24. Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest
(Rareware, 1995, Super Nintendo)
The Donkey Kong Country games for the Super Nintendo were meant to be technological showcases, and to this day, they still look beautiful. In 1994, two 32-bit consoles were released, Sega’s Saturn and Sony’s Playstation, and Nintendo would not properly respond until 1996, with its Nintendo 64. Meanwhile – and putting aside the infamous introduction of the Virtual Boy in 1995 – the company stuck with its 16-bit Super Nintendo, and undoubtedly, one of the reasons it was able to do that was the Donkey Kong Country franchise, which managed to impress graphically despite competing next generation hardware. Indeed, when the game was first showcased, many thought that it was in fact an early demo for Project Reality, what would later become the Nintendo 64. When these same people heard it was actually an imminent Super Nintendo release, they were stunned. I was stunned, too, when I first saw it on a television in an Argentine videogame store. It was obvious to me that this mesmerizing killer app was a graphical leap from Super Mario World, the console’s most popular and fondly remembered platformer. And that it was all happening on the Super Nintendo, which had been in existence since 1990, was unbelievable.
Rareware’s UK-based development team rendered, modeled, and animated characters and backgrounds with 3D Silicon Graphics technology, and then converted the results into 2D. Because of memory constraints, parts of this conversion were quite creative: background elements had to be repeated in order save memory, so these were cut-and-pasted in various patterns so as to add variety and mask the repetition. Donkey Kong, as a character, had been basically unexplored since 1981’s arcade Donkey Kong, in which he played the villain guarding the damsel in distress. So, when Nintendo gave Rareware the IP, the latter were free to invent a world for the character. This meant, also, that they could create a sidekick, the nimble Diddy Kong, who became the star of the franchise’s crowning achievement, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest. This sequel, in turn, added another character, Dixie Kong, Diddy’s love interest. She was not quite as nimble as he was, but she could lengthen and control her falls with her helicopter ponytails. At any rate, both were the controllable characters in Donkey Kong Country 2, tasked with rescuing the heavy-set Donkey Kong trapped by Kaptain K. Rool.
Obviously, the story and character-names are ridiculous. What matters, here, is the playing style. Donkey Kong Country was dominated by Donkey Kong, a much slower physical presence, a gorilla. Diddy and Dixie are lightweight chimps, and that means faster, more dynamic platforming. Lead designer Gregg Mayles admitted that, for the Donkey Kong Country franchise, he wanted the levels to be “extremely flowing – where a skilled player could move effortlessly through the levels at great speed.” The point was to make the gameplay as quick and agile as possible, and the pair of chimps that grace the sequel contribute to that, vaulting over precipices, lava, and muck, shooting across barrel-cannons, swinging from rope to rope, and accomplishing other acrobatic feats. Donkey Kong Country 3 saw the re-introduction of a gorilla character, Kiddy Kong, and it suffered because of it. The other trick that makes the second installment an improvement over the first is a lesson belatedly learned from Super Mario World and Super Mario 3, the introduction of mystery and secrecy: special stages only accessible through exploration and skill and, even, an alternate ending. This is married to the environments, far darker and more evocative than those of the previous title: insane carnivals, infested swamps, haunted villages, mutated insect nests, post-industrial wastelands… Certainly far more creative than the stock mountain, forest, and ice levels from Donkey Kong Country. And that soundtrack! David Wise’s often relaxing, dreamy ambiance music is almost counterpunctual, playing as it does behind the busy jumping and dashing that characterizes the gameplay.