Donkey Kong: A Truly Harmonious Game


When Donkey Kong first came out in arcades back in the early 80’s, it made a huge impact on players everywhere for many reasons.  Some could say that the game had great mechanics that kept gamers playing, even after the Game Over screen.  Others may say that the technology at the time was great, or that the aesthetics of the game were unmatched for the time.  Even some people could make an argument for the story.  However, to truly appreciate the game, it’s important to recognize that it used all four of these aspects in perfect harmony with each other.

First we should start with the story that drives the game.  Donkey Kong is about a familiar plumber named Jumpman.  Jumpman, as some people may know, later turned into the familiar plumber named Mario, one of the most iconic video game characters of all time.  But for our sake, we will stick with Jumpman, because that is what his name was in the game.  Jumpman’s girlfriend Pauline (who some may identify as Princess Peach) is snatched by the evil gorilla Donkey Kong.  Jumpman is then set on a quest to retrieve his girlfriend from the grasps of Donkey Kong, who has a peculiar love for barrels.  Donkey Kong will throw everything (literally) in Jumpman’s path in order to stop him from getting to his prized possession, Pauline.

This may not be the most elaborate story that has ever graced the video game medium, but it does it’s job so wonderfully.  Even though the story may be simple and primitive in nature, it gives the player a motivation to play the game, and to beat Donkey Kong.  The player obviously sides with the interests of Jumpman and the player, just like Jumpman, wants to see Pauline back in the arms of her lover.  The story works well in giving the players a reason to keep on coming back and never giving up, even if they get a Game Over screen.  They will push in another quarter to have another go at saving Pauline and defeating Donkey Kong.

Now let’s look at the mechanics of the game.  The whole idea of the game is to get to the top of the system of ladders and platforms in order to reach Pauline and Donkey Kong.  In the players way is a bunch of obstacles like barrels and fireballs that Jumpman has to jump over and dodge.  The concept is simple enough, but it’s challenging.  Especially as the game progresses, when the obstacles get tougher and the enemies more frequent.  Whenever you get up to the top of a level, Donkey Kong will snatch up Pauline and take her to the next level.  This continues until the final level, where if completed successfully, will save Pauline and destroy Donkey Kong.

The rising difficulty as the game goes on tends to make players experience a sense of urgency.  The obstacles that the player must face seems challenging but the prospect of saving Pauline from the grasp of Donkey Kong continues to motivate the player to go on.  When the game gets harder, it signals to the player that the end is near and that the final scenario, the final encounter with Donkey Kong, is looming on the horizon.  The simple mechanics of the game end up playing a huge part in making the game as great, and meaningful, as it is.

When the game came out in arcades, it was housed in a simple arcade machine that had two buttons and a joystick that was for moving Jumpman around the levels.  This technology was simple for players to understand and it also augmented the feeling of tension that players would experience as the game progressed.  If a player was making it far in a game, their hands would start to get sweaty and it would get more challenging to maneuver the joystick and use the buttons effectively.  Interestingly enough, this helped the player feel the rising tension of the scenario.  The final level, if players made it that far would be extremely challenging due to their sweaty hands.  The stress of saving Pauline was humongous and it was satisfying whenever you rescued Pauline after all of the hardships that you had to overcome, including sweaty hands.

Lastly, the aesthetics of Donkey Kong tend to be overlooked by some people.  Even though this may be the case, the aesthetics of the game still hold equal importance as to why this game is so harmonious.  The levels featured red platforms and blue ladders.  The background featured nothing but plain black, which created a bleak and depressing atmosphere in the game.  The final level contains blue platforms and yellow ladders, signaling that it was the final challenge that the player would have to overcome.  If a player were skilled enough to get though the final level, the player would be met with a image of Pauline being saved and Donkey Kong falling through a break in the platform towards his inevitable doom. This victory state stuck with a lot of players because it was so iconic and meaningful to them.  The player successfully got through all of the challenges and obstacles and their goal was achieved; seeing Donkey Kong be destroyed and finally saving Pauline.  This image, for a lot of players, was the last thing they saw from the game and it was a good lasting image.  It cemented the victory that the player achieved.

When you go back and examine all of the different aspects of Donkey Kong and how they all worked in unison with each other, it is easy to see why this game was such a brilliant piece of game design.  The four major aspects of any game (Story, Mechanics, Technology, and Aesthetics) where all used in Donkey Kong and they all helped put the player in the dire situation of Pauline’s kidnapping.

Back in the day of the arcade, when Donkey Kong thrived, players may not have had this outlook on the game, probably because all they wanted to do was get the highest score so they could brag to their friends about how well they do.  In order to truly appreciate how harmonious this game actually was, you have to take a step back and examine all of the parts of the game.  When you do this, it is extremely hard to miss.

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