Donkey Kong (NES) Review

The Short

Pros

– Faithful port to the arcade classic

– Challenging and fun run for points, even to this day

– Everybody’s seen this game before

– Start of Mario’s (and Donkey Kong’s) careers

Cons

– NES version is missing a level from the arcade version

– It’s also missing the awesome opening movie, as well as the sense of progression (height) between levels

– Jumping and climbing controls seem a bit archaic in this day and age

– Original cartridge had no battery save for scores

A scene that every gamer should recognize.

The Long

Ah, Donkey Kong. The arcade smash hit that got Nintendo a ton of fat cash, was ported to just about everything, and everybody has played. Like Pac-Man before it, Donkey Kong is one of those games that people think of when you mention the word “video game.” It’s a simple, yet exciting arcade game that helped set a foundation for future games.

This game was seriously released on like a trillion consoles (whether allowed by Nintendo or not), and since I’m not insane I’m only going to touch on the NES version. So…after all these years, does Donkey Kong still stand up?

Yep, menu screenshots. EXCITING.

Well, after replaying it for a good hour as I kept trying to crush my previous scores, I’d say…yeah! It’s weird because there’s plenty to complain about this game, especially in this day and age. The controls, especially the jumping, is super sticky and has a weird delay, which screws you over frequently. Mario/Jumpman shuffles along about as fast as a turtle, which is a rather large annoyance. If he falls down the small cracks in the final stage where you are knocking out yellow pegs, that small fall kills him (awesome?), and when climbing down ladders it can be hard to tell when you’ve reached the bottom (and can then move left/right) because the game offers no visual cue. And, probably the most damning thing about the original cart, is it had no battery backup so saves were lost when you powered the game down. That…really hurts.

All this aside, Donkey Kong is still a very good game, even beyond what it did for the industry. The objective is simple (I can’t believe I’m about to explain Donkey Kong…): get to the top of the stage by jumping barrels, dodging fireballs and springboards, or knocking out yellow pins to drop Kong down. Jumping stuff gives points, as does completing each level quickly, and when you run out of lives your run is over. Simple stuff.

The second level spices things up a bit, but I think it’s lots easier.

A bummer about the NES version is that for some reason it’s missing the fourth level, with extending ladders that you have to climb to get to the top. Why it’s omitted is beyond me; it didn’t seem too complex for the NES to handle.

The NES version is still a very faithful port, for the most part. The awesome intro where Donkey Kong smashes the ground is gone, as is the “25 m” or “50 m” height progression between stages. Still, the sound effects and music are incredibly accurate for a port, and I personally found the game controls almost completely identical, especially when playing with the arcade stick on the NES Advantage.

You can always grab the hammer and bash everything that annoys you.

Despite this, one would argue against the length and general shallowness of the game. Again, with only three stages that cycle forever, you really aren’t going to see much newness here. The controls will feel very clunky to those accustomed to Mario’s future outings, and the lack of the battery to save scores is a really big hit. Even the re-released Donkey Kong Classics NES cart (which has both Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr) doesn’t save the game, but at least then you get both games for a low price. So if you are looking for a copy of this game today, I’d suggest that version over all others.

You saved Peach…er…Pauline and won true love!

I am honestly surprised I enjoyed Donkey Kong as much as I did replaying it. I don’t have any particular affinity to the arcade classic (honestly, all my good memories are with Donkey Kong Jr), but the blend of challenge with questing to beat my scores really put its hooks in me. It’s crazy that, after all these years, Donkey Kong can still do what it was made to do: keep you playing. While it’s clunky and very, very old, Donkey Kong is still a game worth trying, and I’d playing with friends, switching off in attempts to beat high scores, this game is a blast even today.

 That being said, the lack of battery-saves on the NES version as well as the omitted level is a damn shame. But if you’re looking to get this game on a retro console, the NES version is still the best.

I’m going to give a deserved four out of five. 

That’s right, Mario. Collect those purses.

Author: Nathan Major

Spirit Shark: Hammerhead. Retro game collector, true ginger, and SNES fanatic. Goal in life is to become Karnov from the NES game Karnov.

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