Donkey Kong – The King of Game & Watch

Everybody knows that Donkey Kong was popular in the ’80s, but it’s easy to forget just how popular. The arcade classic kick-started a craze, with Donkey Kong appearing on just about everything his stupid face could be slapped onto.

It was an arcade game like no other at the time and managed to notch up some impressive sales figures because of it. We could tell you that it was in Donkey Kong that Mario first made an appearance, but chances are you already know that. What we’re hoping you don’t know, though, is that there were more Game & Watch games based on Donkey Kong than those starring Mario.

The original Donkey Kong Game & Watch is often referred to as the best Game & Watch to ever be released. It’s certainly the most common to find, at least – 1.2 million were sold in Japan alone and reportedly 8 million units were sold worldwide. Although perhaps an unfair comparison given the differences in price, 8 million was also the number of Sega Game Gear handhelds sold during its lifetime. It’s an amazing figure.

The late Gunpei Yokoi originally designed Game & Watch toys for bored businessmen to play while travelling to work and made them small enough so that they could be concealed in the palm of their hands. It soon transpired though that it was children who wanted to own Game & Watch games, and soon they grew in size while the cases became a whole lot more colourful. The Micro Vs. Series even featured two removable mini joypads.

Donkey Kong wasn’t the first multi-screen Game & Watch to be released – Oil Panic had that honour – but it was the first to feature a D-pad. Whereas in Oil Panic you merely had to keep an eye on the bottom screen, in order to tip your bucket of oil out of the window at the right time, here Mario started his adventure on the bottom screen and worked his way up to the top. Incidentally, only the in Western versions is the main character referred to as Mario. In the Japanese version he’s simply referred to as “the rescuer”.

What makes Donkey Kong the finest of its kind is that Nintendo managed to skilfully implement everything that made the arcade original great. Watching the barrels that Donkey Kong throws and planning your next few steps required skill. The barrels didn’t just roll to the end of the girders and fall onto the next either – sometimes they’d roll down the ladders. This helped to make the game a whole lot more random and less predictable. You could choose to play it safe, or if you were feeling lucky try and make a dart up the nearest ladder and hope the next barrel wouldn’t head down it. The final conformation with Donkey Kong required good timing skills too – Mario had to leap at the right moment to hitch a ride on the crane in order to swipe one of Donkey Kong’s platform supports. Once all three had been removed, Donkey Kong fell onto the concrete below.

Another factor that plays in the popularity of this Game & Watch is that many children weren’t allowed in arcades – their parents forbade it as some arcades had bad reputations. When word of mouth of how Donkey Kong could be experienced outside of the arcade, sales boomed.

There’s also a lot of history behind the design of the multi-screen Game & Watches. Only a simpleton would deny that the design of the Nintendo DS was heavily influenced by the dual-screen clam-shell design.

Nintendo even released a Club Mario-only Game & Watch collection for the DS containing three different multi-screen games – Donkey Kong, Oil Panic and Green House. How great would it have been if Donkey Kong came built-in to the original DS, in order to reacquaint gamers with having to look at two screens at once?

Very, is the answer.

Matt Gander

Matt is Games Asylum's most prolific writer, having produced a non-stop stream of articles since 2001. A retro collector and bargain hunter, his knowledge has been found in the pages of tree-based publication Retro Gamer.

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