Monday, December 16, 2013

NES Replay: Donkey Kong

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1986
As influential and far-reaching as games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda were, none of them would have existed without Donkey Kong. By 1986, it was clear that the NES was a hit, so it was time for Nintendo to make a home version of their most important game.

Donkey Kong put Nintendo on the map in more ways than one. Obviously, it was very popular game and made Nintendo a lot of money, but it also helped Nintendo in a more intangible, indirect way. When Donkey Kong was released in 1981, Nintendo was sued by Universal Pictures for copyright infringement. Their claim was that the names "Donkey Kong" and "King Kong" were too similar, they both had a giant ape that the property was named after and both of the apes were on the top of a structure with a damsel in distress. Nintendo's counter-argument was, "Nuh-uh."

Yet, surprisingly enough, Nintendo won the lawsuit. They were the smaller company, with smaller coffers and less of a footprint, going up against one of the biggest movie studios in the world. A video game company wasn't supposed to roundly defeat another entertainment entity in court like that, especially one as entrenched as Universal.

That win helped Nintendo realize that they weren't just fighting against the big boys, they were one of the big boys. That was a huge boost, not only for Nintendo but for gaming as a whole.

As a result of the ruling, Nintendo could keep on making their Donkey Kong arcade machines with impunity. There was another problem, though: Arcade machines are a very difficult business model in general. At the time, each arcade machine retailed for about $2000-3000, so it represented a considerable investment on the part of the purchaser. An arcade machine that wasn't popular would just sit there, gathering dust. Purchasers like arcades and bars could only invest in a game that would get them their money back. If an arcade game wasn't immediately attention-grabbing or wasn't good at getting money out of players, it wasn't going to find a buyer.

That meant that arcade machines were frequently an all-or-nothing proposition. There weren't sleeper arcade hits. For a game to make any money, it had to sell a lot of units, and fast. Nintendo could offset costs by licensing their games to other companies who would, in turn, make and sell the arcade cabinets, but it was still a business model fraught with risks.

At its peak popularity, there were about 60,000 Donkey Kong machines in the wild. That's about $120 million in revenue by a conservative estimate (over $250 million if you adjust for inflation). That's a good chunk of change, but you have to remember that Donkey Kong was an all-time hit. Other companies weren't always so lucky.

For that reason, developers of arcade games tried to port their games to home consoles. That came with its own problems. For example, Namco had made Pac-Man and raked in money at the arcades. Taito made Space Invaders and made a ton of cash too. Yet, in order to port their games to other systems they had to rely on other companies to provide the console and do the porting. In Taito's case, the port of Space Invaders was brilliant and sold millions of Atari 2600s. In Namco's case, the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man was a historically bad game. A bad port could be someone's first experience with a game and could almost destroy a brand irrevocably.

Nintendo, on the other hand, controlled their own console and controlled their own software development. With that much control, they could do whatever they wanted. That sort of freedom should have been liberating. Instead, though, there was a troubling problem. Donkey Kong had four levels in the arcade version. The NES version excluded one of the levels because of "space reasons."

Do you believe that reason? I don't. It's completely ridiculous, and nothing you can say can convince me otherwise. They were able to squeeze 32 levels into the cartridge of Super Mario Bros., weren't they?

The "space reasons" argument is more than likely bunk. While Donkey Kong was six years old at this point, people were still buying and playing Donkey Kong arcade machines. Nintendo didn't want to cut off one part of their business to pump up another part, and by eliminating one of the levels in the console port the arcade game was still relevant. While it makes sense from a business standpoint, it's still kind of a crappy move on Nintendo's part.

As far as the game itself goes, Donkey Kong still holds up fairly well. Donkey Kong has been out for 30 years, and my heart always stops for a moment during the second level where Donkey Kong is throwing trampolines at the player. The physics still feel great, and it's a fantastic introductory game for a new player. When you stack Donkey Kong up against other arcade games of its era, it's great.

Donkey Kong is also interesting because of the point of the game. It's not necessarily about defeating enemies, and the fastest way to beat a level is to avoid killing any enemies altogether. It's more about avoidance and movement than anything else, which was a revolutionary concept in 1980 and still makes waves today.

It's still odd, though: Donkey Kong for the NES was the best console port of one of the most popular arcade games, hands down, and yet it was still missing a key part of the game. It was a weird discrepancy that very few arcade ports would rectify.

Most notably, though, the next game on our list would just about nail it.

Final Rating:

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