Since it recently became available to order without fighting through pre-orders and scalpers, I bought an Analogue Pocket for playing my retro library of handheld Nintendo games. I bought Donkey Kong for Game Boy at release, but never got further than world three. My 12-year-old self didn’t exhibit a lot of patience, and this was neither the first or last game I bailed on. It seemed like great timing for a retry with Mario vs. Donkey Kong for Switch fast approaching. Also, 30 years on, peoples’ admiration for this classic hasn’t seemed to soften.
The definitive way to play is probably considered to be with a Super Game Boy, which practically coincided with the DK ’94 release. It has an arcade cabinet screen border, and a cleaner palette of colors than you’d see on the eventual Game Boy Color. My playthrough toggled between the Pocket’s green filter simulating the original Game Boy, and the Game Boy Color with one of the excellent LCD filters.
This game has new and unique mechanics, clever puzzles, and challenging platforming. Keeping some of Mario’s new moves in mind, like his backflip and headstand jump, can help breeze through challenges from some stages. Largely though, this game executes on balancing fun, challenge, and the quirkiness you’d expect from a Nintendo game featuring an ape named Donkey.
You start out navigating four levels that are a familiar recreation of the original arcade game. Culminating in “defeating” DK, before he rouses himself for another escape. This four level cycle repeats throughout the game topping out over 100 levels in all, letting you save after each time you catch back up to Pauline and her captor.
There were a handful of stages that were truly challenging, some having very tight timing, navigating moving platforms while dodging projectiles or enemies. This was compounded by playing handheld, with a d-pad and buttons that are a bit small, and that’s even as someone without very large hands. This is another point for playing on a Super Game Boy, or at least with a more roomy controller, if you can.
A few levels are quite puzzling too, and having no way to view the level without the time limit ticking away felt unfair a handful of times. Pay extra attention to where Pauline’s cry for help appears on screen as a level begins, because some of the exits are hidden from the screen entirely otherwise. The game does offer a lot of opportunities for extra lives though. There are time bonuses after every four levels, and mini games if you collect the purse, umbrella, and hat from each stage. So it was easy enough to keep a healthy buffer, and a few times near the end I even maxed out the remaining lives to 99.
Donkey Kong is definitely a stand out from the original Game Boy library that easily holds up as a classic worth playing today.