When I was a kid I had loads & loads of Pac-Man merchandise, but when it came to games it was all Donkey Kong. This wasn’t by choice though, I perpetually longed for Pac-Man games, but somehow or other it seemed that it was always Donkey Kong. In hindsight, I’m glad it worked out that way. Even in the best versions Donkey Kong was a better game, Pac-Man was just too repetitive (then of course you have atrocities like the 2600 Pac-Man).
The first Donkey Kong game I had (and the only one of the lot which I still have) was one for the Atari 2600. This version did suffer in comparison to the arcade version, but then again very few 2600 games didn’t. The graphics were large and blocky, there were only two different levels, and Donkey Kong’s animation was marginal (it consisted of two alternating frames, with each one appearing based on the direction Mario was facing, the only time he truly animated was when Mario was going up a ladder). Despite these flaws it was still a respectable port of the arcade game, considering the limitations of the system, and I enjoyed it for years & years.
Later I got a tabletop arcade version by Coleco. This series of tabletop games used VFD displays. These displays are similar to LED displays in many respects, and it can be difficult to distinguish the two. If you see a display which looks like LED with multicolor (or even just non-red) fixed characters and it was made before the ’90s, it is most likely VFD. This applies to VCRs and other audio/video equipment, digital displays in cars, old calculators, etc. The display was very much like handheld LCD games of the day or “animated” neon signs, where all the sprites are individual pre-shaped images, placed in pre-set locations, and simply toggled on or off to create the appearance of movement. The difference being that the VFD display was multicolor & self-lit (and being a major battery hog). The unit as a whole did a good job of mimicking the actual arcade game on a small scale, and it was amazing to have a portable arcade-like game in the days before Gameboys and other handheld consoles. While the 2600 version of Donkey Kong had big blocky graphics, the graphics in this tabletop game were miniscule (though surprisingly, slightly more detailed). I don’t recall the actual gameplay very well, but I do believe it had two levels, though the difference between the two was all in the actions of the game rather than the display (which always looks like the construction level, with the ladders always being in the exact same spots). This game did not have a functioning hammer, the only stuff you can grab is bonus point stuff. Two major problems with this game were that it burned through batteries (4 C-cell batteries at a time) and the speaker was extremely loud (I used to intentionally use partially drained batteries in order to make it quieter, since there was no volume control). I imagine the high volume was due to the fact that the speaker was on the bottom & they presumed it would be muffled by whatever surface you had it resting on. This game (and others like it) can currently be played via simulator programs (functionally the same concept as emulators, but using a different method to achieve results. The main difference from a user’s perspective is that simulators play a single game per program, but do not require the download of extra files such as ROMs).
One other Donkey Kong game that I had semi-frequent access to back in the day was an actual arcade version. The pharmacy in town (dedicated pharmacy, not a one-stop-shop drug store) had a Donkey Kong machine in the play room they had for kids who were waiting, it was setup for freeplay. Unfortunately I didn’t get to play it all that much though because we rarely went to that pharmacy due to their high prices, and the fact that every other kid there waiting was also jockeying for the game. By the time I finally got a turn, it was time to leave. :(
Bonus points & an extra life to anyone who gets the movie title reference in this article’s title.)
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