At the time of this article, I am planning on reviewing every instalment in the Donkey Kong franchise, including the Land trilogy for the Game Boy. However, even if the side-scrolling series could be considered its own legacy, it would be disheartening to not acknowledge the original arcade entries. Especially with their rereleases on the Switch thanks to Hamster and overall tons of stories to their existence, these are no doubt important titles. Although, I am rather curious whether they are still fun to play these days, starting with the first one.
Certainly a Jumpman
The giant gorilla Donkey Kong has kidnapped Mario’s girlfriend named Pauline, and you can probably guess that he is off to save her. Not much to say here except that this is a serviceable plot, and due to this project not spending much time on it, neither will I. As the protagonist, you can move left and right, climb ladders, and jump. His leaps are stiff, but have a solid amount of air time and are well integrated with the levels’ designs to not be unfairly inconvenient.
However, he is fragile by not being able to fall from great heights and instantly loses a life if he comes into contact with something dangerous, forcing you to be careful. Besides this, you mainly hop over hazards and collect items for points. The only form of power-up to find is a hammer that can smash anything in your way, but makes you unable to jump. It is definitely helpful, though halts progression by taking away the hero’s primary ability.
When it comes to the stages themselves, there is enough variety here to be entertained. The first one has you climbing upwards on bent iron bars and ladders to reach the damsel in distress, while Donkey Kong is throwing barrels down toward you. This is already an intense intro due to the kegs being able to randomly go down ladders and being quite fast, with even blue ones summoning fire spirits if reaching the bottom. Surprisingly, the second level is rather underwhelming. Despite including ladders and elevators with flaming creatures to avoid, it is easy to stay on top and hop your way through, basically ignoring 70% of the room. The bouncing pogos at the end can be a hassle to dodge, but reaching your girlfriend here is no problem in general.
On a positive note, stage three contains a neat set of conveyor belts with obstacles to jump over and moving ladders that you need to time accordingly for reaching Pauline. With fire spirits to evade and random ways the platforms can push you towards, it is a fun level to tackle. The last one is completely different from the rest though, as it has you passing over all the yellow nails on the attached bars in order to make Donkey Kong fall down on his head and finally save your love. It is a great climax that possesses big flaming phantoms that are more aggressive and harder to run from than the normal ones.
Due to this being an arcade title, you are to repeat this structure multiple times until you run out of attempts. Although, the latest version of Donkey Kong has an interesting setup; it starts you out with stage one and four while adding in one more after each successful run, making you have to take down Donkey Kong two times to see every single one of them. You are also not given more lives as you add in quarters, just continues which is an admirable way to make your high scores strictly based on skills. Overall, this is a nice instalment with enough random enemy behaviour to be engaging. Even if one room is a bore and rather forgettable, the rest of them are exciting and entertaining to hop through.
Gameplay Score: 7/10
The dark days of Nintendo
I try to be fair with this old setup, as black backgrounds were not an uncommon element with the early arcade cabinets. Yet, I believe this could have been reworked for creating a stronger immersion, as it simply feels like an empty void here. That being said, Mario looks decent with his few animations, the items do represent things Pauline would like, and it is cute how the damsel in distress actually calls out for help. It is not much, but the theme of construction sites is kept up adequately, even if adding more colours could have gone a long way.
However, the audio is a whole other story. All of the melodies are catchy, be it the unnerving intro, the rhythmic theme of stage one or the tense final tune. These tracks are short, but never overstay their welcome due to how brief the levels are too. I also enjoy the sounds in this entry, such as the hero’s footsteps, the cute triumph of getting points, and the hypnotic explosions when enemies are killed by your hammer. The only big negative is that there is no music for the second area. While this enhances the other effects, it is eerie how lacklustre this one single room is.
Presentation Score: 5/10
Even if I am not a fan of the NES port, I do find myself having a fine time with the original take on Donkey Kong. It has fun levels to go through, interesting ideas with its simple mechanics, and a solid atmosphere. Although, it is far from one of the best within its genre, with even its own franchise having better instalments and a reimagined version for the Game Boy. Luckily, this is still one arcade title that continues to test my skills in a fair manner.