Donkey Kong is the first example of a complete narrative told in video game form, and like 1980’s Pac-Man it uses cut-scenes to advance the plot. The game opens with Kong climbing a pair of ladders to the top of a construction site. He sets Pauline the damsel in distress down and stomps his feet, then moves to his final perch and sneers. This brief animation sets the scene and adds context to the gameplay, a first for video games. Upon reaching the end of the stage, another cut-scene begins. A heart appears between Mario and Pauline, but Donkey Kong quickly interrupts by grabbing the poor maiden and climbing higher. The narrative concludes when Mario reaches the end of the fourth stage. Mario and Pauline are reunited, and a short intermission plays. The gameplay then loops from the beginning at a higher level of difficulty. The game is divided into four different single-screen stages. Each represents twenty-five meters of the structure Donkey Kong has climbed, one stage being twenty-five meters higher than the previous. The final stage occurs at 100 meters. The name of Jumpman, a name originally chosen for its likeness to popular brands Walkman and Pac-Man, was eventually changed to Mario in likeness of Mario Segale, Nintendo’s office landlord. The game was a breakthrough effort by Nintendo, successfully attracting the North American market. Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo’s president at the time, assigned the project to a first-time video game designer named Shigeru Miyamoto. Miyamoto himself had high hopes for his new project. Donkey Kong spawned the sequels Donkey Kong Jr, Donkey Kong Country, as well as the mega popular franchise spin-off Super Mario Bros.
Arcade games often have short levels and simple intuitive control schemes with rapidly increasing difficulty. This is due to the environment of the Arcade, where the players essentially rent games for as long as their in-game avatar can stay alive. Competitive video gamers and referees stress Donkey Kong’s high level of difficulty compared to other classic arcade games of the Golden Age. Winning the game requires patience and the ability to accurately time the accent of Mario carefully and methodically. The 22nd level is known as the kill screen similar to Pac Man, due to an error in the game’s programming that kills Mario after a few seconds, effectively ending the game. The game became massively popular in the early 80’s thanks in part to Twin Galaxies national scoreboard where pop culture celebrity and E-sports innovator Billy Mitchel self proclaimed himself “The King of Kong” because of his specialty in this specific game.
Space Invaders is a two-dimensional fixed shooter game in which the player controls a laser cannon by moving it horizontally across the bottom of the screen and firing at descending aliens. It was the top selling video gaming of the 70’s and helped expand the video game industry from a novelty to a global industry. Tomohiro Nishikado designed the game and developed the necessary hardware to produce it in a year. While programming, Nishikado discovered that the processor was able to render the alien graphics faster as the player destroyed them. Rather than design the game to compensate for the speed increase, he decided to keep it as a challenging gameplay mechanic. Despite its simplicity, the music to Space Invaders was revolutionary in the gaming industry. The music interacts with on screen animation to influence the emotions of the player. The music popularized the notion of variability the idea that music can change in accordance with the ongoing narrative. This innovative concept influenced every video game to follow it. The space thematic of Space Invaders was inspired by the Star Wars movies as stated by Nishikado.
Game designer Shigeru Miyamoto considered Space Invaders a game that revolutionized the video game industry; stating he was never interested in video games before seeing it. So without Space Invaders, Donkey Kong would have never existed, and likely Nintendo would have not invested in further video game production. Space Invaders showed that video games could compete against the major entertainment media at the time: movies, music, and television. Its worldwide success created a demand for a wide variety of science fiction games, inspiring the development of arcade games, such as Atari’s Asteroids, Williams Electronics’ Defender, and Namco’s Galaga, which were modeled after Space Invaders’s gameplay and design.
Author: Gavin Johnston
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If you play video games, you have — at some point — died.
Death has marched through video game history, distributing frustration, tears, broken controllers, and lost quarters with the same unflinching steadiness as a metronome. We as a collective gaming entity have grown accustomed to death. We sigh, reload save files, and soldier on. But these countless, untimely deaths have unusual effects on the stories we help to tell. Some games acknowledge death. Others do not. When death comes and goes without such acknowledgment, the reality of our favorite games snaps in two.
My first experience with video game death came from a wrecked submarine my father would pilot on our Apple II. I sat in his lap and manned the admittedly simpler firing controls, while he clumsily steered his way through a dark, underwater labyrinth. We never got far. And I thought little of it. I was a child, after all.
What struck me, however, was Mario’s startled face, his sudden shock and pain, upon slamming into a Goomba. He paused, tumbled through the air, and fell into oblivion. Gone forever, his mission for a princess’ love cut tragically shor… no wait, he’s okay. Somehow he returns to the world of the living. And so the cycle continues.
This is normal for us. And it gets weirder.
When the police gun down Niko Bellic in the streets of Liberty City, he should probably stay down. Yet he, too, rises. This miraculous ability was not Mario’s alone, but one shared by all digital denizens.
Our escape from death’s clutches gets out of hand when we control heroes never meant for the afterlife. One obvious example comes to us in the form of an armored green fellow named Master Chief. The iconic John-117 is supposed to boast a dangerous set of skills. In fact, we can safely say he’s the most skilled military operative in the entire human race. More importantly, he has a lot of luck (Eric Nylund said so in the Fall of Reach novelization). So why oh why does Master Chief die all the time? One stray grenade and years of combat experience ragdoll right out the window. Odd, right?
Commander Shepard comes to mind for the same reason. According to the expansive lore BioWare has built for us, Commander (Insert Name Here) Shepard is the most qualified human being in the galaxy to run the show. The “show” being the fate of the human race, specifically. With incredible combat prowess, technical knowhow, and an occasional knack for telekinesis, it stinks when Commander Shepard gets shot by some no-name grunt and dies.
Getting sucked into space and resurrected by Yvonne Strahovski, for the record, makes much more sense.
With death so prevalent in video games you may wonder how any game with fail states (i.e. death) can challenge a player without breaking the realism of the fictional world. It’s possible, and many games do have ways to threaten players with the possibility of loss without killing off the star.
The Prince of Persia remake from 2008 took a clever approach to this issue by eliminating the need for repeated deaths altogether. Instead, the mysterious and magical Elika saves the hero with every mistake we as players make, preventing his untimely demise in a flash of light.
Similarly, the vampire Rachel Alucard from the BlazBlue series also defies death. In fact, her transcendence of time and space plays an important role in the story. And as one of the most powerful characters in the cast, constant deaths wouldn’t suit her. So, upon losing a match, Rachel merely lies — unamused — on the ground. While her opponents slump in pain or crumple into heaps, Rachel reclines on her demonic minion. How bourgeoisie.
And while on the topic of smart dealings with death, it would shame us not to mention EVE Online, the world’s most complicated MMO. In EVE, you pilot awe-inspiring ships through the vastness of space… until you get vaporized by another player or passing pirate. Instead of dying in the traditional sense, though, your mind and/or soul “jumps” to a clone stored safely at a remote location. Players can even upgrade these clones to better soften the blow of death, or place them strategically around the universe to facilitate jumping between space stations.
EVE Online not only circumvents death but incorporates it into actual play. Those Icelandic chaps and chapettes sure know how to make games.
Clearly not all games and game developers can apply magic or unfathomable science to skirt around the reaper and his dark doings. But we, as imperfect beings, will always make mistakes while playing video games. And if those mistakes end in death, well, we have little choice but to accept the cyclical rebirth of our favorite characters — no matter how absurd their continuous resurrection may be.
Sadly, this unspoken agreement with death makes dying in video games much less meaningful. Like our desensitization to violence through continued exposure, we shrug at what should normally fill us with shock and sadness. So until developers come up with a better way to challenge gamers outside of pure mortal threat, we must resign ourselves to inevitable death, destruction, and fleeting darkness.
…unless you have a Phoenix Down.