Friday, October 17, 2014

Why Donkey Kong Country 2 is the Perfect 2D Platformer

Hey y'all.  Sorry it's been so long.  It's just that, combined with lack of school and a sudden lack of inspiration, it's been hard to keep up with blogging.  I think I'm over that inspiration weirdness now, and I've got the beginnings of some other blog ideas started.  Besides, November's coming up, and if I want to get on that whole NaNoWriMo thing (National Write a Novel in a Month), then I better get typing.

Also, word of advice: try to avoid taking accounting classes online, if you can.  Figuring this stuff out without a teacher can be...special.

Back to the topic at hand!

So one of the reasons I wanted to do a commentary on the Donkey Kong Country series in the first place is that I wanted to talk about Donkey Kong Country 2.  This game is very nostalgic for me, and watching a playthrough again as an adult, it seems that the game hasn't aged much at all. The only "problem" is that it has 16 bit graphics, but since it's interesting to look at, that's not an issue at all.

Thus, I propose that Donkey Kong Country 2 is the best 2D platformer ever.

Now hold on.  Before you get out the pitchforks and protest with mentions of your favorite platformers, keep in mind that I said 2D platformer -- I'm not saying this is the best game ever or comparing this to games with different structures, such as RPGs, MMOs, puzzle games, etc.  Also, I don't mean to say that there aren't games that mean more to you than a Donkey Kong Country sequel. That's subjectivity.

While the word "best" can mean any number of things, what I mean by it is that DKC2 is objectively perfect.  It doesn't need anything more than what it already has.  The few problems with gameplay that DKC1 had (mostly useless animal buddies, up and down difficulty, uninteresting bosses, lack of replayability) are all solved in this game.

You might instead protest that one of the Mario games is objectively the best platformer.  Well, that's not quite true.  The thing about Mario is that he represents Nintendo's experimentations with gameplay.  Whenever Nintendo (or anyone) tries something new, chances are they're going to make mistakes.  Each of the Mario games has a slight mistake, or weakness, or just some area that a later game improved upon.  Because Mario is always trying new things and striving for something different, there is always going to be something that can be improved.  DKC2 needs no improvement. Yes, there are implications to that, but we'll talk about those later.

For now, allow me to try and convince you that DKC2 really is the best platformer, and I'm not simply having an attack of the nostalgias.  Yoshi's Island would probably be ranked closer to perfect if that were the case.

Okay, so remember the chart of video game priorities:
-Graphics/Visual Design

As with DKC1, let's start with the story.  While you might claim having a deep, involved story is what makes story good in a game, but that's not quite true.  Story is more capable of messing up a game rather than helping it.  If the story isn't good or doesn't appeal to the sort of person that would play the specific game it's in, then it hurts.  Also, no one wants to be stuck in a cutscene, waiting for the real game to happen, especially if it's not their first time playing the game.  DKC2's storyline, like the first game's is very simple.  Donkey Kong has been captured, so it's Diddy's job to go find his uncle.  He's joined by his girlfriend Dixie.

What makes the story so brilliant is its use of silent storytelling.  Sure, there's a note in the room under the first screen of the game, but after that there's no text at all.  But what's silent storytelling, you ask?  It's telling a story without actually saying it.  While in books, this is a difficult thing to do (it's technically possible if you use connotations), generally anything with a visual or musical medium can be enhanced with silent storytelling.  Especially a platformer game.

DKC2's silent storytelling is perhaps the best I've seen in any game.  Look at the world maps.  Instead of just being colorful worlds that are interesting of themselves but have no real connection, going through the levels gives the player not only a sense only a sense of progress.  It follows an adventure story arc.

If you notice, the last part of DKC1 ends with Donkey Kong on a boat, defeating Captain K. Rool. Where does DKC2 begin?  With Diddy and Dixie on a boat, as though sailing away to Kremling Island to find their missing uncle.  The overworld map, which shows all of the different worlds, makes it clear that this really is a journey to find where Donkey Kong has been imprisoned.  Our heroes set sail for the enemy's island, dodge through a volcano created wasteland, trudge their way through a swamp until they find a way to start climbing the mountainside, then go through a kremling theme part and a haunted forest before finally reaching the castle where Donkey has surely been kept. Kaptain K. Rool tries to escape, but in the end is defeated and Donkey Kong is rescued.

And not one bit of that involves words.  It's all background art.  What makes this good is that each world encapsulates the emotion of that part of a story.  For example, the first world on the boat (nice that a first level isn't a grass world like always) is a very happy, easy world which gets the player excited, while the second is a more intense, difficult world.  This matches the emotions of an adventure story, one that starts out fun for the characters but then very quickly the circumstances get more intense than they bargained for, reminding them they're in danger.  World 3 is the more mellow, calm part of the story before things start getting intense.  Seriously, if someone had the drive, they could turn DKC2 into a novel, with just pictures alone.

Compare this to Mario, Sonic, or Mega Man games.  Sure, those games are all fun, but they rarely feel as though you're going through a coherent, cohesive story.  It's mostly just random levels created to show off some gameplay gimmick, with no real connection from one to another.  Mega Man gets points for having levels themed after specific bosses, but that still doesn't make the story feel as constantly present as it does in DKC2.  Not that it's necessary for all the levels in a game to flow, but it's that extra mile that distinguishes DKC2 from all other platformers.

Onto the music.  DKC2's music needs no introduction.  It's one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time, and in my opinion the very best.  It's more lively than the DKC1 soundtrack, but isn't without its melodramatic tracks too.  There's something for everyone, and not a single track in the game is a failure or unenjoyable.  A++.  Good job, David Wise.

There's really nothing more I need to say about the music.  Other than that you should listen to it, of course.

I've already discussed the visuals while talking about the story of the game, but I'll go ahead and add a little more to that.  The graphics have improved from the previous game, and are significantly less pixelated, especially on the overworld map.  No matter how many years pass, no one can convince me that these graphics are anything less than gorgeous.  Who cares that they're 16 bit?  Everything looks lovely.

Not only did DKC2 keep the previous game's idea of a dynamic background that "travels" much the same way objects in the distance would, but the designers added extra details to make everything gorgeous.  The mining level has a double background, with shiny gems peeping out between gaps in rock.  The bee levels not only have larval bees spying on the Kongs, but also honey dripping down the screen.  Cranky Kong's hut is filled with all kinds of cute references, as are the rooms for the other Kongs.  Plus, when you wait long enough, Diddy will juggle and Dixie will drink a banana milkshake. Well, I've always assumed it's a milkshake, anyway.  Maybe it says that in the manual.

In any case, the visuals are always something well worth looking at.  Despite the advances in graphics that happened later on, every visual in this game looks nice and has aged well.

As for the gameplay, well, it's simply platformer goodness.  DKC2 improved on its predecessor in several different ways.

1. The difficulty progresses consistently, with your classic fairly easy levels in the beginning, and more complex levels later on.  There's none of the huge back and forth difficulty jumping that the first game saw.  Yes, there are a couple of frustrating levels, but those are not only later in the game (Toxic Tower, anyone?) but also platformers always need one of those really hard levels to give the player a sense of accomplishment.  The hardest levels are hard, but never cheap, and you always know that it's your own problem when you fail a level.

2. The animal buddies have levels designed for them.  Instead of just being colorful additions to gameplay that doesn't need them, the animals in this game enhance the levels and change the way they're played.

Rambi didn't really need much improvement from the first game.  He's a tough animal that helps the player get through enemies.  And that's pretty useful when you have to get through a hive of giant bees.  Squitter the spider is a new addition, and while he can't stomp on enemies, he can shoot webs, both used to attack and get to otherwise unreachable areas.  So the game designers created levels for him, including one where he has to go across several stretches of bottomless pit, all while dodging cannons and bees.

So there's no ostrich or frog in this game, but Squawks makes his return.  The regular, green version coughs crackers and flies the Kongs through the level.  He usually appears in thorny levels, where flying is limited by being surrounded with spikes (Hint: when he's carrying the Kongs, he can actually go across thorns if they're exactly flat.  It doesn't work if the thorns are sloped).  The purple Squawks can't cough crackers, and can only ensure that the Kongs fall slowly.  To make up for this limited usefulness, they put him in vertical bee levels.

Another new animal is Rattly the rattlesnake.  Which is weird, because he doesn't have a rattle, but rather a spring for a tail.  Whatever.  As you can guess, Rattly jumps high.  Simple enough, no?  So they put him in vertical levels, or ones with high or long jumps.

Enguarde the swordfish is back from the first game, but he was fine as he was, so DKC2 didn't change anything about him.  They did, however alter the gameplay to make Enguarde's charge attack useful, in that it breaks open walls (did it do that in the first game?), and that by charging at certain locations, you can dash past obstacles to obtain secrets and collectibles.

In other words, the animal buddies actually had levels designed around their abilities.

3. There's no Candy!  Woo-hoo!  ....I'm mostly kidding.  Well, she was really creepy and weird.  No, really.  Furry woman in a bathing suit?  No thank you.

But really what I mean to say is that the side Kongs are improved.  Cranky, instead of randomly rambling when you visit him, now gives you specific tips about specific levels.  These would have been more useful back before the days of the internet, but since this game needs no spoiling, the brave can play without gamefaqs.  Wrinkly Kong and her "Kong Kollege" can give hints on how to play the game, not merely save the game for you.  Funky still takes you across worlds for a fee, and now we've got a nice quiz show run by Swanky Kong.  It's a nice diversion from the main game, and gets you to thinking about things you might not have noticed in the levels you played.

4. There's actual replay value.  While you might want to play DKC1 over and over again, that's just your choice rather than any feature of the game.  Most people would probably play it once, and then revisit it when nostalgia kicks in or you have a friend coming over.  DKC2 has quests to finish.  What I like about them is that one is important to getting the second ending, while the other is more or less just a collect-o-thon to make Cranky proud of you.  Why is it good?  Variety, for one.  Also, it means you don't have to get 100% complete to get the best ending, then when you've gotten that, you can still go find all the DK coins.

The lost world is found by getting all the bonus coins from the bonus barrels. You then beat all of the lost levels to get one final boss fight and a cool ending screen.  Yay!  When you get all the DK coins, Cranky actually respects you for once, and you get ranked ahead of Mario, Link, and Yoshi as a gamer.

In other words, there are specific reasons to come back and play this game some more, even if you're not the kind of person to play and replay a game for the heck of it.

5. The two playable characters work better together.  The game distinguishes the two by making Diddy faster and giving Dixie her hair-twirling float, but then adds the team-up bit where Dixie and Diddy can carry each other and throw themselves at coins or bananas to get them.  It's not only fun, but provides new ways of playing levels.

Well, I've talked about all the different pieces of this game, but the fact of the matter is that you have to play the game to see how well all of these things come together.  Everything is chock full of personality, and despite the fact that the idea of a monkey led adventure against reptiles dressed like pirates is goofy, the environments and moody music still make everything feel intense.  It truly is an interactive story, without all those annoying cutscenes getting in the way of the player having fun.

Donkey Kong Country 2 is an experience beyond the normal realm of the platformer.  If you haven't played it, dude, seriously, get on that.

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