COMPETITION ENTRY #19: ZONKEY KONG
Everyone's played Donkey Kong in some form or another; in my case, it was Microdeal's The King on my brother's Dragon 32. That's because, for some unfathomable reason, the Spectrum never received an arcade-quality conversion. Ocean tried - and failed - with Kong, but still won the rights to make the official conversion, which was better but still not world-beating. Other attempts ranged from mediocre to cataclysmically terrible. The ZX81 would never have been expected to handle such a fast action game, but Paul Farrow did the seemingly impossible in 2010 and made a working version for the ZX80, also converting it for the ZX81 in the process. Hence, this is the benchmark by which I can judge our latest CSSCGC entry... although it's not exclusive to this competition, as it was released on the Sinclair ZX World forums on the same day I had a moan about CSSCGC entries drying up - so one of the authors said I could include this game (which is pretty much the way I've been handling QL entries as well).
From the beginning, this is far from the usual Crap Game fayre. An animated intro screen, on a ZX81? What kind of sorcery is this? It leads straight into a redefine-keys process... which is where things go slightly awry. We have bugs! Five keys will not respond here and cannot be used in the game (3, 7, W, Y, A). More annoyingly, some keys will fail after definition, and it's pot luck whether you get a duff one or not - they change every time you load the game and if one doesn't work, that's another four minutes of loading time wasted. Incidentally, as our authors are American and first designed this game for a Timex TS1000, I switched EightyOne to that machine and tried again, but found the same result.
As for how it actually plays: each stage is introduced by the standard Kongs stacking on top of each other, and all four stages are present, correct, and in the right order. Graphics work around the limitations of the ZX81 - ladders are "H" characters, hammers are "T" characters, and the Kong figure is similar to Chris Cullen's ZX81 Krazy Kong from 1982 (which is near-certain to be coincidental). Barrels - well, zeroes - hurtle towards the player-controlled "A", fire-asterisks will chase you from the oil barrel at the bottom left; the "up" control doubles as a jump key, so jump over the barrels, climb the ladders, smash the barrels with your hammer, reach the "P" at the top (remember, Mario's original girlfriend was called Pauline, before he dumped her for that infernal princess), at which point you're declared a hero, then it's off to the next stage.
The first stage is quite easy to clear, and I'm terrible at games like this; the main hindrance is the slop in the controls that might not see you jump or move at the instant you want. The second stage, the one mangled in Ocean's limp 1983 Spectrum version, is the conveyor belt stage - which is well animated with the "O" and "0" characters alternating to look like moving wheels. The conveyors will be frustrating as you'll be carried off the ladder you thought you were climbing, and maybe hit by one of the moving sacks of concrete - but if you fall off the edge, you won't lose a life like you do in the original. If you can make it through this stage, and it's the hardest of the four, then you've got an excellent chance of getting through them all.
On the third stage, the one with the lifts, you can miss the downward-moving lift and control your fall horizontally onto the right-hand staircase, where you'll have to be a not to fall into the gaps. The bouncing springs that are usually seen on this screen ("X" characters here) don't bounce, they just fall downwards and aren't much of a threat. If there is any AI for the asterisk-flames, then it's programmed so that the flame on the staircase stays out of your way, so the path is clear to stage four, the one where you pull out the pins from four of the platforms, wreck the structure and send Kong crashing towards a lengthy session with the vet at New York Municipal Zoo. For the most part, you'll not be bothered by the five asterisk-flames, so I would say this is the easiest of the four stages. But no sooner have "A" and "P" had their romantic fumble behind an empty oil barrel than Kong recovers from Doctor Doolittle's treatment and it's back to square one, and the process continues until you inevitably take too many hits. I haven't gone on playing continuously with savestates so that I can see if there are further variations on the four stages, but as this is a ZX81 game, I wouldn't have thought there is.
Now for the pot of gold in the Crap credibility stakes, seeing as this is far from actually being crap. The authors said on the introductory forum post that they started programming this game back when it was still possible to buy a brand new TS1000 on t'other side of the Atlantic, and they've only just finished it. That's 38 years in development hell - longer than Duke Nukem Forever and Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy combined!
Overall, I award five masks for attainment - had this been completed back in the day it'd have been commercially viable, and it stands up well to any other ZX81 Kong game I've seen before Paul Farrow's Concorde moment. The authors noted in their introduction that it was a tricky job writing assembler on the TS1000, so given the effort of almost 40 years ago, it's worth six Ricks (I'll count one of them for that animated intro screen).
UPDATE (7 May 2021): DnD have revised Zonkey Kong to eliminate the problems highlighted by both this review and others on Sinclair ZX World. While the version downloadable from this website will remain the flawed original that I reviewed (otherwise, new players may think I was talking utter bilge), use this link to find the latest versions of the game as they are updated.
FURTHER UPDATE (31 August 2021): The downloadable package has been updated to include the later bugfixed version alongside the version that I reviewed. It seems fair to me.