First of all, this game came out in 1988 - a whole six years after Nintendo of America unleashed it on arcades. Is an "old game" necessarily bad? Of course not! However, people were interested in playing platform games on the Nintendo Entertainment System around 1988 and didn't give a hoot about Donkey Kong. People loved Mario the plumber just find, but they were more interested in guiding him through Super Mario Brothers and its progeny than trying to rescue a girl from a huge ape.
Second, ever play the version of Donkey Kong for the NES? It features better graphics, control and sound. Sure, it's no surprise the NES version would be great because Nintendo invented Donkey Kong, but Atari went ahead and purchased the license for the title. Why not go to town? The Atari 7800 is at least as sophisticated as the NES, so why not take the time to develop a fantastic version of Donkey Kong?
Third, the version of Donkey Kong released for the 2600 was absolutely terrible. Of course, that particular version was released by Coleco, and it was widely speculated Atari's direct competitor intentionally made bad versions of games to make its own system, the mighty Colecovision, look superior by comparison. So, Atari really needed to crank out a fantastic version of Donkey Kong for the 7800. The company failed to do that.
What's truly amazing is how the version of Donkey Kong for the Colecovision stacks up well to this one and is superior in a couple of areas. Frankly, the sound in the 7800 version is terrible. The background music sounds vaguely off-key, and the "squeaking" sound Mario made in the arcade (and on the Colecovision) when he walked was replaced by a high-pitched, obnoxious racket. Most of the music, in fact, sounds off key and the sound effects are all irritating. Turn off the sound when you play this game.
The graphics aren't bad, but Mario has a huge nose and looks a bit compressed. He doesn't look bad, but he should have been cleaned up a bit. The rest of the graphics are fairly sharp and undoubtedly look comfortably familiar to any fan of the arcade game.
What's not familiar to arcade fans of Donkey Kong is the stiff and sometimes-unresponsive control scheme. To be successful at Donkey Kong, one must be able to move around without worrying about fighting with the joystick. Mario, however, likes to suddenly stop when going up ladders and the stiff controls often impair the player's ability to time jumps accurately. After playing the game a few times, however, one can get a fairly good feel for the controls. Still, they are bothersome at first.
Another unpleasant surprise is the fact the final Donkey Kong screen - the conveyor belt level - is completely missing. While that particular screen was typically left off of home versions of Donkey Kong, I can't help but wonder why that is. Certainly, that could have been included here.
The levels included, of course are the ramp screen, elevator screen and rivet screen. On the ramp screen (perhaps the most famous level from Donkey Kong) the player must navigate steel girders to get to the top of the screen and rescue his girlfriend by climbing up ladders. On the way, Mario must avoid barrels (some of them on fire, even) which are tossed at him by the dreaded Donkey Kong. On the second level - the elevator screen - Mario must use elevators to make his way across platforms while avoiding both bouncing springs and falling to his death. On the final screen, the rivet screen, Mario must remove rivets by either running or jumping over them while avoiding fireballs.
I know I've complained a lot about the 7800 port of Donkey Kong, but it's actually close enough to the arcade version of the game to satisfy most gamers, I suspect. It's still a challenging title which requires the player to think up a bit of strategy to advance in levels. Up to two players can take part in the fun, and there are three skill levels available - standard, advanced and expert. The instruction manual is thin and lacking in detail, but this is Donkey Kong -- any kid from the 1980s ought to know how to play.