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Monday, December 30, 2013

NES Replay: Donkey Kong 3

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1986
I'll set the stage for you.

I was about 12 or 13 years old. My aunt was having a wedding reception at a bar with a banquet hall. We were told to stay in the banquet hall and not go into the bar, but I noticed arcade games in the bar. Naturally, I wandered over there just to get a peek.

Now, I was just as video-game obsessed at that young age as I am now, if not more so. I kept a notebook where I wrote down the name of every game that I had a chance to play, even I had only played it for a minute or two. I read every video game magazine that I could get my hands on and even studied up on games that I knew I would never have a chance to play. I prided myself on my knowledge of every game possible.

So imagine my surprise when I found an arcade game called Donkey Kong 3. I was absolutely stunned and refused to believe that such a thing existed. I thought there was only Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr., and this game had to be a mistake. I had to play it.

My mom hated video games with a passion and refused to give me a quarter. Fortunately, I had an aunt who was more than willing to give me some change, so I got a chance to try out Donkey Kong 3. What I found was a pretty weird game, but one that my young mind thought was pretty good.

So, almost 20 years later, Donkey Kong 3 and I meet again. Would I still like it after all this time?

Short answer: No.


Donkey Kong 3 was a radical departure from the previous games in the series. Instead of playing as Mario, you play as Stanley the Bugman. He's in a greenhouse, and Donkey Kong hangs from bars up above. In every level, Donkey Kong stirs up some bugs by punching some beehives, and Stanley has to shoot them down with bug spray. Shoot down enough, and Donkey Kong gets bored and leaves. You also need to keep shooting Donkey Kong in the butt with bug spray, or else he'll drop down to the bottom of the screen and you'll lose a life.

It's such a radical departure from the first two games that its mere existence is strange. After all, why is Donkey Kong in a greenhouse? Why is he punching beehives? Where is Mario?

Here's my completely unsupported and wildly speculative theory: Donkey Kong 3 was more than likely designed with other characters in mind, and at the last minute Donkey Kong was slapped in there just to get more sales. The facts add up: Mario isn't in this game, bugs and plants were never a part of Donkey Kong, and Donkey Kong 3 is more of a shooter than a platformer.

It's also just merely an OK game, and Nintendo had to know what they had on their hands. If they released a game called "Stanley the Bugman" into arcades, no one would have bought it. But if they released a game called Donkey Kong 3, it would automatically get sold on name recognition alone before word got out about its quality. I can't verify this theory, of course, so it's all conjecture on my part.

The NES port of Donkey Kong 3 is extremely faithful. The graphics look almost identical to the arcade game, the sounds are correct, and everything is dead-on. As with the first two games, the NES hardware was more than capable of rendering Donkey Kong 3.

However, what kills this game is that it plays exactly like an arcade shooter shouldn't. In a typical shooter, the first level should get you acclimated to the controls and ease you into the game. You don't hammer the player immediately with too much, especially when you're introducing new gameplay mechanics.

You could make the argument that when Donkey Kong 3 was originally released in 1982, players should have been able to balance a lot of different tasks at once, even at the beginning of a game. However, other developers didn't think so.

Consider: Galaga was released in 1981. At the beginning of the first level, you're presented with a ship and a few enemies that move in a tight formation. They're not firing at you yet, just flying into formation. Then there's the next batch, and the next batch, and after a few they finally start firing at the player.

Arkanoid was released in 1986. At the beginning of the first level, you have a paddle and a ball that you bounce off the bricks up above. The ball moves fast, but you have about 30 seconds to get used to the controls before things get crazy.

Compare this to Donkey Kong 3. At the beginning of the first level, two enemies immediately start floating down to you. Your shots don't travel very far, so have to get in close to the enemy to kill them, but wait! The enemies don't travel in a predictable pattern! They zig and zag a bit, more like leaves falling from trees. Meanwhile, Donkey Kong inches down the bars, and there are some flowers you have to protect, and there's a spray can at the top of the screen, and-

When you compare what Donkey Kong 3 expects the player to do versus what other games of the period expected players to do, it's insane. No wonder that Donkey Kong 3 was virtually forgotten for years. Some people love that style of play, and good for them. However, as Nintendo learned in time, if you chase after the narrow demographic that wants crazy difficulty, you'll only have those players and no one else.

Final Rating: