Not content with a fine conversion of Pacman, ZX80 alchemist Paul Farrow has tried the same trick on another old chestnut from the pre-crash era. Donkey Kong's success was aided by many fine home system versions (and a marvellous dual screen LCD Game And Watch in 1982) in becoming one of the most popular video games in history, apparently counting among its fans none other than President Bill Clinton himself! According to legend, he used to challenge VIP guests at the White House to Donkey Kong high score contests, which due to his expertise he usually won (the only game he scored bigger on was Monica Lewinsky). In this way, DK achieved true crossover status, appealing to teenage gamers and sex addicts alike.
A ZX80 version of Donkey Kong is made possible by using the flicker free machine code routine developed by Macronics and used in their 3K Space Invaders program from 1981, also utilised in Farrow's Pacman conversion. It has to be said that Kong is a step up from even that fine achievement, especially since it avoids the corner-cutting of other versions by including all four stages plus the screen showing Kong going up the ladder with the damsel in distress before beginning play.
The graphics are necessarily inventive, bleeding everything possible from the limited character set. Mario is just an 'M', but funnily enough, after a while you don't really notice. Kong is the standout, beating his chest with a menace to rival a certain T-Rex from a Monster Maze very popular on the ZX80's big brother, and the four levels are clearly identifiable. Graphically speaking, Kong impresses absolutely from the first level to the last and can't be faulted: it's hard to imagine that a better looking version could be made for this ultra-primitive computer.
EVERYBODY'S GOT SOMETHING TO HIDE EXCEPT ME AND MY MONKEY
I would say on a technical level this is a more impressive conversion than Pacman simply because there's a lot more of it. Pacman only has one screen, but here, you're dealing with four of them plus the intermissions, and all of them are arranged with equal attention and care. It doesn't really matter that the Mario sprite and rolling barrels are represented by letters of the alphabet, because as we all know, pure gameplay is separate from presentation.
But it cuts both ways. You can't ignore flaws in a game because it's on more limited hardware, and though it's harsh to make comparisons, Kong on the ZX80 doesn't play quite as well as other more popular versions. For all Paul Farrow's economy and technical ingenuity, you'll still find the Commodore 64 version by Ocean more fun, and no doubt that's unavoidable when looking at the massive differences between the two machines. Apart from the first stage being too easy, there does seem to be an occasional problem with responsiveness most evident on the third stage with the moving platforms, probably because it involves more jumping than the other screens. That slight lack of confidence in the controls can lead to some frustrating moments not found in many of its bigger, well-endowed rivals. For any arcade game with character block movement to be successful, the sprites must move quickly, and that's why it's a problem less noticeable with Pacman than in Kong, since Mario controls with a bit more stop-start intricacy than the legendary gobbler. In spite of all this, it's important to remember that ZX80 Kong plays a hell of a lot better than Ocean's pathetic 1986 Spectrum release, though that probably tells you less about Paul Farrow than it does about Ocean.
If there were a Donkey Kong league table to measure the playability of conversions, I would put this ZX80 title way above the Spectrum flop, nestled in just behind the Colecovision and the original Nintendo C64 licence (1983), and a notch or two below the Commodore 64's fun 1986 yarn. It's definitely worth downloading the EightyOne emulator just to see so much being done with so little. Yes, on the pure gameplay side there are better arcade conversions, but one thing's for sure, you won't find too many of them on the ZX80, and anybody lucky enough to own the original machine would be a fool to miss out on this one.