Donkey Kong Jr. Flipped the Script on a Classic Formula
How do you follow up one of the most popular break out arcade machines of all time? After a series of failed attempts to capture interest in the arcades of North America, Nintendo finally hit it big with Donkey Kong, not just in the States, but across the world. Donkey Kong was colorful, cartoonish and a genius conversion of a previously failed Nintendo arcade known as Radar Scope. In order to follow up a game like that, Nintendo wasn’t just going to release any old title. They were going to turn their winning formula on its head and flip roles around to create a game just as inventive, fun and creative as the first. Today in 1982, North American players saw their chance to continue the rivalry of Mario and Donkey Kong with Donkey Kong Jr.
As with the original Donkey Kong, Nintendo heads paired up a young Shigeru Miyamoto and industry veteran Gunpei Yokoi, pleased with their success on the original machine. Most notably, Yoshio Sakamoto was brought on board as a character artist for the game. At the time that Miyamoto brought Sakamoto on to help with pixel art for the game, Sakamoto had only had experience creating some of the objects for the Game &Watch version of Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong Jr. would be Sakamoto’s first experience on a new, full-fledged game. Yoshio Sakamoto would go on to become instrumental in many Nintendo titles, most notably co-creating the first Metroid and becoming active in the continuing series.
The game itself was a continuation of the first Donkey Kong game and a total flip of the scenario. Mario finally captured Donkey Kong and imprisoned him in a giant cage for kidnapping his girlfriend. It’s up to Donkey Kong’s son, Donkey Kong Jr. to traverse new environments and save his father. Like its predecessor, Donkey Kong Jr. featured four boards that would cycle through when completed. When Donkey Kong Jr. arrives at the end of each board, Mario escapes to the next one, until the fourth board when Donkey Kong Jr. sets his father free and Donkey Kong boots Mario off into the distance. An interesting note is that Donkey Kong Jr. is the first game in which Nintendo began calling Mario by his longstanding name. In the original Donkey Kong, he was simply known as “Jumpman”.
Donkey Kong Jr. was far more than just a pallet swap of the original arcade title with places switched, Donkey Kong Jr. played very different as a character than Mario did in the original game. Where Mario could jump and only climb ladders, DK Jr. traverses levels through use of vines scattered about. Vines positioned close enough to one another allow DK Jr. to move between them to move horizontally through the level and dodge danger quickly. An interesting mechanic is that DK Jr. can climb one vine or two vines at the same time from a position in between them. Where he can climb two vines faster than climbing a singular vine, he can descend a singular vine faster than descending two, making for a unique layer of strategy when guiding him through the levels. He needs that mobility too, as Mario is a much crueler opponent than Donkey Kong, releasing animals and employing all sorts of traps to try to stop DK Jr.
Donkey Kong Jr. was a natural evolution of the original arcade. It flipped the formula on its head with a premise that let players know that even mean, nasty gorillas have families that care about them. Furthermore, it gave us what would be the first of many opportunities to play the role of a Donkey Kong character, against Nintendo’s center stage hero no less. This arcade would end up sweeping up quarters at arcades just as much as the original game did and was so beloved that it would end up as one of five video games in the first ever video game world championship filmed at Twin Galaxies and hosted on a 1983 showing of That’s Incredible. It may have been one of the only games brave enough to position Mario as a villain, but it also certainly allowed Donkey Kong and his family to win the hearts of players everywhere.