For players who wish to relive the golden age of arcade gaming, you have a new option for scratching that itch. Castle Kong, a very clear tribute to Nintendo’s Donkey Kong, is now available on Nintendo Switch. This platformer port brings the title full circle with its release on a Nintendo console, and to celebrate, the developers are holding another high-score tournament with cash prizes.
But the point of this review isn’t to talk about the extraneous contest; it’s to talk about the quality of the product. If you enjoyed the original inspiration or have a particular fondness for racking up arcade high scores, you’re in for a treat.
STORY – LIGHT AS A FEATHER
A damsel in distress, an evil kidnapper with bad facial hair, and a boyish protagonist filled with potential. These are familiar tropes to find within all media in general. It makes for the bones of an easy storyline, especially when the actual narrative content of the title is, ahem, hardly there.
You play as PauperBoy, trying to rescue PrincessGirl from BaronMan. That’s the story. To be honest, I debated even including this section in the review, considering the minimal description provided. I got the character names from the eShop product description, where it lives as one line of text. I did not notice any of their names in the game itself.
Does this really matter? It’s not like the plot of Donkey Kong, or Galaga are what brought back patrons to the arcade cabinets. But in 2021, this premise just seems so played out at this point. If we’re going to be remaking a title with essentially a throwaway storyline, couldn’t we at least have followed in Mike Mika’s footsteps?
This just feels like a missed opportunity. For something that turned out to have such little bearing and influence on the title, I feel like there could have been some more experimentation done with the characters, the motive, and the roles they play. Thus far, Castle Kong has done little more than turn Donkey Kong from a monkey into a man.
GAMEPLAY – LIKE RIDING A BIKE
I think that what surprised me the most while playing Castle Kong was just how much muscle memory I have retained from playing Donkey Kong. The next thing that surprised me was the realization that I played it mostly as a bonus in Donkey Kong 64, but that’s a story for a different day.
The developers at Drowning Monkeys Games have taken the original title and so faithfully recreated it that there’s virtually no distinction (beyond cosmetic changes). PauperBoy moves exactly like Mario in every way. Jumping, walking, climbing ladders, it’s all identical to what I remembered. Awarded point amounts are a bit different in some places, but the overall package is the same.
The biggest change to gameplay regards the item. What was once Mario’s hammer is now PauperBoy’s pitchfork, and wouldn’t you know it, he finally learned how to carry it while climbing ladders. For less experienced players, this is a game-changer, especially when the living fire monsters start enveloping them.
Another small joy is that the title is entirely playable in a vertical orientation to more accurately reflect that old arcade feeling. It’s even compatible with the Flip Grip, the delightful plastic handheld dock from Jeremy Parish and Mike Choi. You are fully capable of playing vertically without the added accessory (as I did), but if you’re really serious, it might be a worthwhile investment.
All of this being said, while the game is technically enjoyable and indeed a throwback to classic arcade favorites, I can’t help but be concerned with the limited scope. 1994’s Donkey Kong for the Game Boy was faithful to the original but then provided a further 97 stages to give players some additional variety. Castle Kong is incredibly adherent to how close it imitates the original title. Four stages, 22 levels, three lives, no continues. It’s almost rigidly stuck in the mold. I’m not going to pretend as though I know how much money, time, or effort goes into developing games, and I’m not going to try and be a speculative expert here.
However, considering how well the team was able to recreate Donkey Kong‘s original, limited mode, it’s a shame that there isn’t more content to chew on. I understand the desire to remain as faithful as possible to the inspiration, but I’m left wanting more.
GRAPHICS/AUDIO – MEDIEVAL TIMES
Overall, the game looks fantastic. Each stage has details in the art that flesh out the areas even more, like vines and fountains in the courtyard or culinary tools in the kitchen. This helps give each screen a fleshed-out art-style that really feels like it’s a new generation of arcade titles. Too often, modern-day entries into the arcade genre try to be extra flashy to offset minimalistic gameplay (take, for example, Space Invaders), but this usually results in a screen that’s too busy and obnoxious.
Thankfully, that isn’t the case here. I really enjoy the little details that are used to expand upon the play area, and it seems like the actual level is a part of the larger castle, even if we only get to see four parts of it. The result means that although the whole package is still extremely small, and by design, you’ll be seeing the same screens repeatedly, they are still nice to look at.
The character sprites are still solid. I don’t know why BaronMan’s head is larger than his body, but at least Drowning Monkeys was able to give him a mouth and a mustache, something that Nintendo wasn’t able to accomplish back in 1980.
The music and sound effects are comprised of some delightful bleeps and bloops. The only sounds that are missing are the sounds of quarters dropping into the coin box and your parents telling you that it’s time to go home. My concern is that the sounds will become too repetitious, as the same music is reused for each stage. There’s no variety. But, if you’re focusing so much on the music, are you really playing this game at all?
Castle Kong was reviewed for Nintendo Switch. A key was provided by PR Hound.