Becky Reviews Console Classics: Donkey Kong Country 2
Let me begin with a brief psychology lesson, concerning the concept of “flow.” Flow describes a state of focus, energy, and personal fulfillment. People usually experience this sublime trifecta in conjunction with an enjoyable challenge – something that pushes them to the edges of their abilities while providing positive feedback. Flow produces feelings of success, optimism, and even joy. It’s one heck of a mental cocktail.
If you’re a gamer, you’re already well acquainted with the effects of flow. It’s that feeling you get when you clear a level without taking any damage, or when you get the killing blow in a boss fight. Game designers know all about flow. A good game will provide just enough of a challenge to keep you flowing without pushing you past the fine line of frustration.
I’m an unrepentant flow addict. This past week, I not only got my fix, but I scored a batch of the good stuff. It came to me by way of two little monkeys and a whole mess of bananas.
To understand the appeal of Donkey Kong Country 2, let me ask you a question. Would you like to play a game in which you, as a monkey, have to bounce around pirate ships and jungles, get shot through exploding barrels, throw your sidekick at bad guys, go on sweet roller coaster rides, and jump on the heads of goofy crocodiles?
Of course you would.
The two playable primates are Diddy Kong, who turns cartwheels that plow right through bad guys, and Dixie Kong, who has…prehensile blond hair? Sure, okay. Actually, Dixie was my favorite character to play, because that same ridiculous hair gives her the ability to do a slow spinning jump that saved my simian neck more than a few times. Though the game is most fun when played as a two-player team, you still have access to both characters if you play solo. In single player mode, you can swap between characters at will, and the unused character follows happily along after you. This enables you to perform team-based manuevers as a single player, which I thought was a rather clever mechanic. The designers clearly didn’t want the player to miss out on anything.
From top to bottom, DKC2 is a game purely designed for fun. Aside from the gameplay, which I’ll get to in a moment, the blend of great music, kooky artwork, and comedic storytelling makes it rather impossible to be in a bad mood while playing. The storytelling is particularly noteworthy, because as is the case with most platformers, the plot is incidental. But everywhere you turn, a quirky cast of characters is there to bolster the mood. Near the beginning of the game, you run into old geezer Cranky Kong (yes, seriously), who had me grinning from the get-go. He offers you hints for “this unnecessary sequel,” complains about how nothing will ever be as good as the original, and sends you off with: “Don’t be surprised if I’m gone next time. I’ll be in a real game!”
Well played, writing team.
You run into the rest of the Kong family along the way, and though they each offer different services (Wrinkly Kong lets you save, Funky Kong lets you borrow his biplane to hop between locations), it’s their unabashed silliness that makes them worth visiting. This is not a game to take seriously. This is a game that invites you to kick back with someone you like, have a couple beers, and laugh.
Recently, I’ve been talking with a friend about the notion of “difficulty in lieu of content.” See, a lot of platformers don’t actually have a lot of content. They just make said content punishingly hard to master. YouTube is overflowing with flawless speed runs of platformers, some of them taking less than ten minutes (depending on the game). The fastest speed run I could find for DKC2 was about an hour and a half. There is a lot to do in this game, and that suited me perfectly. I often get bored with platformers before I finish them. I can only do so much hopping and bopping before I feel a bit over it. DKC2 keeps the gameplay interesting by mixing things up with every new level. This game had me climbing ship rigging, throwing myself from hook to hook over bottomless pits, flying upwards through a maze of barrels (called “Kannons”), and jumping on seals’ heads to make them turn lava into water (just go with it). As is par for the platformer course, there are hidden bonus levels scattered throughout, and they proved to be exceptionally fun. The challenges were straightforward enough, but the jaunty loading screens let you know that you were in for a good time (my personal favorite was the “Destroy Them All!” challenge, which pictured Diddy and Dixie gleefully dragging away a loudly protesting croc). If that weren’t enough, some of the Kong family members have extra challenges for you, just for kicks. Necessary? Hardly. But DKC2 goes out of its way to make sure that you’re enjoying yourself.
It was interesting to compare the game to Super Mario Bros, which was released nine years prior to DKC2. Though I enjoyed Super Mario Bros, there were three elements that consistently frustrated me: the inability to go backwards, obstacles that were designed to make you fail the first time around, and the lack of save points. DKC2 improves upon all of these, but it doesn’t hand you victory on a silver platter, either. You can go pick things up that you left behind, and you can revisit old levels whenever you please. Though the obstacles require you to have quick reflexes, if you’ve got the skills, you can get past them on the first try. The levels get exponentially tougher as the game goes on, but at heart, DKC2 wants you to win.
All of the things I’ve described are the hallmarks of a well-made game. But what really made it work was the way it invited you to trust in the mechanics. Picture, if you will: a series of Kannons, placed in varying angles and heights, interspersed with platforms of pacing crocodiles, alongside deadly wasps hovering back and forth between your flight paths. Your task is to jump into the Kannons and shoot yourself all the way to the top, avoiding the enemies as you go along. Once you start flying, things speed by very quickly, and there’s a lot of stuff moving around on your screen. Your first instinct when approaching an enemy is to reflexively move out of its way. But if you do that, you’ll screw up your flight path, miss the next Kannon, and spend the next few panicked seconds scrabbling for something to grab onto as you careen back down to the start. The trick is to not worry. That Kannon will get you where you need to go. If you time it right, you’ll go right over that crocodile’s head, without pressing any buttons at all.
In other words, this game rewards the player for staying relaxed while keeping focused. That, right there, is the perfect recipe for flow. So perfect, in fact, that I couldn’t find reasons outside of nourishment and hygiene to stop playing. I stayed up well past my bedtime to see it through to the end. When the final boss lay slain, I fell back into the couch with a barbaric yawp. Then I ate a banana. It seemed like the thing to do.
Next time (last one!): Megaman 2
Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.