Welcome to the first entry of The Mystery Mushroom, a companion to my ongoing Warped Pipes series. While that series is strictly for discussing the story and lore of the Mario franchise, this occasional sister series is my place to talk about gameplay and my own experiences with Mario games.
In this debut entry, I’d like to discuss something I was inspired to do after working on Warped Pipes: recreating Mario’s very first game using Super Mario Maker.
Donkey Kong is the genesis point of the entire Mario franchise so I thought it would be fun to see if I could actually emulate it in one of the most recent Mario games. Using the arcade levels as blueprints and with the full repertoire of tools available in Super Mario Maker, I set off in my task.
Creating this first level was probably the hardest since I was starting from scratch and I basically scrapped it and restarted a couple of times. What I realized early on was that I had to make the choice to create something that looked as close as possible to the arcade game or something that actually played like it. I chose to focus on the latter and I’m very pleased with the result.
I created a vertical level that allows for essentially the entire horizontal field to be seen at once, much the like the arcade game. In order to prevent the level from being strangely relegated to half the screen, I had to create a walkway at the start to space things out. I tried my best to recreate Donkey Kong’s ugly mug above the walkway so that this section wouldn’t be entirely boring to players and would feel more like the classic transition screen shown on the right. To finish off this section, I made it so that players have to activate a switch and collect a coin to start the game, mimicking the act of starting a game in an actual arcade.
While the layout of the level was pretty easy to recreate, choosing what parts and enemies would represent those from Donkey Kong was more difficult. Some swaps, such as vines replacing ladders, were more obvious than others and, when combined with one-way dividers, did a great job of creating the flow of the level from Donkey Kong. I decided to go with Bullet Bills to replace the iconic barrels since I could get them to move with similar speed and frequency across each platform. Fires were replaced with Spinies. While not perfect, these replacements definitely work to give a similar feel when playing. I decided that Starman made the most sense to replace hammers as it has a similar effect on game play, so I placed question blocks with this power-up appropriately.
To replace the ape himself, I initially tried using Bowser, figuring that swapping one of Mario’s nemeses for another made sense. Unfortunately, even though I trapped him in a cage, I found that Bowser could still hit Mario with his fire breath, adding a new challenge that wasn’t in the arcade game. Instead, I decided to swap the Koopa King for a giant Goomba, who behaves much more like Donkey Kong.
To finish off the level, I added another walkway that goes to the victory flag with the letters DK hovering in view.
Using the same basic layout and parts as before, I moved on to making the 50m level. This actually ended up being the easiest since Mario Maker had the exact parts I needed. Namely: conveyor belts and a flame jet. I used some Boos to make Stretches on the conveyors, emulating the game’s cement tubs. I once again used Spinies to replace the fires. Overall, the result is a frantic romp that feels a lot like the arcade original.
Once again, Mario Maker did a pretty good job of providing the parts I needed and I drew a looping track that allowed me to create small moving platforms very much like the level in Donkey Kong. I decided to use Spike Tops instead of Spinies as the fires here since their movement up walls worked better to emulate the dynamic movement of the fires in this level.
Mario Maker also has springs that I could load into cannons to be launched at high speed. Unfortunately, these springs bounce a lot less than in the arcade game and the cannons will not launch another if one is already screen, causing the level to be quite boring. My solution was to throw some wings on the springs, which resulted in springs regularly shooting across the level as intended.
This was another relatively easy one in terms of layout and the main thing I had to decide is what would work in place of this level’s particular gimmick: rivets. The closest I could come up with are keys but, unfortunately, there was no way to require Mario to collect all 8 to beat the level. Just one key is enough to open the door that warps Mario to the end of the level. So, while the layout is spot on, this one definitely plays the least like the level I was trying to recreate.
I really enjoyed this experience and it gave me a new appreciation for just how purposefully crafted Donkey Kong is. Every platform, ladder, enemy, collectible, and power-up is placed with a lot of intention and the result is a game that flows wonderfully. Every moment in Donkey Kong is a risk/reward calculation in the mind of the player. Do I jump over these barrels and try to advance or do I wait it out on this ladder? Do I go for the hammer or do I just try to rush the end? It’s a true testament to Shigeru Miyamoto’s skill as a game designer just how well these ideas hold up.
It was also interesting to see how much of Donkey Kong has been retained in the Super Mario series. Walking and jumping are still the primary verbs, power-ups and collectibles are still essential components, and the design of Mario himself has even remained relatively consistent. Conveyors, moving platforms, spring, etc. can still be found commonly, even in the fully 3D Mario games. All of this allowed me to faithfully recreate the Donkey Kong experience in a modern Mario title.
You can find bookmark links and level codes in the headers above if you’d like to try out these courses for yourself. If you do play them, please make sure to give each a star so they can stay on the servers and be played by others!