This month marks the 30th anniversary of the initial Japanese launch of the Nintendo Family Computer, more popularly known around the world as the Famicom. Among the landmark console’s launch titles was Donkey Kong, a port of the arcade hit that began Nintendo’s launch into video game history. Now, just in time for the anniversary of both the console and the game, the classic title finally lands squarely on the Wii U Virtual Console.
It’s probably safe to assume that most Nintendo gamers have played some iteration or incarnation of this game by now, but that doesn’t discount it as a game not worth talking about. As is the case with many arcade-games-turned-home-console, Donkey Kong is a sort of relic, and very telling of its time. The gameplay is kept simple, divided into only three stages that continuously repeat themselves ad nauseam. Though the stages themselves are not a chore to work through, the repetition of the short junctures is easily noticeable, making for an experience that grows tedious sooner rather than later. Such is the curse of many arcade-to-console ports.
Unlike the arcade game, this NES release only hosts three different stages rather than four. Of the three levels, two involve steering Mario – your character – towards the top of the screen where Donkey Kong holds Pauline – Mario’s pre-princess damsel in distress – captive, all while avoiding enemies and bottomless pits. The third stage is similar to the others in structure, but your goal is instead to remove eight rivets that hold the stage together simply by walking or jumping over them. Once all rivets are removed, Donkey Kong will plummet to the bottom of the stage, bumping his noggin and receiving what looks like a nasty concussion. After this, the four stages are then repeated at a slightly higher difficulty, continuing the process. It’s far from a bad gaming experience, but it also does little to keep players drawn in beyond those who are adamant about obtaining their next high score. Beyond the missing fourth stage, the other noticeable difference with this NES port is the improved collision detection. While many leaps of faith in the arcade lead to Mario’s untimely demise, judging distances and spanning gaps is done with greater ease and accuracy in this version.
From the title screen you have the option of choosing “Game A” or Game B” modes for both 1 or 2 players. The difference between games A and B is an amplified difficulty, with Game B playing host to an increased number of enemies on screen. Unlike modern Nintendo games starring the plumber or gorilla, 2 player mode is not cooperative, but instead requires players to trade off the controller after each death to compete for a higher score.
While it may not be entirely fair to mention the outdated pixel graphics as they are, after all, from 30 years ago, it is worth mentioning that Donkey Kong features many iconic sound effects. From Mario’s walking and jumping sounds to the tune that plays as he wields his wily hammer, many gamers are bound to recognize the now legendary blips that give Pac-Man’s unmistakable “waka waka waka” a run for its money.
As with any of the previously released Wii U virtual console games, this one has remained entirely untouched, excluding the ability to use save states and play off-screen in the GamePad’s touchscreen. This is yet another faithful port of a game that has made it’s way into so many homes before, meaning that anyone hoping for something new will be sorely disappointed. To fans of the classics, however: this one’s for you.
Donkey Kong may have legacy on its side, but the reality is that it's a somewhat shallow gaming experience. As is the case with many early NES titles, this one was ported from an arcade cabinet, repetitive gameplay and all. That being said, if played in short bursts, this is definitely a game worth having on hand, available to share with younger generations of Nintendo gamers who may not yet have had the opportunity to experience it.