Donkey Kong '94
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Based on: Reinventing a classic with far more panache than the hangers-on.
By Anthony Rogers | July 6, 2009
It's difficult to discuss Donkey Kong for Game Boy (more commonly referred to as Donkey Kong '94) without disparaging the original Donkey Kong? a bit. Of course the old arcade title was a landmark title in its time, and of course it isn't bad in any way. By today's standards, though, it's a bit... lacking. Maybe that's blasphemous, but the problem isn't that the graphics ain't so purty no more as much as it is that the game really only has four stages, a very limited move set, and frustrating rules. The original Donkey Kong is still enjoyable enough to boot up from time to time, but as a complete package it just doesn't feel up to snuff. Everything about gaming, from mechanics to level design, has matured remarkably since its release, thanks in large part to its influence, and nowhere is this more obvious than in Donkey Kong '94.
It's Nintendo's own fault for inviting direct comparison, of course. One of the best things about Donkey Kong '94 is that it starts out by completely -- ahem -- aping the original. Once again, the game has Kong nabbing Pauline and climbing up the construction tower, with Mario -- apparently two-timing Princess Toadstool at this point -- in hot pursuit. The following four stages are the same familiar ones found in the arcade game, perhaps a questionable decision on Nintendo's part. After all, there are some gamers out there (myself included) who skipped the game because they thought it was just a port. Little did we know that the similarities were merely setup for a fantastic bait 'n' switch: once Mario sends DK tumbling down at the end of Stage 4, the gorilla picks himself up and runs off with Pauline again, resulting in a chase that spans ninety-seven additional levels. That's right, Donkey Kong '94 features 101 total stages... a slight increase over the original's paltry four.
Of course, four stages were just fine in the original Donkey Kong because it was an arcade game; the point wasn't to see the ending so much as it was to post a high score. Really, this style probably would have worked out just fine for the Game Boy version -- after all, one of the systems most popular titles, Tetris, was all about repeating something over and over for a high score and was even considered a perfect match for the portable nature of the system. In fact, if there's a single complaint that can be lobbed at Donkey Kong '94, it's that the game has few concessions to the portable format. A small price to pay, though, considering that its lack of comprises resulted in one of the best puzzle platformers of all time.
Yes, puzzle platformer. Starting with the fifth level -- the first new Donkey Kong level since 1982 -- a lock-and-key mechanic is introduced. The basic idea is simple enough: avoid enemies and hazards to grab the key, and bring it to the door to go to the next level. This task quickly ceases to be so straightforward, however, and that's where the puzzle aspect comes in. Sometimes getting to the key is easy enough, but navigating the level -- especially while carrying your golden (well, black and white) burden -- can require serious thinking; other times it's the reverse, and simply getting the key is a task worth of a Zelda game. And yes, sometimes the key is right next to the door, but reaching them takes a bit of work. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the game, though, is that it almost perfectly walks that line between puzzling and platforming; unlike most platformers -- in which an occasionally easy puzzle is thrown in to mix things up (or, say, something like Braid) which definitely emphasizes the clever brain-bending puzzles over platforming skills -- Donkey Kong '94 instead blends the two perfectly.
To cope with this shift in game design, we get the third improvement over the original game: Mario's move set. Almost as a backlash against the stiffness he was constrained with in the original Donkey Kong, the design team decided to make Mario an actual jump man this time around. In fact, many of the moves we know as staples from Super Mario 64 -- handstands, double and triple jumps, and the flip jump (a personal favorite) -- were introduced here, two years earlier. In some cases, these skills were more useful than their 3D counterparts. The handstand, for example, was a much, much better skill; unlike in Mario 64, Mario could hop on his hands at will, the purpose of which was twofold: one, it would allow him to spring up almost as high as a triple jump, great for reaching high places without a lot of space to run; and two, barrels that would normally kill him would bounce off his apparently indestructible shoes -- handy when you're dealing with an ape with a penchant for throwing said barrels.
This layer of depth was applied to all of Mario's original moves. No longer was Mario forced to simply die like a weakling; now he was a hero chasing an anthropomorphic gorilla around the planet and had the skills to prove he was up to the task. For example, falling from more than a foot's height -- one of the most frustrating things in the original -- is no longer automatically an instant death. Instead, Mario either lands safely, hits the ground and rolls, or dies -- depending, of course, on how far you fall. Hammers work largely the same, except now Mario can throw a hammer into the air and grab it again in case he, say, needs to leap over a pit (as opposed to the original game, where your choices were to wait until the hammer was spent, or die). There are even moves from other games thrown in for good measure, such as using the key as a weapon ŕ la Super Mario Bros. 2, or climbing vines as in Donkey Kong Jr.?
Of course, it's one thing to have great moves and nothing to do with them; videogaming is littered with entries that have suffered from this very problem. Happily that isn't the case here; on the contrary, Mario's increased mobility is constantly put to the test. There are pits too wide to clear without triple jumps, enemies and moving hazards that can only be avoided with the flip jump, and boss fights where the barrels must be deflected with your feet and then thrown back at the top banana himself. Every single move was added for a reason, and you'd better believe there are at least a couple puzzles using every one, be it simple jumps or the new hammer throw. And since the key disappears after being left alone for more than a few seconds, even the more puzzle-laden portions of the game benefit from Mario's new moves—the game is, after all, arguably as much about the puzzles you're jumping on as it is the actual platforming.
Additionally, a cut scene plays after each boss level, and unlike every other Mario game ever, these are very welcome. For starters, they're short -- only five seconds or so in length. More importantly, though, each and every one gives a hint of what's to come by either showing off a new skill or introducing how a new obstacle works. The game will never unfairly throw something at you without first giving a hint to overcome it, sidestepping the single most annoying pitfall puzzle platformers fall into. This can't be stressed enough. The fact that you already know how each individual piece within any given stage works is a testament to how much thought went into the puzzles and level design; the challenge stems from the level design itself rather than confusing the player. Equally impressive is the fact that the game largely avoids the standard pitfall of giving you a new ability then casting it aside once that segment is done (something even the best Zelda games are guilty of). Instead, you're expected to utilize the new moves as well as everything that's come before it if you want to survive. Once a new skill is used, it will continue popping up until the end of the game. And while introducing these new elements keeps the game fresh until the end, the best part is that you never actually earn the new abilities shown, like in a Mega Man or Zelda. You may have never needed them before, but of course you had the power inside you all along.
Where Donkey Kong was an inspiring tale about a normal man with a higher-than-average jump setting out to save a girl, Donkey Kong '94 was an absolute joy to play because it was about a fully capable hero tackling impossible obstacles. And like the best heroes, it wasn't simply a test of strength that proved his worth. Without a sharp mind, Mario would never (spoilers!) take down the big ape once and for all. It is designed in such a way that the two aspects of the game -- that is, platforming and puzzles -- complement one other perfectly, rather than being an even split between the two: an incredibly rare feat for the genre. Game Boy games are largely hit or miss when put up against the test of time, so finding one that's not only playable but can actually stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any modern game is the finest form of praise Donkey Kong '94 deserves.