Donkey Kong on Game Boy: Why Can’t Mario Be Weird Anymore
Donkey Kong on Game Boy; or, Why Can’t Mario Be Weird Anymore?
The Donkey Kong arcade machine was a really cool game in its day, but with four relatively simplistic, single-screen levels, it has been almost completely eclipsed by its descendants, Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong Country. While I think new gamers today could get in and enjoy the old SMB and DKC games, I think the original Donkey Kong would probably fail to make an impression.
Fortunately though, in 1994 (the same year as the release of Rare’s Donkey Kong Country), a new version of Donkey Kong was released for the original monochrome Game Boy. This version begins in a familiar way, four levels, starting with the iconic barrels and ladders stage. But this time, after what should be the romantic reunion of Mario and Pauline, the defeated beast climbs to his feet, grabs the dame, and tears across 10 unique worlds of a much greater and expanded quest for Mario. These new levels are far more faithful to the original idea of Donkey Kong than perhaps Super Mario Bros. ever was. While SMB was composed of left to right obstacle courses, terminating in a flagpole, DK GB levels are generally much smaller, mimicking the arcade original and mostly never exceeding 2 or 3 screens in size. The goal is relatively simple; in each short level there is a key which you must bring to a locked door to successfully exit the level. Complicating this task is that while carrying the key, Mario’s movements are greatly restricted. He can’t jump as high, climb ladders or ropes, or enter tight spaces. Ultimately, a bit of puzzle solving is usually required to get the key to the exit. While puzzle platformers are super common today, they were less so in 1994, which the game somewhat unique.
When this game came out, I think it surprised a lot of people with how epic of an adventure it really was. The smaller level designs felt like Donkey Kong, although being more puzzle like in nature, and the concise and focused arcade style gameplay felt like a natural fit for the portable Game Boy. The puzzle-like levels are also filled with a ton of creativity, constantly revealing surprising new elements as the game progresses, which is not especially unusual of Nintendo game design even today.
In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Mario was utterly weird. The Mushroom Kingdom is a bizarre place, filled with an inexplicable network of green pipes (used for transport?) and torn by a conflict between the turtle-like Koopa tribe and the peaceful mushroom people race (strangely called Toads), led by an inexplicably human looking princess and her champion, a portly middle-aged plumber. People have kind of become desensitized to the strangeness of the Mushroom Kingdom, but in those days it fell in alongside other bizarre Mario settings, such as Sarasaland, Subcon, Dinosaur Island, and his Wario-conquered island getaway from Super Mario Land 2. Amongst these locations, the world of Donkey Kong feels unusual in just how normal it is, taking place seemingly on modern Earth. For instance, after completing the first four arcade levels, Donkey Kong whisks off to the second world, simply known as “Big-City.” These levels take place among modern urban streets and skyscraper rooftops. This is to be sure an unusual place to find a plumber whose exploits are mainly known to occur in the surreal, cartoonish Mushroom Kingdom.
I guess that kind of brings me to a problem I have with modern Mario games. There is a pervasive lack of new settings to fuel new adventures. The standard Mushroom Kingdom setting, which was initially mystifying, has become routine. In the age before the N64, Mario visited a ton of wild places that we don’t see today, and fought a slew of enemies that weren’t in Bowser’s standard retinue. The Super Mario Land games are a good example of Mario striking out beyond the Mushroom Kingdom’s borders. Nowadays, there is a widely professed lethargy with Mario games, particularly identified with the New Super Mario Bros. series. Unfortunately, most of these games are the same grass-world, desert-world, ice-world blah blah blah archetypes that are regurgitated over and over again. Even Paper Mario has become infected by this lazy trend. Thousand Year door lets you visit a ton of cool setups, like a haunted pirate island and train ride caught in a murder mystery. Super Paper Mario isn’t exactly the height of the series, but it has imaginative chapters like a prehistoric world where cavemen fight a hostile plant race, a spaceship based level, and the private fortress of a giant geeked-out chameleon. The latest release, Sticker Star for the 3DS, however, strips away all that creativity and sticks you in the same grass-world, desert-level, etc. tropes we’ve been playing since SMB3.
Nintendo doesn’t seem super interested in reversing course here either. I kind of hold up Super Mario Galaxy as my ideal in this regard. Shooting Mario off into space offered them a huge playground upon which to foster new ideas. For me, the game did a lot to reinvigorate my lifelong love of Mario, a task for which the more standardized New Super Mario Bros. for the DS fell short. When I started playing Mario as a kid, the thing that drew me most to his adventures was just how inventive and offbeat they were. I kind of wish I could go to my six-year old self while playing SMB3 and tell him, “If you think this is crazy, wait till he goes to space.” But Super Mario Galaxy doesn’t seem to have created a lasting impact. Now we have the 3D Land/World games, which while sometimes inventive, are composed generally of the SMB3 archetypes situated in abstract spaces. While those games have a serviceable fun to them, I don’t feel they do a lot to inspire the imagination.
So I guess what I’m saying, is that Nintendo needs to tap into its foundational weirdness to really refresh Mario. Leave behind the rote grasslands and deserts and islands to show us something new. Let the goombas and cheep cheeps and koopas have a little bit of a rest while new enemies decide to take up the futile quest of defeating Mario. Let people make new memories of these games, instead of just trying to rustle up sympathy with the old ones. Even if Nintendo isn’t ready to create a radical new invention with Mario, maybe they could at least give a fresh breath to some of their lesser used older ideas. Wouldn’t it be great to return to a 3D envisioning of Subcon, replete with turnip hurling, shadow world, vengeful Phantos, and rocketships that grow in the ground. Or maybe we could see a new envisioning of Donkey Kong for the Game Boy. Imagine Mario chasing DK through a lively modern cityscape!
Although… now that I think about it, Sonic started getting really bad when they entered into real world settings, so maybe we should be careful what we wish for here. But I still have faith in Nintendo. They constantly prove their creative edge, and I feel if they put their heart into it, they could create something great that didn’t rely so heavily on the tired tropes. But nonetheless, DK for the GB is a great game!