Wednesday, September 16, 2015

#DoubleFeature - Donkey Kong and DK Jr.

I didn't want to miss Mario's 30th Anniversary, yet that's exactly what I did; I ended up missing Mario's birthday at the end of the day (officially, September 13, 1985, the release of the original Super Mario Bros. on the Famicom in Japan).

Happy Birthday Mario! Let's go back to the origins of the most popular plumber in the entire world!

Everybody knows Mario. Might you be a gamer or not.

Outside several hit platform games and countless spinoff titles, Mario always had a huge presence through all kinds of media. He's the original video game mascot. Nintendo's main franchise. And a video game icon.

And without a doubt the origin of the whole platformer genre!

Although a lot of people often forget not only is Donkey Kong as old as Italian plumber (an Italian plumber mascot of a Japanese video game company, who would have imagined it?), but Mario actually first starred in a game named after the gorilla!

And he wasn't even called Mario back then, but simply Jumpman! (Or was this his father, according to Donkey Kong Country's Cranky Kong... but that's a whole different debate on its own..)

At the origin of Nintendo's success and the entire Mario franchise was a little arcade game released on July 1981, a creation from the minds of director Shigeru Miyamoto and producer Gunpei Yokoi...

VGR: Donkey Kong also known as Donkey Kong Classic or simply DK
From Nintendo Co.
Played on NES

Also available on Arcade, Game & Watch, MSX, Intellivision, ColecoVision, Atari 2600, Atari 7800, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Game Boy Advance, Wii, 3DS and Wii U

Type Arcade sidescroller platformer
Year 1983/86

It was the early 1980s. Nintendo really wanted to break even into the gaming market in the US, but the competition was everywhere. Ever single major game company of that time was already miles ahead of them - Atari, Namco, Midway and countless other smaller companies. 

Ninendo was looking for a different angle, an idea to create a more relatable experience which in turn would have a much bigger impact and presence amongst the early figures of gaming. And that idea required the development of a new type of game as well as relying on an iconic protagonist, the very first full-fledged iconic mascot. Something that could easier get marketed, not just good games like they already had been putting out so far.

A team was specifically put in place for this project. At the head of the team was a first-time videogame designer, young industrial designer Shigeru Miyamoto, who had been working for Nintendo since 1977! To supervise the project was another promising Nintendo developer, Gunpei Yokoi. Their first plans was to simply make a game based around the free domain comic strips of Popeye. But they quickly ran into some trouble when they found out his media license was actually tied to the cartoons (and recently released movie). So they quickly put that first plan aside to focus coming up with something original that they could use in later games and market themselves.

Nintendo had huge hopes in the title, and history proved, it turned out alright...

Drawing as much inspiration as possible from everything popular in America at the time, from old pop culture favorites to current hits. Keeping a lot from classic cartoons as well as current Disney films (which had their fair share of damsels in distress), Most of the gameplay actually directly inspired from the final act of the classic black & white monster film King Kong. This made what would become Donkey Kong the first game where the brainsforming part was focused on the concept, the storyline, before any actual programming! 

Miyamoto worked on the "scenario" as it were, while he designed the concept with Gunpei Yokoi. They used as much what was possible at the time to realize the graphics compared to the more abstract games we had back then, making bigger and much more defined sprites for the characters. The game even made a revolutionary use of very rudimentary "cutscenes" to explain the plot in between stages, and the game actual had proper different stage variations not just randomized design.

The title itself was imagined by Miyamoto as he came up with something that would be easily identifiable and relate to our main "stupid ape" villain.

The plot as it is as you play as this carpenter "Jumpman" (who would be renamed Mario a few years later, starting in the later home system Pal and NTSC NES port).

A giant ape - the titular Donkey Kong - kidnapped his girlfriend, Pauline. Your objective is to simply avoid all obstacles - have Jumpman jump over stuff - in order to save our damsel in distress!

It's as simple as it can get, and yet it's one of the earliest examples of a story in a game. A clear narrative on screen..  

Actually a lot kept from the original pitch for the game still mirrors Popeye. Like our everyman hero Jumpman, DK being an obvious substitute for Bluto or Pauline in the role Olive Oyl.

The success of the arcade game would prove it, both "Jumpman" Mario and Donkey Kong would later turn into hugely popular Nintendo franchises of their own, each following a different path.

Most of the gameplay is sort of based on a few idea first seen in Universal Entertainment Corporation's 1980 title Space Panic which took the basic outlines of retro shooters like Galaga over platform-like floors. But Donkey Kong completely innovated gaming by adding something we now take for granted - the added ability to jump!

In a way this really was tge very first platform game. Up until that point most arcade games went for a much simpler top down view, but Miyamoto and his team instead used a sidescrolling view to allow the game to focus on moving across platforms by simple jumping to dodge or move forward.

Appropriately named Jumpman for a reason, the entire gameplay revolves around jumping. Jumping over gaps or obstacles. Jumping to grab items. It brilliantly became the basis for the future platform genre from 2D sidescrollers to modern 3D platformers.

The original arcade Donkey Kong featured 4 different stages, making it one of the most complex games at the time. On the NES though the game might had allowed to change the difficulty setting, but it only features 3 of the original 4 levels, missing the often neglected (in most ports) cement factory stage.

The game can be kind of challenging. You have to keep track of a lot of stuff on screen. Most of what you do contributes to your score. Such as how many obstacles you jump over, did you get and use the hammer to destroy obstacles like barrels or fire, or the other items you found like Pauline's parasol or hat. 

Each stage moves you higher on the building in construction, until you reach the final stage, which mirrors the final of King Kong on the building's roof.

Of course all these similarities led to some issues with Universal Studios. The name wasn't just to close to King Kong, Donkey Kong draws a lot of inspiration from the film. But they were able to settle it thanks to the huge success of the game, cementing Nintendo's establishment in video game history all the way through the 1980s.

All the graphical limitations helped define the characters. Mario's colors are red and blue to best identify him on screen over the black background. The low resolution prevented them from representing his mouth, they used the low pixels count to give him a mustache! How to avoid making hair that would either disappear on the background or be the same color as his skin? Give him a cap! How to notice the movement of his arms? Give him overalls! There's a lot of little details for such primitive hardware, Donkey smiles when you lose, Pauline screams for help with a speech balloon that says "Help!" All this combined with the story, even if basic, contributed to Donkey Kong being the first game with a real proper narrative, it was historic! 

Yukio Kaneoka's iconic music also played a big part in the game. Although there isn't a lot of music present in the game itself, the catchy jingle and the title screen had enough presence on its own to stay with the memory of gamers (even making a comeback remixed into Donkey Kong Country's main theme a decade later).

While on the first look they seemed like just some other bizarre game from japan, its quick growing popularity led to millions of machine sold worldwide. It became one of the biggest major hits in gaming and proudly joined the likes of Space Invaders and Pac-man.

Of course it became a huge hit in both America and Japan, selling across the whole wide world. 

Overall: Donkey Kong is without a doubt Nintendo's first big hit. It's a landmark in gaming history and the original introduction of their first two main mascots. 

And it's also really fun, a timeless classic which I Highly Recommend anyone - gamer or not - to at least experience once. It's really easy to get your hands on, quickly enjoyable and always a fun experience!

It's possible one of the most recognizable arcade classics ever made along the original Pac-man!

Both Mario and Donkey Kong would become staples of pop culture, icons of gaming.

Nintendo licensed game the to Coleco to port the game on all kind of consoles outside Nintendo's reach. Of course like most of these early arcade classics there would be ton of clones popping up left and right, trying to avoid having to get the rights from Nintendo. But few were able to get as popular as the original, proving the use of mascots was a big part in the game's success. 

Mario and DK faces were all over cereal boxes, toys, merchandising, cartoons, etc. 

Nintendo would experiment other type of games with Mario, like the spin-off Mario Bros., until they finally settle on the main "Super Mario" franchise, which took quite some time to took the now more familiar shape of the series.

Donkey Kong would receive a few odd direct sequels such as Donkey Kong Jr. before his triumphant return on the SNES with Donkey Kong Country developed by Rare (but that is a topic for another day).

And last but not least, speaking of Popeye, an actual Popeye game from Nintendo would finally follow in 1982! 

I give it:
3 / 3 Pacmans!

VGR: Donkey Kong Jr. also known as Donkey Kong Junior, Donkey Kong 2 or DK Jr.
From Nintendo Co.
Played on NES

Also available on Arcade, Atari 2600, Atari 7800, ColecoVision, Coleco Adam, Intellivision, BBC Micro, Game & Watch, Wii and 3DS
Type Arcade sidescroller platformer
Year 1983/86

When the original King Kong film received a sequel, it was called Son of Kong. It was only natural the first direct sequel of Donkey Kong followed a similar pattern.

Donkey Kong Jr. (or often Donkey Kong Junior) is an arcade sequel to the game that put Nintendo on the map. Due that fact alone, pressure on the team was pretty difficult, and nobody expected them to do as well on the second try. But Nintendo was actually able to pull it off nicely for the most part.

The entire concept of the game was designed by Shigeru Miyamoto. This time with Yoshio Sakamoto helping him on the graphics.

The game was first released in 1983, with several console ports following, albeit on a much smaller scale than Donkey Kong 1 - the most notable version being for the NES.

The story of DK Jr. sees the return of both Jumpman, now called Mario for the most part, and Donkey Kong.

In a complete role reversal from the first game, the player now controls Donkey Kong Jr., also simply called Junior. As a revange for kidnapping his girlfriend Pauline last time, Mario has captured Donkey Kong to perform in his circus (Mario was still trying all kinds of jobs at the time, he had been a carpenter and wasn't a plumber just yet).

The objective is to save the original Donkey Kong, there's no damsel to rescue this time! 

Which means this games marks the only appearance of Mario as the actual antagonist in a video game in all his history!![ That's right, after beating a gorilla to his fall in the first game Mario now imprisoned an adult to force a younger ape to perform tricks for his own amusement!! Mario sets all kinds of animals on Junior's path. But don't worry, good triumphs in the end, as DK Jr. frees Donkey Kong who kicks Mario away!

In the original arcade game there was 4 levels, each with its own theme here like most games were starting to have (Vines, Springboard, Chains and Mario's Hideout), the console ports including the NES all lost a stage in the process.

Also, fun fact, the original arcade game can be considered the first appearance of the "Mario Bros." as two Marios are seen carrying the cage with Donkey Kong. Luigi, was that you?

Gameplay-wise, it's the same type of platform game as the first one. four stages. Like Mario Junior can jump around, but also grab vines or ropes to climb or avoid enemies. There's several type of enemies after you such as birds and traps. The goal is to reach the key on top. In the end you push all the keys in the final stage to free DK. 

Once completed, being an arcade title the game goes back to the beginning now set on a stronger difficulty setting (on the NES you could jump right away to the 2nd playthrough). Also time seems to play a bigger part in the game as countdown is shorter for all you have to accomplish, and getting to zero means losing a life.

Donkey Kong Jr. never really enjoyed the sales or the following of the original Donkey Kong, but it was pretty successful on its own right. And reaching the same milestone as the first game would have been impossible to be fair.

Like the previous title, the music was once more composed by Yukio Kaneoka. He did a pretty good job capturing the same tone and offering a new vibe to the game. They tried making the use of music much more important this time. While certainly as catchy as the first game, it's just not as memorable. Which can be said the same for the game itself.

Overall: DK Jr. is a fairly good sequel all things considered. The concept is certainly fun enough and original. While they added a few new ideas to make things interesting (like the ropes you can use), it just doesn't feel as unique as DK1 was.

While it never reached the same notoriety as its predecessor, it was actually able to score a few awards. In fact Donkey Kong Jr. would become the first "official" game selected for a gaming world championship!

I think this second episode is a pretty competent sequel, all in all. The new gimmicks are pretty fun and I find it pretty interesting to both play as the gorilla this time and having Jumpman/Mario as the villain (Mario as a villain!!).

I'd say, definitively Check it Out if you're a big retro gamer or Nintendo fan!

After its initial arcade release, DK Jr. would be ported on all kinds of home systems. On the Atari 2600, Atari 7800, ColecoVision, Intellivision and it even received two different separate Game & Watch ports! The NES version would be re-released along its predecessor Donkey Kong in 1988 in a compilation titled Donkey Kong Classics (pictured above).

A first Mario cartoon directly based on these two early games would air on CBS from 1983 to 1985, Saturday Supercade. The plot also followed DK Jr. looking for his dad Donkey Kong, on the run from Mario and Pauline!!

A third installment to this original Donkey Kong series, Donkey Kong 3, was released in 1983 in the arcades and 1986 for the NES with radically different gameplay (for the worse...).

Donkey Kong Jr. most notably received a comeback of sorts through a minigame in the 2012 Wii U launch title Nintendo Land!

I give it:
2 / 3 Pacmans!

And that is it for this DoubleFeature!

Donkey Kong and its sequel Donkey Kong Jr. are both now considered cult classic video games. The first game had a big impact on the industry as a whole, while the second is one of these moderately successful copy-pasted sequels. While Jr. didn't bring anything new really, it's a fun game on its own right.

Both well worth a look if anything to see Mario, Donkey Kong (and Luigi?) and the entire platform genre's debut. Making both Nintendo and gaming history!

That's all for this time's DoubleFeature!


  1. Jumpman WAS Mario's father, but I don't think the Donkey Kong Jr game would happen in the series, storywise. If you ever played "Donkey Kong '94" for the Gameboy, Mario went through a lot of torture trying to save Pauline from our Modern Day DK (the DK in the gameboy version wears a necktie), and DK Jr made an appearance throughout the game (he starts appearing as soon as you visit the "Jungle" world). The Gameboy game is also how Mario got to the Mushroom Kingdom; it's possible that since Yoshi's Island/Yoshi's New Island/Yoshi's Island DS, it might be possible that Mario's Parents wanted him and Luigi safe from danger and that they're not ready for such action.
    In the end, Mario held up DK up victoriously as DK Jr. charges at Mario while DK calls for help, meaning not only is the gameboy game a prequel to SMB, but is also the TRUE prequel to "Donkey Kong Jr." and why Mario locked up DK in the first place. Mario didn't lock up DK because he was evil for no reason, he locked up DK because he went through a lot of torture from the big ape.

    1. Well, that's just a THEORY. A GAME THEORY.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. I hate that Catchphrase!