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The History of ‘Donkey Kong’ Ports is the History of the Gaming Industry

The original “Donkey Kong” arcade game, like many games, was built from the exhumed corpses of those that came before. When Nintendo of America ordered thousands of copies of “Radarscope,” a Space Invaders-like that did big business in Japan, they were years behind the trend. Nobody wanted the machines.

Aisles and aisles of cabinets were taking up space in a warehouse outside of Seattle. The call went out for a new game built from the guts of these unwanted carcasses. A young artist, who at that point had worked on in-game graphics like the stilted stick-figures of “Sheriff,” took up the challenge and designed a new title, taking the unusable concepts from a “Popeye” game and reassigning the roles to a lithe maiden, a stocky everyman, and a burly ape.

When Shigeru Miyamoto created “Donkey Kong,” he not only inadvertently created a reliable mascot for his parent company in the then-unnamed “Mario” (nee “Jumpman”). He produced another flexible character — the titular Kong — who would go on to shift roles from villain to kidnappee to hero across four decades of games. Titles starring the simian and his kin would prove foundational to another practice as old as video games themselves: porting a pre-existing game to another console.

Games are often moved from one platform to another because there’s money to be made when a title, already designed and completed, can be released to an audience who hasn’t had a chance to play it. But more interesting are those ports that result in fundamental changes to the game itself, providing new life to what had become just another old thing on the growing heap of history.

With “Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze” getting a second chance on Nintendo Switch after releasing to critical acclaim but muted sales on the beleaguered Wii U, it’s high time to reconsider the agile ape and his legacy of games that are constantly reconfigured for a new audience, platform, or playstyle. In many ways, DK and his evolutions have been a bellwether for the larger gaming landscape.

“Donkey Kong” is the ur-game for our modern industry. While many earlier games relied on a single-screen playfield, a kind of digital board game where you moved pieces around and tried racking up a high score while destroying an abstract threat, “Donkey Kong” was built around a story. And so it followed a narrative arc, requiring new locations, an evolving conflict, and an ending.

That these elements repeat ad nauseam was simply a requirement of their platform: No more game meant no more quarters. The groundwork had been laid for games to be more than score-chasers; your protagonist, more than simple geometry zapping or chomping foes. A game could be about desire. A game could revolve around antagonism. Zoom in closely enough and you realize, nearly forty years later, not much has changed.

The same can’t be said for the first time we saw “Donkey Kong” at home. This was a changed, different game. Many different games, in fact. Because Nintendo did not yet have their own home console in 1982, they licensed the game out to Coleco to make for the home systems of the time. What has become somewhat taken for granted today–a port being more or less the same between different systems–was not the case then.

Instead players received three separate versions of the arcade game: Each off in certain ways, notably similar in others, the way you might recall a memory by the stories others have told you. The ColecoVision “Donkey Kong,” was a valiant effort, and a far superior version of other ports built for the Atari 2600 and Intellivision. Though ports of questionable quality remain a problem even today, this was a different brand of banana: Coleco developed each port, specifically making the versions for its competitors’ consoles vastly inferior. That such a transparent kind of sabotage was accepted speaks to how young this industry was in the early 80s. The rules had not yet been set. And as any parent knows, the young get away with what they can, forever testing boundaries until learning the way things work.

If Nintendo has learned anything, it’s how to re-sell their old catalog of games. They went onto package and release its own arcade classic on their world-beating NES to much success. But it was the first time they pushed “Donkey Kong” onto their portable Game Boy, in 1994, when we saw how flexible and ambitious their sense of revisionist history could be.

It was a banner year for the big ape. “Donkey Kong Country” on SNES arrived in November, a massive success that foretold Nintendo’s desire to push limited hardware in the face of the competition’s emphasis on horsepower (Sony would release its PlayStation weeks later in Japan). But earlier, in July, Nintendo released “Donkey Kong” on their green-and-black Game Boy. Though colloquially known as “Donkey Kong ‘94,” the official title is the same as the one from 1981, thirteen years prior. To an unknowing player, they’ve bought the arcade game to play on the go. Which would have been enough.

Nintendo keeps up the charade through the first four levels. They mimic almost exactly those that repeat in the arcade. But after Mr. Kong falls, something remarkable happens: He gets back up, takes Pauline away again, and instead of a return to those iconic construction girders we see something “Donkey Kong” never had: A world map. Mario then embarks on a brand new adventure, scrambling after his nemesis through 100 unique levels with a gymnast’s nimble alacrity.

This was a port in name only. This sleight-of-hand was the industry’s stock in trade in the early to mid-90s: Taking old games and unraveling them, impossibly, into something new. A simple PC adventure game (“Castle Wolfenstein”) turned into a genre-defining first-person shooter (“Wolfenstein 3D”). The first blockbuster 2D platformer (“Super Mario Bros.”) became the first blockbuster 3D platformer (“Super Mario 64”).

With “Donkey Kong” on Game Boy and their new Super Game Boy adaptor, Nintendo’s prestidigitation turned back the clock, making the black-and-white handheld game into a full-color at-home arcade machine. Plug the cartridge into the SNES adaptor and flip the switch: what was once monochromatic was now technicolor, framed to look like a television was an upright cabinet from 1981.

The simple graphical overlay is a technique seen everywhere today: from CRT-filter options for re-released retro games to SnapChat stickers. The real advancement of “Donkey Kong ‘94” was in the increasingly complex puzzle design and gameplay mechanics, but it was this nod to yesteryear that presaged an industry’s increasing desire to repurpose classic titles on new hardware.

Sometimes, the effort fails. During Nintendo’s Wii era, many older games were re-released with motion-controls to latch onto the momentary craze. One in particular — ”Donkey Kong Jungle Beat” is an example of a port whose transformation results in a complete loss of identity.

“Jungle Beat” originally used the DK Bongos, a set of honest-to-goodness plastic bongos that hooked up to your Nintendo GameCube to be used as a controller. On paper the idea sounds ludicrous. But somehow the design wizards at EAD Tokyo (who would go onto develop “Super Mario Galaxy” and its sequel) created a deep strategic platformer controlled by smacking dual drums and clapping your hands. It’s a rare case of a mimetic interface that brings the character’s attributes to life in the hands of the player: You are an ape, crashing your padded palms onto a surface that gives beneath your strength.

The Wii re-release strips away all physicality. Instead of smashing your hands down with gusto, you are asked you to push a joystick and wave the Remote and Nunchuk up and down. What was once urgent and tactile is now replaced with a flaccid swish of stale air. Motion controls can deliver a unique experience that offers accuracy beyond that of traditional buttons and sticks. But this was one port that showcased the medium’s worst tendency: Change for change’s sake.

(Again, DK proved prescient: A little over a year later, Microsoft’s Kinect camera would give millions of new players another chance to swipe their hands back and forth, a gesture perhaps better suited to washing windows or rejecting virtual hook-ups.)

Nearly a decade later, Kong is back again to show us the transformative power of ports. “Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze” was a superlative game that suffered as a victim of its source platform. When it came out on Valentine’s Day 2014 for Wii U, the system was flailing. Sales were abysmal; Sony and Microsoft had released their powerful new hardware the previous holiday, and Donkey Kong’s flowing cartoon fur paled in consumers’ eyes compared to the grim realism of Sony’s “Infamous: Second Son” and Microsoft’s gladiatorial combat sim “Ryse.”

But Nintendo’s on-the-go console is giving second life to a host of previously released software. “Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” sold over 9 million copies in less than a year. The Switch port of “Bayonetta 2” outperformed its Wii U release which had the advantage of both novelty and a fandom’s pent-up demand for an unlikely sequel. And a bevy of independent game ports, available elsewhere for months or sometimes years, have landed on Switch with a splash.

Will Nintendo’s latest reworking of an older game starring its original villain share in its host system’s success? We’ll find out this week. One thing it has over the first iteration: a new playable character, Funky Kong, who effectively acts as a difficulty slider for what is a deceptively challenging game. Enable the new “Funky Mode,” and now your magic surfboard cruises safely over spiked pits and bottomless voids. This reworking is a mild effort compared to overhauls of the past. But it does fall in line with the character’s, and his company’s, long history of bringing the dead back to life.

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