NES Mini, Donkey Kong and the value of high scores

In an odd week for retro games enthusiasts, I ponder on the real play value of high score games. Also, a game without a FAQ gets one, and it’s on like it only can be with an ape, some girders and… a carpenter?
It’s been an interesting week for anyone interested in retro gaming, highlighted of course by Nintendo’s release of the NES Mini. No, I didn’t nab one; Australian presales came and went in a flash, and stores were (slightly surprisingly) mobbed by all accounts.
I say slightly surprisingly not as a knock on Nintendo, but a simple statement of fact, because while the NES was a global hit, here it was just another competitor against all of the 8-bit computers (the C64 in particular, although I was a member one of those slightly-odd Amstrad families back in the day) and particularly Sega’s Master System. I don’t have sales figures to speak of, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Master System outsold the NES locally by a fair margin; there were certainly always more games around for it by my observation, and the NES itself and its games were always at a price premium compared to their Master System equivalents.

This is cool and all, and I very much want one, but I can’t pretend it was some huge hit in Australia. The SNES, on the other hand…
As such, I strongly suspect that it’s a kind of “fake nostalgia” driving sales. The internet, and especially the US corners of it (where, to be fair, the NES was a massive hit) say that these games are classics, so they must be. Frankly, for $99 with 30 games it’s a pretty decent buy no matter what, with no faffing around with emulators or Raspberry Pis or anything else to contend with. I most certainly don’t need one; I think I’ve got the vast majority of games on it that I care for (even though the NES version of Bubble Bobble isn’t terribly good), but I still want one.
So, no NES Mini for me just yet. But I have been reading impressions on it, and one note I keep hitting is this idea that because the NES games are old, beyond the usual tropes around them being “hard”, they’re also apparently too basic, and therefore not “fun”.
“Fun” is of course a relative term, and in the absence of a NES Mini, I’ve made my way with other pursuits. In fact this week’s been very busy for me, which has seriously cut into my gaming time. Quite randomly, while tidying away a cabinet that needed to be moved, I found some LR44 batteries in a drawer. Any old school retro fan will know what it was time for then.
Game & Watch Time. I’ve only got a few Game & Watch handhelds, and (sadly) most are failing right now. Anyone know about repair on the LCD of these things? I have this sinking feeling that they’re effectively statutes now; interesting to look at but with no replayability at all.

One of the still-functional Game & Watch units I have is Donkey Kong. In many ways it’s the classic of the series, and besides perhaps Fire, the one game that anyone of my generation who knew them might recall.
It’s also a game that is fundamentally very simple, as all Game & Watch games had to be. It’s all about the high scores, so while you’re ostenisbly Mario off to rescue… hang on, which damsel in distress is in this one?
I have to say at this point that the version I’m playing wasn’t originally mine from back in the day; it was my lovely wife’s game instead.

The manual and box are long gone, but these things can be found on the Internet quite easily.

Also, the Donkey Kong manual is seriously charming.
Also, the Donkey Kong manual is seriously charming.

Astonishingly, as far as I can see, nobody’s written a FAQ about this particular game. Which surprised me, because surely everything has a FAQ, right?
Time to redress that, methinks.

Donkey Kong Game & Watch Multi-Screen FAQ

1. Introduction
Donkey Kong Game & Watch Multi-Screen is a 1982 port of the classic arcade game, retrofited to the limitations of a dual screen, LCD based system.
2. Story
Here’s the rundown of the game’s story, such as it is, from the manual
“Donkey Kong captured a beautiful girl and carries her into a building under construction. The brave carpenter, Mario comes to rescue her following them over the girders. Donkey Kong throws barrels at Mario to stop him. Knock the girder out from under Donkey Kong to stop him.”
Yep, that’s it. The poor lass never gets a name, Mario gets a job transplant, as I don’t think he’s ever been a carpenter before or since (maybe in Wrecking Crew?) and the game is boiled down to its essence because it’s all level one. No moving platforms or fire levels or anything of the sort here.
2 Game Overview
Donkey Kong’s controls are operated with (according to the manual) just two buttons. Yes, really. The D-Pad (as it would later be called) is just “button one” or the “plus” button at this stage in Nintendo’s history. It controls Mario’s movements left, right, up and down, while the single button jumps over barrels on the lower screen only, or towards the swinging crane on the upper screen.
On the lower screen you have two levels with only two spots where Mario can jump. Hey, it was 1982, and this was decent technology for a portable game back then! Jumping on the lowest level over a barrel will score you one point, while on the second level of the bottom screen a jump is ordinarily worth two points.

On the upper screen, you cannot jump barrels which Donkey Kong drops straight down, so you have to dodge them, hitting the switch to enable the crane which will swing out twice only per activation.

If you hit the jump button while standing at the rightmost point and when the crane is at its apex, you’ll jump and remove a hook from the girder Donkey Kong is standing on.

Each hook is worth between 5 and 20 points depending on how quickly you get to them. Once all four are removed you’re rewarded a bonus 20 points. Miss the crane and you’ll need fresh dental work and lose a life.

The same is true if you hit a barrel or one of the overhead girders that appear on the second level of the lower screen. Lose three Marios and it’s game over time.

Donkey Kong supports two game modes, as was the style at the time, with Game B being identical but markedly faster and thus a bit harder.

3. Cheats/Secrets
Astonishingly, if you press Up, Up, Down, Down, A, B, A, B and then start Game A, then… nothing happens at all, because c’mon. There isn’t even a Button B, for crying out loud!

No cheats to be found here, although there are a few tips and tactics you can use that might not be obvious to the first time player. On the lowest level, if you time it right you can climb up the ladder while a barrel is at the rightmost point of the upper level and avoid it without having to jump it.

It’s also worth backtracking at certain points; you can always go down levels rather than up them. If you’re feeling particularly bored, you could just sit and jump barrels on the lower level all game long. That would be tedious, though.

There is one “secret” in the game, although I’m reluctant to call it as such. At 300 points if you’ve lost a life you’ll get one back, but if you haven’t lost any, your score will flash.

This means you’re in a double points mode, making it much easier to rack up high scores. This only lasts until you lose a life, however. Not much of a secret, I think, because I certainly knew it back in the day, but maybe you didn’t.

END FAQ

Ahem. Now there is a FAQ. Internet, you can rest easy.

Anyway, I’ve been playing Donkey Kong Game & Watch all week, and, if the FAQ didn’t make it clear, it’s not the most complex of games. Not the quietest, either; as a kid I loved its tiny beeping speaker, but as an adult, the one thing I wish they had fitted to these things was a mute switch.

High score chasing, though, is still good fun in this format as long as you let it be good fun. That’s not an old school idea, either; look at the success of what are ultimately high score mobile games such as Doodle Jump, Jetpack Joyride or shudder Flappy Bird. All huge hits, all very simple, all high score centric by their very nature.

Although, no, I still don’t think Flappy Bird is much of a “game”. Your opinion may naturally differ, but I’m right..

It’s something I’ve also been pondering on having this week finally seen Man vs Snake. No, it’s not an Asylum mockbuster, or for that matter some kind of (ahem) “Adult” material, but instead another documentary that goes through the stories that evolve around high score chasing on classic arcade games, in this case, the lesser-known Nibbler.

Man vs Snake is on Netflix Australia, and if you haven’t seen it, do so. Yes, the similarities (and much of the cast, and some of the annoying US-centrism) to King Of Kong are apparent, but it’s a fun ride nonetheless.

Anyway, just as with the classic arcade games, and indeed the efforts of video game marathoners, the secret to enjoyment of these titles very much rests on getting into the right mental zone for them.
I’m not sure it’s any different to any other video game, actually. I’ve never been able to immerse myself in MMORPGs, for example, because I’ve struggled to get into the zone where I found their gameplay “fun”. But I know plenty of folks who have, and have many fond memories of games gone past, some in titles that are no longer functional at all.
Are older games less visually refined than modern 4K multi-million dollar AAA titles? Of course they are. That doesn’t meant that they’re not “fun”, because ultimately “fun” is an entirely and absolutely subjective matter. If you can enjoy a thing (and it’s legal and you’re not hurting anyone) then have at it, and enjoy it, because it’s fun to you. That’s enough.

Donkey Kong: Game & Watch sounds awesome! Where can I play it?

Therein lies the rub. An actual Game & Watch version isn’t going to be cheap, to put it mildly. They are around if you’re both keen and cashed up, but don’t expect to spend just a few bucks on one. That’s somewhat expected for what could well be described as more “antique” than just retro. 1982 was a very long time ago; anyone actually playing on one of these things who also did so back in the day would be at least pushing forty or more these days.
Here’s an eBay (affiliate) link to help you search if you’re so inclined.
Nintendo has ported the Game & Watch version multiple times, however.
Donkey Kong Game & Watch is present (along with an easier “modern” version) on the Gameboy/Gameboy Colour Game & Watch Gallery 2 and the Gameboy Advance Game & Watch Gallery Advance/4, as well as in a standalone form on the Club Nintendo DS Game & Watch Collection. They’re a lot cheaper than the original Game & Watch, although fakes do abound on eBay, so be careful out there.
Retro recollections are just random musings on retro subjects, usually whatever I’m playing at the moment.

Author: Alex

Alex Kidman is a multi-award winning Australian technology writer, former editor at Gizmodo, CNET, GameSpot, ZDNet, PC Mag, APC, Finder and as a contributor to the ABC, SMH, AFR, Courier Mail, GadgetGuy, PC & Tech Authority, Atomic and many more. He's been writing professionally since 1998, and his passions include technology, social issues, education, retro gaming and professional wrestling.

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