According to Nintendo, this was the very first American NES release in the Donkey Kong series. Somehow.

Donkey Kong Jr. Math

Japanese title: ドンキーコングJR.の算数遊び • Donkey Kong Jr. no Sansuu Asobi

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
U.S. release date: June 1986 [NES-CA]
Japanese release date: Dec. 1983 [HVC-CA]
European release date: Sept. 1986 [NES-CA]
Genre: Edutainment
Alternate versions:  Virtual Console [Wii, 2007; 3DS, 2014]

About the game

Before we get into Good Nintentions 1986 proper, we have two pieces of housekeeping to take care of: Donkey Kong Jr. Math and Mach Rider.

I refer to these as “housekeeping” because I wasn’t really sure whether to class them as 1985 games or 1986; they exist in a state of quantum uncertainty. Officially, Nintendo categorizes them as 1985 releases, but Nintendo’s official listings for NES games can be somewhat suspect. The company’s own NES release data omits official releases for games whose publishers later went rogue — specifically, Tengen published several titles under Nintendo’s license in 1987, including Pac-Man, but Nintendo doesn’t officially recognize Pac-Man as having shown up on the American NES until 1993, when Namco repatriated with Nintendo as a licensee and reissued Tengen’s game. I’ve also found a few instances where I know first-hand that Nintendo’s dates aren’t quite right. For example, they list Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II as having launched in December 1990, but I bought the game the day after Thanksgiving that year — which was November 23.

The reality is, game distribution in the U.S. was a lot looser and less obsessively documented in the NES era than it is now, with release dates slipping around due to the vagaries of toy distribution… which is how retailers classified video games in the ’80s and into the ’90s. And Nintendo itself didn’t help with its own inconsistencies. For example, Zelda II‘s official U.S. release date ended up slipping to December 1988 due to chip manufacturing shortages — but several reliable sources have indicated the game did show up in America months before that in extremely tiny quantities.

In short, Nintendo’s official NES game release documentation should be absorbed with a grain of salt at hand; they’re guidelines, seemingly written to the best of people’s ability based on available info, rather gospel truth. Which brings us to Donkey Kong Jr. Math and Mach Rider. Nintendo claims both games launched alongside the NES in 1985, but again, I’ve come across several reliable external sources through the years that have indicated they didn’t. Given the bootstrapped nature of the NES’s initial holiday release, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that Nintendo’s own data could be somewhat off the mark here… or that perhaps these two games did ship in vanishingly small quantities on day one, only to resurface properly eight months later when the console went nationwide.

I realize this all seems like a lot of pointless nitpicking. I mean, who really cares about Donkey Kong Jr. Math, right? But the uncertainty over these games, with eyewitness accounts and research contradicting Nintendo’s formal documentation, speaks volumes about the ramshackle nature of the American console market at the time of the NES’s debut. And it speaks as well to the difficulty of documenting the ins and outs of the medium’s formative days, a frustration documented by game historians like Frank Cifaldi. So, I’m grouping Donkey Kong Jr. Math and Mach Rider as 1986 games, even if Nintendo says otherwise.

Not that it probably matters to much of anyone; Donkey Kong Jr. Math isn’t particular good now, and it wasn’t particularly enjoyable back then, either. As the title indicates, Donkey Kong Jr. Math attempts to showcase the “edutainment” potential of the NES by repurposing graphics from the console’s rendition of Donkey Kong Jr. We’ll look at DK Jr. itself in a few episodes, which highlights another oddity of the NES launch — according to Nintendo’s info, they released this bastardization of one of their keystone creations in America before the original work itself.

Truth be told, there’s very little interesting about DK Jr. Math itself, at least as a game. It offers three modes of play: “Calculate A,” “Calculate B,” and “Operator Exercise” (or “+-x÷ Exercise”), all of which concern Junior creating sums by climbing vines and chains. Calculate A and B are simply two different difficulty levels for the same basic mode, which sees Junior climbing vines to create sums. Donkey Kong holds up a sign with a numeric figure on it, and your task is to grab numbers and mathematical operators to reach that sum. Mode B is the more difficult of the two because you have to deal with larger figures and negative numbers, but otherwise the two modes are identical.

According to the manual, this Calculate A and B can be played either solo or competitively; the manual, I’m afraid, is a load of bunk. There’s no demarcation between solo and multiplayer here; every time you play, it’s presented as a head-to-head contest, with player one controlling a normal version of Junior and player two controlling his pink counterpart. You don’t have to go up against another player, but the game is pointless without that element of competition.

Donkey Kong Jr. Math reminds me a great deal of Stack-Up in this regard: It feels like the start of an actual game that the developers never quite got around to finishing. The single-player mode literally consists of playing the competitive game without a competitor, which is, frankly, not worth doing.

Operator Exercise feels slightly less pointless, in that it’s strictly a single-player endeavor and doesn’t come off as incomplete without a second person to join in. So that’s something, at least. This mode takes place in the final stage of Donkey Kong Jr., with a row of chains descending from the ceiling. You begin by choosing the nature of the exercise — ranging from large sums to simple multiplication and division tasks — and complete 10 consecutive challenges. The controls here are a little confusing and, annoyingly, change up slightly depending on your chosen operator, but basically each chain connects to a different part of the target sum (ones, tens, hundreds, etc.) and you slide Junior up or down the chain to set a number for that position. Once you’ve set the entire sum, you drop off the chain and see whether you were right or wrong.

And that’s about it. This is a bare-bones education game, enormously less entertaining than something like, say, Math Blasters or The Oregon Trail.

Nintendo designated Donkey Kong Jr. Math as part of the “Education Series” of NES games, but as I mentioned in my look at 1983’s Famicom releases, the word “series” is a serious misnomer. This was the only game to belong to bear that series’ branding! And Nintendo barely even sold it; like fellow not-quite-complete NES launch title Stack-Up, it seemingly came into being more to fill the roster and provide some flimsy justification for the console (look! the NES was educational, too!) than to be a product in its own right. It’s by far the rarest NES black-box title, with boxed complete copies selling in the neighborhood of $1000-1500 these days.

In a way, it’s amazing that Donkey Kong Jr. Math came to America at all. It feels like a relic of the system’s days before the American launch, that initial attempt to turn the console into a modular home computer that was scuttled long before it ever reached retail. More to the point, it’s a product of the very earliest days of the Famicom, when Nintendo had the daunting task before them of marketing their very own console and providing a full lineup of software for it… despite having very little in-house experience with game development. The Famicom launched with three games — Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Popeye — and Nintendo padded out its early Japanese lineup by turning all three of those titles into educational releases.

This is not a figure of speech: Donkey Kong Jr. Math is literally built from components of Donkey Kong Jr. In fact, The Cutting Room Floor indicates that the code is littered with unused elements from the earlier game, and the material that does appear in-game — from sprites to audio effects — is directly adapted from the game. The same is true of the other Japanese education series release, Popeye no Eigo Asobi. One has to wonder if the third planned title in the series, in which Donkey Kong would tutor kids in music, ended up being scuttled because it was going to feature too many original sprites to justify its development costs. (Nintendo eventually recycled its new sprites for the Famicom BASIC set, incidentally; nothing went to waste in those early days.)  Nintendo needed a cheap way to recycle assets to flesh out its 1983 Famicom release schedule, and Donkey Kong Jr. Math was one of the results.

By the time the NES launched, though, Nintendo had dozens of games to cherry-pick for release, meaning there was no real need to include something as slapdash as Donkey Kong Jr. Math. And it truly does feel slapdash; one of its two modes lacks a proper single-player mode, and neither format feels especially refined or interesting. It’s a curiosity at best, a historical relic of Nintendo’s early days when they hadn’t yet landed on the concept of quality and polish as the primary distinguishing trait of their software.

The one advantage Donkey Kong Jr. Math has over its partner in crummy half-finished Black Box rarities, Stack-Up, is that gamers can at least slake their curiosity about its lousiness without too much difficulty. Where Stack-Up requires R.O.B., a working NES, a CRT television, and a small fleet of plastic doodads in order for its uselessness to come into full focus, Donkey Kong Jr. Math has shown up on several iterations of Virtual Console, so you can soak up its mediocrity for just a few bucks. Not that it’s worth even that much… but $4.99 sure beats dropping four figures on a miserable cartridge and a few ounces of cardboard and paper.

Collectors, it’s not worth it! Turn back before it’s too late. Donkey Kong Jr. Math may be an educational title, but the most important lesson it has to offer today is that subtracting a large sum from your bank account for the sake of completism adds up to nothing but sadness.

Gallery

Packaging provided courtesy of Steve Lin, a good man who had the good sense to invest in the game before its price skyrocketed into insanity.