Daily Classic: Donkey Kong's Unlikely Game Boy Reinvention

It was no Donkey Kong Country... but maybe that was the point of this portable classic.

Article by Jeremy Parish, .

Imagine you're the steward of a classic gaming franchise, one that once was the biggest around but that essentially has been missing in action for the past decade. Given the chance to revive it, do you bring back with cutting-edge visuals and contemporary design? Or do you revisit the property with the humblest technology possible, presenting its return as a faithful remake?

Well, if you're Nintendo, you have it both ways. After doing not a damn thing with Donkey Kong for more than 10 years, Nintendo resuscitated its first big hit with 1994's jaw-dropping Donkey Kong Country, in which developer Rare used bleeding-edge tech to infuse a fairly by-the-numbers platformer with graphics that made the Super NES look far more powerful than it really was. At the same time, Kong's original designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, set to work quietly on a totally different kind of game: A semi-remake/semi-sequel to the original arcade machine called, simply, "Donkey Kong."

Finally, the cement factory. 10 years too late, but who's counting, right?

Designed for Game Boy, the visuals in this alternate take on Kong couldn't have been more spiritually different from Donkey Kong Country's. Rather than pushing the limits of '90s development tools, Donkey Kong '94 featured tiny graphics rendered in the Game Boy's usual four shades of murky green. Sure, it also included a special Super Game Boy-specific mode for some minor visual enhancements, but even so it still looked even more primitive than the 1981 arcade game. After all, the Game Boy's processor was a slightly faster derivative of the chip that had powered the original Donkey Kong; far from being cutting-edge tech, the Game Boy was a decade out of date in 1994.

Likewise, the game itself initially appeared to be a decade out of date as well. By all appearances, it was nothing more than a greyscale rendition of the classic arcade game. Sure, it made up for its monochrome visuals by including the infamous cement factory (cut from the otherwise-faithful NES version due to storage limitations), but the idea that anyone was meant to care about that particular wrong being righted in the age of CD-ROMs and polygons seemed downright laughable.

This perception of Donkey Kong '94 lasted for the approximately 10 minutes it took for most players to complete the arcade game's four classic levels. But something strange happened once Mario plucked the final bolt from the 100m girders: Rather than plummeting to defeat and letting players start a new, harder loop of the game, Kong ran off. Mario followed... and suddenly a massive new map consisting of multiple new stages opened up before him. And once that map was completed, another appeared -- and then another, and another. All told, this version of Donkey Kong consisted not of four stages, but of more than 100.

Ah. Well, that's different.

While the idea of 100 new levels of Donkey Kong would have been some kind of impossibly wonderful dream in the early '80s (when Kong was the hottest thing this side of Pac-Man), a decade later it seemed less compelling. But the new levels weren't simply retreads of old ideas, and Mario wasn't the same limited Jumpman he'd been in 1981. Donkey Kong '94 introduced a heavy element of puzzle design into its platforming, incorporating new obstacles and forcing players to spend more time working out how to reach Kong's perch than simply leaping over barrels.

For his part, Mario demonstrated all the skills he'd picked up in the years since his debut, able to survive longer falls, carrying items as in Super Mario Bros. 2, and demonstrating a great degree of athleticism. In fact, Mario possessed advanced jumping skills right from the beginning of the game, though it wasn't advertised; while players could tackle those opening levels in the standard Donkey Kong style, they could also completely skip the hassle of climbing ladders by performing advanced maneuvers like extra-high handstand jumps. Players could pull off previously impossible tricks like taking barrel-smashing hammers to different levels of the stage by chucking the hammer into the air, scrambling up a ladder after it, and catching it in mid-air. On the other hand, why smash a barrel when you could grab and toss it instead?

Donkey Kong '94 hid big ideas beneath a deceptively humble fa├žade. Indeed, many of the skills Mario demonstrated here for the first time resurfaced in his next major adventure, the revolutionary Super Mario 64. In many ways, this take on Kong was the exact opposite of Donkey Kong Country, which hid a straightforward platformer behind the illusion of advanced graphical tech. Hot new graphics are a much easier sell than quietly brilliant mechanics, though, and it was DKC that Nintendo promoted to within an inch of its life, and thus it was DKC that bought Nintendo's console business some breathing room in the face of Sony and Sega's next-generation consoles.

New stages, new mechanics, and eventually you team up with Donkey Kong to battle Universal Pictures. (OK, maybe I made that last part up.)

Meanwhile, Donkey Kong '94, a humble game on a platform no one cared about anymore, was doomed to obscurity until the world rediscovered it years later. Then, the same qualities that doomed it to second-stringer status against Donkey Kong Country made it all the more appealing in retrospect; while DKC's visuals had lost their shine over time, leaving behind a good but unexceptional platformer, Donkey Kong '94 looked no more or less dated than it had at its debut.... but it played as brilliantly as ever.

Why would Nintendo create such a secretly sophisticated follow-up to its first true hit, then let it languish in obscurity on a fading portable system as that same property was visibly redefined by an outside studio's efforts mere months later? Honestly, no one knows. Maybe Donkey Kong '94 had been in the works for years, perhaps initially conceived as the mysterious, never-seen "Return of Donkey Kong" for NES? Maybe it was originally intended to be a portable counterpart to Donkey Kong Country, only for the two games to follow very different creative directions? Then again, maybe it was an act of stubborn pride on behalf of Donkey Kong's creator, who wanted to make one final statement with his first great work before the character irrevocably transformed in the public eye. Whatever its origins, Donkey Kong '94 made for a strange but wonderful follow-up to a true masterpiece of gaming's golden era.

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Comments 19

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  • Avatar for wegum #1 wegum 4 years ago
    Well written article as always. I absolutely adore this game and have probably played through it a couple times each year since release. The Mario vs DK follow-ups were fine, but they overcomplicated things and didn't just focus on ingenious level design like this one did.

    Mario's skill set in this game is so varied and most importantly, so USEFUL in tackling all the puzzles you encounter. There are multiple ways to get through each level based on the moves you choose to use, it stays fresh no matter how many times I play it.
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  • Avatar for MattG #2 MattG 4 years ago
    I absolutely love this game and would gladly play a sequel. Sure, Mario vs DK was great fun, but the focus on the mini-Marios changed the formula too much for my liking, and then the total focus on the minis after that for a Lemmings-like puzzle experience is just not the same. DK '94 is just about as perfect as the experience can get, but I still crave more after all these years.
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  • Avatar for davidbabb52 #3 davidbabb52 4 years ago
    Great article! I picked this game up on the 3DS Virtual Console on a whim last year and was pleasantly surprised with the updated mechanics. After reading this article, I may pick the game back up and attempt to tackle the rest of the levels.
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  • Avatar for SebastianNebula #4 SebastianNebula 4 years ago
    I found this game in the hallway of my highschool. It probably fell out of someone's locker, but their loss was my gain. I played through it between classes and on the bus ride home and came to the conclusion that I was a horrible person for not buying this when it had originally come out.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #5 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @merrillhaas35 I feel much the same way. Totally blew off this game until years later and was horrified to discover what an oversight I'd made. It was pretty much THE hidden gem of the Game Boy library for ages.
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #6 Stealth20k 4 years ago
    I still play this game on the gamecube.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #7 SargeSmash 4 years ago
    I came to the Game Boy party pretty late. It happened, though, to coincide with the year this was released, so Donkey Kong ended up being the first Game Boy game I ever owned. Talk about starting off right!

    I must admit, thanks to Nintendo Power, I had known there was much more to the game than the original, which I probably wouldn't have given a second glance. I still have fond memories of speed-running various levels, and I particularly loved using the expanded moveset to see just how fast I could do the first four levels.

    Sadly, I have lost those records to the ravages of time and dead lithium batteries, but that just gave me an excuse to pick it up on Virtual Console!
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  • Avatar for DiscordInc #8 DiscordInc 4 years ago
    I actually caught this when it first came out, since I only had a Game Boy and was much more in tune with the releases for it. Even then I was still blown away by the variety the game had to offer. I still like to replay every now and again and keep finding little details I've never noticed before.

    Like there is actually a sense of visual continuity to the levels and the map screen. Like how on the ship stage if the level marker is at the base of the ship, the actually stage will have background will have an image of the ships hull, which will be completely different from a stage on the deck that has the ship's masts as part of the level. I can't think of any other game that does that. Most of the time they'd just have the same background used between all stages and you'd never think about it.

    The interstage cinemas are also really great. They're done in the style of silent movies (possibly in a clever throwback to Pauline's namesake) and also demonstrate some of the game's advance techniques.

    I've played the follow ups by NST, but none of them grabbed me the same way this one did. Nintendo really broke the mold on this one.
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  • Avatar for Critical_Hit #9 Critical_Hit 4 years ago
    I LOVE this game, though I didn't play it at release. Instead, I got onboard the revitalized Donkey Kong "Classic" series with this games' sequel (or spiritual successor?), Mario VS. Donkey Kong for the GBA. I knew that THAT game was basically this design, but with different (more boring, "mario standard") level themes and rendered sprites, so my mind quickly turned to DK94. Of course, I picked it up for the 3DS Virtual Console when it came out, and it really is absolutely fantastic.

    One of the many, many stupid decisions Nintendo makes now - being all narrow minded and not noticing all the cool things modern tech can afford them - is ignoring their old arcade designs like this, Mario Bros., Lolo/Eggerland or even Popeye. Talk about some perfect designs for DOWNLOADABLE games. It's a crying shame that they don't revisit, refine and build upon stuff like this for the eShop.

    This design could be stupidly popular if it reached more people, and digital would be the way to do it. Heck, putting 1st party productions up there is a must if they're to keep it healthy and keep drawing attention to it (unlike with Wiiware) - and productions of more substance than Dr. Luigi or NES Remix, I think. I would love to see re-imagined & updated designs from obscure Nintendo classics like Teleroboxer, Mario Clash, Punch-Ball Mario, or yeah - Classic Donkey Kong here show up regularly on the eShop. And I'm certain they have studios that could do it. Next Level (Luigi's Mansion), NST (Mario VS. Donkey Kong), Arika (Dr.Luigi), Monster Games... heck, Monster came the closest to doing exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about when they did Excitebike World Rally. Why doesn't Nintendo revisit these smaller designs more often?

    It really is baffling. It's a shame a wonderful design like this is still relatively obscure :'(

    Also, now I REALLY want to know if any ambitious Chinese Pirate ever tried to convert this GB game to an NES release now that Jeremy put that "Return of Donkey Kong" idea in my head. If someone even half-capably ported some of this to the NES/Famicom, with a proper color palette, I kinda wanna see it.Edited February 2014 by Critical_Hit
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #10 Roto13 4 years ago
    I remember telling my friends that the new Game Boy Donkey Kong game was so much better than Donkey Kong Country and none of them would hear it. I was very impressed by the sheer number of moves I could perform using two buttons and a directional pad, not even counting context sensitive moves like swinging on wires or stopping falling objects with Mario's feet.
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  • Avatar for waynestainrook29 #11 waynestainrook29 4 years ago
    This was perhaps my favorite Game Boy game growing up, and I'm so happy it's available on the eShop now. The little intro animations to every new territory were a nice touch, too.

    Now, Jeremy, we just need a retrospective on the Donkey Kong Land games and we'll be good to go XD
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #12 MetManMas 4 years ago
    "In fact, Mario possessed advanced jumping skills right from the beginning of the game, though it wasn't advertised; while players could tackle those opening levels in the standard Donkey Kong style, they could also completely skip the hassle of climbing ladders by performing advanced maneuvers like extra-high handstand jumps."

    Actually, it does advertise them, in a way. If you leave the game sitting idle at the title screen long enough, a demo would play where Mario shows off many of his new skills on a stage. Not that it tells you how to do them, though.

    To me, the biggest surprise when I finally got to play Donkey Kong '94 in '99 or so was just how versatile Mario was. He's got quite a few moves that would later show up in Super Mario 64, but all done in 2D.
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  • Avatar for GaijinD #13 GaijinD 4 years ago
    I also remember Nintendo Power advertising this, to the point where I had the impression it was the flagship Super Game Boy game. It shows off nearly all of the accessory's special features, to the point where I feel like that's how it's meant to be played.

    Now, if only someone besides me remembered Wario Blast.
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #14 LBD_Nytetrayn 4 years ago
    I was fortunate enough to get to borrow the game early on, and fell in love with it then, trying to extol its virtues to the few who would listen.

    I'd love a true sequel, or even something fashioned similarly (anyone know what the Ice Climbers are up to these days?).

    In the meantime, I'm disappointed that the Virtual Console release lacks the Super Game Boy's perks. I bought it to show support for more games like this, but I never actually play it; I go to my actual SGB and copy of the game instead.

    Maybe they should remake it for the eShop in full color?
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #15 MetManMas 4 years ago
    @GaijinD I've played Wario Blast before. The game's got some great pixel art of Wario (especially the Game Over screen), but sadly it's not a very good Bomberman game. Shame they didn't do more of these, though.
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #16 MetManMas 4 years ago
    @LBD_Nytetrayn Yeah, it sucks that you can't play it Super Game Boy style, but I'm pretty sure the reason why the SGB features aren't available is because to implement them, the 3DS would need to be emulating an SNES emulating a Super Game Boy emulating Donkey Kong.

    With that said though, the Pokémon Stadium games didn't seem to have any problem emulating the Game Boy and Game Boy Color games with Super Game Boy features, though I don't know how they went about that.
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  • Avatar for GaijinD #17 GaijinD 4 years ago
    @MetManMas Sure, it's no Saturn Bomberman, but it did show off the one SGB feature DK didn't: you could play four player with the SNES multi-tap. At the time, playing a four-player game on my SNES using a GB cart blew my mind.

    As for emulating SGB features, I don't think you need full SNES emulation for that. Unless it's something like Space Invaders that had a mode where it bypassed the SGB and ran directly on the SNES. Of course, I don't know any other games that do that, and Space Invaders probably got away with it by being small enough to load entirely into the SNES's RAM.
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  • Avatar for mganai #18 mganai 4 years ago
    Kind of sad this is under Oddball Sequels, because this is the ultimate expression of Donkey Kong to date. Of course, history is written by the winners, and 8 million copies certainly did that for Donkey Kong Country.
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  • Avatar for dekar346 #19 dekar346 4 years ago
    I got this game for Christmas one year. My grandma let me open one present on Christmas Eve, and I was initially disappointed at my choice. "Aw, man, it's just the arcade game. This is so lame." But then I beat those initial levels and my tiny child's mind EXPLODED. It was awesome.
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