Donkey Kong 94
Donkey Kong is easily one of the most important games ever released. It started Nintendo on its path to becoming a titan of the art and probably the most influential creative force in gaming history. Not only that, it was the world’s introduction to the character that would become gaming’s most iconic symbol. But this post isn’t about that game…… rather, it’s about a Game Boy classic that many might not know parades under the guise of the arcade masterpiece.
Donkey Kong has principally had two eras of peak popularity. The first, of course, came with the arcade series of Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and (to a far lesser extent) Donkey Kong 3, and the second occurred toward the end of the Super Nintendo’s run when the Donkey Kong Country trilogy breathed new life into the sunsetting 16-bit machine. But wedged in between these two series was a 1994 Game Boy title simply called “Donkey Kong,” that managed to completely reinvent the arcade classic just months before Donkey Kong Country would turn the character completely on his head.
Donkey Kong 94, as it’s usually called to distinguish it from the arcade version, starts off innocuously enough. Mario must tackle the original 4 arcade levels in a quest to rescue his girlfriend Pauline from the clutches of the renegade primate. But after Donkey Kong falls to his doom at the end of the fourth level and all would seem well for the reunited lovers, something completely off-script happens. Donkey Kong doesn’t stay down, rather he springs back up, snatches Pauline, and makes a mad dash out of the construction zone that the arcade duel took place in. At this point, the player is introduced to the first world map in the game, and an amazing new adventure begins to unfold.
In many ways, Donkey Kong 94 is a logical extension of its arcade forebear, but in other ways it sets out to create something deceptively fresh. Rather than having levels that mostly see Mario travelling from left to right across a linear series of obstacles as happens in the Super Mario Bros. series, DK94 focuses on condensed platforming stages that are usually not much larger than a few screens. This makes it similar in design to its namesake. However, after the initial four throwback levels are completed, the game takes on a puzzle platforming twist. The goal of each stage (aside from the boss battles) is to reach a key that needs to be carried back to a locked door which blocks Mario’s pursuit of the ill-tempered ape. Often there is a bit of trickery involved in getting the key to the exit which is where the puzzle aspect comes in. All-in-all, DK94 has a formula that is incredibly well-suited to portable gaming.
In some ways, though, I feel like calling the game a puzzle-platformer is a bit misleading. I feel that most games that carry that moniker are heavily skewed to puzzle solving, which is to say that they are really just puzzle games delivered via a side scrolling perspective. But DK94 actually requires a relatively high degree of skill in navigating the obstacles in each environment. An important new aspect is that Mario’s moveset has been expanded a bit, and he can do backflips and handstands that let him jump higher, but require deft reflexes and timing to pull off right. Perfect execution of these moves is often critical to success. I would say that the challenge of DK94 is split roughly 50/50 between puzzling and skill-based platforming.
The “real” world setting of the first Donkey Kong game makes a return here, not the Mushroom Kingdom that would later become Mario’s home. Many of the worlds resemble the current day, such as the first world which is a contemporary city that prominently features skyscrapers and modern architecture. There is also an unusual world simply called “Airplane” that takes place on what I think is a large cargo plane. There are no Toads or Goombas or the like to be seen. Instead, a new set of enemies appears that is in-line with the new aesthetic, and there are some prominent baddies that return from the arcade games. Furthermore, Princess Peach is entirely absent. The leading lady is instead Pauline, Mario’s long forgotten first damsel-in-distress. Meanwhile, Donkey Kong Jr. also makes a few mischievous appearances to thwart Mario’s progress. A big part of the reason why I favor this game so much is because these characters and settings make it feel so distinct from the rest of Marioverse content.
You know, I’ve always thought Donkey Kong was a cool arcade game, but it’s unfortunately short. The coin-op machine had a mere 4 levels, and the NES port had even less than that (the cement factory level was cut) and doesn’t even loop back to the first level when you beat DK. Consequently, I’ve always found it hard to be particularly passionate about that game. It provides a fun time and is an iconic part of gaming history, but I don’t necessarily feel the need to return to it. And that’s why DK94 is so special. It takes that awesome original Donkey Kong game and explodes it into an epic new adventure. It has enough familiar aspects to make a rightful claim to the Donkey Kong name, but adds enough of its own ideas to sustain itself for an amazing ~100 level quest.
And before going on, I would be remiss not to mention the excellent music. If you want to listen to some bleep-bloops sing, DK94 definitely doesn’t disappoint. Even to this day, these catchy tunes still get still get stuck in my head sometimes. I’m particularly partial to the theme of the Desert world:
If you’ve read my recent post on my Top 30 games, you may remember that DK94 was one of those that made it high on the list (which means it immediately comes to my mind as one of the greats). I really love this game. It’s probably my favorite Game Boy game, with the only other real contender being Super Mario Land 2. I think DK94 has a slight edge, since SML2 is kind of an easy game, which makes it less replayable to me as an adult.
Loathe as I am to admit it, I never actually beat DK94 as a kid. I remember getting stuck in one particular level in the Iceberg world, although I can no longer remember exactly which level it was. My problem really had to do with the fact that I couldn’t get the key to the door fast enough before the timer ran out. This was an incredibly frustrating experience, since I loved the game so much as a youngster. Later in high school, I found the game in a drawer and decided to give it another go. I sailed through to the end this time, never encountering the same trouble I had before. I couldn’t even figure out which specific level was the one I had issue with!
The game was made available on 3DS Virtual Console relatively early in Nintendo’s 3DS VC initiative, which I was extremely pleased with. For the most part, I prefer to use Virtual Console to get into games I didn’t get a chance to play before, as opposed to rebuying games I’ve already had a go with, but DK94 is one of the few exceptions I’ve made. I would, of course, highly recommend anyone interested in the game with a 3DS to check it out. However, original Game Boy games on 3DS VC are all monochrome, and I think the coloration that you get when playing the cart on a GBC or GBA is fairly good. So if you’re inclined toward “authentic” hardware, I would recommend grabbing a cart to play on a (backlit) GBA.
DK94 would get a worthy successor on the GBA, called Mario vs. Donkey Kong, which continued the puzzle-platforming formula. Although it’s reasonably faithful to the original DK94, Mario vs. Donkey Kong would introduce the Mini-Marios, which were wind-up Mario toys that Mario must collect in each stage to help him out in the boss battles with DK, and these little creatures would become the central focus of the MvDK series in subsequent releases. The first title to feature the Mini-Marios as the star of the show was Mario vs. Donkey Kong: March of the Minis, a Nintendo DS game that operated like Lemmings instead of a platformer. Despite being a significant departure from its predecessors, March of the Minis was a pretty good game that made a lot of sense for the DS, as it was designed nicely around the DS’ touch controls.
Unfortunately, the series has basically stagnated since then. The Lemmings-style gameplay has become the crux of almost all of the subsequent sequels. There have been five games in total that have been released since the inception of the DS era which follow this formula. The latest release was Mini-Mario & Friends: amiibo Challenge, a free-to-play game that requires the player to own very specific amiibos to unlock packs of levels in the game. Unfortunately, Nintendo has never really gone back to the puzzle-platforming design of DK94 and MvDK on the GBA. However, the first release on 3DS, titled Minis on the Move, did shake things up a bit, introducing a new type of gameplay that is somewhat reminiscent of Pipe Dream, an old DOS game. I really liked Minis on the Move in particular, and the Lemmings-style games have mostly been solid (albeit quite stale), but I do wish they would at least make an attempt to return to the old-school style of the series. I have no idea what’s stopping them.
I honestly don’t think I can praise DK94 enough. It’s a cart that I had a lot of good times with, and it left a lasting impression. I wish I had more profound things to say about it, but I don’t, because really this is just pure and simple gaming bliss. I think anyone who has any love for the old Game Boy should at some point in their life give this classic a go.