The first place I saw Donkey Kong on the Atari 2600 was an in-store display sometime in late 1982 or maybe early 1983. By this time my family owned a Colecovision and I’d played the arcade game a few times, so I had a pretty good idea what Donkey Kong should look like. That wasn’t it. That day more than any other cemented the fervent belief that Atari was junk and Coleco was awesome into my 6-year-old brain.
Years later the retrogaming bug bit and I began familiarizing myself with Atari lore. The Adventure Easter Egg. The E.T. Landfill. The Intentionally Terrible Arcade Ports By Coleco. At this point I still hadn’t actually played Donkey Kong, or any other Coleco-produced 2600 games, but the story synced with my fuzzy 15-year-old memories of a few moments in some long closed department store, so I believed it.
No matter how many times Garry Kitchen says he made the best game he could at the time, no matter how not terrible Mouse Trap, Venture, Carnival and Time Pilot are, there will always be some well-intentioned but ill-informed person who can’t wait to post to a Facebook group or to the comments section of a Kotaku article the shocking revelation that Coleco intentionally crippled their 2600 games to make the Colecovision look better in comparison. And there will always be someone with vague memories of thinking Donkey Kong looked sort of like a gingerbread man 35 years ago who will believe them.
Donkey Kong on the Atari 2600 was never going to be as good as it is on the Colecovsion, a console purpose-built to play it and other hot new arcade games of 1982 while the 2600 was purpose-built to play the hot new games of 1974. Coleco didn’t need to go out of their way to make an inferior version. The barrel screen, with its slanted, asymmetrical girders, is exactly the sort of thing the 2600 was never supposed to be able to do. But there it is. Anyone who can look at that screen and say it was intentionally botched frankly doesn’t know their joystick from their you-know-what.
So if Coleco didn’t make an intentionally bad game, does that mean they made a good one? There’s a phrase commonly used with arcade conversions on the 2600. That a game “captures the essence” of the original. Games like Space Invaders, Missile Command and Moon Patrol are very different from the arcade versions on the surface, but once you start playing the differences become less noticeable because the important stuff is all there and the games are fun.
Donkey Kong is fun on the 2600. Even though two screens are missing and the rivet screen feels a little phoned in, the essence is there. Or at least enough of the essence is there for me to keep coming back to this version more than the original, more even than my once beloved Colecovision port. If Coleco was trying to make a bad game, they failed miserably.