The junior companion to Nintendo’s proverbial 800-lb. gorilla, rendered more faithfully on consoles than Dad was.

Donkey Kong Jr.

Japanese title:ドンキーコングJR • Donkey Kong Jr.

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
U.S. release date: Oct. 1985 [NES-JR]
Japanese release date: July 1983 [HVC-JR]
European release date: June 1987 [NES-JR]
Genre: Platforming
Alternate versions: Arcade [1982] Game & Watch [1982] Atari 2600 [1983] ColecoVision [1983] Coleco Tabletop Arcade [1983] Intellivision [1983] Atari 400/800 [1984] Coleco ADAM [1984] BBC Micro [1984] Donkey Kong Classics [NES, 1988] Atari 7800 [1988] Famicom Disk System [1988] Game & Watch Gallery 3 [Game Boy Color, 1999] Game & Watch Gallery 4 [Game Boy Advance, 2002] Animal Crossing [GameCube, 2002] eReader [Game Boy Advance, 2002] DSiWare [2009] Wii Virtual Console [2006] 3DS Virtual Console [2012] Wii U Virtual Console [2013] Classic NES Edition [2016] Arcade Classic Archives: Donkey Kong Jr. [2017] Nintendo Switch Online [2018]

Another Vine Mess

Some things just go better together. Who listens to “We Will Rock You” without “We Are the Champions”? Gin goes better with tonic; peanut butter with chocolate; pride with prejudice (and, arguably, zombies). Penn is insufferable without Teller. Garfunkel? Forgotten without Simon.

And so it is with Nintendo’s first family, Donkey Kong and his son, Donkey Kong Jr. Sure, you can play one gorilla’s game without the other, but the two exist in a state of duality on many levels. Nintendo knows it, too, which is why the two games so often appear together. They showed up in tandem as two of the launch titles for the Family Computer in July 1983, and they appeared together again on NES in both the U.S. and Europe in the summer of 1986. Once Nintendo began phasing out the Black Box series in the U.S., the two games shipped as a pair on a single cartridge, Donkey Kong Classics. And when the first game debuted on Virtual Console in 2006, the sequel followed two weeks later. They’re quite the pair, these two.

That said, while they operate best in tandem, the two definitely call to mind that Simon and Garfunkel comparison: You can enjoy the former without the latter, but the latter has a tough time existing on its own. Donkey Kong Jr. simply isn’t as good a game as the classic to which it serves as a sequel — which isn’t to say it’s poor, exactly, simply that it lacks its papa’s greatness. Nevertheless, it does represent a pivotal moment in Nintendo’s history as a game developer, and as such it absolutely deserves a degree of canonization. 

The original Donkey Kong practically spun the 2D platformer into existence out of nothing. It was one of those rare works that didn’t simply invent a genre; it did so with style and grace. Sure, platformers have evolved considerably since Donkey Kong — its own 1994 Game Boy sequel demonstrated as much. Where Mario moved stiffly and with stultifying limitations in the original Donkey Kong, he zipped along with a huge repertoire of skills on Game Boy. Even so, the 1981 arcade game did a bang-up job with a genre that hadn’t even existed prior to its release. It controlled well, looked nice, featured memorable characters, and offered a variety of interesting challenges across four completely different stage layouts.

That’s a tall order to live up to, and Donkey Kong Jr. didn’t feel like nearly so great an achievement. Still, if it should be regarded as something of a failure, at least it fell short while aiming high. The concept of a video game sequel back in 1982 typically amounted to “more of the same, but with flashier visuals and/or harder gameplay.” The few arcade games that had been popular enough to receive sequels to that point amounted to expert-mode insanity that did little to change up the original work. Not Donkey Kong Jr., though. 

Nintendo could have made massive bank with a Donkey Kong II that simply dropped Mario into four new stages while once again dangling Pauline as its nubile carrot on a stick. Rather than go that route, though, the company created an entirely new game. Donkey Kong Jr. follows in its father’s proverbial footsteps by playing out as a platformer, but look beyond the common thread of running and jumping and you’ll find very few similarities between the two games’ mechanics. 

Consider their respective protagonists, for starters. As a human character, Mario stood upright and moved like you’d expect a person to: He ran by swinging his arms and could leap, albeit just barely enough to clear obstacles or reach distant platforms. Donkey Kong Jr., however, has the stooped posture of a gorilla. His sprite is wider than it is tall. Between his wide haunches and the way his knuckles drag along behind him, Junior’s point of contact with the ground is much wider than Mario’s.

This introduces an element of ambiguity to the design of the game. Where Mario stood with a relatively wide posture, his feet placed one ahead of the other, Junior’s stance actually covers about 50% more surface area than Mario did. This difference becomes even more exaggerated when Junior walks, as his hind legs have a huge stride and he swings his arms wide. When Junior leaps, he becomes about twice as wide as he is tall. All of this makes it comparatively difficult to judge Junior’s relative position to platform edges and pits versus those concerns for Mario. This element of uncertainty renders the basic platforming action of this game far trickier than it had been in the first game. 

On its surface, this sounds like an enormous design flaw. In practice, Junior’s ambiguous platforming controls don’t have nearly as detrimental an effect on the game as you might expect. That’s because both Mario and Junior assume a stance that’s functionally perpendicular to the action of their respective games. Mario stood tall — vertically — and most of his challenges involved navigating horizontal spaces and obstacles. Junior stands wide — horizontally — and most of his challenges involve navigating vertically. Aside from one specific level that drops you into a series of sinuous electrical platforms, much of your time in Donkey Kong Jr. sees you actually hanging above the ground rather than running along it. 

Junior’s lengthy reach and wide stance reflect a fundamental design change for this sequel: You do far less platforming and far more climbing. Junior, simian that he is, gets along far better while clamoring across hanging vines and chains than he does on the ground. Mario could climb in a limited capacity, using ladders to reach different levels of the construction site, but Junior thrives when he climbs. The weakest parts of Donkey Kong Jr. involve simple running and jumping, the bread and butter of the previous game. Unfortunately, those parts tend to appear most frequently at the beginning of the game. No doubt this was intended as a sort of segue from Donkey Kong, to ease players into the sequel’s new mechanics by starting them out on familiar terms, but the uneven treetops and mechanical platforms that greet you at the outset are the game’s most challenging element.

In that way, Donkey Kong Jr. fulfilled the mandate of your classic arcade creation: To siphon off quarters as quickly as possible. This front-loaded difficulty creates a steep barrier of entry to the action. At least Donkey Kong waited until stage two (or later, depending on the region) to introduce the hateful cement factory stage; here, that challenge lies at the beginning. Once you navigate the clumsy introductory platform sequences, though, the first two stages allow Junior to settle into his natural element and scramble across a series of vines. This is where the game actually becomes entertaining and demonstrates what makes it something besides merely “Donkey Kong II.”

Junior climbs at different rates depending on his hold on the vines and the direction he’s moving. Grasp one vine while moving upward slowly and you’ll inch upward, but stretch between two vines and he’ll scoot at double speed. Descent works the opposite way: Junior can zip down a single vine but he’s not nearly as fast while clutching two vines at once. This duality creates a distinct rhythm for the vertical portions of the game, and it introduces a certain element of risk. Do you stretch and climb quickly, turning Junior into a larger target for enemies that patrol the vines or fly overhead and drop projectiles? Or do you play it safe and stick to a single vine, creating a smaller target for enemies to aim at?

You can also use Junior’s ability to reach and stretch across the vines for offensive purposes. Unlike Mario in Donkey Kong, Junior can’t use any sort of power-up. Instead, your only option for striking back at foes is to dislodge fruit from the vines. A loose banana or apple falls and takes out anything in its path. One of the game’s most effective strategies is to perch on a vine next to a fruit, then reach across to knock it loose once an enemy passes below. You have a lot of freedom and options while climbing, and it’s definitely the high point of the game.

Unfortunately, the third stage features very little climbing — though this is made up for by the final level, which consists of nothing but dangling chains. The fourth stage of Donkey Kong Jr. works with a principle similar to that of the final level of Donkey Kong in that you’re trying to manipulate the environment to rescue a captive. In this case, you need to slide keys up the chains to unfasten the locks pinning down Donkey Kong, who has been captured by Mario. Curiously enough, Nintendo went off the rails here and turned their very first successful mainstream protagonist into a villain. Perhaps it’s meant to be a case of moral relativism: Kong kidnapped Pauline, so Mario has captured Kong to return him to the zoo, which forces Junior to step up and become the hero. In a sense, Junior has to pay for the sins of his father. 

Fittingly, this describes the real-world circumstances of the game’s creation to a certain degree as well. By all accounts, Nintendo had never actually programmed and designed a video game from start to finish at the time of Donkey Kong’s conception. That wasn’t unusual; video games were a new art that required fairly esoteric engineering expertise, especially in the days of dedicated arcade hardware. Like many companies dipping their toe into the waters of game development, Nintendo initially relied on outside contractors to help them convert game concept into game circuitry. In the case of Donkey Kong, Nintendo used a firm called Ikegami Tsushinki to produce the arcade boards.

It appears the success of Donkey Kong emboldened Nintendo to bring the entire process in-house. According to a post at Game Developers Research Institute [gdri.smspower.org], Nintendo reverse-engineered the Donkey Kong hardware and used their findings to create the Donkey Kong Jr. board themselves. So far as we can tell, that makes Donkey Kong Jr. a major milestone for the company: The first game designed and programmed internally at Nintendo. It also caused Donkey Kong Jr. to become embroiled in a lawsuit filed by Ikegami Tsushinki, which claimed ownership rights to Donkey Kong’s code and charged Nintendo with copyright infringement. At the time, this was legally unexplored territory; no doubt Nintendo regarded the game code, which they had commissioned to be created based on their design documents, as their own. 

Courts would eventually lay down the law on code rights nearly a decade later. Once that happened, Nintendo and Ikegami Tsushinki settled out of court. This means the details of their ultimate settlement remain a secret. We’ve never seen Donkey Kong Jr.’s arcade version reproduced in any capacity, though, so we can reasonably assume the decision didn’t work out entirely in Nintendo’s favor.

The NES conversion isn’t bad at all, though, despite the limitations of Famicom launch-era cartridges. It contains all the content of the arcade game. The Mode B difficulty setting strikes roughly the same balance as the coin-op. It also features nearly identical graphics — though, again, the change in screen orientation between arcade and home formats forced the NES development team to make some minor tweaks, widening stage layouts while compressing them vertically at the upper edge or in dead zones. Some colors had to be altered as well. Despite all these changes born of technical necessity, the home port retained the same sprites as the arcade game as well as the correct general proportions. The distance between vines, chains, and platforms mostly remain the same as in the arcade, which means that the core action and strategies remain unchanged.

In short, this is an excellent (if not quite perfect) adaptation of the game, more faithful to the source material than its vaunted predecessor. And, like the original Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. has rarely been out of circulation for long. It dropped out of retail briefly in the ’90s, but even then, 1994’s Donkey Kong for Game Boy incorporated enough elements from this game that it didn’t feel too far removed, spiritually speaking.

Today, you can play Donkey Kong Jr. on any Virtual Console platform or on the NES Classic Edition mini-console, assuming you can track one down. It’s a meaningful little piece of Nintendo history, even if it doesn’t quite enjoy its predecessor’s significance.