During the arcade boom of the early 1980s, Donkey Kong was doing great business for Nintendo. To capitalise on this popularity, miniature versions of the arcade game were released. First, there was Coleco’s Donkey Kong tabletop, followed by Nintendo’s Game & Watch Multi Screen version.
We decided to pit these ‘portable’ versions of Donkey Kong against each other; we grabbed our ‘C’ and ‘LR44’ batteries, whacked them in their respective units, and let them battle it out.
Round 1: Aesthetics
Round 1, Fight!
Anyway, playing Donkey Kong on the tabletop is rather cool. The unit literally looks like a miniaturised Donkey Kong arcade machine - there is a joystick to move Jump Man (a.k.a. Mario), and a fire button to jump over the barrels thrown down by DK (as he is affectionately known these days). The use of the vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) is good in theory (it is bright), but it lacks personality – after all, it was designed for calculator displays. The sounds emanating from the machine are your basic bleeps, which are nice and crisp. A clever touch is the instructions glued to the battery cover - just in case you lose the original manual. If you want to impress friends, then you can’t go wrong with this cool looking tabletop.
How can Gunpei Yokoi’s masterpiece, the Game & Watch (G&W), compete against Coleco’s offering in the looks department? Well, the orange DK multi-screen is the epitome of early '80s portable design. It is small enough to fit in your pocket, the LCD is clear, it has great battery life, and the controls are sublime – but more on that in round 2. The clam shell of the G&W multi-screen provides the perfect means to protect the unit. Just like the tabletop, this is one gorgeous unit.
It is difficult to compare the units, as they are so very different and they both look great.
Round 2: Controls
This is the round where the two DK units start to diverge. On the Coleco, the joystick has minimal ‘give’, which feels like the player is disconnected when manoeuvring Mario. The jump button seems to have lag – which exacerbates the poor detection system. Mario’s jumping has to be timed by a precision marksman to ensure he jumps over the barrels; otherwise it is curtains.
On the flipside, the G&W controls feel like second nature – the Digital Pad (D-Pad) is responsive and it feels ‘just right’ when using your left thumb to move Mario across the screen. The jump button is also in a perfect position for your right thumb to use; unlike the Coleco equivalent, there's no lag when you press jump. The connection the player feels with the controls is vital; just like a pilot at the controls of a plane, they must feel like an extension to your body and they must be responsive, otherwise the experience won’t be pleasant. In this round, the G&W lands a right hook to the Coleco’s chin.
Winner: Game & Watch
Round 3: Gameplay
This third and final round is the most important, and it’s all about gameplay. The G&W version of DK is extremely playable, even with the limited game modes (Game A and Game B – Game B being of higher difficulty). The game is split on two screens; the top screen has DK holding Pauline hostage and throwing barrels, which roll down towards the bottom screen where Mario is about to set off on his adventure to topple Donkey Kong and save his girlfriend. Mario begins by jumping over barrels, avoiding girders and climbing up ladders to make his way to the top screen. Here, Mario has to time everything to perfection – flicking the lever to set off the swinging hook on the crane, run and jump to catch the swinging hook and remove one of the anchoring wires from the platform which Donkey Kong is standing on. This gameplay is repeated until the game is ‘clocked’. That may seem tedious and repetitive, but be assured, you will be playing it over and over – even if it is just to beat your previous best score.
In the Coleco corner, there is nothing worth shouting from the rooftop. With the use of the VFD, there is limited capacity to depict the characters and objects. Couple the poor visuals with even poorer controls, and you can see where this is going. If only Coleco paid as much attention to the gameplay as it did to its aesthetics, perhaps this round might have finished differently. Sadly, you will not want to play this game beyond 10 seconds, because that is how long one game will last. The G&W lands the mortal blow to the Coleco.
Winner: Game & Watch
And the winner is...
It may be obvious which unit wins this fight, but let us recap for old times’ sake. The Coleco miniature arcade tabletop may look awesome, but it is let down by poor controls, an unforgiving detection system, and gameplay you wouldn’t subject your worst enemy to. This version of DK screams “all looks and no substance”. It doesn’t play anything like the arcade version. If you want a vintage ornament to go on your shelf, then Coleco’s Donkey Kong tabletop would be a great choice. However, if you want a unit that looks cool, is portable, sleek, plays like a dream and doesn’t suck batteries like a blood starved leech, then the G&W version of DK is the one to go for. It can even be used as an alarm clock!
Overall winner: Game & Watch