Former NASA Engineer Developing VR ‘Donkey Kong’ Game

A former member of the VR Lab at NASA’s JSC is working on a VR rendition of the classic Nintendo game and it looks absolutely incredible.

When you think about which classic arcade games would make for amazing VR experiences, Donkey Kong immediately comes to mind. Jumping over fireballs, smashing barrels with a hammer, and climbing up and down ladders sound like a blast in VR.

Paul Nathan, a former member of the VR Lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, thought the same thing, which is why he’s developing his own VR rendition of the legendary Nintendo platformer. Donkey Kong VR is a fully immersive VR experience built specifically for the Oculus Quest 2 that has you playing the role of Mario as you face off against the giant gorilla in your quest to save Pauline.

Like the original, you have to run around and climb different levels of steel girders as your arch-nemesis throws barrels at you. And because it’s in VR, the game delivers an intense super cardio workout similar to the one you’d get from physically intensive VR titles like The Climb 2, Pistol Whip, and Supernatural.

During an interview with VRScout, Nathan talked about this inspiration behind Donkey Kong VR, saying, “Like a lot of people I have a love for classic games. There’s an old-school arcade I started going to back in college and I’d spend hours there. I wanted to see what a classic game would look like inside VR,” Nathan adds, “Unlike other popular arcade titles Donkey Kong has interactions that translate well into VR.”

Image Credit: Paul Nathan

In order to develop his next-gen homage, Nathan employed the Unity game engine to transform the 2D arcade game into a 3D VR world. And as you might expect, it wasn’t easy; Nathan faced plenty of challenges along the way. This includes the issue of modeling Donkey Kong’s different poses during gameplay; he’s pretty huge afterall! According to Nathan, the barrel animations also required a fair amount of iteration to get right. It took the former NASA engineer a lot of tinkering and some artistic liberties in order to make it work.

In addition to 3D visuals and animations, Nathan also had to figure out how to bring the important parts of gameplay to life. This meant figuring out how to jump, climb, and smash barrels in VR. He also had to figure out how barrels traveled through the game and how many barrels Donkey Kong threw at you. 

Jumping and moving mechanics were relatively simple to develop; Nathan built in a trigger that lets your Mario avatar jump in VR by pushing down on the right thumbstick of your Quest controller. For an extra dose of realism, you could always jump in real life as you press down on the thumbstick to get your heartbeat pumping. To run back and forth, you simply move the thumbstick forward while turning your body left or right to determine the direction. Though he hasn’t tested it yet, Nathan states that you could, theoretically, run back and forth down a long hallway in order to move, removing the need for artificial locomotion entirely.

Image Credit: Paul Nathan

Climbing is an important aspect of the gameplay in Donkey Kong. To achieve this in VR, Nathan used an approach similar to the one featured in games like The Climb 2 and Vader Immortal. In order to climb upward, you simply grab the ladder and move your hands down to lift your avatar. To descend, you grab the ladder and move your hands upward.Similar to the original 1981 classic, you can grab a hammer and physically swing your arms to smash barrels as they come towards you.

To give you a little bit of an edge over Donkey Kong, Nathan has incorporated a 2D view in the background so you can see where the barrels are, there’s even a scoreboard where you can enter your initials if you place in the top 5!

Image Credit: Paul Nathan

It all sounds pretty complex, but thankfully Nathan has some pretty good experience to fall back on. During his time at the VR Lab at NASA, Nathan helped develop applications and software systems for the astronaut training program using VR technology. He talked a little bit about his work, saying, “VR allows astronauts to train for high-risk scenarios without putting them in actual danger. They come into our lab and we put them inside VR simulations. There’s also a VR headset onboard the International Space Station so they can refresh themselves before going out on spacewalks. That was my first job out of college. I did that for a little over a year and a half.”

Though the game is built for the Oculus Quest platform, Donkey Kong VR uses a Unity plugin that also supports PlayStation VR and Windows Mixed Reality. That being said, Nathan has yet to test his game on said headsets, but, technically, it should work.

Image Credit: Paul Nathan

Unfortunately, with Nintendo being Nintendo and all, you won’t find Donkey Kong VR on the Oculus App store or SideQuest anytime soon. “As much as I’d like to make the game publicly available, Nintendo is notorious for shutting down fan games,” said Nathan. “They are very protective of their IP. If Nintendo ever wanted to hire me to work on an official title I’d be honored!”

Gah! Nintendo, if you’re listening, please hire this guy! The world needs Donkey Kong VR!

If you’d like to know more about how Nathan built his Donkey Kong VR project, check out this YouTube video.

Feature Image Credit: Paul Nathan

About the Scout

Bobby Carlton

Hello, my name is Bobby Carlton. When I'm not exploring the world of immersive technology, I'm writing rock songs about lost love. I'd also like to mention that I can do 25 push-ups in a row.

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