Everyone’s really angry right now about game systems they’ve never played, huh? That’s lame. Let’s do something different and get all salty about one that’s been around for a few decades instead.
I’ll say this for the second level of Donkey Kong Jr.: It does a much better job of being a second level than the second level of its predecessor did. This feels like a logical extrapolation of mechanics from the first stage combined with new features and challenges. Another nice detail: The first thing you face here is a spring, which is a repurposed jack from the third stage of Donkey Kong. Neat!
And that’s about where the good ends. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but this stage sees the designers’ reach exceeding their grasp. Not entirely unlike what Junior’s sprite looks like when he jumps. It’s metaphorical, maybe.
As often tends to be the case with games that break new ground, you can see some really inventive ideas on display here, but the tech and programming and general understanding of how video games work — or would come to work eventually — wasn’t entirely in place yet. I can’t be too hard on Donkey Kong Jr., because everything about it is pretty solid… except the way all the parts fit together.
Stage two here involves a remarkable number of platforms, some of which move. This may remind you of Donkey Kong‘s stage three, and in fact I don’t think the presence of the spring jack is an accident. Despite its differences from the first game, DKJr adheres to many of the same beats as its predecessor. So here you have moving platforms, though they drift left to right instead of vertically (because Junior moves best vertically); the platforms run perpendicular to his personal orientation.
The analogue doesn’t work perfectly, because Junior still jumps to get about, and his jumps obey the same approximate physics as Mario’s. They’re also less precise, because Junior’s sprite is larger along the horizontal axis and sticks his arms and legs out. His shape shifts as he jumps, which introduces a small element of visual uncertainty to the action — small, but enough to make the game play a little more awkwardly than it should.
The stage begins with a bounce off the spring jack, with the apex of Junior’s rebound bringing his head even with the moving platform immediately above. It actually looks a bit like he could grab onto or otherwise mount the platform, but quite the opposite: If you’re not careful about how you jump, Junior’s head will clonk into it and he’ll fall to his death. Whoops.
The spring jack takes you to another solid platform, provided you don’t hit your head and plunge to your death. Beyond that, however, is the first moving platform. It’s pretty easy to hit: As a double-sized platform, it’s a big target that spends very little time outside of Junior’s inherent jumping range, and it’s below the platform from which you jump, so you have a lot of grace with your jump’s arc. From there, you jump to the right and climb a vine. In a nice touch, the vine here is accompanied by a second one running parallel to it so you can zip up quickly if you wish.
Beyond here, though, the game becomes surprisingly taxing. The next jump is a major sticking point in a Donkey Kong Jr. playthrough, because you’re dealing with two hazards at once, both of which run on a cycle that tends to make them overlap in a very difficult way. The only way forward is to hop onto a vine hanging from a pulley reel. It moves back and forth, alternately getting longer and shorter as it does so. It doesn’t come as close to the upper platform as the moving floor below came to Junior’s disembarkation point, and due to its retraction it generally appears above Junior’s head. In short, it’s a tricky jump.
At the same time, Mario is releasing a stream of birds that fly straight away from him then take a sharp downward turn when they reach a gap in the floor at the top level. Once they drop, they take another sharp turn, doubling back to fly off the left edge of the screen below Mario. As they drop, they let loose an egg. The egg, which will instantly kill Junior upon contact, always lands at the left edge of the platform from which you have to leap to grab onto the pulley vines.
Due to a quirk in the game’s timing, the short window in which you can leap over to the vine has a tendency to overlap with the short window in which an egg is smashing fatally against the portion of the platform from which you have to leap to reach the vine. Time is ticking down, but you’ll frequently find yourself stuck here waiting for these two elements to fall out of sync, allowing you to make your leap in safety.
Once you manage to reach the vine, you’re safe from eggs, but your lot is no less difficult: You have to drop from the vine onto another moving platform. This one is half the width of the lower platform, and you really need to have a grasp on Junior’s vine-maneuvering physics to fall precisely onto the tiny moving object. It feels slippery and imprecise.
Once you make it past the jumps, the remainder of the stage is a breeze. It puts Junior in his natural element — shuffling along vines — and provided you have a good grasp on rising versus falling (two-vine grip versus one) in order to dodge the birds that zip along at variable heights, it doesn’t take much time to reach Mario’s perch.
In a game of a more recent vintage, this stage would be a lot of fun. It features lots of different challenges — a shocking number for the time, honestly — that require you to apply a wide variety of disciplines and skills in order to reach the top. You’re jumping, bouncing, climbing, dealing with different kinds of moving scenery, and dodging bad guys. It’s impressive! But it’s not much fun, because poor Junior is saddled with 1982 controls and physics. His jump is limited and visually ambiguous. He moves slowly and feels clumsy. Nintendo laid down a bunch of great ideas they’d explore in later games with this level, but here it doesn’t quite gel. A+ for Ambition, but C- for Execution.