If there’s one thing Nintendo has absolutely always been good at, it’s sequels.
How do you follow up a big hit like Donkey Kong? More of the same? Some lesser companies might think that is a good way of doing things, but not Nintendo — even back in the ’80s. Instead, they chose to take a very interesting approach: they’d take the formula of Donkey Kong and flip it on its head, placing the previous game’s hero in the role of the villain, and tasking you with rescuing the titular big ape.
Donkey Kong Jr. was born, and Nintendo’s rapidly establishing reputation for creating simple to understand, difficult to master and highly addictive games was further cemented.
Donkey Kong Jr. was first released to arcades in 1982, a year after its predecessor. Its Nintendo home port arrived on the scene in 1983 as a launch title for the Famicom, but due to the NES’ delay arriving on the scene in Western territories due to fears over the great video game crash, North American players wouldn’t see this particular version until 1986, and Europe had to wait a year longer than that, even.
It’s testament to Donkey Kong Jr.’s quality and Nintendo’s confidence in its game that it even bothered to release this overseas after such a long delay, but the arcade incarnation of the game had proven itself to have enduring popularity, and its high score record remains hotly contested to this day. And even in the late ’80s, the idea of being able to “bring the arcade game home” remained a key selling point of many home computer and console games.
For the uninitiated, Donkey Kong Jr. was designed by Nintendo’s legendary game-maker Shigeru Miyamoto and his colleague Yoshio Sakamoto, the latter of whom remains a prolific designer, producer and director at Nintendo to this day, with much of his more recent work seen on the Metroid and WarioWare series. The game inverts Mario’s role from the original Donkey Kong; here, he is an antagonist, having captured the giant ape and locked him in a cage. It’s up to Donkey Kong’s son, the titular junior ape, to rescue him.
It’s a similar setup to the original game, but the execution is rather different. While the first Donkey Kong game had a strong focus on horizontal movement as you gradually ascend the screen, Donkey Kong Jr. features much more in the way of verticality as you progress. On the very first level, you’re presented with a series of vines that you can climb up and down, and it quickly becomes clear that in order to get where you’re going, you’ll have to make good use of them.
Appropriately enough for a game where an ape is the star, there’s a heavy emphasis on climbing in Donkey Kong Jr. Junior can climb up and down these vines as well as climb hand-over-hand horizontally between them. This latter aspect is particularly important, as it allows you to switch him between two different climbing “stances” — while grasping a vine either side of him, one in each hand, he can climb more quickly; while clinging on to a single vine, he can descend more quickly.
The challenge in Donkey Kong Jr. for a new player is in determining what is the correct route to take through the stage, as the path is nowhere near as linear as Donkey Kong’s opening series of sloping girders. Indeed, there are several possible routes you can take, though some are easier and safer than others — and along the way you’ll doubtless discover a few of the other mechanics, such as Junior’s inability to fall more than a few feet without losing a life: a common (and always frustrating) mechanic in early ’80s platformers.
Once you’ve established the best way to traverse all four of the basic level layouts, attaining high scores becomes about a combination of factors: quickly and efficiently taking the “best” route through the stage, hitting all the optional bonus fruit scattered around the place in some of the stages, and making use of these objects to defeat enemies. Unlike in the first Donkey Kong, there are no direct “power-ups” for Junior equivalent to Mario’s carpentry hammer; here, it’s all about timing the drop of a fruit so it lands on an enemy beneath you whenever you can, and timing your traversal so that you can avoid enemies at all other times.
The actual “platforming” element seems relatively light in the first stage with its strong focus on climbing up and down vines, but as the game progresses, you’ll find yourself having to make more and more precisely positioned and timed jumps, particularly on subsequent loops as enemy patterns get denser and less forgiving.
The second stage, for example, features moving platforms and handholds to hang from, while the third requires you to gradually ascend a sequence of platforms while hopping over electric-type enemies that move on a fixed path. You can trace a pretty direct line from this latter example to mechanics and setups you find in the later Super Mario games — although Mario is a bit better at jumping than Junior is!
Donkey Kong Jr. remains fun to play today thanks to its solid, easily understandable mechanics and good level design. Like its predecessor, it is simple to get started with but challenging from the outset, so there’s a feeling of achievement simply by clearing a single stage.
The unusual playable character and distinctive sense of verticality mean that it’s a standout title from Nintendo’s back catalogue even today — and its recent (at the time of writing) addition to the Nintendo Switch’s library of NES games available via the Nintendo Switch Online service has reminded me just how much I’ve always liked this one.
If you’ve never had the pleasure, give it a shot… but I take no responsibility for any late-night gaming sessions that might transpire, nor the torrent of expletives that will doubtless erupt forth from you at semi-regular intervals during play!
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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