Donkey Kong

Donkey KongThe Game: How high can you go? Help Jumpman (Mario) save Pauline from Donkey Kong’s clutches by climbing ladders and avoiding barrels. (AtariSoft, 1983)

Memories: In 1980, Space Invaders became the first arcade game to be officially licensed to a home videogame system. Sales of both the game and the Atari 2600 console itself skyrocketed, thus giving birth to a genre that still exists and sells strongly today: the arcade port. For two years, Atari released ports of arcade games for their competitors’ systems under the brand name AtariSoft. AtariSoft focused predominantly on the expanding home computer market, porting popular arcade games such as Centipede, Dig Dug and Pac-Man to the Apple II, TI-99/4A, IBM PC, and of course the best game-playing machine of the era, the Commodore 64.

When the Commodore 64 debuted in 1982, the Commodore 1541 disk drive sold separately for around $400. As a result, many early Commodore owners relied on either the inexpensive Datasette, or cartridges (which did not require any other loading method). Most of AtariSoft’s ports for the Commodore were available on cartridge.

AtariSoft’s port of Nintendo’s insanely popular Donkey Kong was released in 1983, two years after the game’s arcade debut. By the time Donkey Kong hit the Commodore 64 platform, Donkey Kong mania was in full effect; Mario and Donkey Kong were appearing on lunchboxes, in songs, and on television in the Saturday Supercade cartoon program. The game’s popularity combined with booming home computer sales combined to give AtariSoft one of their most popular videogame ports.

Donkey KongAtariSoft’s version of Donkey Kong was the very first game I ever saw on a Commodore 64 and, for all intents and purposes, it looked identical to Nintendo’s arcade version to my ten-year-old eyes. The C64 port was light years ahead of the crappy Atari 2600 version, released only a year prior. In the C64 port, barrels no longer resembled Ritz crackers and flaming barrels looked nothing like oil lamps.

Equally impressive was the fact that AtariSoft’s port of Donkey Kong contained all four levels from the arcade version. Colecovision’s port for the Atari 2600 only contained the first two levels – Nintendo’s own version, released two years later in ’85, only contained three! To my circle of friends, AtariSoft’s version of Donkey Kong was virtually identical to its arcade counterpart.

With two decades of space between us, we can now see that AtariSoft’s port was far from perfect. The arcade version of Donkey Kong uses a vertical monitor; AtariSoft’s solution to porting the game to horizontal television sets was to simply make everything reeeeeally wide. Other hardware limitations led to a few corners being cut. The infamous “How high can you go?” screen is nowhere to be found. The colors and sounds, while probably the best of any home version at the time, still weren’t perfect. Red girders appeared purple, some of the sound effects (like Donkey Kong’s grunts) didn’t sound quite right, and some of the animation (such as Donkey Kong’s) had been greatly reduced.

That’s not to say the game wasn’t incredible; it was, especially considering the entire thing was crammed into a cartridge that maxed out at 16k. AtariSoft’s port of Donkey Kong was one of many early games that dazzled home computer owners. The ability to 4 quartersget arcade graphics into your home (or a reasonable facsimile thereof…) turned millions of people on to home computers and proved that they could be viable gaming platforms. Ignoring slight changes in graphics in sound due to less powerful hardware than its arcade counterpart, AtariSoft’s version of Donkey Kong delivers an arcade quality experience in a fashion that seemed impossible at the time.