The arcade hit Donkey Kong famously had its first true appearance unaltered for home consoles on the Nintendo Switch, but there have been a number of ports attempting to replicate the experience between these two releases. Today I’d just like to talk about two of them. One of them is the well-known Nintendo Entertainment System version of Donkey Kong and the other is a bonus unlockable in Donkey Kong 64. Before we start I’d just like to preface this with saying that I’ve seen the original arcade game in action but never actually had the chance to play that version myself. So I’ll be talking about these more as the game Donkey Kong in general rather than being a comparison piece.
I’m sure there’s a plot buried in the manual for the game, but the overall gist is that Donkey Kong has kidnapped Mario’s girlfriend Pauline. You play as Mario trying to scale construction sites in order to rescue her. You can move left and right along the platforms, up and down ladders, and jump over gaps and obstacles. The stages will usually contain items to collect for bonus points. They will also contain hammers, a limited time powerup that allows the player to destroy certain enemies and objects for more points. Contact with these enemies and obstacles results in the loss of a life and restarting the stage. You can also die by falling too far. If you lose all of your lives it’s game over. I believe you get extra lives at certain score benchmarks. After beating the last level the game will loop back to the first one with slightly increasing difficulty each time.
In the NES version there are three stages. The first stage is a series of slanted girders and ladders connecting them. Donkey Kong sits on top and throws down barrels that will roll down the girders and some of the ladders somewhat at random. Some will even bounce right down multiple levels. You can jump over them or destroy them with the hammers to get points. A flaming enemy spawns at the bottom that can use the ladders as well. Get to the top platform and you’ll advance to the next stage. This second stage has multiple platforms with ladders attached. There are two sets of elevator platforms near the middle and two flame enemies bouncing about in the second an third connected sections of platforms and ladders. There are also springs periodically bouncing across the top area past Donkey Kong and down the gaps of the third ascending series of platforms. Reach the very top platform to beat the stage. The final stage has Donkey Kong on the top once again. This time there are multiple levels of platforms with ladders connecting them. You’ll also notice pegs between them on each floor. If you pass over them they will disappear leaving a hole behind. There are some hammers and flaming enemies spawn in over time to vaguely chase you around. Once you remove all of the pegs the floor will disappear sending Donkey Kong down to the bottom. You then rescue Pauline and the game loops back to the start with increased difficulty. You can also play 2-player mode which just has you trading turns. Then there is the Mode B variant of each, which merely starts you off on a harder set of rounds instead of at the easier start. As a side note, the Classic NES Series version on the Game Boy Advance plays the same way, just with a slightly stretched screen to better fit the GBA display.
The version found on Donkey Kong 64 is unlocked through collecting so many banana fairies in the main game but can also be played in the Frantic Factory level. This one is largely similar but has more vibrant colors and smoother controls. It also includes the interstitial scenes missing from the NES port. The most notable change is that it includes the omitted cement factory stage from the original arcade game. In this stage there are ladders connecting platforms with conveyor belts on them. The direction of the conveyor belts changes every so often. The middle level has obstacles to jump over that are being fed into the burning oil drum at the center. A flaming enemy is also wandering the stage. On the middle level there are ladders on the left and right which extend and retract. Climbing to the top of either one will complete the stage. As far as I understand it, this version is the closest to the original arcade version in terms of an official release other than the Switch emulation. However, it’s still just built to be the same and not actually exactly the same game in every little detail.
Donkey Kong is a really good arcade-style game, though. It has the scoreboards for those that were into that, but it also had an ending to reach for those that just wanted to see all there is to see and experience a full game. It’s really short for a full game, but it’s fun enough to pick up and replay multiple times and see how many rounds you can go. Also I think it’s a pretty good early platformer too. It controls a little stiffly compared to newer games, but the heft to your movements is definitely part of the challenge rather than just being frustrating. It has some unpredictability with some of the enemies and obstacles so playing it isn’t merely routine. It’s easy enough to realistically beat yet challenging enough to keep you looping until your lives are all gone. It’s also pretty colorful and those sound effects are memorable.
There aren’t many downsides to it. If you’re not one to care about score then it’ll be a pretty short game to beat and put down. The randomness with some of the obstacles and enemies can feel a bit unfair at times. As far as version differences, it IS odd that many ports left out one of the stages. The game is short enough even WITH all the stages intact. The multiplayer is also very disappointing as you could easily compete for score without a specific mode seeing as how it’s not simultaneous play but rather just taking turns. It’s also not the most comfortable on the DK64 version. That d-pad isn’t the greatest and the control stick for it is even worse.
Donkey Kong is a classic game. There’s no denying that. You SHOULD look into playing it if you care about gaming history. It holds up and has been ported so many times that it’s hard to imagine that you can’t get your hands on at least one version of the game. Whichever one you play is up to you. Most of them are pretty cheap so you’ve got options. It’s no Super Mario Bros. but it’s still a good time and an important step in going from arcade mentality to home console mentality. When in doubt just jump, man.