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.
RELEASE DATE: July 9th, 1981