So now it’s June of 1986. It’s been 7 months since the rollout of the NES. Sales started in New York and California, and now we’re spreading inward across the country into flyover country. Sales are ramping up, Nintendo is meeting the demand so far with the system and current games. But the people in the original sales areas are clamoring for more games. Nintendo is proving that the infamous video game crash of the early 80s is over, and they want to ride the wave of demand straight to the bank. They put a TON of work into the first batch of games, but the next batch of games aren’t ready. What’s easier than making a bunch of new games? Recycle games you’ve already released elsewhere.
Nintendo truly made their name as an arcade game developer, riding the wave of success from Donkey Kong. So the next batch of games, with one exception, were all ports of previous Nintendo arcade games. (the term “port” comes from either the French portare (to carry) or from being “portable software,” meaning it could be transferred from one system to another. It’s easier to take a pre-existing game for, say, the TRS-80, and make it work on an Atari 2600, than it is to design a game to sell for each.) So that’s what Nintendo decided to do. They went to the stable of games built for the arcades by Miyamoto, crammed them into cartridges, and sold them for the NES. It worked. The public was sated until original content could be released, and it was kinda cool to have an arcade game at home.
The next games released for the Nintendo were Mario Bros, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Donkey Kong 3, Donkey Kong Jr Math, and Popeye. (short updates below, because I’m not going to spend a ton of time talking about non-original games, especially since some of them have been discussed before.)
I’ve already discussed how Miyamoto had a nightmare about bugs coming out pipes, then combined that with the idea of a 2-player platformer, and the Mario Bros was born. (I don’t think I talked about how many quarters I lost at the ice cream shop down the street from my grade school playing this game, but that’s beside the point).
The game released for the NES was almost exactly the same game released for the arcade, with very few changes. The cutscenes were removed due to hardware limitations (mostly storage space on the cartridge), and the game allowed two difficulty levels of game play, with an easy and harder versions.
The biggest impact of this game is that this is the first platformer released for the NES that two players could play simultaneously: a few of the original sports games could be played two player simultaneously, and others played in a turn-based style. Mario Bros was the first game to allow true couch co-op.
And the game was well reviewed… IGN puts the game in the top 100 NES games of all time. While I’m not sure I’d put it that high, the game does get SERIOUS points for influence on gaming overall, and I’d give it bonus points for the couch co-op options.
I’ve already talked about the creation of Donkey Kong (see here for a beautifully researched article about turning a Space Invaders clone into the most successful video game of its time—the author is a hell of a good guy, and he’s incredibly good looking). What’s impressive about the port to the NES is that Jumpman, the semi-named character of the original 1981 version, has now been renamed for the NES release…he’s officially Mario (he was more or less Mario before…same overalls, same bushy ‘stache…but now he has the name) The princess remains Pauline, but that makes sense, as the Princess in Super Mario Bros wasn’t named “Princess Peach” until after the Super Nintendo was released. Aside from those changes, the game is another straight up conversion of the arcade version. There are some VERY minor tweaks to the difficulty, dumbing the game down a tiny bit, as arcade games are intentionally difficult, wanting you to die early, to keep pumping in the quarters. Additionally, there are only three of the four original levels, and the opening cut scene (where DK stomps the girders from flat floors to the games levels) has been removed like in Mario Bros.
But other than that, it’s the same game that saved Nintendo and ate the world’s quarters 6 years earlier.
DONKEY KONG JR
This sequel swapped the player’s roles; instead of Jumpman/Mario climbing to stop Donkey Kong; now you play as the title character, saving your ape father from Mario. The design team remained the same, with Miyamoto creating and designing the game with the same crew from the original Donkey Kong. The biggest change for the sequel over the original was the addition of moving in multiple directions: instead of the traditional “climb the ramps” of the first game. DK Jr climbs ropes. (slowly one handed, faster with both) He jumps as well, as he makes his way upward to free his caged father. When he reaches the key, Mario shoves the cage away to the next level (which, for the same sad hardware limitations, sadly doesn’t get animated in the NES version). After 3 variations on this theme, DK Jr must move 6 keys into the cage. If he’s successful, there’s a cutscene where the senior ape is rescued, and the game restarts with harder difficulty.
DK Jr was well regarded when released for the arcade, and is considered a worthy successor to the original.
As far as differences between the arcade and the NES version, the biggest difference is that Junior moves juuuust a little faster in the NES game, making game play more fluid, as well as slightly easier (see Donkey Kong above). Strangely, the consensus is that the arcade version actually looks better; it’s strange because the NES has more processing power than the arcade cabinet, and should render better as a result. Additionally, the NES cart comes with the option for game type B, a more difficult setting, from right off the bat.
And regarding my review…man, I don’t get it. I understand gaming has changed. I realize I’m spoiled by 39 years of intervening games…but you can take ZERO fall damage, movement is too slow for the immediate death from any enemy contact, and I can’t get into the game. At all. I’ve tried. I’ve played 7-8 times over the last week. I just can’t get into it.
If I was plugging quarters into this game, I’d be pissed. And if I’d paid what a new cart cost in the 1980s for it (60 bucks, unadjusted…which is insanely the same amount as a current-gen game) I’d be even more so. Hell, I’d be mad if I paid 5 bucks to rent it for the weekend.
Donkey Kong Jr Math
Yep, there’s a math game from the Donkey Kong universe.
And man, it’s not very good.
DKJM is a game that’s supposed to teach the player math. It’s supposed to be the lead game of the FAMICOM Education Series.
There’s a reason that nobody, not even the guy who is writing a series of articles about the history of the NES/FAMICOM, has heard anything about the FAMICOM Education Series. And that reason is simple: This game was so poorly reviewed, and just as poorly sold, that the whole series was dead on arrival.
DKJM, as far as I can tell, was supposed to be an attempt to combine the success of Donkey Kong Jr and push the family portion of the FAMICOM. The Nintendo team that helped build the arcade game in 1983, which was still together, used many of the same mechanics, structures, and movement as DKJ. They just added math.
There’s three modes of the game…the first two follow similar mechanics…Donkey Kong is perched above the top of the game screen, and he presents a number, say 45. Players (it’s a 2 player game by default, but can be played as a one single player) then race to grab numbers and mathematical symbols to make it happen. In the first mode, the target number is a positive integer, in the second, a negative one.
For example, the goal is 45, then players would race for the 9, the multiplication symbol, and the 5. If the number is larger than the available options (say 112) players can get the highest numbers available, and repeat the process until their total is 112. You could get 9 X 8, then add 6 X 7, then subtract 2 to get there. While I imagine that the game COULD be slightly entertaining if there was someone else you’re competing against, it would be frustrating as hell to be waiting and racing for the higher numbers available. Solo, especially on the levels where you’re looking for negative numbers, is just mind numbing, as there’s only so many ways to move downward. You end up waiting for the subtraction symbol over and over and over.
The third mode is a single player mode where the player chooses a type of math (multi-digit multiplication, 4 digit addition or subtraction, and so on) and then does as many problems of that type of math problem as possible in a minute.
It records your high score! You can challenge Billy down the street to beat your high score on the 3 digit subtraction level.
I’m not going to actually “review” this “game.” It’s wasted effort. I WILL say that I really, really appreciate the effort put in to make a game that was educational; while it’s not the first game to be made for education (Electric Company Math came out in 1979), it was a solid try to use the world’s most popular video game character to teach math. It was an incredibly good idea; it just didn’t meet the execution. It’s boring. It’s confusing. It doesn’t actually teach the player anything, so it’s more like doing homework than playing a game. And it’s boring.
There’s a solid reason they stopped the FAMICOM Education System games. The reason is Donkey Kong Jr Math.
The best part of this whole game is that it was released as part of the Nintendo Virtual Console…while I THINK it was meant as a way to highlight the history of the game, one of the very first FAMICOM releases, I can’t figure out why it was included at all. As I said before, the game is not very good. And while historical, OH MY GOD it’s definitely not worth the $4.99 on the virtual console. I cannot imagine why anyone would buy it unless they’re an aggressive collector and MUST have all the games.
Have I mentioned this game isn’t very good?
Donkey Kong 3
Kong is back. And this time, he’s fighting a gardener.
Yep…there are no plumbers in the one. Mario isn’t in DK3.
Now, Stanley must defend his garden against the angry insects that DK sends his way.
Miyamoto brings back his (at the time) most famous creation, and in his continuing desire to evolve the character he invented, changes the entire makeup of the game. You’re not a jumping man (nor a plumber) trying to stop a giant ape from stealing your girlfriend; you’re not even a younger ape avenging your father…you’re just a guy trying to stop bugs from eating his flowers. It’s not even a true platformer like the earlier games; now it’s more of a shooter, as you spray upward to chase Kong upward and to kill or slow the insects he sends your way. It looks far more like Galaga, with the upward shooting, than the jump/timing based games earlier in the series. Nintendo borrowed Stanley the exterminator from an earlier Game and Watch handheld, and more or less threw everything in a blender. You end up with a Donkey Kong game where you shoot descending bugs.
There are only three levels, which repeat with harder and harder difficulty each time through. There’s no end level, although you will get an extra Stanley at 50,000 points.
The game apparently did well in Japan, but it had the misfortune of being released in North America during the midst of the 1983 video game crash. It didn’t do well in the US, but remained in the stable of games, and ended up joining the NES lineup.
Of note was that there was a semi-sequel released called Donkey Kong 3: The Great Counter-attack. The biggest changes were more levels (upwards of 20) and the inability to jump, dramatically increasing the difficulty. This game was not made for the arcade nor the NES; because of this, for years it was unavailable outside of Japan. Despite being released in 1984, the game wasn’t emulated until 2018.
Finally, Miyamoto got to make his Popeye game. If you remember (and if you don’t, here you go) the original idea for Miyamoto’s first major game was one based on the comic strip (and VERY strange Robert Altman movie starring Robin Williams) Popeye. For the three of you out there that don’t know, Popeye is a sailor who gains super strength through eating canned spinach. He uses this strength to defeat his sworn enemy Bluto and take care of his gal, Olive Oil. (yes, that’s right. Yes, that’s based on a comic that was first drawn in 1929. No, I don’t get it either, but when a young MJ watched Warner Bros cartoons, he loved the Popeye shorts that used to show before feature movies in the 1930s/40s.)
Miyamoto loved them too. He desperately wanted to make a Popeye game. But Nintendo couldn’t get the rights, so instead he made a game about a plumber saving a woman from a giant ape, and video gaming was changed forever.
After the success of Donkey Kong, the owners of Popeye’s rights had a change of heart; Miyamoto got to make the game he’d been dreaming of. In 1982, Nintendo released it as an arcade cabinet. And it was very successful, topping play charts and garnering great reviews.
The player controls the title character, running around the cityscape, to collect either hearts, music notes, or letters for Olive Oil. He avoids Bluto, who throws items like bottles and cans at him. There is a punch button, but it’s not used to punch enemies, just to avoid thrown items, or, occasionally, punch items into your enemies. Each level has spinach can to be eaten, after which you can knock Bluto or other enemies into the sea (although they quickly recover). There are three levels, and after each cycle, the levels restart with an increased level of difficulty.
After the success of the arcade game, it was ported into just about every system on the market, including 3 Atari consoles, ColecoVision and the Commodore 64. The Famicom port was one of the first three games released when the system was first sold, along side Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr.
And it’s not a bad game at all. It’s super entertaining (my 6 year old enjoyed it as much as I did). It’s not super hard but scales well. The graphics don’t look great, but that’s to be expected for a port from a game already dated when the NES was released. And the music is really good.
There was an attempted educational game for this as well, but it was only released in Japan, as it taught English.
There you go. 5 ports, and a direct to failure original. Not super exciting, but it’s building the name Nintendo, and offered 6 more options when you were buying the NES. These games helped tide the demand until “real” Nintendo games could be released, which they were in August of 1986, with more quickly following that October.
Up next, we get some more original games, including motorcycles, fighting games, and another lightgun shooter.