“How high can you get?”
This iconic phrase has tortured gamers for the better part of the last three decades.
It seems less a challenge to the player and more a question to the game itself, as to how deeply it could permeate global pop culture. The golden age of arcade gaming is decades in the rearview mirror, but Donkey Kong has managed to maintain its relevance while most coin-op games of yesteryear have been forgotten and relegated to the basements of the dive bowling alleys. There was a time when these were far from the only sort of venues the cathode-ray tube screens illuminated, their radiant glow a comforting beacon to legions of children and adults alike, whose every quarter built the foundation for the billion-dollar gaming industry that exists today.
So why exactly is Donkey Kong the greatest game ever made?
Maybe “greatest” isn’t the best adjective to use. Perhaps “most important” would be a more fitting descriptor.
Donkey Kong is to video games what Chuck Berry is to rock and roll. While it may seem rudimentary by modern standards, it is the gold standard which everything before it strove to be, and what everything after it merely improved upon. Even the most progressive rock and roll, at its core, is just a collection of seven notes and a handful of chords. In the same vein, video games are an amalgam of strategic movements and the destruction of evil in the name of greater good.
Shigeru Miyamoto perfected this formula in Donkey Kong, and Nintendo’s decades of gaming prosperity can largely be attributed to these efforts. This is one of gaming’s first masterpieces — the gaming equivalent of da Vanci’s The Last Supper – and it will forever cast a grand shadow over every platforming game developed.
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” -Leonardo Da Vinci
Dodge barrels, grab hammers, jump fireballs, rescue the princess, repeat. Ultimately, that’s all Donkey Kong is, no more advanced in its design than most games of its time.
At first glance, there is nothing about the game that would make it seem any more likely to procure the quarters of the gaming-hungry public than any of the machines around it.
It isn’t until you take control of the joystick that the brilliance of this game becomes apparent. Although simple in design, Donkey Kong is extraordinarily complex in its execution. It required players to make perfectly-timed jumps and dodges to progress to the level’s end, something that no other game had done before.
The game’s use of four unique and separate levels was something gamers had not experienced before; games before it were played out on an identical layout with only the difficulty and speed being altered. In essence, for gamers to master Donkey Kong, they needed to master four different games.
While many later games improved the formula significantly, what has made this title last is its sheer sense of challenge.
Donkey Kong is difficult. Brutally difficult. Most players (including myself) will never make it past the first three or four rounds. Unlike earlier games like Pac-Man, much of Donkey Kong is completely randomized. Wild barrels careen carelessly across the screen, fireballs reverse directions on a dime, and the margin of error for jumps is incredibly thin. Nothing short of the quickest reflexes and judgment will render even the most modest of success.
Thus, the world record high score for Donkey Kong has become gaming’s Holy Grail, one which men have dedicated countless hours of meticulous practice in order to achieve. There have been feature films, live performances at the world famous E3 expo, and large-scale competitions solely dedicated to a handful of men standing in front of old arcade cabinets playing the same four screens over and over. All of this so that one can emerge victorious and forever take his place in the pantheon of gaming legends.
Most importantly, Donkey Kong is important because it’s fun.
I love Donkey Kong. I suck at it, but I love it regardless. I own the game on more consoles than I think I even own, and it remains perpetually stuck my regular gaming rotation, likely to never leave. When the coaxial cable from my Atari 7800 goes into the back of my television, Donkey Kong is almost always the first cart in. And just as our parents plunked quarters into its machine 30 years ago, we gladly surrender our credit card number to Nintendo so that we may own it on our modern systems.
It’s not because it’s the deepest game. It’s not because it’s the most impressive use of its technology. It’s because it’s unequivocally enjoyable.
How high can I get?
That question constantly looms over me, just as it did when the very first Donkey Kong machine flickered to life and made its inaugural challenge in 1981.