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 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. I respect it for its accomplishments, but yet I don’t like it. I can’t enjoy playing it.
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.
Barrels – the first screen
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 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.
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. It seems like Jumpman should maybe be able to reach up from the lower ladder to grab the bottom rung of the upper half and climb up, or to jump off from the top of the broken ladder to get some extra distance and height out of the move. And, surely, if only he could only jump vertically from the top of the ladder, you’d be able to reach the top half and continue up. But no, he can’t do any of these things.
Some of the ladders are broken, turning the ladder into a deadly dead-end. You can climb up them, but only get part-way. Even if you’re at the very top rung of the bottom half of a broken ladder, barrels rolling by below you will still hit you and kill you, even though you’re well 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. If it does, there’s no way you have time to get out of the way in time; you’re a sitting duck 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, a chance to dodge out of the way, and it would make the game feel a little more fair. But Donkey Kong doesn’t give this to you.
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 if that happens, again 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, avoiding what would otherwise feel like an unfair death.
Since the levels are timed, and running out of time will kill you, and you can’t clear the level when you have the hammer because you can’t climb with it, getting the hammer can screw you if you grab it while the timer is running low.
As well, 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 up for the lost bonus time, and make it worthwhile. It would be better if you could cancel the hammer early, or if you could still climb and jump while holding it. Or, 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, soon enough, 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 swinging 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 while holding the hammer, but still let him take hits from above and the rear.
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” rather than cruel kills.
You clear this screen by popping all the rivets out of the girders, causing the structure to collapse. You clear the rivets by walking over them. This creates a narrow gap between the two rivets, really it’s just a crack. It looks narrow enough that you should easily be able to walk over it without inconvenience, much less danger. Yet, if you try, you find that Jumpman will fall through this narrow gap, to his death. This could have been nerfed by making you stop at the edge of these gaps rather than fall, or by allowing you to step over them unimpeded.
In later Mario games, Mario has the ability to fall any distance without injury, so long as he doesn’t fall into a bottomless pit. In Donkey Kong, though, Jumpman can’t fall any distance greater than the height he can jump. This means you have a lot less options and possibilities for moving around a level. The result is the controls feel stiff and uncomfortable.
You can grab a hammer on this level, as well, and if you do, you’ll be stuck walking back and forth on the girder you’re on, unable to walk over any gaps created by a missing rivet. This often means waiting for several seconds on one of the smaller side platforms, unable to climb up or down the ladders, and unable to cross the rivet gap. When you have the hammer, the fireball enemies that move around this level will often keep out of your reach, unless they happen to already be on that platform with you, seemingly waiting for your hammer time to end, so they can swarm you the instant you’re again vulnerable. If this happens, you’re often blocked from multiple sides, or facing two consecutive fireballs spaced so that you can’t clear them with any possible jump. Again, it’s like the game is designed to punish you.
I could never clear this screen as a kid, not that I got many chances to. To get to it, you have to clear Girders, Rivets, and then Girders again, making the first Elevator screen level the fourth level in the game, and by this time I’m usually out of lives.
The jumps on this screen are very unforgiving, due to the height that Jumpman will fall if he misses the moving elevator platforms that he must land on in order to make his way to the goal. If you mis-time your jump, you may miss the platform, or simply land on it after falling too far. And you don’t have to fall very far to fall too far and trigger a death when you land.
There are bonus objects to pick up on this level, and not very many other scoring opportunities. But the bonus objects are so difficult to reach it’s not really worth it. You’ll waste too much time, or miss a jump and die.
At the end of this level, there’s a bouncing spring that moves horizontally very quickly, bouncing at you before falling down the right side of the screen. This makes any approach up the level involving movement through the right side of the screen especially deadly. It takes pixel perfect timing to avoid this final obstacle, and it’s probably the hardest single challenge to negotiate in the entire game. Apparently (I say, because I’ve never done it) the way to clear this final obstacle is to wait patiently, and time your move so that you can pass through the danger zone between one spring launching and the next. Move at the wrong time, and you’re screwed. It’s possible stand in a specific spot where the spring will bounce over Mario harmlessly. I don’t think it’s possible to jump over the spring; if you can it’s almost certainly not worth the risk.
Pie Factory Screen
This screen is also known as the cement factory, or the conveyor belt screen. I don’t remember ever playing it, so I don’t really have complaints here. To get here, you need to clear 7 screens, and since I could never get past the Elevator screen in level 4, making it to the Pie Factory was far beyond my ability. It’s also the level that is often omitted from home console ports. I don’t even know what you need to do to clear this screen.
I watched some videos of people playing this level, and it looks like it might one of the more enjoyable levels. A few of the platforms are conveyor belts, which affect Jumpman’s horizontal speed when running on them, depending on which direction you’re facing, they’ll make you slower or faster. This doesn’t seem to affect your jumping ability much, though, because any other objects on these platforms are also affected by the conveyor belt speed.
At the top of the screen are two extension ladders which slide up and down according to a timed pattern. To clear the level, you have to wait for the ladders to extend up, then climb to the top-most platform. This doesn’t seem terribly difficult, although you’ll be at the mercy of the timing if there happen to be any fireball enemies nearby, you may not be able to get past them due to the timing of the ladders.
It’s hard to say without having played it, but all-in-all I think the Pie Factory might actually be one of the easier levels in the game. Which makes it seem strange/questionable that it is the last to be introduced to the player.
Lose a life and start over
On any level, if you lose a life, you start over from the start of the level you’re on. No progress is saved, no checkpoints. In order to clear the level, you have to do it perfectly, not making any lethal mistakes. This makes clearing any level which you have difficulty with especially difficult.
In a modernization, I imagine that there would be a waypoint system to allow you to keep some of the progress you make in a level. On the Rivets screen, this would be a simple matter of remembering the rivets you’ve popped. On the Elevator screen, starting Jumpman on the last platform he safely touched before dying would be helpful. On the Barrels screen, resuming exactly where you died would be nice, but if not, then at least start over on the last platform touched.
Why did Donkey Kong succeed?
Donkey Kong was one of the most successful arcade games ever, and even today it is a favorite of many gamers who appreciate the games of this period.
In 1981, arcade videogames were still quite new and had grown almost unimaginably popular after about a decade of market growth and technical development, 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 70’s black and white era that gave way to the mega-popular blockbusters that dominated the early 80’s, games like Asteroids, Berzerk, Defender, Pac Man, Dig Dug, Joust, Galaga, and Moon Patrol. Out of all of them, 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, Ms. Pac Man or Zookeeper is a far better play.
4 CommentsAdd a Comment
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.
Ernest Charles Dickinson
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.
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:
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.
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
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.