Mario has starred in more classics than any other game character, but one of his best games doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
In 1994, Nintendo released the Super Game Boy, a cartridge for the Super Nintendo that let you play Game Boy games on your TV. It would even add colors to some games. To show off this functionality, Nintendo created a new Game Boy version of Donkey Kong, the arcade hit that established Mario and really the whole company.
The original Donkey Kong came out in 1981. It’s a significant and important game, but also (understandably) a bit simple. At first, this new Donkey Kong (which most people call Donkey Kong ’94 to help differentiate it with the original) looks like a pure remake. You play through the original levels, ascending platforms until you reach the main monkey man himself. But where the arcade game ends, Donkey Kong ’94 begins. Donkey Kong grabs his kidnapped victim, Pauline, and runs off. Mario then chases him across almost 100 levels.
But these new stages aren’t just slight variations on the established Donkey Kong levels. At this point, Donkey Kong ’94 becomes a puzzle platform game. The goal in every non-boss level is to find a key and then take it to a locked door. It sounds easy, but if you drop the key and leave it alone for too long, it warps back to its original point. The meat of the game comes from finding paths and avoiding obstacles so you can get the key safely to the door.
Donkey Kong ’94 is like a mix of the original Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Super Mario Bros. 2. The vine climbing-based gameplay of Donkey Kong Jr. appears in some levels, and you pick up and throw items in a way that’s familiar to anyone who’s played Super Mario Bros. 2. But Donkey Kong ’94 is also, amazingly, a precursor to Super Mario 64. This game expanded Mario’s acrobatic abilities, giving him his first versions of his soon signature triple jumps and back flips. And Nintendo did all of this with the Game Boy’s two face buttons.
Does it sound a little silly to compare a Game Boy Donkey Kong game to one of the most important titles in history? What if I compare it to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild? We all love the way that open-world game has multiple solutions for its puzzles, encouraging us to flex our imagination. Donkey Kong ’94 gives you the same opportunity. The most obvious solution is often not the most efficient, especially once you master those back flips.
Nintendo makes so many fantastic games that it’s reasonable for some to fall through the cracks. But Donkey Kong ’94 is one of the best games the company has ever made. If you want to play it today, you’ll either need to track down the original cartridge (and preferably a Super Nintendo and a Super Game Boy) or you can also buy it on the 3DS Virtual Console. I hope we somehow see it on the Switch soon. The more people who discover this surprising, inventive game, the happier I’ll be.
The RetroBeat is a weekly column that looks at gaming’s past, diving into classics, new retro titles, or looking at how old favorites — and their design techniques — inspire today’s market and experiences. If you have any retro-themed projects or scoops you’d like to send my way, please contact me.