Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Donkey Kong (Game Boy) - The Great Revival of '94
They told me that Super Game Boy augmentation was essential, but the amazingly expansive nature of this reimagined arcade classic, alone, was all of the "enhancement" I'd ever need.

For most of my youth, I was more what you'd call a "console guy." As far as I was concerned, a video game was best enjoyed when viewed on a television screen in maximum resolution with the most colorful presentation possible. If a new game or a new entry in one of my favorite series was said to be in production, it would be my immediate preference that it appear exclusively on the currently popular console, which was surely the only commercially available platform that could do it any justice. Bigger was better when it came to gaming, I felt, and nothing was going to change my opinion of the matter.

I started softening up on that stance as the Game Boy came into its own and continued demonstrating for me that truly great games had the innate power to rise above the limitations of their technology, but I remained set in my ways. It would take a drastic shift in perspective over the next decade for me to see that portable systems could be as viable as their console siblings when it came to being the go-to platform for games. But as it was for the better part of the 90s, the larger part of my heart belonged to the little gray boxes that stood beneath my 20-inch Sony-brand television.

That's why I was so excited when Nintendo Power Volume 60 revealed the existence of the Super Game Boy--a specially crafted SNES accessory that would grant me the ability to play Game Boy games on the big screen! It was like a dream come true: I would finally be able to experience all of my handheld favorites in a more desirable form--to free them from the Game Boy's blurry, pea-green dot-matrix display and view their newly rendered pixels at the scaled-up resolutions that would allow for me to more thoroughly examine and appreciate the portable worlds whose subtleties might have previously gone unnoticed!

"Why, after buying the Super Game Boy," I thought, "I might never return to that old gray brick!"

I was also greatly intrigued by the Super Game Boy's customization features and particularly the option to replace the standard monochrome presentation with my own personally devised four-color schemes. The magazine illustrated how you could go about manipulating a game's palette, highlighting among others the never-before-seen Game Boy version of Donkey Kong (which until then had only appeared on the "Future Games" sidebar found in the magazine's later pages); it appeared to be nothing more than a bland, miniaturized port of the arcade game, so I was apt to disregard it entirely. Rather, I was more interested in seeing what the Super Game Boy could do for Wario Land, The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, and Metroid II: Return of Samus, whose lone screenshot became an object of my fascination for how closely its color-scheme had been altered matched its NES predecessor's!

"Imagine being able to make one of the Mario or Mega Man Game Boy games look exactly like its NES counterpart!" I thought to myself, the very idea filling me with excitement.

It turned out that Donkey Kong--and not the games upon which I was so busy fixating--was meant to be the Super Game Boy's showpiece, but I somehow missed that inference. Hell--Donkey Kong was given feature coverage in the next issue of Nintendo Power, wherein its advanced feature-set was discussed in-depth, and I still failed to grasp the game's relevance; I basically ignored all of the coverage, if anything showing my determination to dismissively skim through it. Thus, I didn't even notice that there was a lot more to Donkey Kong than what the original depictions suggested.

But paying closer attention wouldn't have mattered, anyway, since I wasn't especially interested in purchasing a Super Game Boy-exclusive title and instead coveted the device for its ability to enhance the games in my existing library. And I didn't have enough attachment to the original Donkey Kong, or any its sequels, to justify any further investment. (Also, I might have been leery of the "Donkey Kong" brand, whose half-decade of dormancy following the poorly received Donkey Kong 3 worked to tarnish the big ape's name.)

I couldn't wait for the day to come when I could snap that Super Game Boy cartridge into my SNES and begin colorizing all of those old Game Boy games; by my estimation, seeing these games in their newly rendered forms would be akin to discovering them all over again! The more I'd build it up in my head, the more disappointed I'd grow when my daily inquiries to the local electronic stores were met with confused-sounding replies like "Are you sure the magazine said it's coming out this year?" The Super Game Boy had no solid release date, and retailers didn't seem to know anything about it, so my only option was to search the strip every day after school in hope that it had arrived overnight. I even recruited my poor father into the effort and sent him out on a daily goose-chase in pursuit of a product that very well might have been delayed or, worse yet, canceled completely.
Right around the time the final week of school was elapsing, I was ready to give up and start refocusing my attention on the SNES games that were releasing that summer. That's when it happened: Following one school day in particular, I jumped into my father's car as soon as he arrived to pick me up, and the first thing I saw inside was a plastic bag bearing the label of Electronics Boutique. I knew right away what it contained. 

Indeed, it was my new Super Game Boy, which I was thrilled to finally be holding in my hands! But there was also something else in that plastic bag--something square-shaped. Before I could remove the mystery item from the bag's clutches, my father started explaining to me that Electronics Boutique was the only store that had the Super Game Boy in stock, and they'd chosen to bundle it with a game; so he had no choice but to lay out some extra cash and buy a packaged set. The game in question was--you guessed it--Donkey Kong, the sight of which elicited from me an inaudible groan. Not only was I the unwilling owner of a game I had no interest in playing--it wound up costing me an additional $40 on top of the Super Game Boy's MSRP of $60!

"Oh well," I thought. "It's better than not having the Super Game Boy at all."

When I got home, I tossed Donkey Kong off to the side and focused instead on what really mattered to me; that is, I immediately got to work testing out the Super Game Boy with all of my favorites--the Super Mario Land games, Metroid II: Return of Samus, Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge, Mega Man: Dr. Wily's Revenge, and the like. I spent the next few days joyously replaying them in glorious TV-display mode while attempting to marry their respective color schemes to the most closely related NES games, with varying results. I could fix it to where Metroid II and Super Mario Land closely resembled the NES originals, yeah, but I couldn't do the same for, say, Wily's Revenge, whose version of Mega Man always looked as though he had a blue 5 o'clock shadow (I learned quickly that the Game Boy's sprite memory was even more limited than I realized).

However I'd configure things, I'd pair up my personalized Game Boy creations with the theater-based border (my personal favorite) to give the experience the feel of a grand production. You know--as if someone would actually care to come to a theater and spend two and a half hours watching me cautiously trek my way through Planet SR388 for the 40th time.

The Super Game Boy delivered to me exactly what I desired, but, sadly, I was fast running out of old games to embellish. After exhausting all of the available options, I got desperate, so I thought that I might as well snap in Donkey Kong and attempt to extract from it what little value I could. At the least, it would be interesting to see what a "Super Game Boy exclusive" looked like and what its enhancements entailed.

The game, itself, was exactly what I was anticipating--an aesthetically limited, exceptionally cramped version of the arcade classic. As I breezed through its four stages, I started to feel even more ripped off than I did originally; I mean, I'd just dumped $40 for a modern game-release that had less content than some of those old 2600 games I was still digging up. Sure--the specially designed border; the clean-looking, highly indicative color scheme; and Pauline's crisply sampled, clear-sounding cries of "Help! Help!" were neat little touches, but they weren't enough dressing for a game that was way too simplistic in design. Right then is when Donkey Kong walloped me over the head.

When I cleared that fourth and "final" stage, I expected that Pauline would reunite with Mario, warmly embracing her hero, and then the game would simply loop back to the first stage. Instead, the victory music was interrupted by an ominous ditty and Kong's unexpected, earth-shaking recovery, which collapsed what was left of the building's frame and sent the pair plunging to the metallic, girder-lined surface below. Whereas Mario went splat, Pauline fell into the waiting arms of Kong, who threw her over his shoulder and swiftly fled the scene. I had no clue where all of this was going. Was this merely a revised, more elaborate ending sequence? Did Nintendo throw in a few extra bonus stages? Or was it that good ol' oblivious me, as usual, was missing something?

Suddenly the scene shifted to the "Big City" and, from what I could tell, an entirely different game--a platformer of a different stripe, with an actual musical score, colorful background graphics, and a freshly exhibited sense of energy. In my confusion, I turned to the game's manual, which I neglected to read beforehand, and discovered the truth: Donkey Kong was in fact a whole new game--a unique puzzle-platformer that was only using the arcade original's existing structure as a jumping-off point. In this new variation, my goal was to gain possession of a key and use it to open the door through which Kong had escaped moments before. The whole process reminded of Super Mario Bros. 2 and specifically how you had to maneuver a Phanto-guarded key over to a locked door. "Now this is intriguing," I thought.

From there, I began a long journey through one of the most wondrously atmospheric, lovingly designed video games I'd played in any format--portable, console, computer, arcade or otherwise. And I never saw it coming. 

It was frankly amazing how quickly my opinion began to shift as the game I initially perceived to be an uninspired port of Donkey Kong suddenly blossomed into a self-contained, fully realized puzzle-platformer.

I honestly don't recall much about how that first experience with Donkey Kong played out, nor do I have any recollection of my first reactions to its newly introduced worlds or my mental processes for solving their many puzzles. I remember only how I felt about it: How I loved letting my imagination give full form to its simply-drawn-yet-utterly-thought-provoking background graphics. How I enjoyed soaking in its distinctly calming vibes. How much fun I had maneuvering the acrobatic Mario about its varied stage environments. And how amazed I was that Nintendo managed to shove all of this content into such a tiny cartridge--that the game's development team was able to take the original Donkey Kong formula and silently use it as the foundation for one of the most extraordinary expansive platformers ever produced!

I'll readily admit that most of my favorite Game Boy games weren't exactly top-shelf masterpieces; rather, they were great "portable games," comparable in quality to those of their ilk but not so much to the best games that consoles and computers had to offer. Donkey Kong, much like Link's Awakening, was of a different breed; it could stand among the best on any platform, including the SNES, on which I could play it in console form thanks to the Super Game Boy. Now, I don't mean to suggest that playing it on the big screen was a requisite; oh, no--Donkey Kong played just as brilliantly on the Game Boy's small screen, which it turned out still had years'-worth of video-game action to display.

My history with Donkey Kong, through which I played multiple times on screens both large and small, is more about persistent feelings than specific memories of events. I have, for example, always felt the same away about the alluring backdrop of its first world, the Big City. It represents my favorite setting in the game because of the way the buildings in the distance hover silently, their seemingly abandoned surroundings lending the action an air of detached isolation--a sense that the inhabitants lurking behind those windows and within those between-spaces wish to remain blissfully unaware of the craziness happening right in front of them; the tone of quaint, jazzy music adds a touch of mystery and invites me to wonder about what's actually going on back there on what looks to be a quiet, relaxed Sunday afternoon.

Much of Donkey Kong's environmental conveyance works to that effect. Its secluded forest and jungle settings are bathed in remote tranquility, their unruffled trees and flora the only knowing witnesses to Mario and Kong's shenanigans. The pirate ship's atmosphere oozes serenity--a calm influence that works to neutralize the presence of the ship's mindless crew of monsters. At one point, Mario and Kong maneuver their way around both the interior and exterior portions of a plane that's currently airborne--the rivals braving its dangerous, normally restricted mechanical compartments and the windy, unsteady surfaces of its wings and rudders--while somehow never disturbing its flight or drawing the attention of the people on board. The world is their unsupervised playground.

For me, these scenes manage to capture the state of gaming at the time of Donkey Kong's release, their wondrous simplicity reminding of a era when there were far fewer distractions and I had all the time in the world to spend ruminating about a mass of pixels in a 2D video game. All was right in the universe when I could play Donkey Kong on a summer afternoon and let its serene vibes wash over and inspire me.

I was astounded by the game's depth. On the surface, it bore a strong resemblance to the original Donkey Kong, which I remembered as being limited in scope, but under its hood lay a cleverly concealed convergence of refined elements as taken from a number of different Mario and Donkey Kong games. Mario could climb ropes and vines with either one or two hands just as the younger Kong could in Donkey Kong Jr. In addition to snatching up keys, he could lift up enemies and toss them into one another--a mechanic as borrowed from Super Mario Bros. 2. Colliding with a mushroom would shrink him down to half-size, similarly to how poison mushrooms would in that other Super Mario Bros. 2. He could even execute acrobatic moves like the cartwheel flip and a momentum-fueled double jump, which were seemingly ripped from the future Super Mario 64 as if Nintendo were giving us a preview of things to come.

If you weren't the experimental type, you might have thought that Donkey Kong's transition scenes were introducing moves and mechanics that weren't previously available to you, but in reality you had access to the full repertoire from the start. For me, this was the main source of the game's replayability: Once I knew that you could pull off high-flying jumps at any time, I could play it again and approach the early stages with a renewed tenacity. The developers, I'd learn, were keen to let me do whatever I wanted--to improvise my own solutions. Mine was the freedom to toss myself about however I saw fit. I'd forevermore rely chiefly on heavy abuse of the cartwheel flip, which trivialized certain challenges, sure, but didn't break the game; it couldn't, because there was no such thing in Donkey Kong. That's why it was so fun to play: I was encouraged to find the quickest solutions using any means necessary.

It blended these elements together so well yet it always had the perfect solution when there was a call for compromise. Take Mario's endurance, for instance: He wasn't invincible, of course, but he also wasn't anywhere near as fragile as his arcade counterpart. And since Donkey Kong was a convergence of the two games' disparate design philosophies, the developers were forced to come up with reconciliatory death conditions. Their inventive solution: Mario wouldn't die after falling three inches, no; rather, there was now a threshold for how far he could fall before his descent would turn fatal. Drop two or three stories and he'd simply tumble over, the control loss minimal. Drop four or five and he'd violently splat, the shaken Mario requiring a few seconds of recovery time. Anything higher than that and he'd die instantly upon impact. The point is that the system allowed me the freedom to take crazy risks and reap big rewards, which I appreciated.

And, really, dying wasn't even that great a concern in Donkey Kong, since the game liked to hand out extra lives like Quaaludes at a Bill Cosby meet-and-greet. This is the point in Mario history where lives started to become more of a secondary scoring system--basically a new measure of achievement; part of the fun of Donkey Kong, therein, was trying to reach the 99-lives limit as quickly as possible. (I considered my campaign a failure if I hadn't accrued 99 lives by the time I'd reached the jungle world's midpoint.)

The average puzzle game was content to introduce one new mechanic or enemy type per world, but Donkey Kong had the ambition to roll out new stuff all the time--practically on a stage-by-stage basis. That it was teaching me how to jump across a series of falling icicles wasn't an assurance that the following stage wouldn't hold other surprises. No--in addition, I could suddenly be using switches to extend or retract platforms for the purpose of cleverly steering enemies to alternate locations where they might act as assisting platforms or some other means of transport (I could, for instance, manipulate a patrolling monkey over to another portion of the stage where I could use its hanging tail as the means for crossing over a previously unnavigable spike. Though, I was always cautious not to restrain the monkey in any way, since doing so would cause it to emit a sad-sound squeal--a sound I couldn't stand to hear. The poor thing).

Otherwise, I might have been building my own path forward using either one or a series of time-based do-it-yourself contraptions (platforms, ladders and springs). Tossing a hammer into the air and catching it upon its descent--on a higher or lower level, where I'd be allowed to continue harnessing its destructive power. Using a set of conveyors to transport a key to a desired location before racing to retrieve it. Launching myself across a stage after furiously swinging around a vertically or diagonally aligned wire. Using Mario's handstand move to deflect falling debris and halt the movement of rolling barrels. Strategically baiting enemies into shoving a crouching Mario through the crevices he otherwise couldn't negotiate. Or finding the location of an invisible doorway, the approximate positioning of which would be revealed to me during the stage-opening sequence via an audio cue. You know--to see if I was paying any attention. (Spoiler: I usually wasn't.)

Donkey Kong hit me with one inventive scenario after another.

Oh, it had all of the usual Mario standbys like swimming, collapsing/disintegrating blocks, and momentum-influencing wind storms, but they were often applied more creatively than I expected. I mean, I could recall many instances where I'd swam through oceans filled with aggressive piranha-like creatures, sure, but never across waterfalls while dodging spikes and mushrooms!

And stages weren't bound to a single theme. Some were rooted purely in platforming. Others were heavily puzzle-based, their completion requiring observation, experimentation and deduction. And quite a few were about testing my reflexes. I loved that they included Donkey Kong Jr.-style stages wherein Mario was tasked with navigating across series of vines or ropes, his movements governed by a familiar rule-set (swiftly climb upward by grasping onto two parallel vines at a time, and speedily descend downward using only a single rope); I was absolutely tickled by how the second-to-last Kong battle reprised Donkey Kong Jr.'s final stage--this time with Mario caging the meddlesome, mushroom-tossing Junior. In fact, all of the stages in final world were cleverly remixed versions of the originals.

I couldn't think of many other games that had managed to cram in that much content without losing their focus.

Now that I think about it, I do have one other solid memory of my first play-through of Donkey Kong: I recall how much I struggled with the game's aggravating final battle against the giant-sized Donkey Kong, who would continuously score cheap hits on me in the final phase. I must've dumped about 20 lives trying to endure it. 

It was nothing that could dampen what was otherwise an amazing experience, but I do remember being particularly angry with the game--for a few minutes, anyway. I did enjoy, though, how its ending sequence created continuity between Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros., with Mario finding access to the Mushroom Kingdom and suddenly becoming "super" (this was of course back in an era when I could still hold to the belief that there was an official canon). And that credits theme, man; it couldn't have done a better job of saturating the air with feel-good vibes.

Donkey Kong '94, as I would come to call it, wasn't the type of game I could put down for too long. Oh, no--I'd continue returning to it on a monthly basis, be it on the classic Game Boy or the Super Game Boy, on the road or at home. In fact, it holds the distinction of being the only portable game I was never able to comfortably slot as either a "home" or "road" game; it wasn't possible, because Donkey Kong '94 was a game that transcended labels in the same way its innate quality transcended the Super Game Boy's so-called "essential enhancement" (though, I do prefer the colorized version by a bit, if only for how the augmentation makes a lot of the game's background work feel more distinct). Had my Game Boy not died on me, my tradition of playing it once every two or three months would have continued uninterrupted. 

That I'd been away from the game for so long was the reason I jumped at the chance to download it when it came to the 3DS Virtual Console in June of 2011. Doing so has allowed me to once again play Donkey Kong on a semi-regular basis--to play a cherished favorite on what has since become my preferred platform for video games (my only disappointment is that portable Virtual Console releases lack a Super Game Boy-style custimization option, which I think is a desirable feature). With any luck, the increased availability has helped to bring notoriety to a game that certainly deserves to be mentioned among Nintendo's best. For Donkey Kong, one of gaming's shiniest games, its continuing to fly under the radar would be an absolute travesty.

Donkey Kong is one of the best portable games ever made but not one that I'd classify a "quintessential Game Boy game." No--Donkey Kong, as it's apt to do, rises above classification. Its spirit may be intrinsically linked to the Game Boy's unmistakable specifications, but this is one game that hardware, alone, could never accurately define. Donkey Kong is, quite simply, a great game wherever or however you choose play it.

For the big ape, the unsung labor of love affectionately known as Donkey Kong '94 was the first show in a comeback tour that would find its greatest success in the months ahead. For me, it was a reintroduction to an iconic antagonist whose pioneering games deserved more of my appreciation.

For the medium at large, Donkey Kong was further proof that amazing games come in all shapes and sizes.

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