DONKEY KONG AT 40
The platform genre is very dear to my heart. Sonic, of course, Mario, Bubble Bobble, the list is almost endless. Even the rubbish titles have me gripped at times, Bubsy, anyone? But the platform genre, while so ingrained in our retro game history, was a little late to the party.
Racing, shooting and adventure games were prevalent before traversing platforms became a thing. Early examples, such as Nintendo's Space Panic, used ladders to move you between platforms. Shigeru Miyamoto would revisit this mechanic when he was tasked to make a new game that could save Nintendo from their financial troubles.
In July 1981, Donkey Kong was released to a vanguard of praise. Everyone was excited by the new ladder game with a futuristic gimmick. Now we could jump from platform to platform, avoiding obstacles while saving the princess from a crazed ape! I chatted to Retro Gamer Features Editor Nick Thorpe to understand more about why Donkey Kong is such an important part of gaming history. It was early in the history of arcade games; lots of new features were being added to games all the time. So what was so special about Donkey Kong?
‘When you think about games of the 70s and early 80s, most of them do not have characters. Donkey Kong was a significant game because you had a cartoon villain who was appealing in his own right and this funny little guy who chased after him. We now know him as Mario, but even compared to characters of just a few years previously, it was a world away in terms of animation and characterisation.'
We could now control the character beyond simple up, down, left, right was revolutionary. Imagine playing
Tomb Raider or Doom without a jump button. After a while, those games would become quite boring if all we
had were ladders to constantly climb during gameplay. Donkey Kong gave us real diagonals to leap into. Coders now had a whole new plane of gaming existence to exploit. It created new kinds of obstacles and ways for the
AI to catch the player out. It spawned several clones originally called ‘Kongstyle' games, as the term ‘platformer' would come later, as the fledgling genre established itself.
‘I think that is why people latched onto it. Donkey Kong was hard. It seems the kind of game that people would get turned off by, but the monkey is taunting you to get to the top of the girders. With the way Jumpman controls in that game, there is a precision and rhythm to it, and once you get going over those barrels in the first stage, there is a sense that there is a bit more randomness to the game.'
It was not just the new gameplay that was important; Donkey Kong was a smash hit for Nintendo worldwide and shot them to video game super-status.
Before its release, they were beginning to suffer financially and were looking for a quick fix. Donkey Kong did not disappoint and gave Nintendo the cash injection the company desperately needed. At its peak, Donkey Kong arcade sales reached 4,000 cabinets a month worldwide. It is reported that over 132,000 Donkey Kong cabs made their way into 80s arcades, and it was the highest-grossing cab of 1982. It is also an early example of promoting
an early example of promoting new games through direct marketing. Donkey Kong featured on cereal packets and other products that helped video games into mainstream culture and opened up new markets to game companies. It spawned a craze to chase high scores and gave gaming some of its first superstars.
‘When you think about the personalities involved, say what you like about Billy
Mitchell, but I think if you asked him, he would consider himself akin to a wrestling hero, someone who plays up to being the villain. I was recently following the back and forth between Robbie Lakeman and Wes Copeland trading high scores. And
Wes Copeland is so much younger than the game itself, so it shows the enduring appeal. There is a sense that players can milk more points, and there is no such thing as the perfect game.'
Donkey Kong also gave
Shigeru Miyamoto his first taste of game design. He simultaneously performed as an artist, designer and director during the project. It cemented his place amongst the prominent game creators of not only the 80s but ever since. If Nintendo had not given Miyamoto a chance, he may not have been trusted to design Mario, Zelda or Metroid. He defined a new way to play and opened up a whole new world of gaming to players.
Miyamoto's graphics stood out from other arcade cabs at the time. The bold sprites and colours capture your eye, causing you to want to play – it has that real one more go feeling about it. It is also one of the earliest games to have multiple stages, which adds to the player's re-playability and allows for a greater challenge. The game repeats the same set of levels over, with each new start giving more speed to the barrels and fire enemies. The increased difficulty creates a great high score challenge, with the world record score still being fought over to this day. Following its success, Donkey
Kong would spawn many new iterations and the character himself used by Nintendo in other genres. ‘Talking about Donkey Kong Country, I remember playing it on my cousin's SNES. It was a game I just had to play; it looked so good. It was the first time I saw something and thought, wow, I did not know that console could do that.'
Donkey Kong, like Pac-Man, gave us our first gaming heroes. We can relate to them due to their personality and use beyond the game screen. I have always had a soft spot for Donkey Kong and hope that his popularity continues for another 40 years.