Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Shades of Resonance: Fond Reminiscence - Memory Log #16

Like its fellow arcade legend Pac-Man, Donkey Kong is a game I first played in the confines of my own home. Specifically, my tool for gorilla-wrangling was the Atari 2600, which I believed was capable of reproducing the full content of an arcade machine whose visual presentation existed in my mind only as a set of fuzzy images. The 2600 version was a competent reproduction, I convinced myself, and did enough to cement Donkey Kong as an Atari-exclusive property. For a few years in following, that was my unchanging opinion of Donkey Kong, Mario and Pauline, who I considered 2600 superstars along with the likes of Pitfall, Frogger, Q*Bert, and other Saturday Supercade alumnus who came into my life thanks to Atari's little wooden wonder box.

The 2600 version only had two stages, which as far as I knew was all there was to the game. It featured the famous opening stage with its sloped girders (colored purple in this version) and endless torrent of rolling barrels; and a second, final stage where I had to loosen rivets (or "jump over the glowy squares") to conquer a blue structure as patrolled by what looked like pudgy snakes. (I didn't know if these stages had actual names or not, so I simply referred to them as "construction sites.") Then the game would loop, the speed of the barrels and snakes increasing in each successive attempt.

Though there wasn't much to it, I still considered Donkey Kong a top-tier 2600 game and returned to it fairly often. It stood proudly amidst other arcade-style games like Lost Luggage, Kaboom, and Fast Eddie, which I'd load up in succession and attempt one-shot endurance runs before moving on to the next. I could maybe reach as far as Donkey Kong's fourth loop before the girder stage's speed and barrel-rate became too much for me (mainly, there was an increased likelihood that a barrel would collide with me as I was climbing a ladder, particularly near the stage's top portion).

It was a pretty good-looking game, too, compared to other 2600 titles whose representation of the bipedal form was limited to stick figures and squares. Sure--I thought Mario looked more like an amorphous blob when climbing ladders, and I saw Donkey Kong as less a gorilla and more an angry gingerbread man, but these observations didn't detract from what I felt was a spirited conversion. 

And yet the biggest contributor to its standout personality might have been its sound effects, Mario's springing leaps and his 7-note death jingle defining the action and living on as an aural trigger capable of immediately conjuring images of barrel-hopping for anyone who ever owned a 2600. As did Pac-Man's pellet-gobbling and death samples, Donkey Kong's iconic sound effects long endured as stock material reused again and again in TV shows and movies to approximate the noise made by video game systems, whether it was the NES or the more-modern Xbox 360.

That turned out to be its legacy.

I had my first personal interaction with the authentic creation sometime in the mid-80s and found that my accumulated skills translated very well. After all, it played just like the 2600 version, with that long climb up the red girders followed by the purposeful collapse of Donkey Kong's loose-riveted perch. But then things got weird: The game looped, as expected, but the blue-colored rivet stage was suddenly replaced by a pink one whose design was much more complicated-looking; it featured moving platforms--two elevators moving in opposite directions--and bouncing springs, which Donkey Kong was using to crowd the stage's right side. 

I'd never seen this stage before and had a lot of trouble navigating it; jumping over to the dual-laddered middle structure while avoiding the patrolling flame was difficult enough, but I absolutely couldn't figure out the timing for the bouncing springs as encountered near the stage's top portion. If there was a pattern to their shifting strike-points, I wasn't aware of it, so I mostly resigned myself to the strategy of biding my time and dashing toward Pauline whenever I finally felt comfortable doing so. No matter how consistent I was in my movements, the result seemed random; sometimes I'd make it, other times I'd be clipped on the leg at the last millisecond. It was here that I'd either Game Over or barely eek my way into the third loop without sufficient enough stock to endure past the repeating girder stage. 

The arcade original was such an oddity to me in that regard. I didn't know if the units I'd been playing on were faulty or if the classic Donkey Kong had since been replaced by some hacked version of the game. It was only about, say, 12 years ago that I became aware of the game's unique form of advancement--that it adds a new stage each time through and then begins shuffling them around beyond the fourth loop (or the "125-meter mark," as the game labels it). Hell--I didn't even catch a glimpse of the Pie Factory stage, which was completely absent from all of the home adaptations I'd seen (2600, ColecoVision and NES), until 1999, when I played the more logically structured version of Donkey Kong as it appeared in Donkey Kong 64

It was about time.

While Donkey Kong wasn't by any means my favorite arcade game, it was one of those machines that I always felt compelled to toss a quarter into any time I'd see it. It was a quintessential arcade game, never losing its allure even when placed amongst the mid-80s' newly arriving powerhouses. Like Pac-Man, Galaga, BurgerTime, Popeye and Q*Bert, it was an utterly playable video game and represented everything early arcade-going was all about. I only wish I'd spent more time with it.

It's inexplicable to me that Donkey Kong (along with the rest of Nintendo's arcade creations) isn't available for download on the Virtual Console, which even has an "arcade" category! How does that happen? The only one who's provided any kind of explanation is Jeremy Parish, who informs us that Nintendo outsourced the game's programming to a third party and unknowingly forfeited certain rights to ownership. Still--if it's your intellectual property, and it holds such tremendous weight within your industry, wouldn't you do everything in your power to gain full control of it?

Apparently not.

So consumers had to make do with the gimped NES release, which was still considered the best version to appear on the home-console market. Well, not by me, really, since I never actually purchased a copy of the game; rather, I mostly played it at my friend Dominick's house and only then briefly. Strange as it is to say, the more-readily-available 2600 game remained my most-played version of Donkey Kong until the start of the 90s.

I didn't touch the NES version again until the late 90s, when I became aware of emulation. Naturally, before I realized that I could use such nefarious means to play games I'd either never owned or heard of, I gravitated toward familiar properties like Donkey Kong. And though I never thought too highly of the NES version, it was worth spending a few minutes with it if only to soak up its classic 8-bit vibe and reminisce about fun times that back then weren't so far removed. With a little practice, I even learned how to effectively avoid those bouncing springs, no matter their trajectory (though, such knowledge doesn't necessarily translate to the arcade original's more-unforgiving elevator stage, which I've been able to tackle again thanks to MAME, but it's a start!).

Lately, I've been getting my occasional Donkey Kong fix via the 3DS Virtual Console version, which I got free of charge thanks to Nintendo's Ambassador Program, launched in 2011 when the portable wasn't selling too hot and the company was forced to lower the price. I also grabbed the Wii U version when it was made available for 33 cents, since I was curious to see how Nintendo's new console handled NES emulation. And also because I'm a sucker. But I mainly stick to the 3DS version, since the game feels more at home on the company's portables, which still have the strong aura of "Nintendo spirit" that its last three consoles have sorely lacked. I'll continue to be thrilled that I can experience old games like Donkey Kong in this form.

Still, I'll continue to hold out hope that Nintendo can sort out the entanglements of its past business arrangements and get the game-changing arcade original on its Virtual Console services. Games of its caliber need to be readily available and shouldn't be lost to either time or pettiness. The NES version, though it has its charm, will never be a suitable substitute.

If you can just get to work on that, Ninty, I'd be eternally grateful, as would everyone else who cares about the preservation of video games.

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