Welcome back to Retro Weekend, your weekly dose of classic gaming from yesteryear. For today’s feature, I want to talk about Donkey Kong ’94. More importantly, I want to talk about how it successfully revived, recreated, and improved upon the Donkey Kong arcade game. But first, a few words.
In the world of video games, sequels and spin-offs are a dime a dozen. I can’t even count how many Final Fantasy games have been released since its initial launch in 1989. It’s business. Creating a strong brand that will continue on for years is a sure-fire way to make a killing in the market. The biggest resulting problem that stems from sequel-itis, especially in modern games, is the lack of creativity that seems to follow. As much as I loved Assassin’s Creed 4, it didn’t exactly feel much different from Assassin’s Creed 2. I’m not going to sit here and say the same thing didn’t happen in the 80s and 90s, but I do feel like developers were given more freedom to take risks and try new things. How else did we get games like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, a reskinned Doki Doki Panic! as Super Mario Bros. 2, or even the not-so-great ToeJam & Earl: Panic on Funkotron?
Sometimes a game comes out that revives an old character or series and showcases it in a new light. Whether that light shines or is in need of a new bulb is a discussion in itself. That type of revival is what I want to talk about today with a little game called Donkey Kong ’94 for the Nintendo Game Boy. No, not the arcade version. No, not the NES version. Definitely not the NES version. Without being a direct sequel nor a straight remake, the Game Boy version of Donkey Kong feels more like an exciting retelling of an old, familiar, story. It’s really a brand new game for the series only inspired by the original, now with jaw-dropping amounts of content and improvements.
I never liked Donkey Kong. Neither the arcade nor NES versions of the original game appealed to me because of its stiff controls and wonky hit detection. Climbing up those ladders and jumping over endless amounts of barrels never excited me or whisked me away to a blissful place of play. In terms of arcade games, I much rather would spend my time with Galaga, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Dig-Dug, or a number of other games. Sorry, Pauline. DK can have you.
That’s why I was so surprised when I started playing Donkey Kong ’94. This revival of the classic title not only remakes the original from the ground up with vastly improved controls, but it adds nearly 100 more levels with bonus rounds and tons of new animations. In short, it’s a better Donkey Kong. Maybe the best Donkey Kong. It’s the Donkey Kong we all need in our lives.
What makes this game so special in the legacy of the Kongs is how it’s present and how it shifts into a completely new experience. When you begin Donkey Kong ’94, you’re instantly transported to familiar territory. The first levels are all laid out exactly like the NES version, from the ladder positions to hammer power ups to sound effects. If you don’t know any better, you’d be in for an obvious hit of nostalgia. Save for the new controls that actually allow Mario to be controlled with some sort of precision, it’s the same Donkey Kong people knew and loved. That is, until you defeat the big ape and Mario’s reunion with Pauline is cut short. What? Kong isn’t dead!? No, players, your battle has just begun.
After you finish the “original” game, you give chase to the big ape yet again, but this time you’re greeted with a world map, similar to Super Mario Bros. 3, filled with multiple levels. From there, the game changes goals. Instead of simply having to avoid obstacles and make your way up, you’ll have to find a key in the level, pick it up, and use it to follow Kong through a locked door at the end of each stage. While this seems easy at first, the game quickly progresses into a puzzling adventure unlike anything you’ve ever seen in the arcade, but it still keeps the vertical and platforming design of the original. Somehow, even with all the new additions, it stays familiar.
Besides the obvious improvement of control which I already talked about, Mario is also host to a slew of new moves. In some ways, Donkey Kong ’94 plays like a pseudo Super Mario Bros. 2. The ability to pick up both enemies and items is ripped straight from the game and feels very reminiscent of the NES title. Picking up and throwing things will allow you to get past certain enemies or maneuver the key in certain ways to get it to the door. As you progress, you’ll have to use every bit of Mario’s skills and your brain to reach the key. Mario is also in much better shape this time around. By quickly moving in the opposite direction you’re running and then jumping, you can perform a back flip which allows you to reach much higher platforms than a normal jump. Mario can also grab onto certain lines, and swing around them launching him in whichever direction he’s facing. What’s especially cool about these new abilities is that you have access to all of them from the very beginning; the only thing keeping you from beating the first level in three seconds is the fact that you’ve been trained NOT to backflip up to Kong’s perch at the top. Maybe someone should hack these moves into the original — then it might actually be worth playing.
I genuinely like Donkey Kong on the Game Boy. The change into this strange Donkey Kong/Super Mario 2 puzzle game creeps up without you really noticing it until you get stuck on a level scratching your noggin after playing for hours. Before you know it, you’ve completely forgotten about the creaky old arcade game in favor for this portable masterpiece. While it never stops sharing qualities from the original, every addition is a vast improvement. It’s easy to see how this game eventually led to the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series that was first released on the Game Boy Advance (and then eventually fell apart by the time the 3DS version hit.)
Donkey Kong ’94 is the perfect example of a successful revival. It builds upon the original game without losing the soul of Donkey Kong. It’s exactly the kind of game that makes me happy to see developers take risks. Because of the evolution of Donkey Kong ’94 we were eventually able to get a brand new series and people like me are able to look back on DK with new eyes. Sometimes these risks don’t pay off, but other times, like in the case of DK ’94, a game is created that can stand on its own while surpassing its predecessor.
If you can’t get enough of Donkey Kong, check out our 8 Best Games of the Year…1981 by our very own Tristan Ettleman.