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.