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Monday, January 4, 2016

Memories #19: Donkey Kong & Donkey Kong Jr.

While Super Mario Bros. was my entry into the world of Mario games, I would later find out that it was not his debut title. Mario would make his first appearance in a game where not only were Princess Peach, Bowser and little brother Luigi nowhere to be found, but Mario himself wasn't even given title billing.

Parents are good for a lot of things like raising you and occasionally coming home from work with some gifts in tow. Even better when said gifts are video games. One night my father came home from a long day's work with two NES games, Ice Climber and Donkey Kong Classics, a compilation cartridge that contained Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. The NES was still new to me and while I hadn't heard of either one of these games, I was more than happy to have more to play. It didn't matter that Mario's name wasn't in the title of Donkey Kong Classics. He was on the cover of the box, clobbering DK with a hammer and that was all I needed to know.

Having cut my teeth on Super Mario Bros., it really came as quite a surprise to find out just how different Donkey Kong was. Sure, both were platformers but that was the only two things the games had in common. I was still new to the gaming world of which I was quickly becoming enthralled with, so the very notion that other types of games outside of Super Mario Bros. did exist was strange, but intriguing.

It all started here.

The story of Donkey Kong was simple. Carpenter named Jumpman, who we'd later come to know as Mario, owns big ape named Donkey Kong. Jumpman mistreats Donkey Kong. To get back at his owner, DK kidnaps Jumpman's girlfriend known as Lady, who would later be called Pauline. Perhaps abduction is a little too far but the game needed to do something to warrant DK being the villain, so here we are. I think this was one of the first, if not the first damsel in distress plots for video games, making it a pretty groundbreaking thing for its time.

My struggle with Donkey Kong was very real. Each stage was a single screen and while that meant I could clearly see where the end point was, that didn't do me much good in the grand scheme of things because I was all kinds of scrubtacular. The first level alone was an uphill battle in more ways than one. Atop the construction site, DK had an endless supply of barrels that he would rain down upon me. Sometimes they would roll down the ramps that the steel girders made, other times they would fall straight down. The worst was when they would role down the ladders I was climbing. Add in sentient fire to the mix and you have one very nerve-wrecked kid. It wasn't long ago that I'd gotten the hang of jumping on turtles while walking right. Now I've got a game that tasks me with dealing with a revenge driven ape, barrels that come at you in multiple directions and fire all on the opening stage? It was enough to nearly send my child mind into overload.

Mario did not have the controls in Donkey Kong that Super Mario Bros. made me so accustomed to. His jump height couldn't be controlled, you could only walk, not run and he actually felt a lot stiffer in this game. What's worse is that Mario was noticeably weaker. Mario could not fall very fall at all or he would die. I'm guessing his legs were made of toothpicks because after falling from insane heights in Super Mario Bros. and surviving and then playing a game where Mario perishes from falling a few feet was incredibly jarring. I can clearly remember the "ARE YOU SERIOUS?!" look on my face when happened for the first time.

Where as Super Mario Bros. presented me with numerous opportunities for me to arm myself with power-ups enabling me to more than one hit before dying, I felt practically naked in Donkey Kong. Nearly every enemy had to be avoided or jumped over. Mercifully, the game did contain one means to defend yourself. It wasn't present in every level, but the Hammer made me feel like I was unstoppable. I always loved the short looping song that plays whenever picking up a Hammer and smashing an enemy with it was the best feeling in the world.

Before Fire Flowers and Super Stars, the
Hammer was Mario's weapon of choice.

With repeated plays, the first stage didn't give me much trouble anymore. It was the second level that became the bane of my existence. Those freaking bouncing trampolines were the stuff of nightmares. The trampoline would never change the height and speed at which it bounces and because of this, where you are when you attempt to climb that last ladder is absolutely critical. I think I lost more lives on this level than any other and it was probably one of the earliest sources of gamer frustration that I encountered.

The infuriating second level of Donkey Kong Jr.

Donkey Kong Jr. was a part of Donkey Kong Classics so I would often switch off between the two titles. DK was the antagonist of his self titled game but in Donkey Kong Jr., it was Mario who was the bad guy. This really perplexed me. As much of a jerk DK was in his own game, seeing Mario have the big guy all caged up, sending down all sorts of obstacles to hinder DK Jr. seemed like five different kinds of wrong. Seeing Mario as the villain was akin to seeing my childhood brutally murdered right before my eyes. Mario has played many roles but his stint as a villain never sat well with me as a kid.

Like Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. was a platformer, but the game switched things up by placing an emphasis on climbing via vines. An advantage DK Jr. had over Mario in terms of climbing is that the little ape's climbing speed could be controlled. Climbing a lone vine made DK Jr. ascend slowly but stretch his hand out to another nearby vine and DK Jr. will haul ape butt upward. It was rather gratifying that I could go faster in at least one of these games. It was much more appreciated in the case of Donkey Kong Jr. since he felt even more sluggish than Mario due to his weight.

I don't know what it is about Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr, but both of these games seemed to have the most infuriating second levels. Like Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr.'s second level was a ball buster. If I wasn't falling into the bottomless pits below, I was getting hit by those blasted birds. One of the most annoying enemy types (flying) over a stage with bottomless is a recepe for disaster. Unlike the crocs and the like of foes in the first stage, the birds were much more mobile, which meant hitting them with the fruit required nothing short of perfect timing. By the way, what was up with Mario and all the animals, anyway? I'm guessing this little confrontation between the carpenter and apes took place at the zoo because Mario was sicing all manner of the animal kingdom on DK Jr.

Sometime in the early or mid 1990s, I can't exactly recall which, my dad and I went to a place called Hoagies Pizza with some friends from our church and I came across a Donkey Kong arcade cabinet. Having spent ample time with the NES version years before, I wanted to try my hand at the coin-operated version. It was when I played the original that I saw that it actually contained an opening cut scene, something the NES version lacked. When I placed my cents into the arcade machine, I saw DK carrying Pauline up two ladders and using his massive weight to bend the girders to create the first level. I remember this being a "Huh. Cool" moment.

All the time I spent on the NES version of Donkey Kong was for naught because I was terrible when it came to playing this game standing up. What really hampered me was the arcade stick. I was so used to playing Mario games with a control pad that controlling him with a stick felt so odd. I struggle to do the simplest of things like jumping over barrels. I'd only played a handful of arcade games up to this point and most of those were either fighters or beat 'em ups. If I've got to control my character in a 2D platformer with a stick, it never feels right to me.

I was given another chance to experience the arcade version of Donkey Kong in 1999. This was the year that Donkey Kong 64 released. In the game's fourth world, you could find a Donkey Kong arcade cabinet, which housed the complete arcade version of Donkey Kong. Playing this version of Donkey Kong showed me that the NES version was missing a full level, what is commonly refereed to as the cement factory. Playing the arcade version of Donkey Kong in DK64 was a much better experience for me since it supported the control pad. I actually managed to finish it and upon a second play through, Pauline was replaced with an N64 logo coin, one of which was needed to reach DK64's final boss. The re-release of Donkey Kong in DK64 is kind of a big deal. It marks the only time the arcade version of Donkey Kong was given a home release.

While Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. gave me a lot of grief as a kid, I do still have some fond memories of them. I was introduced to Donkey Kong through these games and my perseverance paid off because these ended up being some of the first games I completed. Seeing DK take a dive as Mario and Pauline reunite and Mario take a fall as DK Jr. catches DK made all the blood, sweat and tears so worth it.

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