Sunday, 11 February 2018

Game Review: Donkey Kong (Nintendo Game Boy)

When it was released in 1981, the original Donkey Kong arcade machine was a game of several firsts. Not only was it the first game to start two of Nintendo's most famous characters, it helped define the genre that we now know as the "platformer". From the original coin-op release, to the plethora of home versions, gamers everywhere were hooked by the addictive gameplay, fancy graphics and iconic sound - the sound of jumping over a barrel will be forever etched into our brains.

Despite the success of the game and development of a couple of sequels, it would be Mario (or Jumpman as he was known at the time) that would  go on to enjoy world-wide critical and commercial success in a series of games that made Nintendo the dominant gaming force for the rest of the decade; aside from an outing on the NES, it would seem that poor old Donkey Kong would be relegated to relative obscurity.

DK's fortunes began to look up, however, when UK developer Rare was granted a license by Nintendo to develop a game featuring everyone's favourite barrel-lobbing ape, not to mention having the freedom to revamp the design of the character. The fruits of Rare's labours would finally be released in 1994 as Donkey Kong Country, a massive hit for Nintendo and their 16-bit SNES console. Not only was this one of the most beautiful games to grace the system, it reignited interest in the character of Donkey Kong and would help re-establish him as one of Nintendo's most bankable stars.

And so (finally) to Donkey Kong for the Nintendo Game Boy, released in 1994 and one of the first games to be released in the wake of the mighty ape's revitalisation. Those who think that this is simply a rehash or port of the original arcade game to a mobile platform would be very wrong indeed; it is so much more than that.

Donkey Kong is up to his old tricks again and has kidnapped Pauline, resident damsel in distress for all DK games so far, scarpering to the top of the nearest building. The game begins with the four original stages from the classic DK coin-op, albeit with fancier graphics and improved sound. anyone who has played the original game will know exactly what to do - dodge barrels, fireballs and all manner of obstacles in order to reach the top of the level.

Scaling vines!

It isn't until you finally beat the fourth level that things start to get really interesting. This is where the Game Boy version deviates from it's arcade heritage and forges it's own path, with DK snatching Pauline and escaping through a door, which he subsequently locks. What ensues is a cat and mouse chase across 90+ new levels, every one of them unique, as Mario attempts to put an end to DK's mischief and rescue Pauline.

From here on out, the new levels are blend of platform/arcade action with a pinch of puzzle-solving thrown in for good measure. Each new level is displayed via a top-down overworld map, much like those seen in Super Mario World and many other titles, showing the player's progress through the game, as well as what's in store further down the road. The principle objective of each stage is to find an oversized key, grab it and return it to the level exit door, allowing Mario to progress to the next stage. Whilst this might sound simple in theory, some of the levels can prove quite tricky to beat, even for seasoned gamers.

Overworld Map

Firstly, most stages in the game feature enemies that roam along the various platforms in the game, causing trouble for Mario and causing him to lose a life on contact. Some of these can dealt with by jumping on their heads, picking them up and tossing them, much like Mario could do in Super Mario Bros. 2; although you do earn points for doing this, the killing of enemies is very much down-played in this particular game, placing much more emphasis on jumping skills and working out the correct solution to the levels. For players who seek a greater challenge (and a higher score), each regular stage contains 3 items to collect; a handbag, umbrella and hat. Getting a hold of these items can be just as tricky as the actual level key, but there is a good reason to do so - it unlocks a bonus round after beating the level where the player can earn extra lives to help keep them in the game.

In later levels, Mario encounters special power blocks that allow him to place ladders, bridges and springs that can be used to help him reach platforms that would normally be inaccessible. Once activated, the item places will last for only a few seconds before disappearing. Not only does this prevent players from getting stuck by putting an object in the wrong place, it also adds to tension as players hurry to climb a ladder or cross a platform before it disappears.

Mario prepares to give DK a taste of his own medicine!

Evidently, Mario has been attending his gymnastics classes regularly, as he acquired a number of new moves and abilities for this particular game. The first of these is a handy back-flip, allowing him to jump in the opposite direction to the way he was travelling, especially useful for reaching high places and getting out of trouble in a pinch. The second of these  moves is a hand-stand that enables him to deflect incoming barrels and obstacles, as well as to propel him into the air to reach higher platforms. Not all of these moves are necessary to beat the game, but it makes life a lot easier if you know when and where to use them.

After every 5 regular stages, Mario can expect to have a show-down with DK himself. These typically involve finding the way to the top of the level to reach Pauline whilst avoiding obstacles, falling barrels and other hazards. Things get slightly more tricky in the final level of each world since the big ape won't simply run away, instead requiring Mario to hit him with a number of barrels before surrendering. Following each of these face-offs is an animated cut-scene where Mario continually chases Kong to the next world; not only are these interludes great fun, Nintendo uses them as an opportunity to demonstrate new game mechanics and tricks that need to be used in levels ahead.

Earn some lives in the bonus games!

Like most console games of the day, cartridge ROM memory was expensive and Game Boy games weren't especially cheap, but Donkey Kong is an absolutely huge game and is a title that represents absolutely fantastic value for money. Considering that the game features quite so many levels, it's also a fortunate that Nintendo decided to include battery backup in the cartridge, enabling gamers to save their progress without having to resort to lengthy and cumbersome password systems.

If all this wasn't enough, the game features support Nintendo's Super Game Boy add-on, a device that enabled gamers to play their Game Boy games on the Super Nintendo console. Gamers firing it up in Super Game Boy mode will be treated to colour graphics, extra detail and addition sound effects, all tastefully framed in a Donkey Kong arcade cabinet surround.

One of the things I noticed whilst playing the game was the attention to detail that Nintendo put into the artwork and animation. Despite the tiny screen resolution, the developers brought a surprising amount of life to the characters through tiny, incidental animations and sound, such as the way Mario jumps in frustration/desperation when DK makes off with Pauline, or the way Donkey Kong reels in horror and frustration when Mario makes it to the top his tower; it's these tiny attentions to detail that help elevate Donkey Kong from being merely "good",  to genuinely "great".

Switches can open doors and modify how a level works

In previous Game Boy reviews, I've written about just how good the sound and music in some of these mobiles titles has been and Donkey Kong continues that trend. There are plenty of jolly tunes that play throughout each of the game's levels, as well featuring the ominous and foreboding tune from the original arcade whenever Mario is about to face DK himself. Something I find interesting is that, because Nintendo has tended to retain the iconic 8-bit style for sound effects in many of it's modern titles (i.e. collecting coins), the sound in this game doesn't sound as dated as I would have imagined.

I was thoroughly impressed with the time I spent with Donkey Kong and it has only helped to reinforce my respect for the system. I assumed wrongly that the game would be in some way inferior or diluted as a result of it's mobile heritage, but here is a game that stands head and shoulders amongst it's peers, not to mention being many 16-bit titles. With a decent difficulty curve, plenty of content and Nintendo's typical level of polish, this is definitely one title for the Game Boy that you simply must own!

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