Donkey Kong has enjoyed quite a career as one of Nintendo’s flagship characters. From his landmark debut on a legendary arcade cabinet through his Country Returns title on the Nintendo Wii and everywhere in between, this great ape has entertained millions by way of digitized antics. One stop on his journey was the strange case of Donkey Kong 3, which found its way onto the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment Systemconsole early in the NES life cycle, way back in 1986.
Those familiar with the platforming elements of Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr, and other DK derivatives might be a tad confused at the sight of DK3. In fact, neither Mario nor any Princess are around, either; instead, Kong 3 stars Stanley the Bugman. Needless to say, he never managed to reach quite the heights of stardom as did a certain plumber.
In an attempt to capture the fire of then-popular space shooters, such as Galaga and Defender, it seems that Nintendo opted to include some shoot-’em-up elements into Donkey Kong 3. Controlling Stanley, the player (or two, taking turns) has a spray gun that fires upwards with a press of either the A or B button, while the Up button jumps.
There are three stages, which repeat, and vary in their platforms that Stanley can move upon, along with other staging. The second, in-between level is most distinctive, with a trio of vines stretching across the middle of the screen, on which creepy-crawlies slowly move back and forth to get in Stanley’s way.
The point: At the top of the screen, big bad Donkey Kong is pestering a couple of beehives, causing bees to gradually emerge. These bugs, then, flit and float and fly and fall toward the bottom of the screen, where there is a row of five flowers. Stanley’s goal: Spray the bugs, thus killing them, in order to protect the flowers.
A few additional rules complicate matters, however. For instance, killing all the bugs in a stage will progress to the next; but so, too, will simply spraying straught up at DK until he hits the top of the screen (humorously getting his head caught in a beehive on that second environment). Also, killing most of the bugs takes just one shot, but larger “buzzbees” take two, and can fire darts down upon Stanley as well.
As if this shooter-platformer hybrid action was not fast-paced enough, there is also a time limit that the player must adhere to upon every flower-defense attempt. At least bonus points are awarded if a level is conquered quickly. If the flowers never get touched by bugs, the player is awarded 3,000 bonus points. The best part is that every 50,000 points nets an extra life; which the player will likely be grateful for, as Stanley only begins with two, and high-score attempts will often be thwarted by the difficult-to-predict enemy patterns.
Furthermore, Donkey Kong sometimes throws coconuts at the player, which is a rather cheap, random way to cause instant death. But maybe this is fair, because Stanley has a secret weapon: The Super Sprayer, a canister that begins each level perched on a vine that Donkey Kong is climbing upon. Once he is driven far enough upward, the canister drops. Upon collecting it, Stanley is granted more powerful spray for a limited time (although it can last through a couple stages, beaten quickly enough). His sprayer projectile flies farther, and every contact causes the simian nemesis to rise quicker.
Using the Up button is a questionable design decision here, as the A-to-jump precedent had already been set with the release of Super Mario Bros. Having to thumb Up on the directional pad is just not as convenient, or possibly even as intuitive. Still, for what they are, play control is snappy and responsive.
Donkey Kong 3 is an oddity, for sure. The platformer/shooter hybrid is a bizarre marriage, one not often seen elsewhere. While some may enjoy DK3 for its uniqueness, most players (even old-school fans) will find that they either way to play a true shooter or a true platformer – Donkey Kong 3, while certainly admirable for its clever design incorporations, ultimately ends up feeling like a watered-down experience, something that never quite attains the quality of the best of either genre. It is fun, though, and perhaps that is all that matters.
Donkey Kong is recognizable, and Stanley manages a distinctive look. The animations are very smooth, especially for the era, and manage to form a pleasant presentation. The three greenhouse-like settings look alright, fitting for the occasion, even if the gaping black background remains a less-than-stellar hallmark of Nintendo’s early 8-bit outings. The spray is great, watching the giant gorilla get stuck in a beehive is humorous, and even those wormy things have a cartoon-like appeal – overall, this game is a fantastic example of the power of charm, and how Nintendo was able to put a measure of whimsy into every pixel.
The soundtrack for Donkey Kong 3 is great. Stanley’s death knell is reminiscent of a Rygar theme, with its deep underpinings, grinding against the floor of the NES bass capability. The rest of the music is arcade colloqualism, calliope ditties and bouncy, lighthearted themes, the highlight being the Super Sprayer music. When playing Donkey Kong 3, one gets the sense that smiles are encouraged.
Donkey Kong 3 definitely scores points in the originality departments, as there was never a game quite like it, and perhaps has not been since. Of course, creativity itself can only go as far as the concept; depending on who you ask, you may hear that Donkey Kong 3 has not aged well. While the platforming shooter idea never quite caught on, DK3 is still a happy-go-lucky, amusing, worthy way to kill some worry-free time. Although its scope is limited, it remains worth a play, for those curious as to Nintendo’s history, or perhaps just looking for a refreshing gameplay experience unlike any other.
Overall rating: 3.5/5 stars.