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UK Mike (miner2049er)

The Bi-Weekly British Backtrack - Donkey Kong Game & Watch

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No doubt you’ve heard the saying “If I knew then what I knew now…” Well, there’s a lot to be said for hindsight, and not just what George Benson told us, that it’s 20/20 vision. No, there’s much more to it than that. For starters, like nostalgia, it’s a thing of the past, but not everything from the past has to stay there.

How many things that you had as a child do you still have now? I’m not just talking about asthma or acne, but material possessions like toys and games. Case in point, the Nintendo Game & Watch.

Those of us that owned one will no doubt remember them and those of us that didn’t will think the Nintendo DS came out of nowhere but its design owes a huge debt to the Game & Watch, particularly the clam shell style Game & Watch with two screens. The one I owned was this two screen Donkey Kong game, serial number [DK-52] from 1982 in all its orange glory.

I loved my Game & Watch, I played my Game & Watch, I even used it as an alarm clock to get me up for school, but like most other things from that era, they either break, get lost or we get rid of them one way or another. We sell them for cash to spend on other, newer things or we trade them with friends or just give them away to jumble sales, church fetes, tombolas or any other one of a hundred outlets only too happy to relieve us of such items.

However we get parted from them, we find ourselves entering adulthood without them, and then before you know it, we can be heard uttering sentences that we promised our teenage selves we would never use. Sentences such as “You don’t know how lucky you are these days.” Or “We never had this when we were kids” or “We had to make our own entertainment” which we did, with just a little help from Nintendo, in 1982 anyway.

The Donkey Kong Game & Watch was one of the first multi-screen versions as earlier games had only a single screen, and the aim of the game is like the arcade game in that you have to climb the levels of a building site and rescue the fair maiden from the clutches of the evil gorilla who tries his best to prevent you by throwing barrels at you.

On the bottom screen you make your way along the girders and jump over the approaching barrels, but this is a 1982 handheld game with a monochrome LCD screen so there are no animated sprites as you jump, you simply move from one “state” to another. The screen has predefined graphics in fixed positions so as you run or jump you go from one of those predefined positions to another, almost in a stop motion like way.

On the top screen you have to pull a lever which activates a crane arm and then run across quickly to the right and jump on the crane hook which picks you up so you can remove one of the hooks holding up the girder that the gorilla is standing on. Do this four times to remove all the supporting hooks and the gorilla comes crashing down. The rewards for that is anything up to a massive twenty points, and each barrel that you jump over nets you a huge one point on the lower level and two points on the second level.

Once complete its back to the start again but this time it all speeds up a little bit and your timing becomes much more crucial. Should you make it all the way to 999 points, the score board loops and starts again at 000, like most other similar games of that era that we played to death and looped the scoreboards on time and time again. This becomes a little easier if you can get to 300 points where you will either win a life if you’ve lost one or you go into double points mode where every point you score is doubled until you do lose a life.

Now don’t get me wrong, this thing wasn’t without it’s little problems, obviously the screen isn’t backlit so you can’t play it in the dark, but nothing was properly backlit then, even your digital watch only lit up for as long as you held the “light” button in, and that was only by shining a couple of tiny lights across the screen rather than being a backlit screen. The other thing was the sound, every time the game moved the barrels or any of the characters, it gave out a short electronic beep, which while you played you didn’t really notice, but if you’re sat in a room while somebody else plays one it can get annoying. More importantly though, you can’t turn down the beeping or turn it off altogether, so there was no way you could play this in lessons at school without being heard and having it confiscated by the teacher.

Damn you Nintendo.

So feeling all nostalgic about my old Game & Watch I asked SoCal Mike to keep his eyes peeled at the swap meets for one and pick it up for me. It was something that he’d seen several of at the swap meets before, but as luck would have it, now that he was looking for one, he couldn’t find one. All was not lost though, as we were discussing it on the podcast, somebody out there in radio land was listening, and lo and behold a certain Dave Lanki from Sheffield, UK in particular had a Game & Watch that was doing nowt (as they say in Sheffield), and more importantly than that, he wanted to send it to me.

Being only too happy to oblige him I happily accepted and a few days later, a parcel full of orange loveliness arrived, and two LR44s later it was happily beeping away. While it wouldn’t win any cosmetic awards, it plays exactly as it should, and it feels just the way it did back then, though admittedly I haven’t played it under the covers with a torch for fear of my dad catching me playing it. Well, my dad’s dead for a start, so if he were to catch me then the least of my worries would be what he was going to say about the Game & Watch.

I must say that despite not being a collector and not having many prized gaming possessions it does make me feel all warm and fuzzy having a Game & Watch again, and this time I won’t let it out of my possession.

If you can’t lay your hands on an original one like me you can still play the game because it’s been included in a couple of Game & Watch Gallery compilations, namely Game & Watch Gallery 2 for the Game Boy Colour, Game & Watch Gallery 4 for the Game Boy Advance, and the Game & Watch Collection for the DS. This last one is well worth picking up and it plays really well, almost as well as my original.

In fact it plays so well it’s clear to see why it was one of the most popular Game & Watches and sold 1,000,000 units worldwide.

Perhaps some of that success is down to the then revolutionary control method, because it was the first ever game to use a cross-shaped directional pad for movement, i.e. a D-pad. Other games had used similar pads but this was the first one-piece + shaped D-pad and was developed in 1982 by Nintendo's Gunpei Yokoi.

Nintendo went on to patent it, and though some subsequent games used different control methods, the D-pad was born and was, and still is, here to stay. Not surprising then that it won the Technology & Engineering Emmy Award.

Thank you Gunpei, thank you Nintendo and thank you Dave Lanki.

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