Donkey Kong Junior
Following hot on the heels of Nintendo’s runaway smash hit Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior. turns the tables on Mario casting him as the villain and Donkey Kong as the ‘damsel in distress’. Now it is up to Donkey Kong’s son (appropriately names Donkey Kong Jr.) to rescue his dad and save him from a life on enslavement in Mario’s circus. It’s interesting to note that Donkey Kong Jr. is the only game in which Mario is cast as a villain rather than a hero.
Although some of the mechanics have changed, the main gameplay of DK Jr. stays close to its predecessor: jump/avoid obstacles and make it to the top of the screen. However instead of climbing ladders and jumping barrels, Junior must climb vines and jump little crocodile looking enemies called Snapjaws. There are two different kind of Snapjaws: Red Snapjaws move up and down the vines and over the platforms and are much more intelligent than the barrels found in Donkey Kong (they are more like the Fire Foxes from the first game), while Blue Snapjaws will pick a vine and move straight down until they plunge off the screen. Each screen starts with a set number of Red Snapjaws, while Mario throws out an infinite number of Blue Snapjaws. Thankfully Snapjaws in the game can be killed by dropping any of the fruit scattered around the screen on them. Later levels include new enemies such as birds and even electrical sparks, but they can all be killed by the almighty fruit.
Just like Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. is divided up into four different screens which will repeat until the game ends (following the familiar 1, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 3 cycle).
Screen 1: Vines
Once Junior makes it to the top, Mario will cart off Donkey Kong and you’ll be left looking like an idiot (quite literally). Let’s quickly move onto…
Screen 2: Spring Board
Once at the top of the screen you must make your way along a series of short vines while dodging the original ‘angry birds’ which are actually called Nitpickers. The problem with this section is that Junior has very little room to maneuver and the birds move very fast and appear to randomly pick which level they fly at (there may be a pattern, but it’s not obvious). So once Junior makes it to the gap where they fly down from, it’s more a matter of luck rather than skill. Assuming you’re able to pass the gap you’re pretty much home free, simply jump up to the top and grab that key. Onward to…
Screen 3: Hideout
On this screen Junior must run across each level jumping over Sparks and ascending the vines(?) on the side of the screen. The only tricky part of this level is on the last level where Junior must run under four circuit pathways as the Blue Sparks will randomly travel down one of these pathways (it’s a crapshoot as to which one they choose). It’s easy for Junior to get nailed by the Blue Spark here, so wait for the Spark to go and then run as fast as you can to the other side. Once you reach the key at the top you’ll be whisked away to the final screen. Incidentally, the reason this screen is referred to as The Hideout is that in the arcade version there’s a short cutscene (sadly cut from this version) showing Mario fleeing with Donkey Kong to his hideout in a helicopter which Junior following on an umbrella (seriously!).
Screen 4: Chains
If you find yourself dying too much, you can turn on the cheat mode that was left in the game. To activate the cheat mode, hold down the shift key and type BOOGA. There will be no sound or other indication that the mode is activated. Now you can type K if you want to be invincible (except by falling into water) or S to skip to the next level. There are two addition keys, but they’re very useful: I will disable the invincibility and O will disable the entire cheat mode. Many developers put cheat modes into their games to help with development and testing, but it’s rare that they got left in the final project as Atari was pretty good at finding and disabling such things.
There's an interesting backstory to the development of
this port. Originally an unnamed programmer was hired to
do the game and for some reason decided to program it entirely
in FORTH. FORTH is an easy to use stack based programming
language, but is generally considered to be too slow for use in
games. As development dragged on the programmer got
further and further behind and the game was a mess, although
internal Atari documents show that he implied that development
could proceed faster if he was paid more. Unsurprisingly the
programmer was fired and Jeff and Kevin came in to redo the game
in standard assembly.
The Atari 8-bit port of Donkey Kong Junior is actually pretty good. It’s not as polished as the fantastic Donkey Kong port the 8-bits got, but this is understandable due to the time constraints involved (see the story above). The only real nitpicks (not those birds!) are that the jumping can be kind of iffy near the edges of the platforms (leading to many unfair deaths) and that the color scheme is a bit ‘off’. Instead of being brown, DK and Junior are a strange pinkish color, and Mario is sporting some ugly yellow pants with a matching hat (even though the box cover shows him in his standard red outfit). The levels themselves are also a nasty yellow, which makes the whole thing look uglier than it needs to. It’s not known why these colors were picked, but it may have been a limitation of the graphics mode used. The animation also tends to be a bit choppy in spots, but this doesn’t affect the gameplay as much as you’d think (although one wonders how much easier the game would be if everything was smoother). Overall Donkey Kong Junior is a good port of a great arcade game and is not to be missed.