Donkey Kong (VC:NES)
Ordinarily I frown on console ports of arcade games because with rare exception they’re inferior in visuals/sound or are altered in some way from what I remember. Normally I’d content myself with the MAME emulation on my Mac, but I recently learned that the reason for the difference comes down to a lawsuit over copyright on the code for the arcade game all those years ago.
See, Nintendo apparently contracted the work out on Donkey Kong and when they produced Donkey Kong Jr. themselves and re-used some of the code, the company that programmed Donkey Kong sued them and won. So the character animations in this port differ slightly, as does the level transitions and we’re missing an entire stage (not that I was ever good enough to see it in the arcade), but it’s close enough and I can’t be bothered playing MAME most of the time anyway.
Donkey Kong Jr. (VC:NES)
See above for a rundown on why this isn’t the arcade game, but note that unlike Donkey Kong – which just switches the order of a couple of stages (and omits one entirely), Donkey Kong Jr. is very different from the arcade after the first stage in both the order of the levels and their structure.
To be honest I was never good enough at the arcade game to tell you what the differences are in detail, but it feels fresh and that keeps me from griping about it not being closer to the arcade. I think it’s worth a look for fans of the classics or if, like me, NES Remix piqued your curiosity about these old NES arcade ports.
Donkey Kong 3 (VC:NES)
Unlike the first two Donkey Kong games you’re not controlling Jumpman or Donkey Kong Jr. in this game. No, instead you’re just some guy trying to protect his flowers from bugs stirred up by Donkey Kong. It’s much closer to the arcade than Donkey Kong Jr., but not terribly compelling, so no surprise there wasn’t a fourth one in the series. It’s kind of fun in its own way though, so fans of ye olde arcade games might want to give it a try.
I have to caveat this review by saying this game was a gift and isn’t a game I would have given a second thought to otherwise, given my general lack of interest in big-budget multi-platform titles. I did enjoy it overall, however it does flag up some major issues in the state of gaming generally that I think are worthy of addressing.
Firstly let me say that the visuals and much of the character design (bar our hero, who looks like something a teenage Iron Maiden fan might have sketched on a school book cover thirty years ago) is quite good and the environments are (for the most part) equally detailed and interesting. The storyline, though not brilliant, is again interesting enough that I wanted to keep playing to see what would happen next; indeed the main problem with this game is the video game aspect itself.
Given the prominence of the story and the expense taken to write dialogue and hire quality voice actors to execute it, you’d think this would be a game more driven by story events – a point-and-click adventure certainly wouldn’t have been inappropriate – but instead we have a mash-up of Legend of Zelda exploration and Ninja Gaiden-style “RPG” levelling and fighting. It’s both uncreative and pretty tiresome with a seemingly never-ending series of dungeons where you’re navigating by climbing walls via convenient handholds, occasionally fighting baddies and looking for the exact same key to unlock a big door on the way to another boss fight: wash, rinse, repeat.
As with Ninja Gaiden 3 there are loads of fighting moves possible, but none of them are really required and they’re too hopelessly complicated to remember anyway, so best to just stick with combinations of pressing basic attack buttons as needed. The spell trees are interesting and depending on your choices can result in quite different approaches to fights, but they only really come into play in boss battles.
Dungeon exploration dominates play: running from chamber to chamber, scurrying up walls and leaping from ledge to ledge to access new areas and figure out how to open locked doors. All the while you’ll have the ageless problem of any 3D game with a crappy camera: manual re-positioning of the camera (often with a combination of analogue stick and buttons) to figure out where to go next or occasionally how to fight enemies – don’t remind me of the boss fight on horseback that concludes the first major section of the game!
In fact there’s so much dead air in what could otherwise have been an interesting gaming experience that I’m left thinking that the story came first, followed by a struggle to figure out how to tell it within the confines of a game (or worse no thought was given to that and they just pulled this structure out of a hat). The amount of dungeon navigation seems to be down to padding the game out so people feel like they got their money’s worth. Zelda has a long tradition of doing dungeon exploration, but the story isn’t quite as grand and the level design is far more varied and interesting. Darksiders II feels like the team ran out of steam creatively, but had too much invested to give up – pretty much how I felt after my fifteenth hour of play!
I can’t help but wondering if big-budget titles like this might benefit from scaling down a bit to focus on the best way to tell the stories they seem to want to tell. The best parts of Darksiders II are the story bits, with plot reveals providing the motivation to continue on to the next major game objective. The journey through vast lands to find individuals who you then need to battle are pretty well-executed, so why pad things out with half-assed door-opening puzzles that have nothing to do with the story and give the impression that the entire cosmos is arranged just to test our hero on his key-finding ability?
Ninja Gaiden 3 was a silly action title spawned from a story-less arcade game, so I can forgive it just being an endless stream of meaningless carnage – let’s face it, that game fails hardest when it tries to get serious! Zelda games are an evolution of an old 8-bit dungeon crawler: thinly veneered exploration games that do what it says on the tin. But Darksiders and its sequel here appear to be doing something different: they’re trying to tell us an interesting (if muddled) story, but come off as a bloated mess: falling back on a mediocre execution of videogame tropes simply because the audience isn’t expected to require more than that to fork over their cash. Honestly if big budget games are going to continue to be made they’ll need to be better than that – especially if they have no coattails to ride.
I sincerely hope that if a third Darksiders game is produced by the current rights-holder they’ll be brave enough to abandon what’s come before and do something that’s a lot tighter, focusing on maintaining the storytelling momentum with engaging connecting game sequences – surely that can’t be too difficult?