Donkey Kong: The Original King of Kong

One of my biggest failures as a player is not appreciating Donkey Kong not only for what it did for gaming in the grand scheme of things, but for what it truly was until much later in life.

Take that statement with a grain of salt though, because a lot of my lack of sentiment is simply because one of the first games I ever played was Super Mario Bros. and its utter brilliance made it very hard to go “backwards,” as it were. By comparison Donkey Kong felt clunky, unwieldly and old. My mindset was molded by forward progression being about finishing levels, growing in power and surmounting every challenge until I saw the end credits. Trying to beat your high scores by mastering a game’s systems and measuring my success via self-improvement? Wasn’t my bag.

I enjoyed Donkey Kong, but I wasn’t drawn to it in the same way I was other games. It lacked fluidity, its backgrounds were dark and uninviting and the game just…looped once you dropped the grabby gorilla from his pink-girdered tower. Not once did I assume my apathy towards it was anything other than my own inability to understand it; I just chalked it up to being “old design” in a world that had moved on to bigger and better things. I felt that way about it for years.

As I got older, there was a point where I was just as interested in how video games were constructed as I was deriving entertainment from them. For the most part how these things get made is from very deliberate and concentrated decision making. When you step back and look at the nuts and bolts, sometimes the bigger pictures starts to change. I began to appreciate the way things are made, which in turn enhances my experiences with them. Craftsmanship is important to me, even when certain ideas fall through. Or…you simply don’t understand how to admire something for what it is.

Like Donkey Kong.

Those four scant levels you just keep weaving through? They tell a story. A simple story, mind you, but one that is wordless and organic. Mario’s climbing up a new building, each stage another layer until you reach the very top and pull the metaphorical rug (bolts?) from underneath DK and save the love of your life. Their weird architecture and lack of cohesion were less worried about aesthetic and more concerned about maximizing the amount of jumping you can have a player do on a single screen. The loops stopped being detrimental; they allow you to become proficient in navigating them to the point where you start to become daring with your jumps and show a little finesse in your steerage. The familiarity of it all made me nostalgic.

I was always annoyed that the Mario in Donkey Kong didn’t follow the rules of the same character did in his own breakout NES game. It was true – he just wasn’t as nimble. But once I got over the hurdles I placed in front of myself and followed the statutes of the game at hand, I started to not just understand the rules but enjoy them. If you didn’t take fall damage here, the game would be a cakewalk and thus uneventful. The shorter jump wasn’t a detriment but a way of adding tension because you have to take a somewhat measured approach to your race to the top. Between this discovery and a newfound fondness for the level designs, I didn’t just begin to understand Donkey Kong, but love it.

I found an irony about it all a few years back when, for the first time ever, I saw an actual Donkey Kong machine out in the wild. Besides the NES version (which I’ll write about down the road) or the more recent port from Hamster I had honestly never seen the damn game in its proper format with my own two eyes before. I was excited to get my hands on the joystick for the first time, to say the least.

Donkey Kong is proof that there’s value in replaying older games. Sure, I could appreciate it for its historical value with little context, but I didn’t realize its genius until I gave it an earnest try. That’s not always the case, but no matter what you play you’re likely to derive something from it, to learn a lesson. At the very least it’ll help you form your personal tastes when you realize that no matter how hard you try some games just aren’t going to trip your trigger.

Luckily for me, Donkey Kong did, in a big way.


DEVELOPER: Nintendo

PUBLISHER: Nintendo

PLATFORM: Arcade

RELEASE DATE: July 9th, 1981

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Ice Hockey: A Bonafide Knucklepuck

Like most kids, I went through phases like they were going out of style. I’m sure to most parents it’s annoying to try and keep up with your children’s fair weather interests, but this incessant dabbling is important to their growth as eventually some of these curiosities will stick.

Such as playing video games, or writing.

*Ahem*

There was a few months were I wanted hockey to be my thing. Unfortunately hockey wasn’t anybody’s “thing” around here as there weren’t any rinks to play on, leagues to join and the NHL sure as hell wasn’t being played on any TV anywhere, so where I got this epiphany is beyond me. Regardless, my parents got me a pair of Wayne Gretzky branded ice skates and we took a handful of trips to ponds and I have to say I got decent at zipping around.

When I was in 5th grade I fell on a patch of ice during a recess and broke my front tooth as a prize for my ineptitude. I was pretty much done with traveling on frozen water after that, thus ending another pipe dream.

We have a local minor league team now and we’ll go and watch every now and again, but for the most part my feelings about hockey are entrenched in daydreaming of being the next Mario Lemieux and how I never did get that copy of Blades of Steel I was dying to play in those scant few months of reverie. Although I never played Konami’s seminal classic, I think I found a solid substitute, thirty years after the fact in Nintendo’s succinctly named Ice Hockey.

Unlike Nintendo’s other sports titles, Ice Hockey is fast and furious. The looseness of maneuvering that typically hamper the experience is actually a boon here. It gives Ice Hockey the feeling that you are in fact navigating on a sheet of frozen water. There isn’t a lot of nuance here, just jockeying the puck back and forth and trying to smack one past the goalie. I appreciate that it mostly eschews realism in favor of playability. That’s not to say it’s totally bereft of strategy; picking your line-up between the speedy but weak guy, the average Joe and the bulky beast against your opponent has a pretty big impact on how you’ll play the game. Knowing when to move the puck forward, pass or take an open shot is also important, more so here because the game moves at a fast pace where contemplation has to happen within seconds.

Although it’s a little more playable by yourself than other Nintendo sports games, Ice Hockey is at its best when you’re playing against someone else. Luckily for me my boys are of an age where competitive games are fun and they are of a skill level where I don’t have to hold back, but more to the point Ice Hockey holds up very well to kids that have more discernible tastes and an abundance of choices. It’s silly and arcade-y enough that nobody gets up in arms when the score sways back and forth because there’s a certain sense of randomness that makes the game feel like you’re always on equal footing.

Having never played Ice Hockey when it first came out, I find it oddly warming that it could give me those pangs of nostalgia anyways. At the very least it reminded me that for a short period in my life I was all about sliding a puck into a net even though I’d never done it before and to this day never have.


DEVELOPER: Nintendo

PUBLISHER: Nintendo

PLATFORM: Nintendo Entertainment System

RELEASE DATE: March 1988

Tetris 99: I’ve Got Ninety-Nine Problems But a Brick Ain’t One

I think I’m finally an adult now; I’m ready to admit that I love Tetris.

Growing up I knew full and well that Tetris was a phenomenon, not just in the scope of video games but in the general cultural zeitgeist at large. My mom of all people loved it. Your parents probably loved it, too. Maybe even your grandparents did. Hell, there’s a picture of Hillary Clinton playing it.

But my mom did in fact love it, therefore I could not.

At 11 or 12 my interpretation of cool was probably questionable, but the clinical presentation and lack of pop, along with the fact that, again, my mother enjoyed it, meant that Tetris was anything but cool. What makes that hang-up even more annoying is that I knew Tetris was good and actually had fun playing it the handful of times I did, but it had this air of adulthood to it that drove me away from acknowledging that fact.

I’ve dabbled in a lot of Tetris spinoffs (get it?!) from the rotund stylings of Tetrisphere to the abundantly nostalgic Tetris DS and everything in between. While they are fun and diversionary at best, the truth of the matter is that the core mechanic of Alexy Pajitnov’s seminal classic is so strong that it’s hard not to get drawn back to the simple but addictive game play of the original. I’m always open to new ideas, but will eventually pine for merely surviving for as long as possible while the pieces drop quicker and the music picks up the pace and my anxiety level.

The only other mode that gets a free pass is multiplayer. It’s interesting because it very much feels like solo play but with just enough extra abstraction to keep it interesting. You can go about your business without worrying about what the other person is doing while in the back of your mind knowing that if they clear four lines or make a miraculous save…you’re going to get your board pushed up on you. It’s hard to get too upset over winning or losing because the fun is in this extra layer of challenge presented in this than in the actual act of winning.

Again, feeling like an adult right now.

This all comes into play because Nintendo and Arika brought us Tetris 99, bringing back a milieu we all thought was lost back in 1989. More importantly it brought back competitive multiplayer in a form that feels familiar at first but reveals its true intentions quickly.

Tetris 99 is basically an interpretation of the popular battle royale genre in puzzle form. It’s you against, well, ninety-nine other players to see who can play Tetris the longest. At its core everything is mostly the same: you can hard drop pieces, hold them by pressing a shoulder button and even t-block spin – it’s all there and how you remember it. When your opponents do well clearing their board, yours gets pushed up. Its par for the course and that does the game a huge favor; it’s as engaging and inviting in the clichéd “easy to learn, hard to master” train of thought as it always was. What sets it up as its own beast and such an amazing game in its own right is how you interact with other players.

You can play Tetris 99 like you have since time immemorial and find success, but to survive regularly and finish at the top (as second place is still the first loser) you have to play a meta game in which you decide how you interact with everybody. The right analog stick serves as a lever that you adjust to plan out where you’re sending garbage blocks. You can set it to knock out players that are close to the top or to take out top players. You can specify that they’ll go to those out to get you, or roll the dice and just let it go randomly. It sounds stupid, but it’s weirdly gratifying to dictate how you play against ninety-nine other folks. Again, it’s just enough of a change that it makes the whole thing thrilling without betraying the core conceit of the game.

When you look at Tetris 99 from afar there’s this realization that it is a very bare bones experience. And maybe with time they’ll add some more nuance or modes to round it out. Beyond playing old out-of-print games, this is the first instance where I’ve made continual use of my Switch’s online subscription. More than Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, more than Splatoon 2, more than Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. What’s more is that I have to share with my wife, so intriguing and beguiling Tetris 99 is. The game does a good job of bringing me back thanks to its themed weekends in which you can unlock new skins based on the original game or Splatoon.

It took me thirty years to realize it, but my mom was right — Tetris is pretty damn cool.


DEVELOPER: Arika

PUBLISHER: Nintendo

PLATFORM: Nintendo Switch

RELEASE DATE: February 12th, 2019