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Donkey Kong

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Released: 1981

Genre: Platformer

Format reviewed: Arcade

Publisher: Nintendo

Developer: Nintendo

Submitted by: Damian Butt

Star Wars’ release in 1977, and Space Invaders’ release in 1978 were like two cultural smart bombs, fired in quick succession.

“Battles in space” was such a popular theme, it dominated arcade games for the next two years! Asteroids, Galaxian, Moon Cresta, Phoenix, Tempest…  all great games, unless you’re sick of spaceships.

Thank god for 1981.

Due to Pacman’s success a year earlier, we started getting more “character-led” games like Frogger, Lady Bug, and of course, Donkey Kong.

As Stuart Hunt noted in his in-depth feature (RG 43), Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to make a game with a love-triangle setup. A game featuring a hero, a nemesis and a damsel in distress. Using this classic character setup was one of many literary ideas Miyamoto used.  Another was the nemesis’ introduction.

In a James Bond film, the first time we see the bad guy is important.  They’re usually given a chance to demonstrate how “bad” they are, and we know 007’s challenge is to defeat them. In Donkey Kong, our first glimpse of our nemesis sees him carrying the damsel up scaffolding (to get us angry), bending the girders (to show his strength), then doing an evil laugh/growl (to taunt us).  The challenge was well and truly on.

Another story-like element was the inclusion of multiple scenes/levels.  In a game like Space Invaders, there’s no “story progression” – as each level looks the same.  If Jumpman completes a level in Donkey Kong, he moves on to a different one, giving you a real sense of progress.

DK’s first 3 levels end with the nemesis re-capturing Pauline, and escaping. Again, using Bond films as an example, 007 may be captured, but he escapes, increasing the drama.  You know that – eventually – he’ll confront the villain, and bring him to justice.

Nintendo released six arcade games before Donkey Kong.  Five of them were clones or riffs on the Space Invaders formula.  Miyamoto’s love triangle helped Nintendo, and the entire industry, grow beyond it’s early space obsession.

A Donkey Kong PCB goes for around £55/US$100.  Of course, the real experience is a dedicated DK cab, which will costs around £550/US$1000.

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