23 December 2020

Pirates, Drama, and the Mad Science of Donkey Kong Country!

Happy Festivus, everyone! This may be a bit of a departure from our usual allotment of banal pop culture news and end of the year countdowns, but in December 2020 there is one major thing on my mind - all three Donkey Kong Country Games debuting on SNES Online through the Nintendo Switch. Today I capped off my playthrough with a 103% capper of Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong's Double Trouble, and as I captured the final Banana Bird and the giant egg fell on Baron K. Roolenstein (SPOILER!), I paused to think about how far I've come. Let's take this detour.

It's hard to remember how big Donkey Kong was in the mid-90s. Far from a Mario side character, he was a genuine video game hero on his own right, and in 1994, Rareware's ACM graphics, story, attitude, and gameplay combined for a perfectly crystalized and realized moment in pop culture and gaming. Also, I enjoyed the monkeys riding rhinoceroses. Oh, it's Rambi, I can't not call everything by its proper name.

A natural jungle scene of a Gorilla riding a rhino, smashing beavers

I was extremely obsessed with this series. It contained such intricate world-building, named characters, goofy baddies, and loveable Kong protagonists that really appealed to the little animal loving explorer in me. I surprisingly worked backwards - even though I played 1994's Donkey Kong Country at a friends' house, the first game I owned was DKC3, and I actually owned the rest in reverse order - DKC2: Diddy's Kong Quest, then years later, the original. A lot of this was simply timing and parents who didn't quite know which game to buy. Needless to say, I started aging out of this, but there was something bigger on the horizon.

The next generation of consoles was emerging towards the end of DKC's heyday, and although Rare successfully made the leap to the N64 (many would say that was their true golden era), Donkey Kong 64 was a disappointment to many, and heralded the great dark years of the 2000s. That was reversed a little with the Donkey Kong Country Returns series but I have trouble with those games, almost only because I am so used to the SNES rhythm and timing.

I recommend you head over to the incredible DKVine for more historic details about this whole era and background info. The Kongversation is the only podcast that I regularly listen to. This site has actually been a huge influence on me and the websites I have run, up to and including this one. So, there's that for you.

So let's get into some reactions. This time I played each of these games in order. I got 93% in 5 hours 15 minutes in DKC, the full 102% in DKC2 in 5:36, and then the max of 103% on DKC3 in 5:46. You may very well wonder why I was so lacking with the original. Well, maybe because it's not so much of a nostalgia trip as the other two for me so I lacked both the desire or the knowledge of where every nook and cranny of bonus was. Also I just got really annoyed at some of the long, troublesome, Expresso-heavy bonus requirements. I had never fully beaten either of the sequels, though, so I was proud of that. Yeah, I heavily used artificial save states. I don't care, I really just wanted to complete it. Totally fine with that. Totally, totally completely fine and I sleep wonderfully every night.

The first DKC is immediately groundbreaking, mostly due to the huge graphical leap. But it's also a game of surprising depth and variety hidden behind a simple facade. On the surface it's merely about a Gorilla trying to get his bananas back from a crocodile. Rare upped all this by naming the crocodile King K. Roll and his Kremling Horde, creating this subtext of this incarnation of Kong trying to live up to the name of his grandfather, the original arcade Donkey Kong (here known as Cranky Kong), and giving the main character an inexplicable necktie.

You can play it like a Mario game where you hop, skip, and bounce your way through each level. But there are more advanced techniques available. On the first level you can find your way through the treetops through some genuinely difficult roll jumps. The prizes are extra lives, which seems so antiquated nowadays. That's the greatest thing dragging this game down - all bonus levels are mere ways to gain lives, which is important within its own context, but there are also easier ways to rack them up. Exploration can be its own reward, and that's the more important core facet here that will preserve going forward.

Everything about the original feels so raw and unpolished, though. That's maybe just because of the subsequent sequels are so refined, structured, and organized. DKC has bonuses at random, without any rules as to where they could pop up. There are even bonus rooms within other bonus rooms. The bosses are straight up sized up versions of normal enemies without much personality (they also all have the same, banana-filled boss room). The stage variation isn't that crazy, and gets very repetitive towards the last few worlds.

Still, it inexplicably ends with the King sailing in on a pirate ship for the final dual. This would prove to be foreshadowing the straight up pirate theme of DKC2. These games are all about expectations, though. Nothing about DKC on first play feels off. The Animal Bonus Tokens do interrupt gameplay, and the difficulty is outstanding, especially as the levels progress. The faults only really become clear when my personal vote for the greatest video game of all time, DKC2 drops a year later.

It seems like it should be such a small thing, but converting the entire enemy horde into blatant pirates works so well. It adds so much more danger to everything going on, in addition to dropping the both the protagonist down and bumping the environments up. In DKC the Kremlings are invading Donkey Kong Island, so the Kongs are defending their home turf. In the sequel, Diddy Kong is an unproven hero venturing off into a foreign land full of danger and mystery, the odds are stacked against him.

This informs every part of DKC2. The ideology is fully realized, from the fact that both monkeys are small, so they literally can't defeat some of the bigger Kremlings, to the increasingly complex level design, which features more vertical, climbing levels, creative uses of innate abilities, and a fleshed out lost world that feels both earned within the meta gameplay as well as providing a functional story use.

There is a lot about the gameplay that succeeds. Each level typically has a core gimmick to explore and put a spin on, again and again until its most complex iteration is satisfied. Diddy's Kong Quest hits this high mark more than any other series. It introduces the concept in a safe way, tells the player how the mechanic functions, demonstrates the consequences of failure, and then introduces a greater challenge to test the player's mechanical understanding, reflexes, timing, and skill. It's quite wonderful.

The main game ends with the kidnapped Donkey Kong uppercutting K. Rool into a swamp full of sharks after one of the most difficult boss fights of all time. It's still not over, though, because in the Lost World, K. Rool returns and you eventually knock him into the Krocodile Kore and the entire island explodes. It's a long, somber note full of reflection on the vanquished evil.


I never got it, but this creates a really jarring moment when DKC3 opens with such lighthearted bouncing and merriment. It hits such a different tone that really sets it apart. As a kid it was my favourite because it was the first one I owned. It's by far the most complex, with its Brothers Bears and lengthy system of Banana Bird trades. It is also the most superior with its truly open world that evolves past the need to constantly progress in order to save. This all tones down the difficulty, but also greatly increases basic playability.

That tone is off, though. I always bucked back against the mainstream opinion that the third game was inferior, but I hate to admit it on such a narrow playthrough I've finally caved. The Kremling Horde just doesn't seem like an organized and coherent threat like it was in DKC2. Perhaps that's the point, that we're in neutral territory now, a land to the North wholly unfamiliar to both warring races. It's hard to have something to latch on to, though, and everyone's expressive personality takes a big hit.

Still, the level design is crisp and it has perhaps the best expression of "introduce gimmick," describe consequences, and then push to the limit. There are also far more vertical and "box" stages that really push the exploration. The cave levels, especially are twisty and turny and allow the designers freedom to go in any direction they feel like. The Kongs continue to break their limits, but pushing limits was always what rewarded creative gameplay in the first two games. There is less reward for showcasing pure skill in DKC3.

Finishing both games really through me for a loop, though. DKC2 had such a massive emotional upheaval. In three, your final blow to Baron K. Roolenstein doesn't feel like a climax at all. He just sort of putters like he were any other boss. And in the final battle aboard the Knautilus he literally just spins on the steering wheel and it ends. There is a fun inspired bit where the Queen Banana Bird drops an egg on him, but there is nothing akin to becoming a video game hero, vanquishing evil banana thieves, or a cathartic exercise rewarding you after a new territory well explored.

For the record as well, I really don't have a problem with Kiddy Kong - I always liked him. He adds a lot of gameplay variety and adds a new personality to the mix that pushes Dixie into more of a caretaker role. They also really favored Animal Buddy variety, but I was surprised to realize that Ellie, Squawks, Quawk, Squitter, and Enguarde were actually the only ridable buddies. Each of these offers complex mechanics rather than the run and smash Rambi or high jumps of Winky or Rattly. It's all fine, there is an argument to be made for pulling off complex features and another one for executing simplicity. The only gripe is that it's very reliant on transformation rather than merely riding, meaning levels can only be completed one way, instead of a supplement. There is of course, this as well.

DKC3 struck me the most by being relatively easy, especially compared to DKC. I enjoyed the boss fights, none of which are traditional, but it also feels like unconnected denizens of the Northern Kremisphere rather than an organized assault. It's a weird zone where I appreciate the creativity in gameplay but lament the loss of emotional story beats. I think of Squirt in Cotton-Top Cove, who just sort of ends when you splash its eyes out, versus Kleever who literally explodes in a fiery hell. There are exploding bosses, Bleak being the most notable, but that entire sequence feels like a big exception.

Now, I'm not looking for surface-level elements like exploding bosses, but it's a hallmark of how epic DKC2 felt versus how much more satisfied DKC3 is being mediocre. It's the little things. I would always love the high-altitude level end impact which gave you a Dixie Guitar Riff or Diddy Kong Boom Box. If you missed, there would be a basic but still positive jingle and you'd move on. It didn't penalize you in any way, but you would lose both the satisfaction as well as the extra riff. In DKC3 the basic jingle is the default. It's incredibly spiritually unfulfilling.

Also the simple task of beating a level so fast a bear gets angry and pounds his fists so hard a piece of driftwood is dislodged, creating a bridge to go a secret cave where you can input an audio code to release a banana that is also a bird

The DK Koins are similar - it's a fun challenge to capture each, but they are often easy to achieve. The Hero Coins in DKC2 were always about scouring the level to find every possible location. It rewarded exploration. In the third game it's more about rewarding puzzle solving, which is fine, but it doesn't always feel like a challenge well earned.

I don't feel good about doing this. I didn't want this to be a hatchet job on the first video game that I truly and deeply loved. But playing these games rapidly back to back illuminated flaws for the first time in my twenty-five year history with this series. And there are truly great things - the world design, level design, and gimmick design are top notch. I do wish that there was a little more coherence with the later levels, and it's weird to say, but it could have used another theme for the villains and levels. DKC sort of had army guys as a theme, the second one had pirates, DKC3 explicitly has nothing. They don't even lean into the mad scientist or Northern Expanse themes. Level-wise there are cliffs and pine trees and immense verticality which is fun, different, as well as provides that sense of always climbing, climbing, climbing.

What say you? Which game is your favorite? There is a lot more we can dig into here. The third one actually has far less hints, far less utility from Swanky Kong, and brighter, cheerier characters, for what that's worth. For me, it's all DKC2, which is the greatest game of all time. Either way, get your SNES on today.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails