Monday, August 26, 2013

NES Replay: Donkey Kong Jr. Math

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: October 1985
You know what kids love more than video games? Math!

After all, why play a boring old fuddy-duddy video game when you can do addition and subtraction? If you're feeling really wild, why not do multiplication? Or even DIVISION?

(Guitar solo)

I'm being a little mean to Donkey Kong Jr. Math. It's understandable why Nintendo included this game as one of the launch titles. After all, they were trying to market the NES as a toy first and a video game system second. By including an educational title they could say, "Look! This is a toy that your kids can use to learn! Oh-and-also-it-plays-Super-Mario-Brothers but look! Math! For your kids!"
Donkey Kong Jr. Math uses the identical controls from Donkey Kong Jr. and has the player jump from vine to vine, picking up numbers. The ultimate goal is to get them to add up to the number that Donkey Kong is holding up at the top of the screen. In the harder levels, there are negative numbers. There's also an inscrutable "exercise" mode that I can't figure out for the life of me.

The smartest move that Nintendo made was using the control scheme from Donkey Kong Jr. The controls in Donkey Kong Jr. are much more fluid than Donkey Kong, so just moving around is fun. Since that control scheme works so well, there's never a situation where the player loses because they can't wrangle the controls into submission (I'm looking at you, Clu Clu Land).

Alas, none of it worked. Donkey Kong Jr. Math was reportedly the lowest-selling NES launch title. Apparently, when people buy a video game system, they're buying it specifically to avoid doing homework. Who knew?

Even today, edutainment games are often a hard sell. Kids don't want to learn while they play a game, and in order to have the kids learn the developers frequently have to skimp on the "game" part. Edutainment is a noble goal, but it rarely ever works.

So why didn't Nintendo just release Donkey Kong or Donkey Kong Jr. for the NES right off the bat? That would have made Nintendo a mint and would have made more sense than shoving Donkey Kong into a math title, right?

Actually, Nintendo made the right call. It made more sense not to release Donkey Kong for the NES so early in the system's life span, since Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. were very popular games in the arcade and were raking in money for Nintendo at a pretty good clip. Nintendo didn’t know how well the NES was going to do at the time, so releasing Donkey Kong on the NES would have cannibalized that audience for no good reason.

Instead of cannibalizing the arcades, it made more sense for Nintendo to use the Donkey Kong name and try and stretch out the brand a little more. If Donkey Kong Jr. Math would have caught on, Nintendo would have looked like geniuses. If it didn't, well, there was still Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. to release down the line. Nothing was truly lost.

In the end, Donkey Kong Jr. Math could have been a lot worse. While it may not have captured the public's imagination, I can imagine some especially nerdy children having a blast with it.

Final Rating:

Next Week: Duck Hunt

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