one requires careful planning, as movement and especially climbing ladders takes more time.  It’s not entirely clear if this pacing is a design choice or a technical limitation.  As we’ll see in a moment, the C64 was certainly capable of a much faster game.  It’s possible that the speed was a tradeoff for the visual quality.  This game was also released fairly early in the C64’s life cycle, which usually means a lot of the tricks for optimizing and squeezing the last shred of performance out of the machine were not widely known yet.

DK-C64-3DK-C64-4

Another, lesser quirk is that the “How high can you get?” screen is missing here.  This is fairly unusual in that this is the only port to include both cutscenes but omit this screen.

Finally, there is a minor glitch that can only be described as bizarre.  In the arcade version, Pauline shouts “Help!” in a sort of comic book style bubble throughout each level.  In this version, they chose to include the shout, but apparently did not have enough resolution to actually write the word “help” legibly.  As a result, Pauline appears to shout “1103!” while you are trying to rescue her.  I was kind of hoping this would turn out to be some kind of in-joke on the part of the developers, but I haven’t found any evidence of that so far.

DK-C64-UK-titleOcean’s port for the C64 is interesting for several reasons.  It was designed from scratch and shares nothing with the Atarisoft version, so it is a unique chance to see a completely different set of design choices and tradeoffs on the same platform.  It was also one of the last Donkey Kong ports released.  Aside from modern-era “retro” releases, the only ports that came later (both in 1988) were the Famicom Disk System version, essentially a re-release of the 1983 Famicom version, and the Atari 7800 version.

Much like the Atari version, this game hits all of the major points of the arcade.  All four levels are represented and accurately reproduced, as are both cutscenes.  Unlike the Atari version, this one includes the “How high can you get?” screen.  Interestingly, level progression follows the Japanese version of the game.  I actually don’t know for sure, but I assume this was the level order on machines that were made for the UK market as well.

DK-C64-UK-1DK-C64-UK-4

Graphically, the Ocean version restricts the game to the center part of the screen, allowing it to emulate the arcade’s vertical orientation much more accurately.  The tradeoff to this approach is that game utilizes even fewer pixels of the C64’s already limited resolution.  The results, while far from the worst seen in a Donkey Kong port, are considerably less arcade accurate than the Atarisoft version.

Sound in this version is perhaps the weakest element.  All of the music and sound effects are present and do approximate the arcade sounds.  They have a very bright, almost tinny sound, however, the exact opposite quality of the arcade version that the Atarisoft port replicates so well.

The pacing of this version is far closer to the arcade than the Atarisoft version.  Everything moves as it should, which makes for a somewhat easier game, closer to the difficulty of the arcade version. 

DK-C64-UK-3DK-C64-UK-2

Finally, the Ocean version includes several details of the arcade version that appear in few or no other ports.  At the end of a game, there is a name registration screen that is an exact replica of the arcade version’s, right down to the “regi-time” countdown which prevents the player from loitering too long.  On the “How high can you get?” screen, the player’s score and the high score are shown across the top of the screen, exactly as they are displayed in the arcade.  They are omitted from the game screens, presumably out of space considerations, but it’s interesting to see that they were included where they would fit.  Finally, the Rivets cutscene includes Donkey Kong’s “seeing stars” animation, after he has been dropped on his head.  Even among the ports that include this cutscene, most omit this detail.

Overall, it’s hard to call a clear winner between these two games.  Both are faithful to the arcade original, and get a lot of details right.  Both fall short in completely different ways.

Text

So now we’re getting into the second wave of Donkey Kong ports, the home computer versions.  These were all released by Atari, under their Atarisoft label, starting in 1983.  Oddly enough, while Nintendo licensed Coleco to release DK ports on consoles, they gave Atari the license for home computer ports.  This led to some bad blood when Coleco tried to release a version (on a cartridge) for their Adam home computer.  Atari protested and Coleco eventually relented, scrapping the Adam port.

The first of these ports we’ll be looking at is for the Commodore VIC-20.  This one is truly an oddity.  Even by early-1980s standards, the VIC-20 was a fairly primitive machine, and this game reflects it.  Between the low resolution and the limited color palette, this game really doesn’t look a whole lot like Donkey Kong.  Yet the developers on this one tried really, really hard.  It is one of the few ports to implement all of the features of the arcade version: a title screen, all four levels, both cutscenes, and the “How high can you get?” screen.  The level progression is US arcade perfect.  There are wild barrels and oil barrels which produce fireballs on the Barrels level.  Fireballs behave appropriately on Rivets.  Elevators has the bouncing jack.  The sound is also quite impressive, given the limitations of the platform.  It’s not perfect, but it definitely approximates all of the sounds of the arcade.

DK-VIC20-HowHighA game like this is, of course, going to have quirks.  Some make sense given the technical limitation, others not so much.  The most obvious one is the speed of the game.  The arcade version of Donkey Kong is probably best described as moderately paced.  Things happen steadily, but it’s not a “twitch” game by any means.  Most of the home ports either match this pace or drag a little.  This version, on the other hand, flies.  Mario zips around the level, barrels zoom down the girders, fireballs chase you aggressively.  If you’re used to the usual Donkey Kong pace, picking this one up takes some adjustment, and results in a game that is a fair bit harder than the arcade original.

Another quirk, unique among DK ports, is that Mario is still controllable when he is jumping.  You can reverse course mid-jump, and land more or less back where you started.  It isn’t entirely clear if this is a bug or a design choice, but it helps to mitigate somewhat the difficulty introduced by the game’s speed.

DK-VIC20-1The Barrels level uses the full six girder layout of the arcade, albeit stretched for a horizontal display (and made to seem even wider by the VIC-20’s wide pixels).  Because of the space required to draw a recognizable Donkey Kong on the low resolution display, the little platform where Pauline stands is actually to the right of the ladder leading to the top girder.  This means Mario has to run in the same direction as the barrels to reach the final platform, something which is not done in any other DK port.

DK-VIC20-3The bonus items on the Rivets, Elevators, and Cement Factory stages are supposed to be Pauline’s things—a purse, a hat, and an umbrella—which she presumably dropped while being manhandled by Donkey Kong.  This version has most of them, and they are generally in the correct places.  Inexplicably, this version also includes a birthday cake in the upper right of Elevators, and right in the center of the Cement Factory. In the arcade and most ports, there is a purse in the same spot on the Elevators level.  In the Cement Factory, there is nothing there except a background grid that the burning oil appears to stand on.  If they are calling the Cement Factory a “pie factory” as it is sometimes referred to, the birthday cake at least makes a little sense.  Even then, it’s an odd difference from the original, with no apparent explanation for it.

DK-VIC20-4The fact that cutscenes are included at all is quite amazing, but even they have a few quirks.  The opening cutscene in the arcade plays immediately after the player has inserted a quarter and started the game, just before the “How High Can You Get?” screen and the start of the first level.  Here, it plays when the game has been left at the title screen for a certain amount of time, similar to the “attract mode” screen in many arcade games.  This scene also omits Donkey Kong’s climb to the top of the structure, he starts at the top and bounces across, knocking the girders into the familiar configuration.  The final cutscene after the Rivets stage is interesting in that it actually animates the girders collapsing into each other as Donkey Kong falls headfirst to the bottom, a feature that wasn’t even present in the arcade original.

DK-VIC20-2DK-VIC20-2a

The developers deserve a lot of credit for this game.  Unlike many ports that feel rushed and often don’t even take full advantage of their platform, this one manages to capture the spirit of the original, despite some significant technical limitations.  Beyond that, the game is still a lot of fun to play.  The controls are very responsive (almost too responsive), and the speed makes it quite challenging.  A lot of ports are hardly worth playing if you have the arcade original available to you, but this one is actually worth tracking down.

Text

This is the third of the Coleco-published Donkey Kong ports, along with the Colecovision and 2600 versions, and in many way it is the crudest.  It was published in 1982, at the same time as the 2600 port and about six months after the Colecovision version.

Graphics and sound are among the worst of any Donkey Kong port, at least in terms of arcade accuracy.  The game looks more like a badly made clone than an official port.  The sprites completely fail to capture any of the characters.  Mario is sort of a jaundiced midget, and dressed in blue for some reason.  His walk animation is very curious, he almost seems to skip along the girders.  Pauline is the same color as the girders in each level and looks like a cross between an alien and a ghost.  Donkey Kong himself is just a greenish blob. 

The game has a full complement of sound effects.  Unfortunately, none of them bear any resemblance to the sounds of the arcade game, which really adds to the sense that this is more like a clone than an actual Donkey Kong game. 

DK-INTV-1As with the 2600 port, only the Barrels and Rivets levels are represented here.  Barrels uses the same 5 girder arrangement that the Colecovision port does, putting Donkey Kong and Pauline on the opposite side.  Unlike Colecovision, this version has two ladders (one broken) under the top row, making the layout slightly closer to the arcade.  As with the other Coleco ports, wild barrels and fireballs are omitted.  Rivets actually makes a better showing here.  The layout is basically correct and, unlike the 2600 version, the fireballs actually patrol the level in a believable fashion. 

Unsurprisingly, cutscenes and the “How high can you get?” screen are missing entirely. There is a pause and a small, blooping sound effect at the end of the Rivets level, however, which seems to allude to the “dropping Donkey Kong on his head” cutscene.  If that’s really the case, it makes this the first home port to even acknowledge that the cutscenes exist.

DK-INTV-2As with the 2600 version, gameplay is highly repetitive.  The difficulty can be selected from four levels when a game is started, but it does not increase as the levels progress.  The pace of the whole game feels slow, and Mario’s jump has a weird, floaty quality which actually makes it harder to time barrels and fireballs.  After a few times through the two levels, the whole thing starts to get pretty tedious.

In the early days, developers working on arcade ports almost never had source code or art assets from the original to work with.  They usually just played and studied an example of the game, and reverse engineered it as best they could.  This port leaves a strong impression that the developers probably didn’t even have that much to work with, and that the game was developed from still images (maybe even sketches) and a description of gameplay.

What’s amazing is that the Intellivision was, at least on paper, a more capable machine than the 2600.  You wouldn’t know it from this game, but there were games for the Intellivision that looked decent by the standards of the day.  While neither version even gets in the ballpark of arcade perfect, the 2600 port at least manages the capture some of the look and personality of the original.  This version fails on almost all counts.

Text

Looking at Donkey Kong on the ColecoVision, you have to wonder if there were some shenenigans on Coleco’s part.  The ColecoVision port is light years beyond the other two they published, on the Atari 2600 and Intellivision consoles.  Granted the ColecoVision was a more powerful, next-generation system, but when you consider that the ColecoVision port was also released six months before the other two, it certainly seems like Coleco was doing their best to tip the scales in favor of their own hardware.

Graphics and sound for this port are excellent.  Of the first few Donkey Kong home console releases, this is the only one that really looks and sounds like the arcade version.  Having said that, this release does have quite a few interesting quirks.

The most glaring change on the first level is that the number of girders is reduced to five, putting Donkey Kong and Pauline on the opposite side of the screen.  Presumably this was done to make the level fit better on the horizontally oriented television screen.  It changes gameplay a little from the arcade version, as there is less distance to cover and fewer ladders to contend with.  Several later ports also use this “5 girder” configuration, although it is not clear if they were solving the same screen orientation issue or simply copying the Colecovision port. 

As with the other early ports, wild barrels and fireballs are also missing from this level.

The second level is the Rivets level.  This one is pretty close to the arcade, the major difference being that the girders are the same pinkish-red as the first level, instead of the blue of the arcade version.  The fireballs are much more random in this version then the arcade.  They all spawn on the second girder, and they seem to patrol the level at random, with no regard for where Mario is.  This can be nasty if your habit is to climb up and clear the rivet directly above the starting position first, as a fireball will spawn directly on top of you more often than not.  This level also makes a quirk of using the hammer apparent.  In this version, you have to “collect” enemies with Mario himself, rather than hitting them with the hammer.  This prevents you from hitting a fireball across a missing rivet or catch one escaping up a ladder, a technique which is possible in the arcade.

The third (and final) level is the Elevators level.  This one is very close to the arcade, except the bouncing jack has been omitted completely.  In its place, one or two fireballs patrol the upper area where Donkey Kong is.  It’s a pretty major difference, presumably necessitated by a technical limitation of the Colecovision.  It makes the final leg of the level more about patience and less about timing, although challenge-wise it’s pretty much a wash.

As with many DK ports, the Cement Factory is missing entirely. 

Also worth noting in this version is an early (if not the first) example of an exploitable glitch.  Mario climbs ladders rather painstakingly in this version, perhaps even a bit slower than in the arcade.  If you start to climb a ladder, however, then stop and immediately start to climb again, Mario will shoot right to the top at double speed.  Once mastered, this technique is indispensable and makes the game considerably easier.

The level progression in this port is rather strange.  In the arcade, there is a definite story being told, set up by the opening cut scene and the Barrels level and ending with the Rivets level and Donkey Kong being dropped on his noggin.  In the US arcades, you started out going directly from Barrels to Rivets, then Barrels to Elevators to Rivets, and so on, so the progression would get longer with each pass through.  In Japan, you started right out with all four levels, but the overall progression from Barrels to Rivets is the same.  This port starts like the US version for the first two levels, but then just bounces around between levels seemingly at random.  This version also omits the “How high can you get” screen, all of the cut scenes, and even Mario’s death animation.  The impression that it leaves is that the developers were all business - just play the game and don’t worry about the story.  Considering how many gamers just blow past all of the cutscenes in modern games, perhaps they were on to something.

Text

We might as well start with one of the most-ported games of all time, Donkey Kong.  If you’re reading this blog, I probably don’t need to describe it in much detail.  Monkey.  Carpenter.  Barrels.  Fireballs.  It’s the game that put Nintendo on the map.  Enough said.

The first port we’re looking at is for the Atari 2600.  It was published in 1982, about a year after the arcade original was released.  The licensing of Donkey Kong is a saga unto itself, but this version was originally published by Coleco.  It was developed by a company called Imaginative Systems Software, under contract from another company called Woodside Design Associates (at the height of the early ’80s video game mania, everyone wanted a piece of the action).  The AtariAge page for the game has a scan of a later cartridge and box that was published by Atari with a copyright date of 1988, which means they were still flogging this game well into the 8-bit era.

As is expected with the Atari 2600, this port of the game is a little… primitive.  The Mario and Pauline (yes, she had a name!) sprites actually look decent, or at least recognizable.  Donkey Kong himself, not so much.  He looks a little bit like a gingerbread man in this outing, albeit an animated and appropriately threatening gingerbread man.  Sound is fairly minimal as there are only four sound effects: walking, jumping, death, and jumping over/smashing something.  Walking and jumping are reminiscent of the arcade sounds, and the death sound sort of resembles the little tune that plays when Mario gets killed.  The jumping over/smashing sound is more of just a generic Atari bloop.

The first level (“Barrels”) is actually a fairly reasonable approximation of Donkey Kong.  The level layout is all arcade accurate.  The level itself is even fairly skinny, relative to the width of the screen, approximating the arcade version’s vertical screen orientation.  Barrels move more-or-less appropriately down the level, running down ladders and off the ends of girders.  The only omissions from this level: no wild barrels or fireballs, and inexplicably, the lower hammer is missing.

Level two (“Rivets”) is where it starts to fall apart.  Again the layout is roughly accurate, but there is only one fireball per girder and they basically only zip back and forth from one side of the level to the other.  Occasionally they will double-back early, which provides pretty much the only challenge there is in this level.  The hammer is present in the correct location, but you can only use it to kill one fireball, since they don’t change girders and you can’t climb ladders while you have it.  The bonus items are completely missing from this level.

And that’s it.  You just bounce back and forth between these two levels until you run out of guys or go insane.  No Elevators or Cement Factory levels, no cut scenes, no “how high can you get” screen, not even a title screen.  Granted not all of these things would be possible given the limitations of the 2600, but this game still feels like a rush job, almost unfinished.  It’s a common theme with arcade ports, especially a hit out of nowhere like Donkey Kong was. The pressure is on to get the port out while the game is still hot and to hit the upcoming Christmas season, which often results in a game that is disappointing.

I never had or played this game back in the day, but I suspect it would have provided a grand total of about 10 minutes of entertainment.  We didn’t have the arcade machine available for direct comparison, but I suspect we would have figured out the differences in this version in pretty short order.  The fact that they were still selling new copies of this game in 1988 is simply mind-boggling.

Text

You wouldn’t know it today, but there was a time when all of the cool video games were arcade games.  Actually playing arcade games, however, required money and, unless you were lucky, a car ride.  If you were a kid like me at the time, this made playing the real thing a relatively rare treat.  For most of us, our daily video game fix had to come from the home system ports of arcade games.

On the early systems, and even well into the 8-bit era, the quantity and quality of a console’s arcade ports could make or break it.  Sure, there were original games, and some of them were even good, but you really decided what system to get based on who had the best version of the hot arcade titles at the time.  What constituted the “best version”, of course, was all relative.  Hardware limitations and often rushed production schedules meant that the game you were playing could be anything from a reasonable facsimile of the arcade original, to not having much more than the title in common.

Fortunately for game developers at the time, their target market very often had only played the arcade original a handful of times.  We knew that the arcades had “better graphics”, but beyond that we often didn’t know the details of what was different about the home ports.  Today, through the magic of emulation, you can play the arcade original of most games and any of its ports pretty much side-by-side.  In upcoming posts, I will review the home ports of popular classic arcade games, and point out where the developers cut corners, where they got things right, and where they made design choices that were just plain bizarre.