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Donkey Kong Classics (NES) artwork

Donkey Kong Classics (NES) review

"For those keeping score at home, Donkey Kong Classics features an underwhelming total of seven levelsóspread out across the two included gamesóand none of them take up more than a single screen. That means that you can quite handily see everything unique that the game has to offer in less than a half-hour of play. Endurance runs in pursuit of a higher score (which the cartridge doesnít even save once you power off the system) are your only reason to keep going from there."

When I was a kid, summer meant a lot of time to play games. I actually didnít mind going to class at the local one-room schoolhouse, because I was one of those kids everyone hates who actually thought learning was fun. I tended to miss class when it wasnít in session, but at least I had games to play in the meantime. The only real problem was that there werenít enough of them readily available. To combat that unfortunate fact, my mom would sometimes let my sister and I pick a game to rent from the nearest video store, 35 miles away. One of the games I chose--on multiple occasions--was Donkey Kong Classics.

As a kid, I guess my logic must have been that there are two games on a single cartridge. Itís twice the fun, you know? As an adult, I canít imagine what kept me engaged enough to keep playing, let alone to rent it more than once. I like both Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr., the two included titles. Even now, I have fun playing them. But they do get old. In 2012, with so many other options available, they get old rather quickly.

Donkey Kong hardly needs an introduction, but Iíll provide one anyway. Originally an arcade title, it came to the NES with one level missing. As Jumpman (the original version of Mario), youíll work your way along a series of construction girders, jumping over barrels that a giant gorilla is tossing your way, and hopefully not falling terribly far if you mistime a leap. While dodging the threats, you can collect items such as umbrellas and paint cans that grant you bonus points. Then you will hopefully reach your girlfriend and save her from the gorilla. When you reach the end of the third stage, thereís a brief interlude and then the whole process repeats.

Donkey Kong Jr. was a follow-up from the unlikely perspective of that gorillaís son. Mario is now the a villain who has your father locked in a cage. The portly plumber that would go on to save the Mushroom Kingdom is for now content to send a bunch of traps and birds after you (as well as static from a vacuum cleaner, in a level that feels ridiculously out of place), so youíll avoid those hazards and collect fruit for bonus points before finally snagging keys that release your father from his cage. At that point, Mario takes a tumble and the four stages repeat.

Donkey Kong Classics screenshotDonkey Kong Classics screenshot

For those keeping score at home, Donkey Kong Classics features an underwhelming total of seven levels--spread out across the two included games--and none of them take up more than a single screen. That means that you can quite handily see everything unique that the game has to offer in less than a half-hour of play. Endurance runs in pursuit of a higher score (which the cartridge doesnít even save once you power off the system) are your only reason to keep going from there.

Fortunately, the game does offer several modes. From the startup screen, you can choose to play either title alone or with a friend (if you donít mind taking turns). You can play in Game A, which offers the levels in a slightly easier form before ratcheting up the difficulty as you make additional loops through the game, or you can play in Game B mode and forego the easier stuff altogether. Either way, you wonít likely last long. Thatís because by todayís standards, both titles tend to feel the slightest bit cheap.

In Donkey Kong, Jumpman is incapable of falling even a short distance without losing a life. That weakness presents the greatest problem in the second stage, where he must negotiate a series of elevators while avoiding a mobile and blazing barrel that roams a central platform. However, he also can easily fall through holes that he creates in the scaffolding while trying to take out Donkey Kong in the third stage. Jumpman isnít an athletic fellow, so his little hops barely get the job done, especially if you compare them to the limber movements he demonstrates as Mario in the Super Mario Bros. titles.

Perhaps the more egregious offender is the newer of the two titles, though. Donkey Kongís son is able to climb vines fairly well, once he grabs them, but sometimes grabbing them proves more difficult than one would hope. There is a point in the second level, for instance, where Jr. must swing from a hanging bar to some chains that are dangling from a ledge. If you donít get the timing just right (and the required timing isnít entirely obvious, so figuring it out requires some trial and error), youíll have to watch the fuzzy hero repeatedly fall to his doom at a point in the stage that shouldnít even pose a threat.

Of course, itís worth remembering that Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. were both pioneering titles that paved the way for the more refined fare we now enjoy. Their flaws are understandable for that reason, but cheap deaths are no less frustrating just because you understand them.

The summers where Donkey Kong Classics amused my sister and I are now a fading memory, but I still play the game sometimes and briefly relive them. I no longer need to rely on a single game or even console to keep me amused for hours at a time, however. Without that fact pushing me to keep playing, I usually donít play with Mario and the apes for more than a half-hour or so at a time. Unless youíre a future Billy Mitchell practicing up for a competition of some sort, Iím guessing you wonít either.


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (August 05, 2012)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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dagoss posted August 06, 2012:

You hit the nail right in the face. I always really liked the screen-based play of these two games and wished they had just a few more levels. They felt like slow moving platform puzzles, and I wish they lasted just a bit longer.

Out of curiosity, where is it exactly that you live with one-room school houses and a video store 35 miles away? The 19th century?
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honestgamer posted August 06, 2012:

I grew up in an old mining town in rural Oregon. At various times throughout my childhood, my family of four served as literally half the population within "city limits" (though my dad was often away on the road, as a long-haul truck driver), and there were people who lived further out on farms. So there was a one-room schoolhouse for grades K-8, with a local teacher (during most years) and any older students got to look forward to an hour bus ride to the high school 45 miles away. The nearest town with medical facilities was actually 35 miles away by paved road, closer if you didn't mind gravel back roads that weren't dependably navigable in harsh weather. It was a unique childhood by late 20th-century standards, for sure. You can perhaps understand why I had so much time to spend reading and writing and playing video games.

I'm glad you liked the review. I hope to continue producing a lot more retro content in the immediate future and I hope others (like you) will continue doing the same.
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dagoss posted August 07, 2012:

I can only produce retro content; the NES and SNES are the only system I own right now! Retro is what this site does best.

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