Drawn to the Atari Age forums this week by Princess Rescue — the port of Super Mario Bros. to the Atari VCS — I stumbled across something even better: Donkey Kong VCS, a proper, great-looking and, most importantly, fun port of Donkey Kong for the 2600, after all these years. The original was none of these.
You’re at least in your 30s if you remember playing the Atari port by Coleco (and I’m almost 40). It had only two levels. The fireballs looked like Goldfish crackers; Donkey Kong looked like an anthropomorphic turd. It was almost criminally negligent — Coleco, which handled the port, had zero incentive to make anything good. It was shipping a much better Donkey Kong port for its much more sophisticated ColecoVision. They did to this thing what Electronic Arts did to Joe Montana Football on the Sega about 10 years later.
Pac-Man‘s adaptation and E.T. may have killed console gaming after its first great run, but Donkey Kong on the 2600, released in 1982, ended that machine’s relevance to me. I honestly do not remember playing anything on it since. Of course, my brother and I would soon get a VIC-20 for Christmas, consigning our Atari VCS to the bottom of the toy chest barely a year after its purchase. I had a happy childhood, but Donkey Kong on the 2600 was utterly agonizing. I recall hearing a rumour that some vendor in North Wilkesboro would sell a Donkey Kong cabinet for $US500. I carefully scheduled out how long it would take me to save up the $US500 on the wages my brother and I earned as paperboys. I never came close because I kept embezzling quarters from the hospital news rack we maintained — to play Donkey Kong at the end of my route.
Well, here comes Andreas Dietrich, whose Donkey Kong VCS kisses away all those tears with four levels — including the notorious “Pie Factory,” — mid-level cutscenes, the “How High” board, a proper death animation for Mario, and visuals that are stunning given the VCS’ limitations. You really should download and play it.
Donkey Kong’s biggest problem for home console conversion was the fact the arcade game was played on a television turned 90 degrees. Its aspect ratio was way the hell off, in other words, which is why even the superior ColecoVision port at the time left off one layer of the first board (and had you running left to right to reach the last ladder.) Dietrich solves this by allowing the game to scroll up. It is not perfect, and some have complained in the forums, but it beats the alternative by a country mile.
Dietrich was inspired to do his port by the 2009 work of another Atari Age modder, Ivan Machado, who demonstrated how to create multicolor sprites on a 2600 ROM with some flickering. (The flickering, incidentally, is why I couldn’t provide a screenshot of the action.) Dietrich put his original work on hold for a couple of years, resuming in December after posting the title screen (which by itself would have blown away nine-year-old me.) The latest version was released June 17, but Dietrich reasons it took more than 2 1/2 years to build.
While this is definitely running on an Atari 2600 emulator within the constraints of its hardware at the time, that doesn’t mean it is reasonable to expect Dietrich’s mod to have been made back then. For starters, the ROM is 32K. The Donkey Kong Coleco port for 2600 was 4K. While an interview with Garry Kitchen, the port’s programmer, said that the original ROM should have been 6K (with 8K cartridges available at the time), Coleco is said to have insisted it be no larger than 4K, citing manufacturing costs. I think it’s a decision that, coupled with the choice not to port the game to the Atari 5200, speaks to other motives.
“From a gamer’s perspective it (the original port) is a disappointment,” Dietrich said. “Technically, for a 4K ROM this is a masterpiece. … We were probably lucky to even get two different screens.
“I like to imagine that a team of Nintendo in-house programmers with access to the original assets could have done it,” Dietrich said. Still, his work shows the creative viability of a de-make, rather than being a feeble and ironic joke, like Halo 2600. And while there are any number of ROMs and emulators available for me to play the original game in my home, after 30 years there is something cosmically satisfying about doing it this way. The way it should have been.
D.K. VCS [Atari Age forums, by Andreas Dietrich]