Log: Donkey Kong Country Returns

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.

Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D.

“…the audial feedback from the most rudimentary bounce is integral to the design of the game.”

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.

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Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon Review

Over the past year there’s been a reinvigoration of the Adventure genre. They never went away, but nowadays they’re not quite as present outside the esoteric circles of point-and-click crowds on PC. Games like Telltales’s The Walking Dead and Double Fine’s The Cave, however, are bringing this Jurassic style of interaction to a new generation, although the genre still holds a degree of disconnect by virtue of its interaction. Sure, The Walking Dead let’s you steer the plane with your own morality, but the interaction itself is just a cursor scrolling on the screen. The Cave grants you access to the cockpit, trading traditional pointing and clicking for digital control, though it still feels like you’re staring into a dollhouse. Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon lets you assume full control by making every object and entity in the game feel tangible and in reach of your grasp. 

The ghosts that inhabit the spooky community of Evershade Valley have taken a turn from their cooperative and jovial selves, to meet more insidious demands. The titular Dark Moon has been shattered by some unknown assailant, and Luigi’s tasked with picking up the pieces throughout the several manors that adorn Evershade Valley. Local paranormal researcher, Professor E. Gadd, arms Luigi with an updated model of his vacuum companion and sends him into the thick of the night for another spectral outing.

Scaring a ghost in the bathroom.

A lot has changed from Luigi’s initial venture back in 2001, from complex puzzles to an entirely fresh layer of interaction by means of the Dark Light, a flashlight that let’s you see objects naturally hidden to mortal eyes. While not the most original idea, the Dark Light adds a degree of exploration, especially for perfectionists, given its necessity in finding various jewels and Boos scattered about the mansions. Amid the act of ghostbusting this supernatural torch serves a greater purpose: exposing any craven ghouls.

Couple clairvoyance with a chargeable flashlight and you can net yourself a myriad of ghosts in a single inhale. The room to room combat is satisfying, and the game continuously thrusts variations of ghosts at you, causing you to always think on your feet as you’re impelled to master control of space and timing. These nuances in enemy design take the form of ghosts simply adorning objects found in the given room and makes for some rather charming animations while adding varied gameplay. Unfortunately, this inventive enemy design doesn’t carry over to boss fights, which are positioned as the final room of each mansion. Barring the first and last boss, these fights tend to be rather banal and depend on taking ancillary mechanics from familiar environmental puzzles and replicating them on a larger scale. What you get is a lot of been there done that, with a more malicious visage that doesn’t change much.

Unlike Luigi’s first solo journey, Dark Moon doesn’t offer any elemental powers, squashing any hopes of a fire-breathing vacuum. Instead the puzzles in this game task you with using objects found in the environment to further your progress — like a traditional point and click adventure, minus the point and click. They’re rather simple tasks though immensely satisfying because of how tangible the environment is, assembling puzzles as the most compelling aspect of the title. You’re in a room, it’s clear something isn’t clicking, and that search for the right object in the room or the right trigger to pull never manifests as a frustrating endeavour because of your connection to the setting. Everything you vacuum shakes, rattles, moves, falls — the environment is entirely palpable, often with occurrences unique to the room you’re in. It’s with this corporeal structure that the level design allows for substantial experimentation and exploration, with treasure chests to be exposed by dark light, and money pouring out of every nook and cranny. To an extent cash is used to pay for upgrades — namely the speed at which you can vacuum a ghost and the length of time your Dark light can be used for — but you quickly max out these provisions, reducing the collection of coins and bills to a mere peripheral to gauge high scores.

Luigi vacuuming a tablecloth.

Each locale has a distinct theme from one another, depicting individual puzzles and histories that shed light on their owners. What’s disappointing with Luigi’s Mansion is how it’s diverse in every facet of the game except that of enemy design. They’ll arm themselves with a number of objects to affect gameplay but you won’t see new ghosts after the halfway point of the game; a stark contrast from the first game where there were countless ghosts that were unique in both appearance and weakness. Be that as it may, the limited designs of ghosts are still flushed with colour and radiate their own personalities and inadequacies, with their nature fully expressed in their animations. Catching a Boo even makes an adorable squeaking noise as you force it into the vacuum, giving texture to even the most vaporous characters. Amongst the living there’s even less variety, but there really isn’t variety to be warranted. Although Dark Moon does possess the toads’ most endearing performances; their fear and inadequacies push Luigi to displace his cowardliness to be the older, more courageous brother to these merry stewards.

Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon oozes that old-fashioned Scooby-Doo charm that is taken seriously by the characters in the diegesis, and plain goofy fun for the audience. Luigi mumbles and hums along with the music to comfort himself as he quivers about the mansion, but by the end of the game the story strays away from his fearfulness, as he grows confident and realizes he no longer stands in Mario’s shadow. The 3D effects add an extra dimension to the cross-section you play through, though it’s not as polished as other titles, leaving muddy textures and aliasing issues to cloud your enjoyment. The real star of the game is the interaction uniting the player, Luigi, and the environment, allowing for a harmony between player input and the game’s output and creating a pull that’s hard to escape.