The original Game Boy was nothing if not a laboratory for experimental games. The console originally shipped with “Tetris,” a game unlike almost anything else at the time. The first few “Mario” games on the system had an array of bizarre twists and eventually became the “Wario” series.
In the middle of 1994, Nintendo decided to try something new with Mario by revisiting his very first appearance in “Donkey Kong.”
The classic arcade game “Donkey Kong” arguably invented the idea of a platform game. A giant monkey kidnaps a girl — because sexism has deep roots in gaming — and then Mario (called Jumpman in the original version) must climb to the top of the screen. Pretty basic, but nail-bitingly hard in the original version. Mario games drastically moved away from everything but the part of the game where you jump to avoid dying.
“Donkey Kong 94” on the other hand, was a return to Mario’s roots. It begins as a mostly arcade-accurate but MUCH easier version of the original “Donkey Kong” arcade game. The twist is, after level four, the game keeps going.
Most of “Donkey Kong 94” is made up of small levels one or two screens in length. Your objective to get Mario to a giant key, pick it up and carry it over to a locked door. Get through enough of these and you get to another “Donkey Kong” level, which act as whole new levels in the style of the original arcade game. Get to the top of the level, or alternatively hit Donkey Kong three times with the barrels he’s throwing at you, and you win.
While there are plenty of enemies to avoid and tricky jumping to do, the game is really more of a puzzle. So-called “enemies” might not even kill you, just push you around a bit.
Also, after Mario gets the key, he can’t jump as high, or use ladders. To complicate matters further, while he can drop the key, if he doesn’t quickly pick it up again, it’ll return to its start location. In addition, falling too far is deadly to the plumber this time around, adding another element of texture to the game’s level designs.
Figuring out how to use each level’s unique ecology and devices quickly becomes more tricky that it seemed at first. The limitations put upon Mario with the key often necessitate strange circuitous routes through what started out looking like very straightforward levels. Mario can actually stand on and pick up many creatures he encounters in the levels, using them as means of transportation. There are ropes to climb on, even temporary-use ladders to deploy for scaling. What the levels lack in size they more than make up for in variety and complexity.
“Donkey Kong 94” was aesthetically a throwback to earlier days of gaming, but it still feels fresh today. It’s had a few sequels on Game Boy Advance and the Nintendo DS, but the original is still well worth playing.
“Donkey Kong 94” was made by Nintendo for the Game Boy and is now also available for the Nintedo 3DS via the Nintendo 3DS Download Store (ubne.ws/10nPJi6) for an MSRP of $3.99.
Noah Hinz is an art and game design enthusiast living in Walla Walla. Contact him with questions, game and playing suggestions or anything else related to games at firstname.lastname@example.org.