Mario’s the bad guy!?
The original Donkey Kong was a major success for Nintendo in 1981, so it’s not shocking that a sequel, Donkey Kong Jr., was released in 1982. What is shocking to many is the fact that both of these games were able to get true arcade grade home re-releases for the first time since they hit game rooms nearly 35 years ago. So does Donkey Kong Jr. manage to live up to the legendary original? I found out.
Donkey Kong Jr. really does feel like a direct sequel to the original game. Part of this can probably be chalked up to the fact that Nintendo had the code to the original Donkey Kong reverse engineered in order to make Junior. This led to a lawsuit and is an interesting story for another day, but the historical significance is worth mentioning.
Like its predecessor, Junior has a narrative tone. This time Mario, the protagonist from the original, is the jerk who has captured Donkey Kong. Sure the ape probably deserved it for kidnapping Pauline, but what we didn’t know is that Donkey Kong has a son, Donkey Kong Jr., waiting back at home. So in this title the player takes control of Junior and is trying to rescue his dad. While this may have seemed normal for the time, it is weird to see Nintendo’s main protagonist play the role of heel. Though it really does make you think about the perspective of everything in life.
Donkey Kong Junior controls similar to Mario in the original game retaining the ability to walk and jump, but the little ape has a few new tricks as well. A major gameplay element is climbing up and down vines. Junior can grab on to a single vine to climb up and drop down. It’s also possible to straddle two vines which allows Junior to climb up faster, but it will take longer to climb down in this state. The benefit of holding one vine is that Junior can drop quickly this way. Solo vine positioning is also important as you can hang from the left or right and doing so will impact your ability to dodge enemies.
Donkey Kong Jr. is comprised of four stages, just like the first game, and the goal is to get the key, or keys, in order to free Donkey Kong from his cage. The Arcade Archives version contains both the Japanese and English releases of the game. The differences I saw were similar to the differences in the original Donkey Kong as well. The Japanese version lets players tackle all four stages in order and on repeat, while the English release takes an odd route where you have to sort of earn two of the stages after looping through what has been given to you before “unlocking” them. Because of this, I may prefer the Japanese release but usually stick to playing the English version because that’s the version people from this part of the world seem to compete competitively.
The first stage is in a jungle-like setting and has vines and enemies that climb or drop down them. The second stage is similar to the first aesthetically but has a cool springboard to jump off of, which skilled players will figure out can help you skip a portion of the level too. The latter half of this stage tries to teach players to watch out for birds that come across some vines horizontally, which is different than the vine-descending foes from the first stage. The third stage, Mario’s Hideout, is like a power plant where players have to dodge sparks. The final stage sees Junior working to finally free his father by unlocking off of DK’s bindings. This last stage can have a ton of enemies at once and is a real challenge.
There is also bonus fruit in different places throughout the stages that is important. Touching a piece of fruit will cause it to drop. Falling fruit will kill any enemy in its path and rack up bonus points for each one it defeats. I do have one mechanical complaint about the fruit though. In some places, Junior needs to reach out off a vine to touch the fruit to get it to drop. However, the fruit hit box is very precise and needs to be touching his tiny hand almost perfectly.
Upon first playing the title, I came away thinking Junior felt very sluggish from what I remember. Also I really do feel that Donkey Kong Jr. is far more challenging than the original game, maybe too much so, as at times it requires players to track a ton of on-screen elements and enemies at once. In the first game, it felt like there were usually more safe spots, or you didn’t have to worry about as many barrels the farther you got up since the ones below you pose no threat. But in Donkey Kong Jr. you are more likely to encounter the same enemies again, depending on the stage, since some can travel up and down vines, or maybe the player will have to go back down in some spots. It’s tricky but can be learned.
I do, however, applaud the game in trying to be more interactive in many ways. It tries to do something different and the vine mechanics give a new way to traverse the stages and add some strategy. The springboard in the second stage is really fun too, and each stage feels very unique. While it may not come together as nicely as the first game, Donkey Kong Jr. tries to stand out on its own and that’s worth applauding.
Just for fun I decided to boot up the NES port of Donkey Kong Jr. just to compare it. The NES game features a Junior that can move much faster, and the pace feels a bit better as a result. Junior also has a larger range of hit detection when reaching for fruit! However, the graphics on the NES game aren’t as nice, and it may be too easy at the start. The NES conversion also doesn’t seem to be as refined as far as taking risks in order to earn a better score goes since enemies seem to be slower and take longer to come out. This is a problem in a high score game like Donkey Kong Jr. as you really need to wait for enemies to be in the right place in order to drop fruit on them. As well, after finishing the last stage in the arcade version, Mario just gets kicked by Donkey Kong. In the NES version, Mario falls and has a halo over his head, presumably dying.
My dream version of Donkey Kong Jr. would probably be a hybrid between the arcade and NES versions, but of course that doesn’t exist. This comparison has no bearing on the review, I just thought our readers may want to be educated on how the two versions differ.
Of course, this release of Donkey Kong Jr. falls into the Arcade Archives line and has all the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect from games in the series. The main title screen for the Arcade Archives port lets the player choose between playing the Japanese Version Original Mode, English Version Original Mode, Hi Score Mode, and Caravan Mode. The Original Modes both let players mess with the settings, use save states, and change various audio visual settings, and they run like an actual cabinet. You can even set the multiplayer up to flip the screen as if it’s the cocktail cabinet version of the game! There are online leaderboards in the Original Modes, but since save states can be abused here, they’re really meaningless.
Hi Score Mode and Caravan Modes are where the competitive action takes place. Both modes let players choose between the Japanese and English release when competing. High Score Mode uses a standard three lives run while Caravan Mode gives players five minutes to rack up the highest score. When it’s over, and you’ve set a personal best, you can then upload your score to an online leaderboard. These modes are both fun, but are still plagued by the fact that if you press the plus button (or pause) it instantly kills a run. This is a problem in every Arcade Archives game I’ve played and I wish they would make it an obscure button combination instead of something so easily pressed out of gaming habit.
Donkey Kong Jr. is a historically important game for Nintendo and one I fully recommend to big Nintendo fans, arcade gamers, high score chasers, and gaming historians. Those considering a purchase might want to go ahead and buy the game as Donkey Kong Jr. is one of the titles where we really don’t know who owns the rights to the original code. So it’s possible a deal was worked out to have this released for a set period of time. And again, the arcade version of Donkey Kong Jr. does differ from the more famous and more frequently re-released NES port.
Overall, I’m mostly impressed with the Arcade Archives wrapper as it lets players customize the experience or compete online. Donkey Kong Jr. itself is fun but much more challenging than the original Donkey Kong. I don’t think the sequel is as good, but it manages to differentiate itself which is nice and keeps the experience and strategies fresh while managing to maintain an air of familiarity.