Reboots are an exceptionally tricky business. Going too far will no doubt irritate an existing fanbase, and doing too little is usually perceived as “playing it safe”. Although reboots and remasters are quite commonplace in today’s gaming world, it’s by no means a novel concept. Donkey Kong for Gameboy, often referred to as Donkey Kong ’94, was an attempt at breathing new life into the arcade classic in the form of a puzzle/platformer. It had some deep shoes to fill, and on a portable device no less.
Donkey Kong ’94 has a damn clever introduction, and it remains to be one of my favorite “got’cha” moments in any form of media to this day. Upon starting a new game, you’ll go through the four boards of the arcade classic. At this point, you’re probably thinking that this is just the arcade game with updated visuals. However, upon sending Nintendo’s star gorilla to his (supposed) demise and saving Pauline, he gets up and manages to snatch her away yet again. Through a short cutscene, you’re introduced to the “real” game and its first new mechanic- using keys to open doors.
From here on out, the game becomes a puzzle/platformer with new mechanics introduced frequently. For a good portion of the stages, you’re tasked with picking up a key and getting it to a door located somewhere within to advance to the next section. Every few levels, you’ll play a stage that is reminiscent of the arcade game, as the goal will simply be to reach Pauline while Donkey Kong causing trouble. These ultimately lead up to a boss at the end of each world that involves giving DK a taste of his own medicene.
Mario (or Jumpman, if you prefer) handles similarly to how he did in the arcade classic, but he’s picked up a few new tricks for this update. First, he can perform a backflip to reach higher ledges. Second, pressing down and jump will allow him to do a handstand, allowing him to kick away certain obstacles or launch into a sort of high jump. Both of these new moves help freshen up the gameplay a bit, and if you’re into speed-running, they can most definitely be taken advantage of to get faster clear times.
There is something masterful about the way the game introduces new mechanics and builds on them. You’ll never go into a new stage without knowing what assets will do, as they’re always introduced in the cutscenes presented every few stages. This leaves you to platform and solve more complex puzzles using the new mechanics in diverse ways. For instance, you’ll see that switches extend bridges in a cutscene. As the game advances, you’ll need to use switches not only for that purpose, but also to gate off enemies or bring them to certain environments. See a bunch of ice blocks that could be melting by a walking fireball roaming the stage? Throw a switch so that he can get across a gap and melt them, granting you access to another chunk of the stage. Of course, switches aren’t the only thing you’ll be dealing with. There are blocks that Mario can hit that will allow you to plop a bridge or platform down for a limited amount of time, tightropes that Mario can swing himself upward with and trampolines to bounce across. Even the hammers get an added wrinkle in that you can toss them up in the air, meaning you can climb down ladders and catch them in order to bring them to areas you normally couldn’t.
By the time you reach the penultimate world, you’ll become a master at all of this and with minimal frustration thanks to the game adopting a more modern difficulty curve. There’s no cheap spikes in difficulty at any given point, and while the puzzles may “solve themselves” in the early stages, the later levels introduce some real head-scratchers. I can’t think of a single level where I was shaking my head and believing a death to be my fault. While lives are present, the threat of getting a Game Over at any point is surprisingly minimal thanks to the game handing excessive amounts of them out. If you’re able to pick up all three items on each stage, you’re given a chance for 1-ups. At the end of every section of a world, your times are added up and skillful play will add up to even more 1-ups. I ended up with 99 lives by the midpoint of the adventure, and I wasn’t really making it my main objective to do so either. While I appreciate that it’s easy to obtain a ton of lives so that newcomers won’t end up frustrated, I do feel that this trivializes the need to seek out the extra items in the later stages when there stops being a reward for doing so. It’s only a minor setback, though.
In conclusion, Donkey Kong ’94 is perhaps one of the greatest examples of how to teach an old dog new tricks without straying too far from the source material. The charm in the presentation, the quick-and-snappy controls and added mechanics and gimmicks all make for a memorable experience that is well worth checking out. Fortunately, it’s been made available on the 3DS Eshop if you missed this one back in the day and are against emulation (or having trouble finding Nintendo ROMS after the company’s recent witch-hunts). It may not have much in the way of replay value past improving your times, but it’s a blast for the couple hours a first playthrough will take.