Friday, September 26, 2014

Nitpickery: Donkey Kong Country

Hey y'all.  So I was thinking a lot at work about different video games.  It's always interesting to see how a franchise changes over time, and the Donkey Kong franchise has had its ups and downs over time, making it sort of difficult to talk about.  It started out as a game where Donkey throws barrels at a hero plumber, then went to a platformer trilogy with inconsistent character controls, then became a collect-o-thon on the Nintendo 64, then it was a rhythm drum game, and now it's a platformer and collect-o-thon!

Yeah, I know I'm missing some games in there, but you get the idea.  Donkey Kong has been pretty inconsistent.  It's hard for me personally to deal with, as I grew up with the platformer trilogy on the Super Nintendo.  These three are probably the best games in the franchise, give or take the third. What made these games for me was environment and simplicity, two things of which the later games don't quite have.  Granted, few modern games are effective at simplicity, because we're at a point in time where technology has gotten so good, game producers often risk doing too much.

But enough of that.  I'm here to talk about the first Donkey Kong Country game.  This game has good environments and simplicity in spades.  Despite the fact it's about a couple of apes trying to get their bananas back, each level is designed in an emotionally responsive way -- the jungle levels are open and fun, the factory levels are creepy, the temple levels are haunting, etc.  And what could be more simplistic than platforming in these nicely designed levels with perfect controls?  This is a game you can pick up, play, and have fun with, all without tedious storylines or scrolling through lists of gameplay instructions.

And then imagine my surprise when I found out that this game is considered overrated.  I'm not kidding.  Electronic Gaming Monthly and Gamespy once included it in top ten most overrated lists. Even the lord of video games, Shigeru Miyamoto, made comments concerning its gameplay. Granted, all three of these sources still like the game, but watching a playthrough of this later on made me realize that they were at least partially right.

Think about it.  It's a game where you stomp on enemies, get to the end of the levels, beat the boss, then move on to the next world.  Rinse and repeat until the final boss.  We've been doing this sort of thing since NES days.  It's not a startling new innovation in gameplay.  Even the bosses in the game are fairly mediocre, none of which are hard or particularly creative.  I'll give them a point for including a boss that's a barrel full of smaller enemies, but that one just entails stomping on regular baddies until the barrel suddenly blows up.  And unlike future DKC games, there's no sidegames, bonus quests, floating, carrying characters, or cute level-end gimmicks.

Sure, there's some hidden areas.  Most of them are just areas with bananas or little mini-game bits where you try to get an extra life.  There are also golden animals of the animal buddies, and collecting three of them will get the player to a special bonus level...which is only good for gaining more lives.  That's not a bad idea, as some of the levels in the game can be pretty hard, but in the end there's limited playability.  It's just a straightforward platformer with no alternate paths, hidden goals, or side games.

Why then, one asks, does everyone love this game?  The answer is pretty simple.  It's a clean, easy to control game that is visually interesting.  Thing is, people are not what advertisers make them out to be.  We aren't nearly as driven for innovation or originality as much as we seem.  Like with foods, for example.  While some of us like to try new things, the stuff we really, truly crave are the familiar and satisfying, the simple above the fancy, and the guaranteed delicious over the wild and exotic.  I'm not making that up.  Chefs and restaurants have failed because they tried to be too fancy and complicated. That even happened to Chef Gordon Ramsey.

This is not to say that everyone is a stick in the mud,  We just generally don't need crazy gimmicks to enjoy things.  This is where Donkey Kong Country comes in.  While nothing about the game is innovative (other than the usage of 3D graphics in a 2D environment), there's plenty of good things about it.

To judge this game, let's take a look at a simplified version of a chart I came up with in another blog. Note that this list is in descending order of importance for a game, with higher priority being given to things that can make up for flaws in less important areas.

1. Gameplay
- Is it fun?
- Is it replayable?
2. Graphics/Visual design
- Do they look good?
- Do they match the gameplay?
3. Music
- Do I like listening to it?
- Does it work well with what I'm doing in the game?
4. Storyline
- Is it appropriate for the game?
- Is it good?

Let's start with the storyline, because that's the simplest thing.  Donkey Kong wakes up one day, wanders into his banana horde, and discovers that all his bananas are gone.  He, after releasing his nephew Diddy from a barrel, then goes to several bosses, such a beavers and long-necked vultures, and fights them to get his bananas back.  Finally, he defeats King K. Rool, a crocodile wearing a cape and a crown.

And that's it.  There's no in-game dialogue or any sort of introduction.  You start the game in Donkey's house, then, if you happen to go into the cave underneath, Donkey will grimace and shake his head at the empty cavern, with nothing but a sign to indicate that there were bananas present at one point.  Simple, effective.

There are two character bits that don't relate to the plot in this game.  One is the first "cutscene" when you turn on the game, where Cranky Kong (the "original Kong" some claim) is playing an old grammaphone the original DK music. Suddenly, Donkey jumps in, throws down a boom-box, stomps Cranky off the screen, and starts dancing to a remixed version of the Donkey Kong theme.  The second is a scene at the end of the game where Donkey and Diddy keep tricking each other.

What this game did better than later games was show the personality of the protagonists.  These simple bits show that Donkey is a cool guy that is definitely not old fashioned, but not entirely grown up.  While this attitude can be annoying in real life, for the game it makes Donkey stand out as a confident but immature guy. This is a distinctive personality, which we don't ever see again (well, unless they show it more in the Returns games.  I haven't seen those yet).  There are reasons for this

The music in this game definitely scores it a lot of points with fans.  The music is alternately fun, haunting, and exciting.  Some of the songs are strangely serious for a game about adventuring monkeys looking for bananas, but it works because of the jungle-style instruments used, and it lets up from time to time as you visit related Kongs or hang out in the world menu.  Even the final boss music is goofy.  The only track I'm not very sure about is Voices of the Temple, which has a very cold, empty sort of feel to it.  Still, it doesn't let up on the jungle ambiance, so it's not out of place. It's just very, very cold.  It sounds like a track in a really creepy eighties movie.  Fear Factory, on the other hand, is my favorite, being both intense and exciting.  And it breaks up a lot of the more ambient tracks.

David Wise is the composer of the music, and well, he did a fantastic job.  On whole, I think this soundtrack, while good, is not quite my favorite.  It's just a bit too bleak.  Granted, all that means is that this is not in my personal top ten favorite soundtracks.  It's still objectively very good.  I'll probably listen to it a bit later when I have some more writing to get done, and I need some focusing music.

Alright, on to visuals.  As I mentioned before, this is one of the first games (the second, I believe) where 3D graphics are put into a 2D environment.  For an early attempt, this looked great.  Sure, the background and figures were a bit pixelated (especially in the overworld sections), but this was still the SNES era anyway, and a lot of the pixel problems were polished up in the next game.  Donkey Kong himself was remodeled into the current version we know and love today, as a pale brown ape wearing a tie.  So dignified, yes?

My favorite part of the visuals is the various backgrounds.  The forefront of the ground, where the character is walking, moves at a faster speed than the background, where additional elements are brought in to make this world feel three dimensional.  There's mountains, jungles, and really cool tree huts in the background of various levels, among other things.  This alone takes the game from a straightforward platformer to a fun adventure world.  It feels like each location actually exists, in some strange monkey-like world.

Another part of the visuals that is unique to this game is that the animal baddies are more natural looking.  Sure, there are the kremlings that follow K. Rool, but most of the animals look more normal than cartoonish.  The beavers, snakes, sharks, and bees are only somewhat exaggerated, and the vultures and orangutans aren't at all.  This makes things feel more real, as though Donkey Kong island is a place where the natural wildlife, though not associated with K. Rool, is by itself dangerous. The only downside to this is that the fish also look very natural -- and thus blend in with the aquatic background.

Now the gameplay.  It's what I said before: go from the beginning until you get to the sign that says "EXIT."  Beat the next few levels.  Beat the boss.  Do it again until you get to K. Rool.  Mm'kay.  Of course, that's the simplified version.  There's lots of variety to the game, including minecart levels, blasting through barrels, hopping on vultures, dodging beavers in large stone wheels, using barrels to find hidden caves, riding a metal platform while collecting fuel, etc.  There's also a level where you continually touch timed barrels so that you can get past invincible enemies.

While none of this is extreme for a platformer, it all feels very fresh and fun, even when compared to modern games.  You don't feel like you're doing the same thing over and over again as you play. Also, the controls are responsive and easy to learn.  The Super Nintendo controller is perhaps the best controller there ever was, having no complicated shape or weird knobs, and yet with enough buttons to get the job done.

One negative about the gameplay, though, is that the difficulty level is jumpy.  Instead of a steady progression of easier to harder, one will randomly hit very hard levels in strange places.  In the second forest level of a world, the one where you shoot through barrels and dodge vultures, it's very tricky to get through some of the barrel combinations -- you have to shoot from one barrel to another, while both are moving, for example.  Given that you don't reach the save point or Funky's Flights to get to a save point in another world, you have to beat the first two levels with only the lives you have, or else you have to beat the last world's boss and the first level of this world over again.  Very tense, that.  The snowy levels not only deal with more of these barrel puzzles, but also slippery floors.

Not that the difficulty is ever too painful.  It's definitely possible to get through the levels without getting mad and throwing the controller.  Besides, some difficulty makes the game more fun, rather than less, as winning is never cheap.

I suppose I should bring up the animal buddies.  Rambi the rhino is of course the best one.  He allows Donkey or Diddy to get an extra hit, besides being able to charge down enemies.  Again, not especially creative, but especially fun.  Enguarde the swordfish is almost as useful, as in the water levels he can attack enemies, while our monkey friends cannot.  The other animals?  Not so much. Glimmer the fish and Squawks the parrot will hold a flashlight in dark levels, but they're really more of a level gimmick than friends.  Plus it hurts the player's eyes when they turn, and the flashlight flickers on the screen.

Espresso the ostrich is mildly useful, in that she hovers in the air and glides downwards to increase the jump length of Donkey or Diddy.  The trouble with this is that the slope is very downward, and none of the levels are designed for her to be very useful.  Winky the frog is even more useless.  He jumps higher than Donkey or Diddy, but not by much and at a weird angle.  Fortunately, none of the levels really depend on these animal friends.  Well, sort of fortunately.  Some of the levels really should have been designed to utilize them, or else they feel extraneous.  But it's no big deal.

Like I said before, the bosses are easy.  Most of them consist of giant enemies going back and forth while you stomp on them or throw barrels at them.  Necky is a little unique in that you bounce on a tire to stomp on his head, but again, that's not especially difficult.  The player fights the beaver boss and the Necky boss twice, but the later version is a little tougher.  There's a giant bee boss (throw barrels until dead), and the dumb drum boss I mentioned, which dumps out minor enemies to kill until it explodes.  None of these are especially interesting, but I suppose it's nice to have an easy boss when some of the levels may have given the player a hard time.  Notedly, the GBA port of this game makes all the bosses harder.

K. Rool makes up for it with his boss fight.  When you fight him, you have to dodge his crown, his jumping, and cannonballs.  It's a simple effective fight.  Cue the credits and the enemies role call!

There's really nothing more to say about this game.  It's a platformer.  It does its job with minimal showiness, but classic gameplay.  It's the sort of game that will never become obsolete, no matter how far technology goes.

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