Donkey Kong should be played first…
Remember sitting crossed legged on the carpet in front of a 15 inch TV with the entire neighbourhood’s kids peering over your shoulder as you dominated in Super Mario Bros? If you answered “yes” then good for you, because all I remember as the younger sibling was getting a chance to play for 5 minutes before bed time…. as Luigi. Needless to say I sucked at it. Super Mario Bros was, and still is an intimidating beast that devoured all of my free time like an appetiser before I could even think of impressing anyone with a play through. Sadly many gamers out there were far worse off than me.
The President of Nintendo, Saturo Iwata was famously quoted at the 73rd annual stakeholder’s meeting regarding a survey they did about the difficulty of games, “This year, around 90 percent of the test participants were unable to complete the first level of Super Mario Brothers” He also said, “many did not understand simple concepts like bottomless pits. Around 70 percent died to the first Goomba. Another 50 percent died twice.”
So are we losing the skills developed from 2D platformers to the realm of 3D and in-game tutorials, and how can we regain a little bit of that lost magic in today’s watered down gaming landscape? Well, before Nintendo opened the flood gate that was Super Mario Bros they had a humble arcade cabinet game called Donkey Kong. Apart from the long list of fun facts about this game the learning curve is much less intimidating making it a great place to start.
Super Mario Bros was actually a huge game at the time. Put yourself in Mario’s shoes for a moment. The player has to make it past multiple levels of bottomless pits, warp zones, secret shortcuts, and a fiery lava dungeon just to find out the princess is in another castle and then do it all over again? You have to appreciate his tenacity. In simpler days Mario, or better known by the boys as “Jump Man”, was a humble wolf whistling carpenter on a construction site when a giant ape kidnapped his crush and wrecked a hard day’s work.
All Jump Man had to do was climb to the top of the rickety scaffolding a couple of times and give Donkey Kong the boot. I’m sure you will agree that this sounds like a much more manageable task. The distressed damsel is in view at the top of the scaffolding, giving the player a clearer goal and therefore better motivation even though the objective is technically identical. It is like winning a gold medal in a 100m sprint but you start 20m away from the finish line.
This shorter play experience also makes the game a lot more simplistic compared to Super Mario that is packed with trippy fire flowers and magical mushrooms to aid Mario on his quest through a kingdom strangely obsessed with fungus. Not to mention the God-like immortality granted by shiny stars. Donkey Kong of course doesn’t have any of that. As I mentioned it most likely takes place in a derelict industrial area of a metropolitan city. If Jump Man had to eat a magic mushroom in this world, he would probably have to get his stomach pumped. He does have a hammer though. By today’s standard that counts as an item not a power-up, but in Donkey Kong this one power up is literally a game changer. Some players might try to beat the clock and avoid using it entirely; others would try to rack up points by beating down the barrels furiously like Thor playing whack-a-mole for the first time.
Another noteworthy reason to consider playing Donkey Kong before “jumping” into Super Mario is the confidence factor. Ever heard of the Olympic weight lifter that failed to beat the world record, so his coach secretly increased his practise load one day and he broke the record without even realising it? I don’t know if that actually happened (This is the internet of course), but the first time I finished Donkey Kong, I put in Super Mario the same day and made it halfway through the game before realising that I am not supposed to be doing this well. I could almost hear Morpheus from the Matrix saying, “I’m trying to free your mind Neo!”
Ironically, the creator of both games Shigeru Miyamoto said that he designed Super Mario Bros so that everyone can beat it and that he failed miserably in that regard. With that in mind my solution to beating it is to start small. Start with Donkey Kong.