Obscure Gems: Donkey Kong ’94 (Game Boy) – Mike Matei Blog

A Donkey Kong game as an Obscure Gem? Well, actually, yeah. Before I lose everyone who thinks this game is just a port of the original Donkey Kong arcade game, I want to shout from the top of the Empire State Building to you that it most certainly is not! This game has a ton of unique levels, but the new ones come AFTER you play the already familiar ones, which maybe be what confused people and made this game fall into obscurity.

This game was pretty popular when it was first released, but I don’t hear anyone talking about it anymore. This was released in 1994 when Nintendo was cranking out masterpiece after masterpiece, so that’s probably how this wonderful little Game Boy title quietly faded into history. I don’t know if that’s the reason for sure, but that’s my best guess. Anyways, this game is brilliant, and you should play it.

To the best of my knowledge, this game has the best Super Game Boy enhancements of any game that was ever released.  The added colors are absolutely gorgeous.  If you decide to play this game, please play it on a Super Game Boy to get the definitive experience.  You’d be doing yourself a great disservice otherwise.

This game is a spiritual sequel to the original Donkey Kong arcade game. The game starts off with the 4 levels from the original arcade game, but after you’ve completed them, the game keeps going for 97 more levels.  Mario has some extra movement options this time, so if you know how to do them, you can make a mockery out of these first 4 classic levels:

Mario’s moves are… a bit more advanced this time around.

After beating the 4th level, Donkey Kong interrupts the ending of the arcade game and captures Pauline again, and the chase continues.

At least this game doesn’t make you wait forever to get to New Donk City.

The game has a great variety of levels.  You go through a cycle of 3 normal adventure levels where the goal is to pick up a big key and put it into an exit door, and every 4th level is a vs. Donkey Kong level that is a random grab bag of all sorts of cool ideas, such as a level from Donkey Kong Jr. or a boss fight with DK himself. This game is really hard to put down because there’s always some incredibly rewarding surprise waiting around the next corner.

It’s hard to really say what kind of game this is because of its wide variety of gameplay, but I’d say at the end of the day it’s a puzzle-platformer with more emphasis on the platformer aspect.

The normal levels are fun puzzle-platformer stages…

… and you never know what you’re going to get with the vs. Donkey Kong stages.

If you find all 3 of Pauline’s items in each level, you get to play a mini game for extra 1-ups.

If you’re a game developer, I really would like to encourage you to play this game for inspiration. There’s a lot of really unique ideas in this game that you really don’t see often.

Cutscenes can often be a problem in games, and Donkey Kong ’94’s approach to storytelling is unintrusive and actually relevant to the gameplay. You get to watch a brief humorous cartoon that also gives you hints on how the game mechanics work.  They’re also being played over your score summary for the last 4 levels.  I think this is a brilliant way to compromise the desire to have cutscenes but also not interrupt the flow of gameplay like so many cutscenes do.

The cutscenes really are worth paying attention to.

Another thing that feels fresh about this game is the way it approaches giving variety to its enemy characters.  Mario can only take one hit of damage before he dies, but not every enemy can kill him.  Some enemies are fatal to the touch, but some enemies are moving obstacles that Mario can touch or even ride on top of.  However, these “non-lethal” enemies can kill Mario by pushing him into deadly hazards or squishing him against a wall.  There’s also enemies that can temporarily incapacitate Mario instead of killing him.  And because of the puzzle aspect of this game, enemies are sometimes part of the puzzle that needs to be solved.  The game is constantly introducing new bad guys to deal with and it all feels very diverse and interesting.

I could have taken the ladder to the left, but I wanted to do a ladybug backflip instead.

One other thing I love about this game is how they figured out a way to make falling damage interesting.  If Mario falls from a short distance, he gets to land normally.  Fall from a little bit higher, Mario has to do a roll to recover, making him temporarily very slippery to control.  A little bit higher than that, Mario lands on his face and can’t move for a little bit, making him vulnerable to threats.  Any higher and well..

There’s something legitimately heartbreaking about the way Mario bonks his head and dies.

After giving it some thought, I think I realized why this game is designed so well. Most things in this game have more than one use. For example, the key you’re supposed to grab to put in the door to beat the level can also be used as a weapon, and also as an object to stand on to get to higher places or get over spikes. Enemies can be interacted with in multiple ways.  Everything in this game can be played with like a toy and there’s a lot of opportunity for creativity, and overall it feels like each level is a fun playground to jump around and play the way you want to.  There’s so many different ways to clear a level, and the puzzle aspect doesn’t feel quite so restrictive because of it.

The controls in this game are perfect and tight, but they’re also just fun to use.  Everything feels great, and the combination of the well designed controls with the punchy sound feedback gives this game a very pleasant, tactile quality.  Even holding down the button to grab a switch and using the D-pad to move the lever in different directions to activate it feels really nice.  It’s hard to explain in writing, but you’ll see what I mean if you try the game yourself.

I think this game is an absolute knockout and a masterpiece. It absolutely does justice to its concept as an extension of the original arcade game and stands out as a truly unique puzzle-platformer.  It’s obvious to anyone who plays this game how much love went into making it.  Make plans to play it someday, it’s truly a game you shouldn’t miss.

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56 thoughts on “Obscure Gems: Donkey Kong ’94 (Game Boy) – Mike Matei Blog”

  1. I remember having this game as part of my childhood. There was a level that prevented me from completing it as a young boy. But I’ve finished this game and I still have the catridge myself.

      1. I remember playing this as a kid practically non stop after finding out it was more than just a port of the arcade game. I got stuck on one of the ship levels…. Need to get my hands on this gem once again

  2. I’ve been a fan of Donkey Kong since Donkey Kong first appeared in our local arcade. I have to say that this is one of the freshest “updates” to a classic ever. You can see where much of the game play dynamic in Mario Vs. Donkey Kong (GBA) came from.

    Thanks for refreshing my memory on this great title!

      1. I’ll be over there at Christmas, so I’ll search then! And you’re right, the Super Gameboy colours looked great! Currently playing Super Mario RPG so will get stuck in after that

  3. I had this game as a kid. It was one of like 3 gameboy games I owned and I played the hell out of it. Good to see it getting some love.

  4. I played through this in the mid-2000s and thought “Wow why did I miss out on this gem back in the day?” I played it again a couple years ago and its aged very well.

  5. I remember getting this as soon as it came out as i got the super gameboy as a gift earlier. This really was an impressive use of the supergameboy as well as a great puzzle game. It took me almost a month to beat and i don’t think i played much super nintendo during that time. Definitely a gem and i still have my copy today. Also a great nintendo power cover!

  6. My sister got a copy of this one Christmas while I got a copy of Dr Mario. At 4 and 5 years old, Dr Mario didn’t interest either of us too much so we were always fighting over Donkey Kong. My parents never bought multiple copies of games thinking we could just share whichever was given to us, but it got so bad that they actually bought me a copy a month later.
    Easily one of my top 5 Game Boy games.
    In no particular order
    Donkey Kong
    Metroid 2
    Demons Quest
    Wario Land
    Links Awakening

  7. I still have the game and plan to play it again, but since my Gameboys (classic and 2 advanced(nonSP)) got borked, i still need to find a way to dump the contents of the game to play it on my 3ds once more xP
    I still remember how happy I was when i finally beat the last boss battle 😀 maybe one of the best games i have ever played…

  8. This came bundled with my gameboy. It was my first and only game for quite a while. Took it everywhere. I still play through it about once or twice a year because to me it has stood the test of time similar to many other games that came out then. It suggests that about 2 or 3 hours of quality gameplay can be far more enjoyable than a boring or mediocre 8-10hr game. Thanks for the review, it was a nice read.

  9. I personally remember playing this game when I was young ( but after the original release, as I was born in 95′) and even playing it compared to some of the later 90s games and even some of the game boy advance games, I found this game to be one of my all time favorites for the system.

  10. I got this game for Christmas 1995 with the green ‘play it loud’ gameboy. I loved this game back then and I still replay it from time to time. Nintendo made gameboy games from that era still hold up very well even to this day. Their simplicity makes them so fun to just pick up and play while not feeling outdated.

  11. I can remember playing this as a kid back in the 90’s. My cousin owned a copy and I literally played it all day, it was too much fun.

  12. This is a great article! You’re absolutely right about the feeling and the tight controls, it is amazing how good this game was especially for a handheld console . It was also huge and very challenging with many different levels. I also agree that a game dev can get great influence from a timeless classic like this.

  13. Great game and my cousin owned a copy of the game. I play it a lot when i hung out with him. I recently got a game boy color for free at work and the first game i went and bought was donkey kong. Got a used copy for 11 bucks (cart only) and i’ve been playing it lot. Great post mike and keep up the good work.

  14. Never heard of this but definitely gonna give it a go.
    It looks fun.
    Funny how good games like this.
    Go unnoticed.
    And didn’t know about this place.
    I have it stared.
    Gonna have check this out see what you have on here

  15. WatchMojo.com listed it on their list of best Game Boy games, and Game Sack covered it in their Game Boy episode. Do you not follow either of those YouTube channels?

  16. I didn’t know you had a blog, that’s cool. I remember this game as being part of a very strong ad campaign to promote the super gameboy. I always thought it was very interesting, I got it recently and it is a very solid entry in the series. Many more people should know about it. Cheers!

  17. I’ve never really thought about DK for GB as being obscure. I remember Nintendo advertising it and covering it heavily in Nintendo Power. That said, I think you’re right. For some reason it’s not really stood the test of time, but it’s always been one of my favorite single-screen platformers or whatever you want to call it.

    BTW, you totally need to do more Harrison Ford reboots. Regarding Henry, Witness, etc. Air Force Two had me rolling!

  18. Wow I forgot that I played this. I never owned a game boy, just played on my friend’s game boy. I was about 12 years old at the time. This was really fun.

  19. This is the first game boy game I ever owned! I have been struggling so hard to find the title. It came as a package deal with the game boy pocket (the silver thin one) and was awesome!

  20. My very first game after Tetris. It was so hard for the little me but so good I always came back to it until I finished it. And the ending was sooo intense I rarely felt so releaved and rewarded beating a game.
    Still have the cartridge (and the box!), and got it on 3DS to play it again whenever I feel like it.
    Thanks for publishing such great article about that little masterpiece of gameplay, inventivity, perfectly balanced difficulty and so full of surprises. It so deserves it. Definitely in my top two along with Link’s Awakening.

  21. Such a good game . Remebering 12y old me walking in the deep snow for 3 km to rent this game while war was in my country . Then playing it only lighted by the candle lol . Memories .

  22. I loved this game as a child, but there is one thing I am still upset about that no one ever talks about; In the Nintendo Power issue that covers this game, it shows screenshots of a mini game and a boss fight that aren’t actually in the game. Were these beta images, or was there another version to play? I don’t know! I always thought there was another version out there.

  23. Mike, enjoyed the write-up for this game and for Mole Mania, a game I had never heard of.

    It seems to me that action-puzzle and puzzle-platformer games from the 8-bit/16-bit era have generally aged very well. I enjoy them much more as an adult than I ever did as a kid, which I can’t say about typical platformers. So I appreciate your efforts to help us locate more hidden gems in this genre.

  24. This game isn’t held in the highest revere nor talked about anymore today? That surprises me, this is one of the best Donkey Kong games there is, it’s really in it’s own right a true Mario game. Never a fan of the original Donkey Kong or it’s follow-ups, I was absolutely obsessed with this game boy game, and was what led me to buy the system as a kid. Until I finally saved up the funds to purchase it, I would play the game for what seemed like hours on end at the Walmart kiosk to keep exploring the new worlds crafted for this stellar game. Tons of personality and charm, this game is not to be missed.

  25. Wow, this was absolutely one of my favorite Game Boy games when I was little. Totally forgot it existed till just now… Review is spot on, it’s a really fun game and just the right amount of challenging. Thanks Mike for bringing back the memories!

  26. Hey Mike. Great blog post. Really did the title justice! I think this is a very important and underrated piece of Mario history.

    The chained handspring jump combo just has to be a key inspiration for the brilliant Odyssey jump combos. And I agree with how smoothly the cut scenes add to gameplay. I still remember the first time I sae the handstand barrel rebound clip you included above. A great early gaming memory.

    So glad I grew up playing this game! Will be a classic in my family going forward! Cheers!

  27. Hehe, yeah I remember this game as a child. Some of the levels where really hard. Luckily I got an older sister who I could give the Game Boy to when the levels got too hard for me.

  28. I’ve been trying to convince people for some time now, you absolutely have to play this game if your a true Nintendo enthusiast, ditto on your comments and observations on this game! If your looking for a challenge, try a baby mario no cry challenge on yoshi’s island, master it, then livestream it. Anyways either way I am desperately waiting for a livestream of DK94 (gameboy) or a livestream of yoshi’s island, great colors and artwork on both. And yes hearing baby Mario cry is quite annoying, but I don’t mind hearing Pauline scream for help, kind of turns me on!

  29. I bought this game in early 1995 and I was immediately hooked. At some point I unfortunately lost my Game Boy and the games, but when I got my hands on a GBA SP, I tracked this game down secondhand. It’s still amazing 🙂

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