After Donkey Kong exploded into what was the single biggest of success to that day for Nintendo, a company more than 80 years old at that point, a sequel became inevitable. Nintendo didn’t really know how video game sequels are supposed to work in those days, though, so they went about making a follow-up in a completely different way than just about every other game maker of the era. Back in 1982, sequel were usually just faster, more difficult, or simply more graphically impressive versions of the original game. Kind of like now! But even more so. I mean, yeah, you can only do so much with Pong. But Space Invaders‘ sequels just added color or other small features; Ms. Pac-Man even began life as a ROM hack.
Donkey Kong Jr., on the other hand, threw out a good many of the elements that defined Donkey Kong to create something wildly different through still recognizable as a successor. This proved to be both good and bad. Let’s talk about why.
Like the first game, Jr. spans four single-screen action sequences. And, much as in the original, the first three levels find you at the bottom of the screen working your way to the top in a sort of obstacle course zig-zag. The fourth and final level takes a more open form requiring you to unmake the stage’s structure. As before, the protagonist — in this instance Kong’s son, I guess? — lacks offensive capabilities outside of a small number of objects contained within the environment, forcing players to go on the defensive most of the time. You can move in four directions and jump. And that’s about it.
The radical change that Jr. brings with it is a fundamental shift in the orientation of the action. Donkey Kong was the ur-platformer, consisting of large horizontal swaths of real estate linked by vertical elements (ladders, elevators) that took Mario out of his safety zone and placed him in an elevated state of risk. With the new protagonist for Jr. comes a difference in the core action of the game. Junior is an ape, not a human, and as such he moves about differently. The primary emphasis of movement in Jr. is verticality, not the horizontal. You spend most of the game climbing vines rather than running, and Junior’s horizontal motion is hampered by his simian nature. His body is more elongated than Mario’s, making him more awkward to control on the ground. He jumps less gracefully, too. Junior’s in his element while climbing, and the game reflects this in its design.
The obvious downside here is that climbing is more complex than walking. Maybe it just feels that way to me because I’m not a monkey. No, wait, it really is. When Mario walks, he can move left or right, jump straight up, or jump in an arc to the left or right. On a ladder, he can climb up or down. Junior can do all of these things as well, but the vines and chains that fill these levels offer greater choice of movement to add to the mix. Junior can cling to either the left or right side of a vine, and so traveling horizontally requires twice as many actions as you’d expect: Jump on a vine from the left (Junior will cling to the left side), then tap right once to shift to the right side, tap again to reach out for the nearest vine to the right, and finally tap one last time to shift entirely to the second vine.
The trade-off for these added convolutions is greater precision and intricacy in play. Junior can hold onto vines two different ways — clinging to a single vine or to two at once — and these choices affect how you navigate the levels. When holding one vine, Junior climbs slo-o-o-o-o-owly, but he’s more compact and less vulnerable, and he can slide down a vine quickly. Holding two vines, he climbs more quickly and descends sluggishly.
Junior’s handling takes some getting used to, and the first level makes allowances for newcomers. You basically have two routes to the upper level: You can go via vine, quickly but with greater need for skill, or you can take the lower route and leap from rock to rock in a more traditional platformer style. The latter route is by far the less effective of the two. It’s slower, less precise — Junior’s tricky to platform with thanks to his odd shape, which becomes even more pronounced in its weirdness when he jumps and extends a hand forward — and once you start climbing you have to double back anyway to bypass the platform midway up the rightmost vines. You have to do some platforming either way, since there’s a gap too wide to be crossed via vine in the middle of the screen, but going by ground only is slower, dodgier, and causes you to miss out on scoring opportunities.
Complicating the stage navigation, Mario (this villain of this piece) has set what appear to be living steel traps loose on the vines. Maybe they’re supposed to be snakes, I don’t know. Whatever the case, the red ones patrol the vines, moving down and then up before slithering onto the platform to which the vines are attached and moving over to a different vine. They move somewhat randomly, but once they start traveling along a vine they’ll always move all the way to its end before doubling back, making them somewhat predictable.
The blue ones, however, are much more dangerous. Mario releases them at regular intervals and they snap along the top level before ducking down a vine and chomping a path all the way off the screen. They move far more quickly than the red ones, and they constantly regenerate (whereas if you manage to destroy a red one it’s gone forever), but because they travel a one-way route their threat is somewhat diminished.
Simply coming into contact with a snake/trap — even its tail! — is doom for Junior. Still, he does have a weapon of sorts in the form of the fruit that appears around the screen. Touch a fruit and you’ll knock it loose, causing it to fall and take out any enemies that happen to appear along its path. In Dig-Dug style, if you’re good enough to hit multiple enemies with a single fruit, you’ll rack up major bonus points. You can even use a touch of finesse when fruiting a foe; if you touch both a fruit and an enemy at the same time, it’ll count as a kill in your favor.
The stage ends once you climb the upper central vines, grab the key, and move toward Kong on the topmost platform… which causes Mario to abscond with the gorilla, much to Junior’s confusion.