Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong Jr.

Donkey Kong Jr. is this baffling anomaly of a game. I like it even less than Donkey Kong, but I also find it so much more interesting. At least from a gameplay perspective. I think that’s because we’ve seen tons of platform games that involve jumping over stuff and climbing ladders. But the vine mechanics of Donkey Kong Jr., while not completely unique to the game, still feel like they’re exclusively the property of DK Jr’s legacy. Fundamentally, Donkey Kong Jr. isn’t as big a departure from Donkey Kong as fans of the game would have you believe. You start at the bottom left corner of the screen and zig-zag your way to the top. It’s the way you get there that feels so different. And somehow, get this, still feels fresh 37 years later. How is that even possible?

It struck me that the gameplay of Donkey Kong Jr. often feels more like trying to cross a busy highway than Frogger, a game that’s literally about trying to cross a highway. What could be done to fix the controls? I wish it was smoother to transition between vine to vine. That’s it. The idea of using two vines to climb faster and one to slide down faster is brilliant. It also creates all kind of defensive options. Donkey Kong Jr. is deceptively complex as far as early 80s games go.

Well, it’s the Super Mario 2 Rule: since nothing quite like Donkey Kong Jr. has been done by Nintendo in the nearly 40 years since the game came out, it’s able to retain the charm it had from the start. This in the face of decades of gaming evolution. That’s probably Junior’s greatest achievement. And yeah, Donkey Kong on the Game Boy (aka Donkey Kong ’94) had vines and the little alligator head things. But, you controlled a completely different Mario than you did in the early 80s arcade games. One that did backflips and handstands with silky smooth accuracy, and it was a puzzle game where you took a key to a door. It’s as far removed from Donkey Kong Jr. as a 2D platformer can be. There’s never been anything quite like Donkey Kong Jr.

And I hate it. Because movement is so slow and clunky. Now, there seems to be confusion over what that means to a game from retro enthusiasts. Yea, if you put enough time into a game with poor controls, you can get used to them. Maybe even to the point that you instinctively compensate for the shortcomings the controls have and they become a total non-factor for you. This is absolutely possible. But that a player can get good at using bad controls doesn’t change the fact that the controls are bad. Donkey Kong Jr. controls the worst of the original “trilogy” of Nintendo games. Donkey Kong and Popeye control bad, but they’re Mario Worlds apart from how bad DK Jr. feels. It’s always sluggish, and it hurt my enjoyment of it so much.

Both Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. really stand out because the best levels are the “climax” in terms of the narrative. I prefer removing the rivets in Donkey Kong’s final board to pushing the keys up into the locks in Junior’s. That’s the one gameplay mechanic from Donkey Kong that I feel has legs for more stages.

Such a shame, because it feels like it has the highest ceiling for enjoyment of any of those original Nintendo arcade games. And the most potential for more stages not yet created. Myself and others have been pondering on Twitter how viable it would be for Nintendo to bring out new releases of these arcade games, not in arcades but as downloadable titles, that simply add dozens, maybe even 100, new levels. Not like Donkey Kong ’94 did, but using the actual arcade hardware. Hell, find a ROM hacker and do it. It worked for Sega and Sonic Mania, which became probably the best 2D Sonic game ever. It sold great. It was critically acclaimed. Nintendo could do that with Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr and it would get attention and sell. There’s really no reason not to do it.

I guess any discussion of Donkey Kong Jr. has to include talking about Mario being the villain. Or is he? I mean, what did we know about Donkey Kong? He apparently kidnaps women against their will and tries to murder their rescuers by crushing them with barrels or burning them alive with fireballs. That’s who you’re trying to rescue in Donkey Kong Jr. Mario is NOT the villain. Junior is! This is the first verified game where you play as the person who is trying to make the world a worse place! It’s historic in ways nobody realized!

But, I’d want more fixed with Donkey Kong Jr. than adding levels. I’d want more responsible controls. The classic gaming fans would scream bloody murder over that, saying “that’s not MY Donkey Kong Jr.” And.. yeah, it wouldn’t be. It’d be better. It’d be Donkey Kong Jr. finally realizing its potential. Actually, Donkey Kong the character is just fine. He’s a staple in gaming still, in 2019. Junior is the one that history kind of screwed. He was a racer in the original Mario Kart, but they shit canned him for Donkey Kong. He was in Mario Maker, but that was one of the most meaningless cameos ever. This concept of making a new version of Donkey Kong Jr. with the original arcade graphics but more levels and better controls would be the perfect way for him to come back. Otherwise, the character is just sort of rotting on the vine.

Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong Jr. was developed by Hamster Co.
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99 (too much) noted the emulation again is perfectly fine in the making of this review.

About Indie Gamer Chick
Indie game reviews and editorials.

4 Responses to Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong Jr.

  1. Pingback: Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong 3 | Indie Gamer Chick

  2. Pingback: Arcade Archives: Mario Bros. | Indie Gamer Chick

  3. Pingback: LCD Games of the 80s: Part Two | Indie Gamer Chick

  4. Pingback: Donkey Kong (Game Boy) | Indie Gamer Chick

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