Monday, July 2, 2012

Donkey Kong (GB) Retro Review

I have decided that July is Retro Review Month here at SuperPhillip Central. Seeing that the release schedule for new games has slowed to a crawl and that I have the burning desire to review some games, it only makes sense to do this. We're starting the month off immediately with a review of the Game Boy classic, Donkey Kong, originally released in 1994. 

One of Gaming's Earliest Rivalries Revisited

Donkey Kong is synonymous with gaming, although a little than the popular plumber Mario is. Before the world moved on to Rareware's Donkey Kong Country in 1994, a title bearing the original Donkey Kong's namesake and gameplay was being released in the summer before DKC came out. It was Donkey Kong for the Game Boy (sometimes referred to as Donkey Kong '94 for simplicity's sake). More than just a port of the arcade juggernaut, Donkey Kong on the Game Boy was a massive improvement on the classic formula, and one many players positively went ape for.

A misconception with the Game Boy version of Donkey Kong might be that like the arcade, NES, and other versions of the game on previous systems, the Game Boy iteration is just another port. That could not be any further from the truth. It certainly can seem like it is as the first four levels are plucked straight out of the arcade game. However, after those initial four have been completed, the game opens up considerably to completely new, uncharted territory with loads of new levels, mechanics, and objectives.

After the original four levels are finished, you enter a new form of level for the Donkey Kong series. These have you needing to open a locked door with a key. While the standard Donkey Kong levels have you utilizing your platforming prowess only, these lock-and-key levels emphasize precision jumping as well as mental gymnastics. The whole line of thinking of how you will carry a key from its resting place to the locked door is an interesting dynamic and adds a puzzle element not seen before in a Donkey Kong game (and it most certainly won't be the last time we'd see this either). The key can be thrown to platforms above you, across chasms, and can even defeat certain enemies.

In Donkey Kong, gameplay is literally "key."
Each set of four levels in the game's ten worlds features a new gameplay mechanic for Mario and the player to use as well. Certain blocks can temporarily spawn a ladder or horizontal platform for Mario to climb or run on. Switches can open and shut doors as well as change the direction of moving platforms (from up and down to down and up) and conveyor belts. Sometimes enemies can be used as platforms to reach higher places or to push Mario through narrow gaps that he'd otherwise be unable to pass through. There's also hanging wires that Mario can either use to cross over large pits or to spin off of, reaching taller altitudes. There's no shortage of new objects like springs, vines and enemy-defeating, block-busting hammers, obstacles like strong winds and icy, slippery platforms, and dangers like egg-dropping birds and bottomless pits for Mario to discover and overcome.

Mario with a hammer is a mad man.
Mario himself is quite the acrobat this go around; somewhat a predecessor to Super Mario 64's move set. Mario has the ability to walk on his hands. This feat is absolutely necessary for later Donkey Kong levels where falling barrels can only be stopped by Mario's shoe soles. You can also be running in one direction and quickly flick the d-pad to the other and hence perform a higher-than-normal somersault. Unlike walking on Mario's hands, this technique isn't required for beating the game, though it does have its helpful uses. Mario does have a lot of athletic maneuvers in this game, but his capability to fall from high heights hasn't carried over from Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World. In fact, doing so results in smacking his body flat against the floor, resulting in death-- or at least one killer concussion. The game also makes things a bit challenging through only allowing Mario one hit before he bites the big one. This makes being cautious and careful paramount to one's performance. Of course, you can't be too cautious and careful either, or you'll allow the timer to reach zero, also resulting in a loss of a life.

Use the backs of these frogs to reach new heights.
Every four levels in Donkey Kong is a tussle with the main monkey himself. How the level is completed varies from each encounter. Some are typical affairs where Mario must navigate his way up a vertical space to reach the same altitude and platform as Pauline, all the while avoiding tricks, traps, and hazards that will put an unsuccessful end to his recovery mission. Others take the fight right to the angry ape by having Mario chuck idle barrels at Donkey Kong that the villain has thrown at Mario carelessly.

Go ape on this ape in these battle levels.
Extra lives are in great surplus in Donkey Kong, so you never feel like you're starving for lives. After a Donkey Kong level has been completed, the four levels you previously played have the times tallied. For every 100 seconds on the clock, you get a 1up (you also earn one life is there is any. By collecting all three unique items in a given lock-and-key level (such as a parasol, for instance), at the conclusion of the level you earn the right to play one of two 1up mini-games. One is a slot machine where the goal is to match or line up three specific icons in a row or to stop the wheels so a Mario face shows up. Depending on how well you do, you gain up to five 1ups. The other mini-game is a roulette wheel which unlike the previous mini-game, this one guarantees you at least one 1up. The roulette spins around a circle, and with a button press, it slowly stops on a 1up, 2up, or the rare 3up space. Then there's some levels that have a 1up placed in oftentimes a precarious location for Mario to nab. With all of these extra life opportunities, don't be surprised if you knock on the maximum cap of 99 near the end of the game.

The Game Boy version of Donkey Kong showcases plenty of catchy 8-bit tunes. It is nothing that will make you heavily desire to listen to the tracks outside of the game, really, but what is presented is serviceable and pleasing. The sound effects can range anywhere from good to grating. The visuals look decent considering the weak hardware the game is being presented on. Characters, enemies, and environments are very much distinguishable from one another, so you never have a problem with seeing where to go. Each level's background has a couple of characteristics which set them apart from others such as skyscraper backdrops and bushes. Overall, Donkey Kong on Game Boy is a pleasant looking and sounding title.

Donkey Kong is an excellent puzzle/platformer worthy of your hard-earned dollars. Whether you get a physical copy (to play on the Super Game Boy, perhaps? Hint, hint) or digitally download the 3DS Virtual Console version for a few dollars or so, the game will prove to you why many consider it to be in top echelon of Game Boy titles and a classic. The game's ten worlds will take you on a journey through forests, pyramids, and glaciers on you and Mario's quest to retrieve Pauline from the guerrilla gorilla's clutches. The game won't last too long-- maybe 4-5 hours for one play-through, but it's one that you will want to return to over and over again as the challenge both mentally and on your fingers is a fair and fun one. Go bananas with this perplexing and puzzling platformer.

[SuperPhillip Says: 9.0/10]

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