Released in 1981, Donkey Kong was Nintendo’s first big arcade hit, featuring the debuts of the titular ape, Mario and future mayor of New Donk City, Pauline. Despite its popularity, Nintendo has favoured re-releasing the cutdown (with one stage missing) NES port of this classic platformer over the years, although Rare would include the arcade version within Donkey Kong 64. The involvement of Ikegami Tsushinki in the game’s development is often speculated to be the reason for the lack of availability, but while that may well have been something to negotiate to get the game on Switch, it’s worth noting that Nintendo didn’t bother to re-release any of its arcade titles until HAMSTER came along with their Arcade Archives series in 2017. Arcade Archives Donkey Kong is HAMSTER’s latest release in the series, packaging the original game with a number of modes and features.
Gameplay is much the same as the NES version, with you taking control of Mario as you attempt to rescue Pauline, although for added retro authenticity, these characters are referred to as Jumpman and Lady respectively in the game’s electronic manual. There are four stages in the game and these loop until your stock of lives is gone. A good feature of this release is that HAMSTER has included three versions of the game. There’s an 'Early Version' that features some bugs that allow for additional point scoring opportunities, a 'Later Version' that removes those and finally the 'International Version' that mixes up the stage order.
For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the game, know that the four stages provide different challenges, adding a bit of variety amid the looping. The first sees you running along platforms, climbing ladders and jumping to avoid the barrels that Donkey Kong is sending your way. Barrels can also fall down ladders and should a blue one hit the oil barrel at the foot of the stage, a flame will emerge and climb up after you. Next up is the cement factory stage that was absent from the NES release (but restored for 2010’s Donkey Kong: Original Edition) that features more flames as well as sand piles travelling towards you on conveyor belts. Fighting the momentum of the conveyor belts (and dealing with the extending ladders at the top of the stage) can make this a tough one, but with good timing, it can also be breezed through with ease.
On the third stage, you have elevators to hop across and must also contend with the springs that Donkey Kong is throwing. For the first three stages you must reach the top to proceed to the next, but on the fourth you must climb about the stage, avoiding flames and passing over a number of rivets to remove them and ultimately cause Donkey Kong to fall.
While the aim of the game is to score as many points as possible, simply clearing the four levels provides an initial challenge due to your limited abilities. Before he was Mario, Jumpman could (and will) perish from small drops to the platform below and his only hope of clearing away barrels and flames is grabbing a time-limited hammer. You have to be careful when close to hazards, however, as they can pass under your swing and result in a loss of life. Additionally, while a hammer is a good way to clear danger, the fact that you can’t drop it (and thus climb ladders) once you’ve finished with it can leave you in a tougher situation when it finally disappears.
Further trouble can come from familiarity with the much re-released NES port, due to small differences in handling or how in one spot a hammer is less effective at reaching barrels on the platform above. The difficulty is also greater than on the NES with flames appearing faster and you becoming overwhelmed with barrels sooner.
Once you’ve got used to the game, clearing those four stages isn't too difficult and should you have no interest in high-score chasing then Donkey Kong will not offer much replay value. If you are interested in maximising your potential, however, then there’s a lot of extra worth in finding new ways to rack up those points. Speed through a stage and you can earn a hefty time bonus, but you may miss out on other opportunities either destroying/jumping a hazard or grabbing one of the bonus point items. Finding a balance is key. You shouldn’t take stupid risks: it’s easy to jump over one barrel into the path of another, but should you stay put, hopping vertically to avoid such disasters you may find yourself stuck making little progress as the timer ticks down.
The audio-visual presentation is as simple as you’d expect from a 1981 arcade game, but the action is easy to follow with bright colours standing out against the jet black background and there’s a charm to the simple, basic sound effects. It sounds similar to the NES release, but with some differences; a different celebratory tune upon clearing the fourth stage and a sound effect as DK thumps his chest. Visually, there are some things omitted from the later port such as the way DK climbs to the top of the first stage and stomps it into shape and the between stage “How high can you get?” screens (“How high can you try?” in the Early version).
Compared to the NES port there are some small placement differences (Pauline on a platform above Donkey Kong rather than a small one off to the side), but more noticeable is the narrow screen. This is due to the game being designed with a vertically orientated monitor and this can be recreated by visiting the options menu to rotate the screen – something that works particularly well undocked; horizontal controls can be enabled should you not wish to detach a Joy-Con. For an additional old-school feel, scanlines can be added to the image with five settings available as well as an option to include a scrolling video line should you wish.
The game is simple, but a lot of fun, with subsequent loops increasing the challenge and it can be a thrill to make your way through a hectic, hazard-filled section. The sense of achievement from progressing further helps alleviate the feeling of repetitiveness from four repeating stages. The Switch’s capture button is on hand should you wish to preserve a 30-second clip of your expertise (or amusing failure). An alternating two-player mode if you want to compete locally against a friend, but this release also includes online leaderboards for all three versions of the game. It should be noted that not everyone is necessarily competing on equal terms, however, as a visit to the options menu can allow players to increase their extra lives from three to six. On the other hand, the challenge can also be increased by increasing the score at which an extra life is awarded.
For 'same settings for all' challenges, HAMSTER’s usual Hi Score and Caravan modes are available for both the 'Later' and 'International' versions. These challenge you to score as many points as possible on the default settings, with the Caravan mode also restricting you to five minutes of play time. Whether playing in these modes or the regular arcade ones there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had from increasing your score slightly and moving up the online leaderboards.
Mario (or rather Jumpman) may seem quite limited in his abilities (and death by a short fall is very old school), but Donkey Kong is a fun game. Tougher than the NES port it can get quite addictive as you seek to improve your high scores. Should the many re-releases of the NES version failed to have impressed, there's nothing here that will win you over, but for fans of the game, Arcade Archives Donkey Kong is something of an ultimate release. Three versions of it with a few display options and HAMSTER's usual array of modes and online leaderboards make this a great choice for fans of high score chasing games.