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.
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!