Back in 1994 Rare fiddled about with pre-rendered assets, creating pseudo-3D art style for Donkey Kong Country. As a kid, this was like the work of a warlock; I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. And then they made the show, and man oh man, that was something else. Say what you want about that nonsense now, but as a child in the 90′s that show was funny and carried some sophisticated 3D animation, serving as a goofier version of the spectacle Reboot offered. There’s something really inane and endearing about monkey who’s best friend is his nephew, and the cast around this duo adds more than a superfluous beat. The point is, fancy cartoon graphics were what Rare was known for.
Which is a point that really bugged me as I got older. I loved the Banjo-Kazooie games so naturally, I loved the result of Rare translating Donkey Kong with the same formula in Donkey Kong 64. But then in the Gamecube era I got thinking: if DK64 is Banjo-Kazooie with a new skin, what’s the real difference between DKC and the Super Mario games? It was just another platformer with shiny veneer.
I know I’m late to the conga, but I’ve come to the conclusion that having art style as the core differentiator of a title isn’t so bad. I used to think that maybe games that changed surface level values don’t deserve much praise. Which I still think is true, but to a much lesser extent. Sometimes games change a single value and sell it as entirely novel product. Take Apple’s App Store for example. There are thousands of games that are mere clones with a tweak in polygons. However, there are also games which carry their own experiences with a few changes in flavour. If this new flavour permeates the entire game, it changes its composition and consumption on the level of an entirely different meal.
Now I’m not saying Donkey Kong games are just clones. There’s bunch of cards they brought to the table that you didn’t see on the same level before, namely roll-jumping and timing your jumps to increase height. Although, the main draw of the 1994 title was the visuals. Not just the pre-rendered wizardry, but the characters, the setting, the music, and most importantly, the sound effects.
SFX make up the thick layer of tangibility that Nintendo and its subsidiaries ply onto their worlds. Even in movement, the sound matching the avatar can make or break the sense of control. It’s that feedback that let’s us know if we’re walking, running, jumping, or stopping dead in our tracks. I don’t mean to make a mockery of Rayman Origins, but that’s a great example of a title where people claim the degree of control isn’t as acute as a Super Mario game. The real difference is, you can hear the sound of Mario’s feet strike the ground with each step, where as a series like Rayman provides little to no audial feedback for movement. If you need to make a quick stop in a Super Mario game, you can hear his feet respond to the terrain, allowing you make whatever adjustment necessary, like a side flip or long jump.
Donkey Kong games also use sound to their advantage, which is absolutely necessary for the rigour it demands. Donkey Kong Country Returns is difficult. Perhaps the most difficult game I’ve played in years. I’m not the best at 2D platformers, so the SFX that matched every movement was a boon to my shoddy reflexes and thus crucial to my experience. Every time you jump on an enemy you hear this clicking noise on the rebound, similar to but higher than the sound elicited from collecting a banana. You need this noise, or you can’t play the game. Tapping the jump button just as you land on the enemy increases the height of the rebound, so knowing the speed of your character falling and the point at which you’d hear that click is necessary to master some portions of the game. SFX may seem like an afterthought in most titles, but in the case of Nintendo games the audial feedback from the most rudimentary bounce is integral to the design of the game.
I guess I don’t have much to say about Donkey Kong Country Returns, but that it’s a fine successor to the ancient formula. Nothing’s really too different. It’s just updated for today’s needs; carrying fail state modifiers in the form of new items at Cranky’s shop. The sharp platforming works, although it comes off rather irritating sometimes. Memorization of a path is necessary for a handful of levels involving a mine cart or a rocket, and in these cases getting the level down pat prioritizes over the mechanics Retro Studios imbedded into the gameplay. Still, because of the taxing level design each stage left me with a sense of accomplishment, albeit an accomplishment drenched in my sweat and tears. But I deserved every failure. Everything I needed to complete each level was sitting right in front of me. I just had to hone my hand eye coordination to meet the game’s supercilious expectations. The “clicks,” “thumps,” and “boings” are the bread and butter of the game. I couldn’t come close to finishing the game without the accurate sound editing, proving that Donkey Kong games are outstanding for their achievements in audial feedback, as they are famous for their impressive art style.