Wednesday, March 4, 2009

DFB - Donkey Kong ’94 – Primate Totem #1

“I Was Offended At Four…” – the first thing formed in my head upon my reflection of Donkey Kong


It’s funny that I’m starting this out almost exactly the same way I did my previous DFB posts, but people are shocked when I announce that one of my favorite Nintendo games of all time is Donkey Kong. Of course, the distinction here is that most have the title I’m referring to confused with the 1981 counterpart on which it is based. The original game & Donkey Kong Jr. disappointed me just as I got out of diapers. I spent the better part of two hours beating the original Arcade version (I don't think I ever really grasped the notion of how the levels worked back then) only to find that there was no more and that the challenge was playing through the levels again for high scores as the difficulty climbed. I’ve never been one for high scores or competition (and when I do I’m just feigning for the sake of being an ass) in a very general sense, so I was left with a game I acknowledged as four levels long at four years of age…

So, the game I’m actually talking about is “Donkey Kong ‘94”, which was released for the original game boy in 1994. It uses the same base mechanics that the original title used, but elaborates on it extensively by focusing more on the puzzle design and general platforming. I don’t see many people acknowledging this game anymore, as it’s a prime example for Nintendo’s constantly-goaded-about expertise (am I missing something?). The first four levels consist of pretty much the same exact levels that the 1981 arcade version introduced. After Mario rescues Pauline from the fourth level however, the game seems to end just as it’s ‘80’s predecessor did. The Fat Lady on the other hand, hasn’t sung yet (hell…she hasn’t even been discovered). Donkey Kong then proceeds to rise back up, and smash the platform, sending Pauline right into his hands and Mario right on his head.

The game then introduces it’s “true face” for what it is, as the following “cutscene” shows Mario discovering how to use keys to unlock doors. This serves as the main crux of the entire game. Mario is placed in challenging level setups with increasing difficulty as his recurring task is to find a key, and carry it (Super Mario Bros. 2 style) to a door that will let him proceed to Donkey Kong. After beating Donkey Kong (every fourth level), a scene is then portrayed again, showing a new ability or maneuver that the player is to use in the subsequent stages in order to aid their progress. This is a very ironic game, as I was infuriated at Donkey Kong as a child for only having four levels. This Gameboy title however, basically pisses in my face while answering me graciously; it boasts a whopping 101 levels that become increasingly more difficult with progress (across nine worlds). Luckily, there’s little to no story with this game, so there shouldn’t be consistently mind-wrenching entries (i.e. Xenogears). This is me we’re talking about though, so expect some fairly hefty blogs either way, moving on...!

Nintendo Darwinism
Overlooking that the point of this game is to topple the pent-up sexual desires of a giant ape, this area is currently taking the place of notes and observations and will primarily focus on how Nintendo’s design techniques have suffered a similar form of “industrialized evolution”. I’m not suggesting that any of the upcoming mechanics originate from this game, but I will certainly point out their existence nonetheless. I’ll also be pointing out how some of these aspects have survived over the years and how “we” as a social machine have either accepted/furthered or spurned/ridiculed their development. This can be called gamer’s own little natural selection.

The Red Cap or Cape?
The dynamic provided by the original 1981 Donkey Kong is carried right over into this game. ’81-DK introduced Jumpman, who is Mario of course. This guy jumped all over the place, but he isn’t the fat bouncing Italian we all know and love now. This guy died if he jumped from too far a height. This creates a nice limit on the player’s use of him. This is actually a nice little mechanic that was spurned over the years, because look at our dear man now…Mario can now jump from Jupiter to Pluto now and not even bat an eye. So what does this say about our desire for limitations? I’m not necessarily bitching about Mario’s Superman-esque abilities now, but I am bringing up an observation that I’d enjoy input from. Though it’s nowhere near the same thing, it certainly runs analogous to how Resident Evil (pre-Re4) established it’s appeal, so it’s definitely up for debate.

Retro-SliceScenes
Something Nintendo is particularly known for is their design strategy that usually manifests itself in teaching the player though subtlety and nuance. Intuitive enjoyment is a staple that typically comes with “the seal”. This game is clearly the predecessor to all the titles we’re used to now, as it actually uses cutscenes to convey it’s additions to the gameplay. As I previously stated, every fourth level features a boss fight with Donkey Kong and following his defeat a scene is shown while the scores are tallying themselves out. During this scene, Mario will be shown taking part in a maneuver or item that he is to add to his repertoire (and use regularly from then on) in the upcoming levels. This is certainly something that has been embraced and actually evolved into subtlety today. Though I can speculate a plethora of logical reasons why things were sacrificed for this evolution’s sake, the fact remains developers simply don’t use cutscenes to convey lessons for the player anymore. Intrinsically tying “the lesson” into a plot while giving the player a heads up is something (atop the fourth wall) that we just don’t see much anymore.

The Key To Success is Suffering
The key Mario is constantly using to proceed through worlds begins to disappear back to it’s original place within a few seconds of being left alone. This produces a harsh & absolute boundary in what the player is meant to process for making their way through the level. The danger is that it runs the risk of showing how stylized a game’s nature can be, just a code-based playground for problem solving. The key-seeking in this game is the crux of the title but it also showcases how questionable practical hindrances can be seen as not so practical to begin with.

The Italian Stallion
Mario has always had an oddly useful set of maneuvers throughout his career…as a plumber. This game is no different; it has the little guy doing much more than just jumping around, whether it’s flinging himself from tightropes, doing handsprings, or nailing his jump-boost from the handsprings. This raises a specific question for me, which is the usefulness of always keeping the limits of one’s abilities as an accessible perception of the player. People know exactly what they are and aren’t capable of 98.9% of their lives. This means experiencing it through game begins an entirely new layer of interaction, which resonates with people because anything we create will inherently be using “real life” as a model on some level or another. Even Nintendo hasn’t mastered giving the player full control over their avatar’s action, then proceeding to test it as soon as possible (yet they’re one of the few that have tried regardless). What they’ve gained control of instead is rearranging that notion in itself, by creating a sort of assembly line for players to take part in. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not bad by any means; once again, I’m just making an observation.

Animation Nation
Like I’ve stated before, I think one of the industry’s "atrophied brilliances" is animation. DK-‘94 title shows me this through Mario’s simplistic yet perfectly communicative animations. He has different falling sprites depending upon the height from which he leaps, and the ways in which he can die are surprisingly varied for a game of this platform and era. All of the other miscellaneous animations are just welcome icing on the cake at this point. Considering that most games don’t even have cake to begin with…well… To close this entry though, I think I’ll shove a Portal/Watchmen allusion in here for anyone that looks at games and sees admirable development…