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DONKEY KONG 3
Donkey Kong 3 is such a disappointment for me. This game should have been the final chapter in the Donkey Kong Trilogy by finally allowing us to play as the giant Donkey Kong. Miyamoto wanted to do this in DK Jr. but said that the technology wasn't there. I'm not saying that the tech was ready by DK3, but they totally should have waited until it was. Instead, DK3 wound up being something so different and off base in design that I really don't think about this game alongside the first two. It feels more like a seperate game that was having development issues and thus they decided to include Donkey Kong to salvage it. I explain better in the episode why I think this game is a mess, but I think any fan of DK and DK Jr. know that this just doesn't hold a candle to those two.
And so the perplexing decline of the Donkey Kong franchise brings us to the messy Donkey Kong 3. This game shares so little with its forebears that it may as well be a Gaiden game, or of a different series entirely. The only connecting thread is the appearance of the titular Donkey Kong, who doesn't seem to be himself. The once menacing antagonist, former kidnapper, and proud father has descended into a pit of psychosis as he seems to have unwittingly trapped himself in a greenhouse as it's getting fumigated by a kid named Stanley. He never seems to be aware of whats going on, shrieking and thrashing about with confusion as he's sprayed by the noxious fumes, saved only at times by the aggressive insects that also inhabit the space. His life is constant anguish.
Mario, with his newfound rock star status, was smart to avoid an appearance in this game, possibly sensing that something was amiss when his rival began to behave so erratically. Our fitting replacement, Stanley, has no heroic traits. He is simply the confused little man whose sad life was interrupted by an equally bewildered giant gorilla. We are watching tragedy unfold.
The gameplay is a pedestrian knockoff of Space Invaders without any particularly new ideas. It feels okay at first, but quickly devolves into a frantic mess, without any moments of feeling accomplished.
"We are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine. And the machine is bleeding to death."
The trend of DK games changing up the gameplay continues. This time it is almost a complete departure from any gameplay elements of it’s predecessors. Despite how different they made it they still managed to nail the same idea of making the game painfully short. I think where I take issue with these games is that they were made as arcade experiences but I am viewing them as something you would buy to play in your home. As an NES game, like the other DK games, it feels disappointingly short. If you don’t already have a special place in your heart for this game from your days in the arcade, I think you’ll feel the same. And if you are looking to recapture the experience you had with one of the earlier games, look elsewhere.
Donkey Kong 3 comes out of left field. You don’t play as Mario. You don’t play as Donkey Kong Jr. You’re not even rescuing anyone. You don’t have anyone in your life that you care about that Donkey Kong can steal away or Mario can lock up. But you do have plants. And you will die for your plants.
In Donkey Kong 3, you are thrust into the shoes of Stanley, an avid gardener and owner of an enormous 4 story greenhouse where he keeps his five flowers. After breaking out of prison with the help of his son, Donkey Kong raids Stanley’s greenhouse to wreak havoc. He hits beehives to get them to attack the poor gardener, and even tosses coconuts at him. As Stanley, you must use your trusty pump-action pesticide to fend off the bees trying to steal your flowers, while also forcing Donkey Kong to move higher and higher to breathable air until he gets his head stuck in a beehive. This is not what I was expecting Donkey Kong 3 to be like.
Like the previous games, there are four levels to play through before they repeat, increasing in difficulty each cycle. However, I felt like the difficulty doesn’t scale well in this game. I was able to breeze through the first three levels, got a little tripped up on the fourth, the first level of the second cycle wasn’t bad, but the second level of the second cycle was brutal. I felt like there were so many enemies on the screen at once that I couldn’t move into a position where I could attack them without hitting one. And it’s not so much that this is frustrating, but this difficulty spike seemed to come out of nowhere. I wasn’t thrilled at the level variation either. Not a lot changes from level to level, but the small changes do affect your mobility, and your ability to hit Donkey Kong. I think it could have benefited from more dramatic level changes to vary the gameplay. Maybe you’re firing sideways in one level?
I will say I like the mechanics of this game much more than Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. Firing the pesticide at Donkey Kong and the bees is weird and fun and so different than anything I imagined would be in a Donkey Kong sequel. That said, this game doesn’t feel like a Donkey Kong sequel at all, and I’m not exactly sure why it isn’t just it’s own thing. It feels like a platform-based Space Invaders that always has a boss on the screen, and that’s cool!
THE VERDICT - NOT ESSENTIAL
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DONKEY KONG JR.
Donkey Kong Jr. is a fun spin on predecessor, but ultimately falls short for me. The first level has this personality and charm to it, but the other three feel so generic. Climbing vines doesn't feel as good as jumping and I don't think the level design compliments that particular mechanic. All that said, I think Donkey Kong Jr. is on the right path for a sequel, changing enough about the gameplay to be something different, yet still resembling its familiar roots. As a side note, I do enjoy Donkey Kong Jr. as a character and mained him in Mario Tennis for N64
Donkey Kong Jr is a peculiar game. It has given Mario, their carefully groomed mascot, a face-heel turn just months after his breakout hit in Super Mario Bros. It has completely emasculated the original game's namesake, and placed him in a cage. Mario throws snakes at you. You're a baby gorilla.
Donkey Kong Jr showed us that Nintendo wanted to deliver new things with their sequels, and not just "more Donkey Kong". They remixed several mechanics and ideas that made Donkey Kong great and gave us something... perfectly okay. While these levels don't quite live up to the iconic originals, it's a valiant effort to keep the budding franchise fresh.
I was surprised at how different they made the actual gameplay from it’s predecessor. Personally I think it actually benefits from that. Maybe it’s because the original DK is tired for me but I actually prefer this sequel over the original. It also has a great variety in it’s level design, an asset that is completely undermined by the fact that the game only has four levels. Donkey Kong Jr. is similar to the original in that they are both short fun but nothing mind-blowing by todays standards.
I like that Nintendo took the game in a few different directions from the first one. Instead of having Donkey Kong come back to take more women, we're hit with a curveball: he has a son. Donkey Kong Jr. is alone in this world and needs to stop the evil Mario who locked away his father. I think the shift in perspective makes for some compelling storytelling that you wouldn't expect from an arcade game. Nintendo understands that the world isn't black and white. Donkey Kong is a devastating kidnapper but he's also a loving father. Mario is a hero who let power get the best of him, and now deploys "snapjaws" to try to kill Donkey Kong's son. DK Jr. is the bastard son of a criminal who understands that nudity is sin and that he must clothe himself to preserve what little purity he has left before he KILLS Mario by dooming him to fall in an ironic homage to the first game. Not really crazy about the gameplay though.
THE VERDICT - NOT ESSENTIAL
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Donkey Kong is still one of my favorite arcade games of all time. There's something so vibrant and energizing about playing it. I didn't grow up with the Donkey Kong Country games so for me this is what I thought of Donkey Kong outside of his random appearances in Mario Party and other sports games. It's really crazy to me how much Miyamoto gets right in his very first attempt at designing a video game. It's nowhere near perfect, but clearly demonstrated that he had a vision for the future of gaming.
Looking at this game through the lens of the 1980’s, it’s easy to see why it was so popular. You had a human character, and a basic plot: save your girlfriend. The controls are simple to pick up and overall I can see it being pretty addictive especially if you were competing for a high score.On a personal level, I was never in love with the Donkey Kong games. Maybe it has to do with the way they have aged but if you take away any nostalgia, the game doesn’t hold a candle even to a lot of other NES games when it comes to the feel of the controls. That combined with how short the overall experience is keeps it off of my essential games list. It’s definitely great for it’s time, and you probably won’t regret revisiting it, just don’t let the hype get your expectations too high.
If you don't have access to an original Donkey Kong cabinet at your local bar or arcade, the NES version should scratch that itch. It's incomplete; only three of the four stages are included; but the actual gameplay is essentially the same. Other shortcomings include the lack of intro sequence, in which Donkey Kong wrecks the construction site that becomes Stage 1 (25m), and a shortened version of the "ending" in which Mario and Pauline live happily ever after until the next level, where (spoiler) she has been kidnapped again. This game still has enough character to be enjoyed today, but specifically the NES version isn't special enough to be essential. However, if you're in any way interested in videogame history, playing the game in a cabinet certainly is essential.
Donkey Kong is a charming game that you can fully experience in one sitting. My opinion of this game has been tainted by bad the experiences I had playing it in Donkey Kong 64.* This simple arcade platformer is pretty barebones. Jump Man's jump feels ok. It's not great, but no jump will be until Super Mario Bros. I thought it was pretty frustrating that Jump Man instantly dies from any fall that's higher than one of his jumps. I found that the hammer upgrade is a bit annoying. You basically become limited-mobility Pac Man - enemies turn blue and you can smash them with your hammer if they run into you. You can't really chase after them because you can't jump or climb, so you're pretty much just hoping they'll run at your hammer.
All in all, I don't like this game. Finishing a level gives me less of a sense of accomplishment, and more of a sense that I just completed an errand. Not quite "grocery shopping" levels of trivial, more "scooping out the dead fish from the tank and flushing it down the toilet." I can understand why a lot of people have attachments to this game from when they were younger. It's got some platforming, a little music, a little story, one powerup that turns you into a mobility-challenged Pac Man, and levels that change and scale up in difficulty when you replay them. But people also have strong attachments to their fish from when they were younger. And like a fish, this game just doesn't do a lot.
*Each time you lose you are taken out of the game, forced to pull a lever using an animation that takes too long to complete, then given a prompt to go back to playing the arcade game. This happens every. time. you lose. You don't have the opportunity to get better because you spend most of your time trying to get back into the game! This is literally the reason I never beat Donkey Kong 64.