When darkness covers the land and the ones he cares about are placed in peril, there’s only one grease-painted, burger-slinging mascot mighty enough to fight for justice. His name is Ronald McDonald, and he’s here to save the day in Data East’s 1987 Famicom-only super-size-em-up Donald Land!

Writing about something called “Donald Land” at this moment in history serves as a grim reminder about the current state of world politics, but we can forget all about that with this, a game all about McDonald’s and the wide variety of colourful characters the company has created over the years in order to sell burgers to kids. You might be wondering why a game about McDonald’s isn’t called McDonald Land: that’s because in Japan, Ronald McDonald is called Donald McDonald. Apparently the reason for this is the lack of distinction between L and R in Japanese, although the fact that the first person to teach English to the Japanese was called Ranald MacDonald might have something to do with it.

If you leave the game sitting at the title screen for a while, eventually you’re treated to a scene where the McDonaldland family are introduced. All your favourites are here – Ronald, of course, Grimace, the Hamburglar, etcetera. However, Officer Big Mac has been renamed “Big Mac Police,” so perhaps crime was getting out of hand in McDonaldland and they’ve had to recruit an entire burger-bonced police force. Their main duties involve beating up environmental protesters.

You also get to see the villain of the piece, who has abducted all the denizens of McDonaldland. Yes, it’s a clown-on-clown grudge match. Whoever wins, we lose.

Getting straight into it, and Donald Land is a platformer, because of course it is. That’s just what you did when you were making videogames based on basically characterless marketing mascots back then. Ronald runs and jumps – here he’s prancing over a gangster who was trapped under a safe he was trying to crack – and generally attempts to make it through each of the stages without dying. There’s not much else you can say about the platforming aspects of Donald Land, really. It all works well enough. There’s a slight delay between pressing jump and actually jumping that might throw you off until you’ve played for a while and gotten used to it, and Ronald can feel a little slippery when landing from a jump. If fact, I’d estimate about ninety percent of the deaths I suffered in Donald Land were because I slid off off a ledge that I thought gravity and friction would tether me to. All in all, it’s not as good as the very best of the genre, your Mario Bros. and such, but it’s well above average for a licensed Famicom platformer.

As well as the leaping and prancing and falling to his death, Ronald can also attack the monsters… by throwing bombs at them. That’s a bomb in the screenshot above, the red thing on top of the pile of boxes. No, not the red thing on the spring, the red thing next to the red thing on the spring. Yeah, the apple. Except it’s not an apple, because it explodes. Now, one look at me will tell you I’m not the kind of person to spend much time around fruit, but even I know that apples aren’t explosive, so Ronald must have painted all his bombs to look like apples. A clown with access to high explosives is a worrying thought, but on the plus side being incinerated in a fiery blast is a far quicker and more merciful death than you’d usually get from a clown.

It doesn’t take long to reach the first boss, which is a goggle-eyed woodpecker that attacks by hammering the tree until things fall out of it. What are those things? I haven’t got a clue. I thought they were eggs at first, but what kind of madman stores eggs in a tree? Apart from, erm, birds, I guess. Also they have eyes. Eggs do not generally have eyes. They have been carefully bred and cultivated over many generations not to have eyes, so you don’t feel bad about cracking them open against the side of a bowl. Sadly, I think “things” is the best description we’re going to get.
The way to defeat the woodpecker is to throw bombs at it, of course, but things aren’t quite that simple and Ronald’s explosives take a bit of getting used to. He throws them in an arc, as you might expect, but the shape of the arc is influenced by whether you’re moving and what direction you’re pressing on the pad. Normally they’ll travel in a predictable arc, but it you’re walking or running they’ll fly further, and you can also drop them at your feet. Then bombs are sticky, too, and if you manage to chuck one directly into a bad guy it’ll stay attached to them until it explodes. Combine this multitude of attack angles with the fact you can only have one bomb on screen at a time (unless you collect a power-up) and mastering the use of your apple bombs becomes the single most important part of Donald Land. Happily, the woodpecker offers some good training as it shimmies up and down the tree… or at least it would, if it didn’t only take one bomb to defeat.

Between stages, you can exchange the burger tokens Ronald has collected for things like extra lives and health refills, and you also get to play a simple card-flipping minigame. Pick a random card and hope you get a Ronald. The more Ronalds you find, the better your prize, but finding a Hamburglar means an immediate end to the game. Here’s my fun fact about the Hamburglar: his full name is Hamilton B. Urglar, a name that all but condemned him to a life of robbing burgers.

Next up is Lake Side World, where the tree stumps are alive and have grotesque faces that light up with joy whenever Ronald stands on them.

The other notable thing about Donald Land’s gameplay is that Ronald can stand on top of enemies. Jumping onto them doesn’t kill them in a Super Mario fashion, but it does mean you can (and sometimes have to) use them as platforms to get where you’re going. For instance, here’s Ronald riding a bird wearing an oversized hat and glasses. Is this a lesser-known McDonald’s advertising mascot? Saucy Beaks, the guardian of the ketchup packets? There you go, McDonald’s, you can have the one for free. Riding on Saucy Beaks isn’t mandatory, but otherwise I’d have to jump across the collapsing log bridge so I might as well make use of the bird while I can.

The weirdness level ramps up as this stage’s boss fight begins. It’s a tag team assault from a small red dinosaur and a young child in a cagoule that attacks by crying at Ronald. As a clown, you’d think he’d be immune to a child’s tears, but they will hurt him and the kid can’t be blown up with your bombs. Instead, you must focus your destructive capabilities on the dinosaur, who runs back and forth like a dog that thinks it just heard you say “walk.” It’s not hard to figure out where to place your bombs so the dinosaur runs into them as they explode.

The third stage is the Forest World, because forest worlds are mandatory in any 8-bit platformer. This one doesn’t differ too much from the usual style of these stages: leap from branch to branch, use insects as platforms, feel a pang of sadness at the levels of deforestation suffered by McDonaldland over the years.

For the boss, you’re faced with a huge fire-breathing mechanical dragon, which is a damned sight more imposing that birds and crying children. Getting hit by the fire is instant death, even, not the usual “lose a chunk of your health bar” you get when hit by every other projectile in the game. Fortunately the fire’s easy enough to jump over – the actual hitbox is way more generous than you’d think – so I managed to dodge the flames and throw a couple of bombs up the guy on top of the boss. I’d assumed they were controlling it, but they’re dead and the dragon just keeps on keepin’ on, spewing out fire and ignoring all the bombs I chucked at it. I’ll admit, I was completely stumped here and I had to go and look up what I was supposed to be doing. Turns out you’ve got to jump into the dragon’s mouth. I would not have thought to do that for a long, long time. It’s just so contrary to the general rules of videogame boss fights, not to mention basic common sense, and the game offers no indication that to progress you have to make what feels like the single dumbest move available.

So, I jumped into the dragon’s mouth. The small man inside, unwilling to test his luck against an obviously deranged clown with no fear of death, immediately raised the white flag and set the captive Birdie free. I commend him on his display of common sense.

This is Sky World, and it’s a bit crap. The hitherto perfectly acceptable run-n-jump platforming has been replaced by awkward-to-control floating in the airborne equivalent of an underwater stage. You have to hold the button to make Ronald float upwards, which he does with all the grace of a shopping trolley falling down a staircase. It’s jerky, it’s slow, it’s boring and Roland has no frames of animation while he’s floating. Overall, we’ve gone from “slightly above average” to “long, resigned sigh.” It’s not all bad, though: at least the enemies are interesting, particularly these flying bags of wind that propel themselves along by farting out a gust of air. They’ve got an expression of true madness on their face, which if sort of endearing. Less endearing is the face in the clouds themselves. They look like they’re up to something.

A dull stage only becomes more tedious once these fairies show up, because they attack by grabbing Ronald and refusing to let go, holding him in place while you mash the buttons. If Data East’s goal here was to make the regular platforming stages seem dynamic and exciting by comparison then they have succeeded, but then again leafing through a three-month-old copy of Heat in a dentist’s waiting room would feel dynamic and exciting compared to this.

The boss is another fire-breathing dragon, except this time not mechanical. I wonder if the woodland folk saw this dragon once and decided to copy it when making their own forest guardian? Look, I’ve got to do my own world-building here, it’s not like Donald Land is forthcoming with reasons why McDonaldland is a dangerous wasteland where everyone wants Ronald dead.
This is another easy boss battle, by the way. Throw bombs at the dragon’s head, hop over the fireballs, job done. Just don’t jump into its mouth and you’ll be fine.

If “Wonderwall” starts playing, I’m turning this game off.

Oasis World is a very vaguely “Arabic” themed stage, but it’s also full of Jawas so maybe it’s supposed to be Mos Eisley. I suppose you could sort of describe Mos Eisley as an oasis. Like, sure, it’s a wretched hive of scum and villainy, but if all you’ve got on the rest of your planet is sand, gangster space slugs, sand, giant fanged pits that eat people and more sand, you’ll take whatever you can get.

The boss is another dragon, this time a bone dragon that looks like it’s wandered in from a Castlevania game. This game’s got more dragons than the Dark Souls series at this point. This is where the bosses start putting up more of a fight, because apparently divesting yourself of your flesh increases your combat efficiency. It seems to make you faster, anyway, and this boss zips around the screen making it difficult to stick bombs to him unless you’ve really got a handle on how the arcs of Ronald’s bombs work.

The obligatory cave stage is next, and it’s probably the worst of all the regular platforming stages. It’s still much better than the flying stage, but it’s rather dull for the most part. It does feature these adorable skeletons that attack by hurling their skulls at Ronald, though, so that’s a plus. On the other hand, I have never wanted to walk through a door less than I do with that gaping clownstrosity over there.

As for a boss battle, well, you get to fight Grimace’s evil brother, the one they keep locked up in the attic and feed on left-over french fries and discarded paper tray liners. He’s understandably upset with Ronald, whom he views as the architect of his misery, and he won’t rest until Ronald is vanquished. Unfortunately for him, he bought claws to a bomb fight. He did try to tip the scales in his favour by wafting small red ghosts at Ronald, but as Ronald is not Pac-Man he has nothing to fear from small red ghosts.

Onward to stage… what stage are we on now? Six? Seven? I’ve lost count. Anyway, it’s called Pond World even though it’s clearly intended to be a swamp. Alligators tend to live in swamps not ponds, unless you really want to make sure your koi carp are protected from predatory herons.
Again, there’s little else to add about the gameplay in these stages, and the action doesn’t change much from stage one onwards, but I will say that Donald Land has a nicely balanced difficulty curve. It’s getting more challenging, but while many NES platformers would have been reaching punishing levels of difficulty by stage seven, Donald Land remains a rather more sedate affair and frankly that makes a nice change.

Plus you’ve got these fantastic cat enemies, cats that look like they were drawn by a seven-year-old and who have the ability to levitate small platforms. They’re great, and if there’s one area in which I can give Donald Land wholehearted praise it’s the enemy designs. There’s a big collection of freaks and weirdos on display, all of them drawn in a charmingly cutesy way but with just enough creepiness to them to keep them interesting, from the wonky cats to the Jawas and even the jack o’ lanterns that appear in a couple of stages.

The stage’s boss proves my point, I feel. Kinda cute, but not the kind of cute that you’d get in the Hello Kitty family or what have you. I like the way the plant-monster seems to be looking out of the screen, as if seeking an emotional connection with the player themselves. “I’m real sorry about this,” its expression seems to say, “but the vine sticking out of my head is actually a parasite that controls my every move. Please destroy me with your bombs, Ronald, and end my torment.”

This is Harbor World, where the crates are stacked high in preparation for their export to distant marketplaces, and there are yet more cats. You can stand on these cats and use them as springboards to leap to higher platforms. Should I have a “don’t try this at home” disclaimer here? It feels like I should have a disclaimer here. So, don’t use your cat as a springboard. Okay? Use a dog instead, they’re generally bigger and bouncier. How many of you will refuse to ever read this site again if I make a “springer spaniel” joke here?

The boss of the harbour is, of course, a pirate. Ronald throws bombs, the pirate throws bundles of dynamite, so it’s a battle between two well-matched opponents. That said, all the pirate does is walk back and forth along a predictable route while throwing his TNT. I get the impression he’d be doing that even if Ronald wasn’t trying to blow him up. He certainly didn’t seem to alter his behaviour any when I’d managed to stick a bomb to him. You’d think that if there was one thing that’d make you change your routine it’d be “getting attached to an explosive device,” but this pirate possesses a single-minded dedication.

After that fight Ronald must have hurled himself off the pier, because it’s an underwater stage. Yes, we’re back to the bumbling crapness last seen in the balloon stage, with Ronald’s underwater manoeuvrability approaching that of a housebrick with live rats taped to it.  You bob along, slowly and inaccurately, avoiding the scenery and trying – but always, it seems, failing – to avoid the jellyfish that act like the fairies in the flying stage and cling onto Ronald in the hopes he’ll give up his quest out of sheer boredom.

Then Ronald was eaten by a shark. Of course he was. How was he supposed to out-swim a shark? Rather than trying to set a new free-diving record for clowns, Ronald should have stuck to his strengths, like selling burgers and performing controlled demolitions.

Here’s a big octopus that you have to fight. I’ll be honest, I don’t really remember this boss battle, which probably means it was exceptionally easy. The screenshot above certainly seems to back up that conclusion, as Ronald has walked right up to the octopus and gently placed a bomb right on its face.

The next stage – yes, Donald Land is still going strong – is the Ghost Town. The developers don’t appear to have decided whether this meant a Wild West ghost town or a town populated with ghosts, so the end result is somewhere in the middle. There are certainly a lot of wooden barrels piled up in the streets, something I would more readily associate with Tombstone than Transylvania. There may be a lot of stages in Donald Land, but at least they’re visually unique, and the game’s commitment to weird monsters continues. For example, look at the witch at the top of the screen. It’s just a big smirking head with a broomstick coming out of the back, it looks like something from Yume Nikki, and I absolutely love it.

At the end of the stage Ronald does battle with a pair of ghosts. The ghosts of amoebas, if their see-through nature is any guide, and they’re just as fond of tossing explosives around as Donald is. The ghosts have the advantage of being able to disappear and become immune to damage, so you end up with a boss fight that’s less a fight and more a guessing game. Because your bombs take a couple of seconds to explode, you don’t have time to react and throw one when the ghosts appear because it won’t explode before they disappear again. So, you guess where the ghosts are about to appear and throw the bombs before they phase back into out mortal realm. It’s less annoying than it sounds, because your bomb’s arc and generous hitbox mean they cover more of the screen than you might expect.

Normally you’d have to walk through to dark forest to get to the spooky town, but not in Donald Land, where the Dark Forest world follows on after the spectral tag-team. Once more it’s nice to look at but doesn’t do much to mix up the gameplay. Normally that’d be a bad thing, but given how poor Donald Land’s non-platforming stages were that’s probably a good thing. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a maxim that doesn’t really apply to videogames, but it’s working out okay here.
On a side note, this lady flopping around on the floor means that there are two completely separate enemies in Donald Land that attack by laying on the ground and crying. I’m not sure there are any interesting points you can take from this, other than the obvious one of “that’s a weird thing to keep making enemies out of.”

I had to show off this background of sinister leering pumpkins, because it’s very much my kind of thing and I hope you all appreciate it too.

You know, if you removed Ronald and the boss from this screenshot it could almost be a background from a Castlevania game. A Kid Dracula game, at any rate. As for the boss itself, what the hell is that thing? Donald Land has entirely done away with anything resembling a coherent theme, giving us a boss that’s nothing but a lump of pure rage, the mascot character for a range of migraine medication or possibly (and appropriately) a sentient chicken nugget that fell on the floor and became encrusted with dirt. Whatever it’s supposed to be, it fights exactly the same way as the pirate and as such its hash can easily be settled by bombs.

At long last, it’s the final stage. Ronald infiltrates the villain’s castle, hopping over super-deformed knights and equally misshapen skeletons, putting all the techniques he’s learned over the course of the game to use. The game play even gets a little bit of a shake-up here, because rather than being a linear path there are multiple routes through the castle that you can access by riding various elevators. The elevators have slightly creepy faces on them, because Donald Land is committed to its aesthetic.

After making my way through the castle, which didn’t take long because none of Donald Land’s stages are particularly expansive and the only thing that slowed me down was having to fight the two ghosts again, I reached a boss. Not the final boss, not even the penultimate boss, and definitely not an interesting boss, but I felt I should show it for the sake of completeness. It’s a hand with a tail that flies around dropping hands on you. It’s boring to look at and a pain in the arse to fight, because only the hand is vulnerable and said hand is small enough that trying to hit it quickly becomes frustration. Donald Land’s stages have time limits, and if they were any stricter than “so generous they might as well not exist” I probably would have run out of time here.

Almost immediately afterwards, Ronald must save the Hamburglar by… defeating the Hamburglar?  Everyone’s favourite meat-based kleptomaniac is clearly a prisoner, trapped inside a picture frame and shouting “help,” but then he bursts out and tries to kill Ronald with his hat. It’s kinda weird. I guess Data East realised that the Hamburglar is the closest thing McDonaldland has to a villain so it’d be weird if you didn’t fight him, so lets say he’s either under the control of the evil clown who covets his amazing powers of flight and hat-throwing or this is a diabolical clone of the Hamburglar. Either way, any lingering fondness that Ronald may feel for the Hamburglar won’t stop him from sticking bombs to his head whenever the opportunity presents itself. Actually, the bombs will only affix themselves to the Hamburglar’s hat, and because he keeps taking it off to throw at you the fight becomes a matter of timing. I assume the rest of the Hamburglar’s body is simply too slick with burger grease for Ronald’s bombs to find purchase.

And now, the final boss, the evil clown himself. He’s proving my point that the scarier you try to make a clown look the less scary it becomes, and with its deformed body and wide shark-like grin the boss strikes and unusually comic figure for a clown. He’s only got one form of attack, too: he jumps from one side of the screen to the other throwing the occasional balloon at Ronald. Dodge the balloons, throw bombs at the clown, repeat until McDonaldland is once more under the stewardship of its one true clown dictator. This is pretty much exactly the final boss fight I expected, to be honest. At least the background, where the cracked brickwork resembles a glowing-eyed spectre, is neat.

There we are, then. Donald Land is Done-ald Land. To celebrate his victory, Ronald paints the word “HERO” on an oil drum and stands atop it in the middle of the village square, the self-aggrandizing prick.

While all the denizens of McDonaldland come out to pledge fealty to Ronald, I can look back on Donald Land and say “hey, this game wasn’t half bad.” The controls are a touch too slippery for it enter very top tier of 8-bit platformers, and the non-jumping stages don’t half drag things down, but overall it’s a very solid game with plenty of content and a wide variety of locations that at least look different even if the gameplay’s mostly one-note. There are some problems with infuriatingly grabby enemies and the occasional area where you seem to be able to screw yourself over if you accidentally kill an enemy that you need to use as a platform but on the whole I’d definitely recommend giving Donald Land a try if you’ve never played it and you fancy a change from the “classic” NES platformers. The big question is why Donald Land never saw a US release. It’s a well above average game and the small amount of in-game text is already in English, and on top of that it’s about McDonald’s. For better or worse, McDonald’s is one of the true icons of American culture, so it’s strange that the game never left Japan. Whatever the reasons, it’s a game with jankily-drawn cat monsters and haunted pumpkin forests, and as such it was well worth my time.

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