Monday 1 February 2010

How low can you go?

Make sure your exit path isn't blocked as we fly into

the DOS port of Donkey Kong from 1983. Under normal circumstances you'd assume that the powerful range of IBM computers would put any console version of the game to shame, but instead the result was one of the worst games the ape has ever been thrown into. Let's take a look!

Perhaps it was the North American video game crash desperately leeching off Atari's bank accounts. Perhaps it was the lack of experience making games for DOS. Perhaps it was just a tactical move to get people to buy 2600 game consoles. Either way, Donkey Kong for DOS is one of the ugliest and most unresponsive copies of the arcade classic ever to grace a CRT monitor. Though the game is mostly in-tact, everything seems to have been made from scratch, resulting in something that barely looks, barely sounds and barely plays like Nintendo intended.

First, the obvious flaw - the graphics. Now admittedly part of the problem with the graphics were the restrictions of the CGA colour palette. Give a man a palette consisting of BROWN, DARK RED, DARK GREEN and BLACK and you're bound to have problems, but it's still no excuse for the quite frankly terrible spritework. Donkey Kong quite simply doesn't look like Donkey Kong, instead looking as if it's been plucked from the belly of hell to deal damage to carpenters. Pauline doesn't animate and the various enemies along the way have taken a beating too. Not a pretty sight.

For some strange reason Atari thought that things would be better if Mario never stopped moving. Once you press right, Mario will move right. Forever. Press left and he'll move left. Forever. Pressing up will cause Mario to stop, but will also cause him to move up ladders as originally intended. All this combined with the rather dodgy jumping mechanic makes the game significantly harder for all the wrong reasons. It isn't so much the choppy enemies that appear from nowhere that are the problem - it's the fact that Mario will often run off platforms, and, in the world of Donkey Kong, this means a cheap death.

Donkey Kong on DOS is also really poorly programmed. The speed of the game and the pitch of the sounds depend entirely on how many clock cycles your computer's processor has. Boot it up in DOSBox - an emulator that is purposefully much slower than any modern computer for compatibility reasons, and it will run too fast. You need to reduce the CPU cycles to under 1000 to get a good result, because Atari didn't think that one day computers might become a bit faster. It's a game that doesn't want to be played, and for good reason, but that's not going to stop it from being humiliated on the internet for no apparent reason.

HOWEVER, there are some good points to this untidy package. For 1983 a 320x200 resolution would have been considered "high definition". Competing ports would have included versions of the game for the Atari 2600 or the Mattel Intellevision, and though the gameplay in those is slightly better, they're not very visually appealing either. There's also a difficulty option, and a two player "swap" mode, so somebody tried to add their own touches. Shame they didn't bother touching up the blatant graphics problems.

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