Monday, December 23, 2013

NES Replay: Donkey Kong Jr.

In the last article, I put forth the theory that Donkey Kong's NES port was edited to keep some value in the arcade game. If you still don't agree with that assessment, here's another nail in the coffin: Donkey Kong Jr. was ported over to the NES with all four levels intact.

Keep in mind that Donkey Kong Jr. is a more complicated game than Donkey Kong. There are more enemies with different behaviors, more moving parts onscreen, and more complicated controls. And yet, Donkey Kong Jr. is intact on the NES while Donkey Kong isn't. However, Donkey Kong Jr. wasn't as popular in the arcades as Donkey Kong was, so Nintendo didn't have as much to lose by porting Donkey Kong Jr. over to the NES intact.

What's immediately noticeable about Donkey Kong Jr. is the fact that Mario is the villain in this story. In Donkey Kong Jr., Mario has trapped Donkey Kong in a cage, and Junior runs through the levels trying to free him. It's a very strange role reversal. Nintendo had made a bona-fide mascot in Jumpman (who was later renamed Mario), and he was starting to get recognized the world over. So why would Nintendo take their hero and make him a villain? That doesn't make much sense, does it?

There are a couple of reasons that they probably did it. First of all, it's entirely possible that the designers of Donkey Kong looked at the first game and noticed all the black space in each level. They then possibly asked the question, "How can we let the character move around in that space?" Once you add in the idea of vines, it's not too much of a stretch to come up with the basic framework of Donkey Kong Jr.

There's another important factor at play, though. At this point in gaming's history, most video game characters didn't have distinctive personalities. They were fluid, filling whatever gap the designers needed them to fill. For example, no one really stopped and asked why exactly Pac-Man needed to eat pellets and avoid ghosts. We just accepted it and moved on. Why is Dig-Dug blowing up monsters underground? Who cares?

If we apply that logic, it's easy to see why Nintendo didn't really see an issue moving Mario into the villain's role. They viewed Mario differently than everyone else did, and it took them a bit to catch up to the idea that Mario must always be the hero. However, if having Mario as the villain in Donkey Kong Jr. really bothers you, just imagine that it's Wario in disguise and you'll hopefully get over it.

Leaving aside the "Mario as villain" issue, what makes Donkey Kong Jr. great is the extra dimension of movement that they gave to the player. Enabling the player to move around by climbing and moving from vine-to-vine just feels right. It has a very tactile feel, which is unusual for such an early game. Each level also has its own unique challenges, culminating in a level where you have to snap keys into locks in order to set Donkey Kong free while birds fly at your face.

So which game is better? Donkey Kong or Donkey Kong Jr.? I have my own opinion, but I could see an argument being made for either one. While Donkey Kong is certainly the most enduring, Donkey Kong Jr. is way more unique. It may repeat the same basic structure of Donkey Kong, but since the levels are more varied and the mechanics so much more fun, it's superior in my book. Either way, though, they're both good games and definitely worth playing, especially for their historical value.

Final Rating:

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