I never got to spend too much time with the arcade version of Donkey Kong. The only place I knew that had a DK machine was the skating rink in the next town (which we visited weekly.) I was too busy skating to play much, and even when I did, I stunk at it.
So, I bought the Atari computer version. I remember when I purchased it for my Atari 400... I bought it from a little computer store downtown (think Mayberry) that was loaded with Atari stuff. When I saw Donkey Kong sitting there, I just had to have it. Amazingly, this is the first game I remember buying that was $50. And back in 1983, that was a lot of money!
The game is nothing short of amazing. Remember, at that time the "pinnacle" of home video gaming was the Atari 2600. The Colecovision had released it's good-looking, (but ultimately jerky version) of Donkey Kong that omitted the cement factory screen. The 8-bit version was better. It included the cement factory. It included the "How high can you get?" intro. It even included the scene where Donkey Kong kidnaps Pauline and stomps on the girders to misalign them. (To see that, just wait a few minutes before pressing the START button.)
Graphics and animation are just about as good as it gets. Ok, so successive video game systems like the NES and 7800 may have surpassed the graphics, but those systems wouldn't be released for a few years yet. And even compared to those versions, the 8-bit holds it's own. (The NES is a great version too, but it also omits the cement factory.)
Mario is very well animated and moves very smoothly. Much smoother than the Colecovision and 7800 Mario. You don't feel as if you are controlling a character on the screen... More like he has become an extension of yourself. I remember the old ad campaign... "You don't just play Donkey Kong, you FEEL it!" A very accurate assessment!
The enemies have equally smooth animation. Barrels roll with perfect fluidity and bounce realistically as they drop from girder to girder. Foxfires look deadly as they chase you around the level. Springs become almost hypnotic as you watch them bounce around and get in your way. And Donkey Kong himself looks just as he should - rolling barrels, stomping angrily and snatching your love just as you think you're going to get that peck on the cheek for your bravery.
The music and sound effects are very good and similar to to the arcade. Jumping produces the perfectly cloned sound effect from the arcade that we expect. Smashing barrels and foxfires with the hammer recreates the music and "wobbling" smash effect almost flawlessly. Donkey Kong beats his chest reproducing the same sound he did in the arcade. Mario's death music is perfect. Mario's signature walk sound is a bit different, but it's not bad by any stretch. In other words, the music and sounds are very good. Not perfect, but very good.
Gameplay is a category not something to be taken lightly. The original arcade Donkey Kong was a sublime blend of fun and achievement. It was fun to smash and jump over the barrels. It was fun to drop Donkey Kong on his head in the rivet level. It also gave the player a sense of achievement by allowing the player to get to the next level. To complete this one and move onto the next. It was an accomplishment to beat Donkey Kong and rescue Pauline. And all of these sensations are replicated perfectly in the Atari 8-bit version of the game. Perfectly.
Controlling Mario is a breeze. Something I think the smooth animation assists. Mario jumps at the precise moment you press the joystick button. He climbs up and down ladders with ease and you don't even have to be in that perfect location for him to start climbing. It's as if he knows you want to go up that ladder even before you get to it.
One of the absolute best things about this version of Donkey Kong is that it actually includes all of the four original arcade screens. Girders, rivets, elevator, and cement factory are all squeezed into a 16K cartridge. Something the Colecovision, NES, and 7800 utterly failed to do. The other important thing those other versions failed to do was get the screen order right. Well, if you don't have all 4 screens, it's gotta get goofed up somewhere.
The only real knock against this version is that there is 1 fewer girder on the first level. Which means Donkey Kong is on the opposite side of the screen. This was a limitation in resolution and that's about it. It's not a deal breaker on the 8-bit especially in light of the Colecovision version which does the exact same thing.
So if you're looking for a great home version of Donkey Kong, you
can't get much better than the Atari 8-bit version. The graphics,
sounds, gameplay, control, levels, and screen order is about as faithful
as you'll find. Even when compared to more recent versions.