One Giant Leap, 1981: Donkey Kong

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: it’s the game that started it all: Donkey Kong.

It’s rare that the first work in a given genre is also the genre’s first major hit. Doom was not the first FPS (nor was Wolfenstein 3D for that matter). Resident Evil was not the first survival horror game. Often, it takes several false starts and weird experiments before someone figures out what about a particular genre is appealing. So when I say that Donkey Kong is the first ever platformer, recognize just how impressive that truly is.

There were some precursors, sure. 1980’s Crazy Climber was the first game to feature climbing as a mechanic, though playing today that game has more in common with QWOP (or GIRP, to be completely on the nose) that what we’d now consider a platformer1. Space Panic, also from 1980, looks a lot closer to Donkey Kong, featuring ladders and several layers of platforms. But there’s no jumping. This series is called One Giant Leap, not One Giant Climb. Platformers are defined by jumping2, and to my knowledge Donkey Kong is the first game to ever feature that mechanic.

In Donkey Kong, you play as Mario3, here a carpenter rather than a plumber, as he rescues his girlfriend Pauline from the rampaging ape Donkey Kong. The game consists of four screens. On the first, you climb a series of girders as Donkey Kong throws barrels at you. The second features conveyor belts and cement pans4, while the third has elevators and bouncing springs. The final screen is something of a boss fight, as you knock out 8 rivets and drop Donkey Kong, rescuing Pauline before the process repeats.5

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Playing Donkey Kong today, it’s immediately obvious how much of an arcade game it is. The game comes at you hard from the word go, desperate to prevent you from wringing too much value out of your quarter. With that in mind, it’s hard to know exactly how intentional the game’s stiff (by modern standards) mechanics were. Donkey Kong features exactly two jumps (three if you’re feeling generous). You can jump straight up while standing still, or you can jump to either the left or right by jumping while walking. Once you start a jump you’re fully committed to it. You can’t change direction mid-air, and you can’t fall faster by releasing the jump button early. Realistic, sure, but not very robust.

The game also features very strict fall damage. If Mario falls more than 1.5 times his own height he dies. I don’t know how it scanned in 1981, but in 2020 it feels almost like a cruel joke. Even most realistic games tend to give more than that, and cartoon 2D platformers often ditch fall damage entirely. Game director Shigeru Miyamoto said in a 2016 interview that he was in a more “serious” mindset when making Donkey Kong compared to his future output6, though I’m sure the fact that it reduced average playtime probably didn’t suck for Nintendo.

But if Donkey Kong exemplifies some of the arcade’s worst tendencies, it also embodies some of its greatest strengths. The game is easy to pick up and play, and immediately engaging. And even if it’s a bit stiff by modern standards, you can see the spark of the platformer, perhaps when you just barely clear a barrel on a last second jump. 75m especially feels like a preview of things to come; so much rides on timing your jump to the movement of the two elevators. More than any other screen this one makes jumping the star, and even with your limited repertoire it shines. It’s in its nascent form, but Donkey Kong captures the essence of the platformer here.

As the first ever platformer, Donkey Kong was obviously hugely influential. But in the immediate wake of its release, Donkey Kong’s influence was less as the inventor of the platformer and more as the popularizer of the climbing game, with titles such as 1982’s Burger Time building on Donkey Kong’s ladders and girders layout. But by the second half of the decade the platformer would become the medium’s dominant genre. However, that’s a story for another day. We’ve still got a few years of development before then.

Other 1981 platformers of note: Jump Bug came out at the very tail end of 1981, and while it’s been mostly lost to history it did some pretty forward-looking things. The game features horizontally scrolling levels, and the player can control themselves in mid-air after jumping. However, the game’s physics are incredibly floaty, to the point where it breaks the sensation of jumping entirely. This just goes to show how impressive Donkey Kong’s jump, limited though it may be, truly is. As any amateur game developer can tell you, nailing the feel of a jump is surprisingly difficult.

Next Time: The platformer comes home with the Atari classic Pitfall.