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.