The Anatomy of Super Mario VI: Gradations

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.

14 thoughts on “The Anatomy of Super Mario VI: Gradations

  1. It’s a little too overambitious for its own good, but I definitely find Donkey Kong Jr.’s second stage the high point of the game. It’s got an interesting mix of gimmicks that would work great in a more finely tuned game.

    Shame it’s all downhill from here, though.

  2. I just looked at this stage and saw the trees from Super Mario Brothers. Now I can’t see anything else.

  3. Probably the thing that strikes me most here, actually, is how much the arcade games you’re looking at tend to prefigure *later* games in the Mario family even more than their immediate successor on the NES, with their surprising number of unique stage hazards and tendency to vary things.

    Not that SMB *doesn’t* do its fair share of varying things from stage to stage, but cartridge limitations and the game’s considerable length still demand a fair bit more repetition than these games appear to have - and, perhaps, the necessity of teaching players for the first time a whole new philosophy of gameplay also mandated a certain amount of gradated repetition as well.

  4. I might have to boot these games up for the heck of it. I did mess around with the gameboy Donkey Kong, but that is about all the time that I have spent with this series.
    At this point I find it interesting that I keep going back to play classic games after I visit this site… quite odd.

      1. So it’s unfair to complain about Microsoft’s plans for the Xbox One (substantiated by Microsoft itself) because nobody’s played the system yet? People aren’t calling the performance of the machine into question… from all we’ve been told so far, it seems like it will be one of the most advanced systems ever released, capable of handling everything developers can throw at it.

        That’s not the issue here, though. The issue is the proprietary and invasive design of the Xbox One, which will have a clear and adverse effect on the way players use the system. Restrictions on game sales and trades, no rentals whatsoever, a mandatory online connection, and an always on camera will all have consequences that can be seen far in advance. Can you honestly tell me that none of this will affect you as an end user?

        I’m not sure if you’re trying to be objective or just contrary, but either way, I can’t get behind this line of thinking. It’s like stepping on train tracks and saying, “Why can’t I stand here for a while? There’s no train yet!”

        1. Actually, it was just a glib remark with no real meaning and that doesn’t reflect my actual opinion. I feel like that should have been self-evident from the tone of the statement.

  5. My memory’s hazy, but if your timing’s perfect I think it’s possible to jump directly from the spring to the upper moving platform. At least on the NES I think this is possible.

    1. Nope, I wasn’t able to do it. Maybe there’s some pixel-perfect interaction I could never get down, but mostly you just die.

  6. This is the stage that always made me hate this game. There’s another issue not mentioned - in that, if you jump off the vine onto the moving platform, but do it from too high up, you die, because apparently you fell too far. I think the top moving platform also comes within range of the static one, but jumping to it is fatal (I may be wrong, it has been awhile). So there is a lot of terrible jump physics involved here overall.

  7. I’m not sure if it’s true with all versions of the game, but I know for a fact that in the Atari 7800 version of Donkey Kong Jr., it is definitely possible to bounce from the spring to the upper moving platform. I used to be pretty good at the timing for it, being able to bounce to the platform more often than not, but it IS pretty finicky timing. I honestly doubt I’d be able to do it today.

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