Monday, June 24, 2013

Video Game Review: Donkey Kong for Atari 2600

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Two fun levels similar to the arcade game
Cons: Too simple to hold your attention for long
The Bottom Line:
A few fun moments
Missing too much from arcade
So just average

Help Mario Rescue His New Girlfriend from Donkey Kong

It's funny how characters evolve.  When we first met Mario and Donkey Kong, they were enemies, and Mario was trying to rescue a girl from the giant ape.  (Shades of King Kong anyone?)  In modern Nintendo games, the two characters seem to be friends and good guys.  But if you want to relive their first adventure, you can pull out Donkey Kong for the Atari 2600.

Back in the 80's, any popular arcade game made its way to the only video game system anyone had.  Okay, there were others, but almost everyone had the Atari 2600.  The Atari didn't have very good graphics and the sound was only okay.  But I still spent hours playing this system.

Now, there are variations on the story behind the characters in Donkey Kong.  When the game first came out, the main character was simply called "JumpingMan."  And I've heard that he is supposed to be rescuing his daughter.  But according to the booklet with this cartridge, his name is Mario and he is after his new girlfriend.  (I guess that part hasn't changed.  Even today, Mario is trying to rescue a girl.)

While there were several different levels in the arcade version, only two of them made it to the Atari version.  The first level is the classic everyone associates with this game.  In it, Mario has to run up ramps and climb ladders, all the time dodging barrels that Donkey Kong is throwing down on him.  Okay, so Donkey Kong and the girl never move.  Just use your imagination and memories from the arcade.  Mario can jump over the barrels fairly easily, the biggest challenge is making sure a barrel doesn't decide to come down the ladder you are climbing, but that's just a matter of timing.

The second level involves loosing rivets in a metal structure.  There are eight of them, two on each level.  All you have to do is run over them.  The challenge is to dodge the fireballs.  There is one on each level, and they don't climb on the ladders.  You can jump them, although they require just a bit more timing than the barrels in level one.  The fireballs can't move over an open rivet, and you have to jump over them yourself.  As soon as you release that last rivet, the game freezes and then you are back to level one with slightly faster barrels.

Like in the arcade version, there is a hammer that Mario can use to protect himself from the barrels and fireballs.  There's only one on each level.  It can be fun in the first level since you might hit two or three barrels, but it's pointless in level two.  You can only get one fireball since they don't climb ladders and you can't with the hammer.

You start the game with three lives; you never have the option of earning extra lives.  But that's okay because you just repeat these two levels endlessly.  You are playing for points, and the biggest point gain is for beating the level.  You have a bonus clock counting down from 5000.

There are no game variations and no two player mode.  Even the difficulty switches in the back don't do anything.  There is one way to play and one way only.

I already hinted that the graphics aren't the best, but that's not surprising if you are at all familiar with the Atari 2600.  Basically, even thing was done with blocks, so anything round has squarish edges.  You can tell what is happening, but it's so crude compared to what we have today.

Likewise, the sound is pretty poor.  You get one sound when Mario is walking and another when he jumps.  A little fanfare sounds when you complete a level.  Pretty much, that's it.

Since I hadn't played for a while, I wasn't sure how I'd do when I stuck this game in for a refresher.  I found it very easy.  I easily made it through three sets of both levels on my first game, only dying thanks to stupid mistakes on my part.  While I wouldn't swear I found this game that easy as a kid, I don't remember playing it for more than 10 minutes at a time - just enough to scratch the Donkey Kong itch.

Ultimately, that just makes this particular game average.  I realize that, given the limitations of the Atari 2600 system, this is probably the best they could do.  And I do have fun when I play it.  But I usually gravitate to some of the other games I have over this one when I sit down to play, and I have for years.  This isn't a classic version of the classic arcade game.

These days, there are better versions of this classic arcade game out there.  I'd recommend tracking down one of those and giving the Atari 2600 version of Donkey Kong a pass unless you really want this version.  It's amusing for a little while, but it's too simple and easy to hold anyone's interest for very long.

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