I never liked Donkey Kong

There. I said it.

Donkey Kong is the foundation of a modern business empire, a cultural cornerstone, the genesis story of the Marioverse. Not liking Donkey Kong is something akin to blasphemy. I gave it a shot. I wanted to like it. But I just never liked it.

I feel like I am about to regret one quarter just looking at this screen capture.

I first played Donkey Kong when it was new, in the Arcade, on Atari, and ColecoVision, and I never considered it one of my favorites. It was a smash hit when it came out, sold tens of thousands of arcade cabinets, swallowed hundreds of millions of quarters, sold millions of cartridges on home consoles, and been ported to just about every console of its generation and the next few after. It was groundbreaking, both technically and in terms of game mechanics and narrative.

I recognize all of that, and I still don’t care for the game.

This isn’t merely a statement of opinion or taste; I don’t enjoy playing Donkey Kong, and I don’t find it to be a particularly well-designed game.

Let’s talk about that.

For sake of brevity, I’ll focus on the first screen.

How high can you climb?

Donkey Kong is very difficult and unforgiving. Part of its difficulty stems from the tight window for clearing dangerous obstacles, and the narrow clearance for successful jumps. But much of it comes from design choices that tend to make the game feel unfair.

Jumping

Jumping is the key mechanic around which the whole game is based. Yet, the jumping mechanic is rough. When you jump, you can’t change direction or height, so you’re committed to the path of the jump until you land. This makes jumping risky and hard. When you make a mistake, there’s no second chances. You know you’re going to die, and there’s nothing you can do but watch and wait for it.

You can’t jump very high — just the exact height to clear a barrel or fireball, and the exact distance to clear two barrels if they’re right next to each other… barely. Miss a jump by a little bit and you’re dead.

On the first screen, some of the ramps look like they might be close enough together to allow Jumpman to jump up to the next platform from the one below, but that is not permitted. You can only ascend to the next platform by climbing a ladder.

Not that you’d normally ever want to, but you can’t jump down from the edge of a ramp to the one below, either — the height is not great, but it will still kill you.

If you jump off a platform, you die if you fall just a short distance. Jumpman can’t survive falling any farther than the peak height of his jump.

Ladders

You can’t get off a ladder until you get allll the way up to the top of it, or allll the way to the bottom. Very often, you’ll think you’re there, and try to move left or right, only to find that you’re still locked onto the ladder and unable to move. A better design would have been to treat horizontal joystick input as continuing Jumpman’s previous climbing direction, moving him the rest of the way up/down the ladder until he is clear.

There’s no jumping from a ladder, either. Allowing this would make the game play feel less stiff, and give the player greater control and flexibility.

Some of the ladders are broken, turning the ladder into a deadly dead-end. You can climb up them, but only get part-way. At the top, barrels rolling by below you will still hit you and kill you, even though you’re off the ground. It’d be nice if the game gave you a break and decided there was enough clearance that you could be safe here. And a barrel that decides to roll down from the platform above and take the ladder path will also kill you. You’re stuck on the broken ladder until you backtrack down and get off. If you could jump off the ladder, or jump to clear the gap where the ladder broke, you’d have one more option, open up possibilities, and it would make the game feel a little more fair.

Hammer

The Hammer power-up allows Jumpman to fight back against the barrels and fireballs that are his bane, and earn extra points. But this comes at a cost.

Jumpman can’t climb ladders with the hammer, and cannot jump. This means he is stuck on the platform where he grabbed the hammer, for as long as the hammer persists.

The hammer is a temporary item, which runs on a timer that ends after a few seconds, but without warning. You can be right about to smash a barrel when suddenly the hammer disappears, leaving you defenseless and no time to jump out of the way. And you have no choice but to die. This feels unfair. To fix this problem, the game should give the player a cue to let them know that their hammer time is about to expire — blinking or an audio signal would be helpful. And maybe if the game detects that Jumpman is facing a barrel, and it is within a “close enough” distance just as time is about to expire, give the hammer enough extra frames before despawning it to allow the barrel to be busted.

Since the levels are timed, and running out of time will kill you, getting the hammer can screw you if you grab it while the timer is running low. Your remaining time gives you bonus points, so being forced by the hammer to wait before you can finish the level can actually cost you points, unless you can smash enough barrels/fireballs to make it worthwhile. It would be better if you could cancel the hammer early. Perhaps hitting the jump button while holding the hammer could make Jumpman throw the hammer, giving you a useful way to cancel it early, and a ranged attack that could come in handy and give you one more option.

The hammer may make you seem invincible, but you can still be killed if a barrel gets past the hammer to touch Jumpman. Most players don’t realize this until they learn it the hard way. A barrel coming down a ladder can be hit by the hammer, but if it swings out of the way and the timing is just wrong, the barrel may hit Jumpman in the head before the hammer swings back up. Likewise, the rolling barrels may approach Jumpman from behind, or roll under the hammer while it is above Jumpman’s head. The swinging of the hammer is automatic, not controlled by the player, so whether the hammer hits the barrel or the barrel gets through is somewhat random. Usually Jumpman will hit, but once in a while the barrel will get through. I would fix this design issue by making Jumpman invincible from the front, but still let him take hits from above and the rear.

Barrels/fireballs

Barrel pathing is pernicious; whether a barrel will go down a ladder or continue down the ramp can’t be known for absolutely certain, but it seems that barrels are more likely to go down the ladder if you’re on the ladder, making using ladders especially deadly. It makes you paranoid to avoid starting up a ladder until any approaching barrels have cleared the ladder you need to climb. To some extent, you can manipulate the barrel AI by your position and direction, as the enemies will tend to take the path that is least advantageous to you. So by standing to one side or the other of a ladder, and facing the right direction, you can often influence the barrel to take the short path or the long path.

Barrel spacing is too random and can often kill you unfairly. Donkey Kong will sometimes roll two barrels at you too far apart to jump both together, and too close together to jump the first one and then immediately jump the next one.

Sometimes DK will toss a barrel that will go straight diagonally down the screen, ignoring collisions with the ramps. These move extremely fast and are unpredictable, making them all but impossible to dodge. If you happen to be in their path, at the top of the screen, you have almost no warning and no time to get out of the way.

Collisions with barrels will kill you with any overlap — even if you’re standing on the platform below, with your head poking above the next level, a barrel rolling along that level will collide with you and kill you. An if it passes below and clips your feet even a little, while you’re on a ladder, it’ll kill you as well. Collision boxes could have been made smaller, to make slight collisions forgiving, and allow for exciting “close calls”.

Why did Donkey Kong succeed?

In 1981, videogames were still quite new and very popular, with great interest in any new title that came out. It was a time we now look at as a golden age for the video arcade, after several years of ascendancy through the black and white era that gave way to the mega-popular blockbusters of the start of the 80’s, like Berzerk, Defender, Pac Man, and Moon Patrol. But only Pac Man made more money than Donkey Kong. What made it such an attraction?

Donkey Kong had the benefit of being unlike anything that had come before it, in terms of play style and technology, yet it had instant familiarity all at once, in the way it echoed the familiar King Kong story from classic cinema. It had colorful cartoon-like graphics. Its sound effects and music were charming. The game play was novel, yet intuitive, despite the brutal difficulty level. And for an arcade game, being extremely difficult was actually a good thing, since it resulted in shorter games, more credits per hour, and thus higher revenue. The challenged appealed to many gamers of the time. And there were not yet other games similar enough to compare against it, so the rough edges in the mechanics weren’t very obvious.

As one of the earliest platformer games, it broke ground and innovated, and for the time that was enough. Despite the shortcomings, rough edges, and unforgiving difficulty, it captured the minds of the public and gave them entertainment.

For all that, though, it just wasn’t for me, and I’ve come to accept that. For my quarter, though, Ms. Pac Man or Zookeeper is a far better play.

4 Comments

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  1. No comparison to games that have the features you mention, so there is no way to know how long after Donkey Kong came out, that games did have these features. Without other games to compare and contrast to Donkey Kong, this is just a rant about you hating a game.

    The most telling part of you article is this where you say “The challenged appealed to many gamers of the time. And there were not yet other games similar enough to compare against it, so the rough edges in the mechanics weren’t very obvious”. Thus, there were no other games that could do the things you blast Donkey Kong for not doing. This is like me declaring how much I hate the Xbox360, because it couldn’t do 4K or Ray Tracing the way the XboxSX and PS5 will be able to do. I should expect harsh criticism for such a comment as, it wouldn’t be a fair or realistic comparison. You criticise a game for having the same limits of similar games at the time. With that same rational, I could criticize all video games of that time for not having the features and gameplay of systems that came decades later. This is why your post and article are simply a rant and not a good opinion piece.

      

    1. Hi Ernest. I took the liberty of merging the comment you submitted here with the one you left on Facebook in the AtariAge group where I shared this article, since you elaborated with some interesting points there.

      First, let me say that I don’t hate Donkey Kong; and never said that I did. I did say that I never liked it.

      I did anticipate that there would be certain readers who, being big fans of DK, would feel offended/upset that someone would have anything negative to say about it.

      Some of the points your making about how my criticism is “unfair” to the game, I thought, I addressed in how I stated my case in the article. I did mentoin that DK was beyond its contemporaries and that the mechanics I that caused me to dislike it were rough because they were so new, not because Nintendo failed.

      That doesn’t mean that I have to forgive the roughness and like it anyway. I appreciate that DK was something beyond much of the contemporary competition; yet, that’s not enough for me to find it enjoyable to play.

      I would say that the analogy you offer, of disliking a console because it can’t output 4K resolution graphics, is a bit off. I’m pretty sure that the programmers of the time could have programmed the controls to allow Jumpman to continue moving up a ladder until clear of it if the player enters horizontal joystick output; but it simply didn’t occur to anyone at the time that the controls would feel better if they worked this way.

      To point to a contemporary of Donkey Kong that did do this, I would point to Pac-Man. In Pac Man, you can enter your joystick input to change direction well ahead of reaching a corner or intersection. You can do it in the middle of a long corridor, and at the first opportunity to take a turn in the direction you input, Pac-man will make that turn. Pac-man is also forgiving of late input, and will allow you a little window of “coyote time” where you can take a turn that you slightly overshot. This makes navigating the maze feel very slick, and is an important piece of polish on the game which makes it much more pleasing to play than it would be if it didn’t have this.

      I conclude from that, then, that the capability was certainly within the means of the tech of the day. It’s very understandable that this subtle aspect of controls would not be widely appreciated by developers industry wide at the time. But it does objectively make DK less fun, and for me it is a reason why I just didn’t enjoy the game. Most players don’t seem to be bothered by it at all, or forgive it, and I’m not here to tell them they’re wrong for doing so.

      As far as committed jumping, it’s a design choice in some games, and it doesn’t by itself mean that a game’s design is “wrong” if it has committed jumps. But I do think it’s telling that Nintendo moved away from committed jumps for Mario games, in favor of full-control jumping, which, it seems, the vast majority of gamers find more enjoyable. I like many games with committed jump mechanics — Pitfall, Castlevania, to name two. In DK, though, I find that the committed jumping makes the game unfair when the barrels arrange themselves in such a way that it’s literally impossible to jump over them safely. Unless you can get off the platform, you lose a life, and there’s nothing you can do about it, and I don’t find that enjoyable. Pitfall and Castlevania, by contrast, are less random in how they place obstacles in your bath when jumping, and this makes the committed jumping mechanic more tolerable, and I find that this allows me to enjoy these games.

      As for contemporary games that had similar gameplay, I can think of a few: Kangaroo (’82), Congo Bongo (’83), Mr. Do’s Castle (’83), Popeye (1982), Arabian (’83). DK (’81) is earlier by far. Most of the others I just mentioned aren’t nearly as well remembered today, and feel like also-rans, or knockoffs, and don’t have the legacy that Nintendo built around Mario. I have to say that DK is better than Kangaroo and Congo Bongo, but I enjoy Mr Do’s Castle and Popeye about as much as I do DK. I haven’t really played Arabian enough to have an opinion on it.

      Are there any other contemporary games (let’s say, original release within +/-2 years) with similar mechanics that I should look at?

      But regardless of how DK compares to contemporary proto-platformers, even if DK was the best of them, or deserves recognition for being the first, that doesn’t mean that I should like it in spite of not finding it a fun game to play. The issues I had with it, I had at the time, in 1981-2, not after seeing what decades of advancement in game design make clear in hindsight.

        

  2. Thanks for sharing, Chris Sanyk. I understand, and relate to, your perspective, even if I do not share it. I have observed it in others, and I truly empathize. The game is hard. It doesn’t include tutorials on how to jump barrel combos that appear to be impossible. It doesn’t hold one’s hand to tell them how to “steer” a barrel the way the player wants it to go. However, these things are designed into the game. There are a lot of things that people had to find out by trial and error. These days, it’s that or the Internet.

    I have a Donkey Kong machine in my basement. When the relatives come over for Christmas, it doesn’t get as much SERIOUS play as some other games. I realize that it’s too challenging for some. I actually have a Japanese board (multi-switch) installed in my cabinet, because it’s a lot easier. I switch it over when guests come.

    I would never argue that you should LIKE the game. I don’t think we have much control over what we like and dislike. I would say that you’re not going to realize the nuances if you don’t like the game. I do NOT think that knowing these things will change your taste for the game. I would, however, argue that it is not a poorly designed game.

    You make a lot of valid points, from a casual glance or a few plays. There are a few things you actually missed. I don’t blame you to not WANT to find them, because Donkey Kong is a very hard game. It takes playing to figure these things out. Why play something you don’t like?

    A few things that are actually present:

    1. There IS a warning when the hammer is about to disappear. The hammer starts to alternate colors. It’s still a challenge to figure out when it will be gone, because the color warning starts a little early IMO.
    2. The hammer doesn’t usually miss unless you’re walking toward a barrel. Stopping right before hitting a barrel is almost always safe. However, those crazy barrels (thrown vertically) are still ruthless! I also never stand directly under a ladder with the hammer.
      Mario’s collision box is actually very forgiving if you know the bounds. Sometimes, jumping backward will clear a barrel better than jumping forward. Sometimes jumping in the same direction of the barrel will allow Mario to recover and jump other barrels, in a seemingly impossible scenario. It’s a nuance that is sorely missing from most home ports, including the NES. It was such a rush to clear those “impossible” barrel stacks, while all of your friends stood around cheering.
    3. Mario also has a decent collision box buffer on the upper part of his body. Barrels will roll right over his hand and upper back. He can have up to about 4 pixels above the girder That might not sound like a lot, but he’s only 15 pixels tall. While it’s true that a barrel will probably kill you, by falling down the ladder, it will not harm you if it rolls by.
      • Interesting fact: A barrel will NEVER go down a ladder in the Japanese revisions of Donkey Kong, if your hand is touching, or above, the top of the girder.
    4. The barrels are not completely random. It is possible to “steer” the barrels. The really good players know how. I personally think the randomness is what makes the game great. Great players have the ability to mitigate that.
    5. There are a few places to safely “leach” points. It’s almost like finding a secret coin room in Super Mario Bros.
    6. A perfectly timed jump can trap a firefox in a rivet gap. Maybe that’s mostly luck. I’d save your quarters. It’s really cool when it happens though, and probably not by design; or is it?
    7. It’s possible to jump off of the side of a platform and bounce back to safety. This has saved my life, even on the very top level of the Rivets board.

    None of this negates that Mario’s jump is not Super Mario or Sonic high. He can’t fall down more than his height. Have you ever jumped off of something as tall as you? It’s not comfortable! As a child, I used to think about these things. When I first saw the original Mario Bros, I was kind of upset that they removed the “realism” from the game. That didn’t end up lasting. I ended up loving the game anyway.

    There are other little things that actually make the game pretty complex and deeper than what meets the eye. I really blame the NES for dumbing down their ports. The NES versions actually lacked the randomness, jumping nuances, barrel patterns, and overall challenge. The NES port was just easy, monotonous, and boring compared to the arcade counterpart. it made the game look simple. The same was true for NES DK Jr and Mario Bros ports. When people who owned NES games play the arcade versions, they rarely give the arcades a chance. They missed out on what made the arcades magical!

    The arcade Donkey Kong does seem hard and unforgiving. It really has a depth that many will never realize, because of that.

    As somebody who really enjoyed your perspective, I hope you, and others who share your perspective, find this as interesting. I hope this enlightens a little more depth as to why the game was such a hit, even if you don’t care for it yourself. It was more than being in the right place at the right time, and it’s not as poorly designed as a casual glance may lead one to believe.

    Darryl1970, from AtariAge

      

    1. Darryl, thanks so much for your comment. You obviously have a strong grasp of the game and know it better than I do. I appreciate you taking the time to share your insights and explain point-by-point what made DK a fun game for you.

      It’s really nice to be able to have an exchange of ideas from differing points of view that doesn’t devolve into a flamewar between two entrenched camps that can’t tolerate each other, much less come to find common ground. Without telling me that I am wrong to not like Donkey Kong, you provided excellent and informative counter-points that show your own appreciation for the game, and helped me to understand better why the game is fun for so many people who do find it enjoyable.

      I can’t argue against any of it, just thank you for enriching this article with your comment.

        

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