The Donkey Kong Game & Watch was created by Nintendo in 1982. It was manufactured in Japan in the early years of Nintendo’s transition from more traditional toys and games into electronic gaming, and “Game and Watch” was one of the first truly handheld gaming lines the world had seen. Long before the Switch, Wii-U, DS, and Gameboy, there was the Nintendo Game and Watch.
Beginning with the more simplistic, single screen Ball in 1980, the Game and Watch series grew to include dozens of games before it was eventually superseded in the early nineties. For many children of the seventies and eighties, it was their first encounter with Nintendo, and with the concept of a video game that you could put in your pocket and take anywhere.
Powered by two easily replaceable button cell batteries which could last a year or more of use, Game and Watches made use of simple calculator-style liquid crystal screens combined with often colourful artwork to bring games to life. The technology was simple even for the time, but allowed the on screen characters to be drawn with a pleasing precision, albeit in black and white only and with basic animation. There was sound too – mainly, as in Donkey Kong, to act as an increasingly fraught metronome ramping up the tension of these time based games, but with some satisfying bleeps and bloops to celebrate when either Donkey Kong – or you – got their just desserts too.
While not the very first “multi screen” game Nintendo produced (that honour goes to Oil Panic) Donkey Kong was by far the best selling, and popularised the hinged clamshell design which would later heavily influence the development of the Nintendo DS.
Donkey Kong also introduced a couple of notable firsts that would come to dominate Nintendo and massively influence others in the industry. Firstly it played host to the world’s first D-pad, or “plus” controller – the now de-facto standard directional key that went on to feature on many later consoles from Nintendo and others. This controller style is now so ubiquitous that its hard to imagine it was ever anyone’s new idea, let alone a new idea dreamt up for this exact object.
Secondly it was the first home video product to feature a certain Italian plumber named Mario, in his original adventure to save the girl – Pauline here, not Princess Peach – from the jealous clutches of the eponymous ape. If this game had a cut scene at the start, it would show Donkey Kong snatching Pauline away and imprisoning her at the top of an unfinished skyscraper. Mario’s task is to make his way up to the top of the structure, avoiding or jumping over the barrels which Donkey Kong is hurling down, and to defeat DK by removing each of the four cables holding his platform up. With the last cable gone, Donkey Kong falls to his doom and Pauline blows you a kiss… and then the whole game starts over, a little faster and a little more hectic each time around. The game makes great use of the two screens, with Mario having to work his way up both before he can triumph.
This perpetual love triangle between Mario, Pauline and Donkey Kong is endless. As with the other Game & Watch models, even when you’re not playing the game, the game is still playing – as long as there are batteries in the device the screens show the game play out silently – Mario making his way up and occasionally coming a cropper on a barrel, unhooking the cables, Donkey Kong hitting the deck, the kiss from Pauline, and then repeat. For forty years this has been going on, in this original in-game universe, literally inside this particular object. There’s no switch or sensor in the hinge of the multi-screen so yes, even when the clamshell is closed, Mario and Donkey Kong are still battling away in there, and Pauline is still blowing those kisses.
Electronics and software can often seem impermanent, ephemeral, fleeting, a genre prone to obsolescence and randomised failure. This game, however, ticks on – still eminently playable, still solid, a forty year old object that still does exactly what it was made to do in the way it was made to do it. Even as some of the later games and devices inspired by DK-52 have faded into obscurity, Donkey Kong simply dusts himself off, and carries on.