The Laser Guide to Video Games - Review









In Memory
Sean Pettibone


The Laser Guide to Video Games

Donkey Kong (NES - 1986)
Donkey Kong Junior (NES - 1986)

Refreshingly innovative upon its release in 1981, Donkey Kong brought a different and unique structure to the video game field. Considered Shigeryu Miyamoto's first masterpiece, Donkey Kong has passed into the halls of legend but remains an enjoyable and entertaining title that holds up in terms of gameplay and entertainment value. One of the key reasons Donkey Kong has remained memorable can be explained in its versatilty, that contrasts against the pedantic, predictable approach of most rival arcade games were taking during that era. Instead of endlessly replaying the same static screen, players traversed several very different stages, creating an interesting storyline that pulled you into the action. While only three of the four arcade stages are present in the NES version, they offer a good balance between each other. Each stage is smartly designed, offering a very different set of challenges, yet sharing significant similarities.

Your first encounter with Donkey Kong is quite effective at setting the stage, tempo and style of the adventure to come. This initial stage has players climbing up a series of angled girders while avoiding the barrels Donkey Kong is throwing at them. In addition, fiery enemies pop out from the bottom of the screens from a flaming barrels that incinerate Mario at any contact. Along the way, there are several hammers that can Mario can grab. These let him pummel the fireballs, destroy oncoming barrels for bonus points. However, he isn't entirely immune and can still be defeated by falling barrels or by coming into contact with the fireball enemies with his back turned to them. Its more intuitive than it sounds, and a good player can fly through the earlier stages without even using them. Giving players this option is a key element that differentiates Donkey Kong from other arcade games of its era. Reaching the top of the stage gives players a partial victory as it only leads to the next level.

Requiring a substantially different tactical approach, the elevator stage is actually simpler than it looks on first inspection. Using the elevators on the left of the screen, Mario has to jump and time his landings in order to move towards the right. All the while, he has to be on the look-out for flaming foes which lurk on some unfortunate positions, making the journey even more hazardous. The array of platforms to jump over seems incredibly complicated at first, but after a few plays, its actually simpler than it seems. There are two basic paths through the stage, one high and one low. Taking the higher path is shorter, but requires better timing and dexterity. The lower path is longer and a little easier, but the drawback is it takes longer, draining precious time from the rapidly depreciating clock. It also increases the danger since you need to avoid the bouncing girders that are being thrown at you. Mastering the timing of these girders isn't too difficult early on, but later areas are trickier since they come at you much faster. However, they move in predictable patterns and speed which you can quickly ascertain by watching them for a few seconds. With practice, most players should be able to time their motions effectively and locate safe spots where they won't contact them. This is probably the most difficult stage in the game, but the most satisfying to complete.

Donkey Kong's third stage is probably the most-straight-forward but can also become a little trickier later on. Mario has to release eight bolts that are holding up the stucture. These are simple to remove by either running or jumping over them. However, these openings need to be avoided since falling through them causes Mario to plummet to defeat. This erases all your progress and you have to release all the bolts again in your next attempt. Donkey Kong seems to have lost his ability to throw barrels at the player, and only his fiery henchmen stand in between Mario and final victory. He can still use the power-up hammers against the fireballs, but he's still vulnerable and can fall between the gaps, so you need to be careful. Its seems simple enough, but the foes can box you in, especially when you've opened up many gaps in the stage. This can happen with more regularity deeper in the game, so you need to be careful. After you've released the final bolt, Kong begans to shake and falls to the bottom of the screen, defeated, but only for the time being.

Somehow, Donkey Kong manages to climb back from the depths and resumes his reign of terror. Before you've had a chance to catch your breath, Mario is thrust righ back to the bottom of the first stage. You have to complete the journey all over again, but this time around, things are faster and with more barrels, and increasingly aggressive enemies. The additional challenge keeps you motivated, as the prospect of a accruing a high score and surviving an ever-increasing onslaught of barrels and bouncing girders remains appealing. The NES version is smartly-designed in a number of ways that make for a mostly satisfying conversion. Its visuals mimic the arcade game's main stages nearly flawlessly, though the interspersed between-level cinematic animations and goal screens are missing, which is a shame, but doesn't singificantly detract from the game itself.

Its arcade-level sound effects and music are excellent, closely approximating the arcade game's sound. Most importantly, Donkey Kong's intuitive controls helps the gameplay flow effortlessly, using the standard NES controller as a benchmark. Superb responsiveness and smooth, with flexible motions, accurate movements and a consitent touch that make this version of Donkey Kong shine. Its timeless appeal is both immediate and long-lasting with well-balanced gameplay starting with an accessible plot. It remains enjoyable thanks to its surprisingly deep and challenging design that offers flexiblity and challenge that encourages repeated play without feeling overly difficult. Its a timeless title that remains fun and challenging, maintaining its appeal through its excellent balance, superb play mechanics and sheer enjoyment.

While many sequels usually offer just more of the same, with minor changes, 1982's Donkey Kong Junior is an exception that highlights the advantages of taking a different, yet subtly parallel path. Some of the counter-intuitive design choices in its follow-up might not make much sense, but these unexpected differences are exactly what makes the second game so appealing. Donkey Kong Junior successfully builds on the template of the first game, adding unique play mechanics, excellent level design and enjoyable gameplay that brings a distinct personality to the forefront. Its charming approach might seem more light-hearted than the first game but Donkey Kong Junior retains the appealingly simple, cartoonish style that features a surprisng amount of depth and challenge underneath the surface. The roles have been nearly reversed. Mario is now the bad guy and has kidnapped Donkey Kong, his dispatched foe now caged in a jungle prison. As his loyal son, It's now up to you to rescue him from captivity. The first level sets the stage for everything that follows. You find yourself at the bottom of the level, your objective is to reach the top of the stage where your father is The first thing you'll notice is that while you're still climbing, vines and ropes are substituted for ladders. This makes a huge difference in the gameplay mechanics, giving Donkey Kong Junior a very different, yet equally appealing feel.

Traversing its vertical mazes of ropes and platforms isn't as simple as it might initially appear. The big difference comes with the climbing system. When you push up, instead of just going up, you can shift Junior's position to use either to use both arms to cling to vines. Using a single arm is slower but only leaves you exposed on the vine you're hanging from. Using both arms allows you to climb faster but leaves you vulnerable to attack on two sides. As you climb towards your father, Mario will release pihranas that quickly fall down the vines. Any contact with them makes Junior fall off the board and loses a chance Knowing when to use them and timing your moves to avoid the torrents of pirhanas heading at you is a key element. A good strategy comes in anticipating their patterns, maximizing your movements before they arrive and dodging them right before the opponents arrive at your position. Making your way through the vines, you have to cross a few challening gaps, some of which you have to jump over quickly in order to avoid the falling opponents. Junior doesn't have the power-up hammers from the original game but isn't entirely defenseless. Along the vines he'll find fruits that he can knock off thier position. These fall onto the pirhanas and other foes which can instantly remove them from the stage. You need to time these to hit as they fly directly below your position. You can also chain some of these attacks to hit mutliple opponents at the same time, giving you a quick point multiple for the maximum score.

Taking a similar approach in structure to the original game, reaching the top of the level only represents a partial victory, allowing you to continue onto the next challenge. The second stage is a jungle area that twists the expectations by adding trampolines and lomger gaps. Timing your jumps on the trampolines is important since you have to engage at just the right moment or you'll miss the next platform. Go up to the next level and you'll then have to contend with moving vines which are tricky to traverse and then the third and forth levels which are simple vine-crossings but with the added threat of birds that fly by, and need to be avoided. The final task is to jump or manuever Junior out of the way before they collide with him. This isn't as easy as it sounds, especially when you're faced with multiple birds at the same time. Junior then proceeds to the top of the level and moves on. However, there's a bit of a twist in the next level. Instead of the jungle theme of the rest of the game, the third area takes place in a large computerized circuit. The enemies here aren't birds or fish but sparks that must be avoided. These enemies circle the platform, going beneath Junior in both directions making them tricky to avoid. There are several fruits on this stage that can be dropped as well, but they since the sparks aren't placed in stationary positions and are in a constant state of movement, they're harder to defeat. Its a more straightforward stage than the others and this makes it somewhat easier to beat, though the later stages become harder thanks to the faster speed, requiring more precise timing of your jumps.

Beating the sparks leads to the final stage, where you return to the jungle for the final confrontation with Mario. This stage parallels the final stage in Donkey Kong, though instead of running over bolts, your mission is to break a row of locks at the top of the screen. To do this, you need to guide a key at the bottom of a chain-link vine towards the roof, where it will unlock a section of chains that are holding Donkey Kong's cage. Junior has to dodge birds once again and they fly across the screen in different directions. They're not terribly difficult to avoid at first, but in later stages they arrive with increasing frequency and number, making them vexing foes. Arriving at the last lock, it bursts the final chain, letting Donkey Kong escape. The happy reunion that ensues is punctuated by a swift kick to the malicious jalier, who spins off the screen until he vanishes. Father and son's embrace is unfortunately not for long, as the players is returned right back to the beginning of the first stage. Its structure is reminiscent of the first Donkey Kong in this regard and the motivation for a higher score, and the accompanying achievement remains. The game's play mechanics are a bit more esoteric than the first game, Junior moves a bit clunkier and slower than Mario and its levels require a bit more technique to traverse thanks to the single or double-handed climbing ability. The added complexity makes things more challenging in later levels, but the gameplay is immediately approachable and accessible.

The NES version of Donkey Kong Junior is just as polished, from a technical standpoint as the first game, but has one huge advantage the first game lacked. It's got all four stages and thus feels more complete. Howver, it's still missing a few of the cinematic sequences at the end of the stages, so its not entirely complete. Still, the sublime character animation, smooth intuitive controls and fantastic play mechanics of the arcade game have been faithfully reproduced. Its charming musical score and beautiful design is elegant and simple, taking a straightforward approach that's one of the key elements behind its longstanding appeal. Donkey Kong Junior is a very different experience than the first game, but the implementaton and design is just as appealing. It compliments and expands on the original Donkey Kong while not feeling excessively derivative, marking new territory that gives ita unique feel all its own. Both of these evergreen Nintendo titles have durable appeal that's unmistakably long-lasting. Given the number of platforms these translations have appeared on, its no surprise that their virtues are abundant after all this time. Despite some flaws in these NES conversions, mostly involving that infamous missing Pie Factory level, both releases are still enjoyable, and very much worth playing because of their timeless play design, effortlessly control and sheer fun marking their enduring quality.

- Michael Palisano