In 1981, fledgling game designer Shigeru Miyamoto was working on his third project, a new arcade game with a simple, character-driven narrative. Reportedly this was first time a videogame had its storyline established prior to programming and development. Miyamoto’s company, a Japanese toy and card game corporation called Nintendo, hoped this new game would help them break into the American arcade market. Originally planned as a Popeye the Sailor Man licensed game, the player would take control of scrappy Popeye as he sought to rescue his girlfriend, Olive Oyl, from the burly Bluto. But when Nintendo couldn’t secure the rights to Popeye, the game concepts that Miyamoto had conceived were applied to new, original characters.
The everyman protagonist, Popeye, went from bulging-forearmed sailor to mustachioed carpenter. Helpless Olive Oyl became a new damsel, eventually named Pauline. And Bluto, the large and brutish foe, received the greatest makeover, becoming a literal ape. This cartoonish rampaging gorilla, destined to become an icon of the videogame world, was named Donkey Kong. As we all know, the original Donkey Kong would go on to become one of the most successful arcade games of all time. And of course, that mustachioed carpenter—first colloquially referred to as “Jump Man”—would eventually shift his career to plumbing and receive his official name, Mario. That character too became pretty popular in his own right.
While Donkey Kong was followed by two direct sequels—not to mention a math-focused edutainment game—drastic thematic and gameplay changes made subsequent entries in the series feel like very different games. Nintendo’s titles starring Mario would go on to be breakout successes, but Donkey Kong slowly faded from the spotlight. With the exception of DK Junior’s inclusion as a driver in the original Super Mario Kart, the once legendary Kong & Son were relegated to arcade history. Then in June 1994, Nintendo brought back their mischievous ape for a revival of the long-forgotten franchise, this time on their widely successful handheld, the Game Boy.
The Game Boy release of Donkey Kong, also known as Donkey Kong '94, is a deceptively large game disguised as a remake. Beginning just as the original had, with the same four construction site levels from the arcade, the game initially appears to be an enhanced, portable version of the time-honored classic from 1981. But at the conclusion of these four stages—where the arcade game would finish and simply loop back to the beginning—this game is just getting started. DK grabs Pauline yet again and escapes the construction site, this time running out into the greater city. From here the game expands the original concept into an ambitious action puzzle/platformer.
Donkey Kong ‘94 was also the first game to feature enhancements when played on the Super Nintendo via the Super Game Boy peripheral. Playing the game on the TV with a Super Game Boy enabled color to be added to the visuals, much-improved sound effects utilizing the SNES soundcard, and decorative borders around the game screen that emulated the bezels from arcade cabinets of yesteryear. Upon the game’s release, all marketing seemed to focus on the technical wizardry of the Super Game Boy, and far less on the expansive and clever elements within the game itself.
With 101 stages spanning nine worlds, Donkey Kong on Game Boy is so much more than a remake. The basic premise of most levels is quite simple: get the key to the door to advance. (Keys are picked up Super Mario Bros. 2-style, by the way.) Nintendo iterates over this concept again and again, producing some truly inspired puzzles along the way. A variety of obstacles and objects shake up the terrain of each stage; conveyors, elevators, retractable bridges and doors, switches to toggle many of these elements, temporary ladders, platforms, and springs that you can choose to place wherever you’d like, etc., etc.) Every fourth level involves a showdown with Donkey Kong, where he’ll throw his trademark barrels and springs, or rain down random debris on Mario from above. After beating a DK showdown level, a short cutscene will introduce you to a new maneuver or gameplay mechanic, and the game will then allow you to save your progress.
Speaking of new maneuvers, for a Game Boy title, our hero has a surprisingly large set of moves to be learned. Acrobatic moves like the side-flip and an early version of the triple jump make their first appearances. These stunts later return in Super Mario 64, becoming cemented in Mario’s repertoire moving forward. And this 20-year-old Game Boy title does one thing amazingly well: It gives you the ability to pull off everything right off the bat, and then slowly teaches you each trick in your arsenal, one by one. With RPG-style progression built into so many types of games these days, this straightforward approach to mastery has become somewhat rare. Here, utilizing your triple jump doesn’t require unlocking the move; you just need to know how to perform it. And if you didn’t know the technique beforehand, a cutscene will demonstrate it for you before you need to use it.
Three bonus items dropped by Pauline—a parasol, a purse, and a sunhat—are strewn across each regular level. Collecting all three grants the player a post-level minigame to win more lives. These items are another nod to original arcade hit, where each item merely earned the player more points. The minigames are either a roulette-style wheel or slot machine.
Overall, extra lives are plentiful in this game, and they should be. (Playing through this last time, I had 80 lives by World 5.) Honestly, considering the action puzzle setup, this game probably didn’t require a lives-based system at all. Superfluous extra lives or no, the game’s difficulty ramps up gradually. Initially testing the player’s puzzle solving skills, later stages come to require more mechanical dexterity to overcome. By World 6, environmental factors like wind make each stage genuinely challenging.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Donkey Kong is its falling mechanic. In the original Donkey Kong arcade game, Mario couldn’t survive the smallest of falls, even from minuscule heights. He’d basically drop dead from stepping off an especially high curb. But in the Game Boy Donkey Kong, Mario can survive falls from great heights… provided he doesn’t land on his head. While freefalling, Mario’s body will slowly rotate, 90 degrees at a time. If he hits on ground on his side, Mario will be temporarily immobilized, wincing in pain, but able to recover after a couple seconds. If he lands on his head, however, that’s it—he’s dead. It’s a clever way to penalize the player for tripping up, while still giving you the chance to survive a sizable drop.
Impressively, Donkey Kong on Game Boy serves to link some disparate elements of various Mario games together cohesively. The premise and overall gameplay obviously brings in most elements of the original Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. (In fact, DK Junior shows up for the party in World 4: Jungle. Cue Guns N’ Roses.) The game mechanic of picking up/throwing enemies and objects from Super Mario Bros. 2 is used extensively. As previously mentioned, Mario’s acrobatic moves debut here, then reappear in all his later 3D games. The 1-Up hearts from Super Mario Land are used and the poison mushrooms from the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 (a.k.a. “The Lost Levels”) also appear. And the game’s brief ending cinematic features a warp pipe, question mark blocks, and Mario using a super mushroom—all overt references to Super Mario Bros. While the narrative doesn’t really matter at all, this ending directly ties Donkey Kong to the Super Mario Bros. series, establishing it as a prequel.
There’s so much to like about Donkey Kong ’94 that one has to really nitpick to find it’s failings, but there are a few. Obviously, as a game designed for the Game Boy’s four shades of gray, the visual design utilized is rather simple. If you don’t care for an old-fashioned pixelated style, this game probably won’t appeal to you. But if you are down with the 8-bit aesthetic, the animations here are cartoonish and charming. Many of the enemies Mario encounters are original... perhaps original to a fault. It's a largely random parade of animals and elemental creatures. That said, the seed spitting plants in World 2 are clearly ancestors of the peashooters from Plants Vs. Zombies, as well as others.
Far more grating than the visual style is the sound design. This is one game I never play with the volume all the way up and I honestly don’t mind muting altogether. Mario’s boots squeak with every step, performing a triple jump produces two greatly distorted launching blasts, and Pauline’s screams for help—which proceed every, single, level—are the very definition of piecing noise. Overall, the musical fanfares and sound effects brought in from the original arcade game are nice nostalgic touches, but eventually the more biting tones wear out their welcome. Playing the game on the Super Game Boy might help to make the sound effects more tolerable, but hearing them through the Game Boy speakers can get annoying.
The 1994 release of Donkey Kong for Game Boy expanded the original arcade game’s concept into 101 stages of brilliant puzzle/platformer action, and yet it never really garnered the attention it deserved. DK would soon reclaim his spotlight, not with this game, but instead with Donkey Kong Country’s debut on the SNES in November. While he may have first rocked his red tie on the Game Boy, it was Rare’s redesign in Country that put the ape on top once again. Iconic games like Tetris and the first generation Pokémon titles have come to define the original Game Boy, but—without diminishing the reputation of those tent poles at the beginning and end of the system’s lifespan—it has to be said that Donkey Kong ’94 is a masterpiece that warrants equal adoration. It’s a hidden gem, still underrated and largely ignored, the unsung hero of Nintendo’s original handheld.