Today, Nintendo is primarily known for its excellent first-party games that it produces for its unique consoles and handhelds. But there was a time when Nintendo games were a lot more platform-agnostic than they are now.
That time was the early ’80s — specifically, the years before the release of the Famicom in 1983, and its Western incarnation, the Nintendo Entertainment System, in 1985. During this time, Nintendo was making arcade games. And there was a great hunger for ports of these arcade games to home-based systems of the time.
Nintendo’s 1981 classic Donkey Kong was a game that got ported to pretty much every platform imaginable at the time. And the 1983 version for Atari home computers was one of the best.
The modern character of Donkey Kong (actually the third generation of giant ape to bear the name, if you pay attention to series lore) is mainly known these days for his appearances in both the Donkey Kong Country platformers and as a guest character in various Super Mario spinoff titles such as Mario Kart, Mario Party and the various Mario sports games. But in the game he lent his name to, he was the villain; Mario’s first real foe before his longstanding rivalry with Bowser.
There are a number of differences between this early incarnation of Mario and his subsequent appearances; among other things, he’s a carpenter in this game rather than a plumber, and the leading lady in his life is a young woman named Pauline, not Princess Peach. Rather pleasingly, Pauline was brought back in 2017’s Super Mario Odyssey for Nintendo Switch having been completely absent and unacknowledged by Nintendo’s game lineup since the original release of Donkey Kong, and her 2017 incarnation is much more capable than the damsel in distress who has rather inconveniently got herself kidnapped by the titular giant ape.
The Atari computer version of Donkey Kong, programmed by Landon Dyer, is an extremely solid port of the game, made all the more remarkable by the fact that, as Dyer himself recounts, he was given no help whatsoever from Nintendo in putting the game together. This was, it seemed, standard practice for Atari at the time, so his design for the Atari port was based entirely on his own experience with the arcade machine, which he found himself having to get good at very quickly despite actually not caring for the game at all. (“It was loud, pointless and annoying,” he explained.)
The fact that Dyer had to base his port on design documents that he pretty much had to recreate himself explains some of the discrepancies between the Atari port and the arcade original; the observant will notice, for example, that the direction of the slopes on the girders in the first level is reversed from the arcade machine, and Kong himself is at the upper-right of the screen instead of the upper-left. Dyer also found himself having to scrimp and save on code and other data in order to get the whole game fitting into a 16k ROM cartridge; this led to deliberately cut corners that you simply don’t notice unless you’re looking for them, such as the graphics for Donkey Kong himself being symmetrical.
Despite the challenges he faced, Dyer ended up producing one of the most solid ports of Donkey Kong out there. Most notably, it included all four of the screens from the original arcade game. This may not sound significant today, as we are used to emulated versions of old arcade games playing perfectly on modern systems, but when ports were programmed from scratch, as they were here, they often had to have things cut out in order to work on their target hardware. Many home ports of Donkey Kong omit the conveyor belt (or “pie factory”) level, for example, but it’s present and correct in the Atari version, one of the few home ports to feature all of the arcade game’s content.
Dyer also chose to set an example for other developers with his code for Donkey Kong, noting that he believes it to be “one of the best-commented consumer games that Atari shipped”. In thoroughly commenting his code, he opened the door to other engineers being able to look at his work and learn from it. “Code should both entertain and educate,” he notes — and since he recalls it was not unusual for new employees at the Atari of the time to show up for work not having a clue how to do their job, it was down to experienced hackers like him to help educate the new blood.
Like most Atari games of the period, Dyer’s name doesn’t actually appear anywhere on Donkey Kong when you play it; Atari had an unfortunate tendency not to credit its staff in its software. But also like many Atari games of the period, he quietly snuck in an Easter egg that allowed people to see his own personal “signature” on the game code.
He hid it perhaps a little too well, however; it wasn’t discovered until 2009 — well after Dyer himself had forgotten how to trigger it — when a man named Don Hodges discovered it through a frighteningly rigorous process of research, all in the name of scoring a $75 prize from Digital Press’ catalogue of games’ Easter eggs… well, that and getting the rare opportunity to see Dyer’s initials on the game’s title screen. “It’s totally not worth it,” said Dyer, aware that this “secret” is likely rather underwhelming to modern audiences, but Hodges certainly seemed to derive a great deal of satisfaction from discovering this long-lost secret.
All this aside, Atari’s version of Donkey Kong is one of the best home ports of a classic arcade game. And while some may ponder the enduring value of these elderly ports in an age where it is a simple matter to emulate the original arcade machine, I still find it fascinating to see how different systems handled a classic game in very distinct ways — particularly when the story behind a port’s development is as interesting as Dyer’s.