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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Log: Super Mario Galaxy 2

I fell down. I fell up. I spun around and found myself on the other side of the system. I wasn’t sure what was going on in my first run through of Super Mario Galaxy. I could tell it was substantially different from its predecessors, but couldn’t keep my feet down and decide how. As a teenager, I don’t think I really cared. Mario went on vacation once, and this time he’s in outer space — a vacation of sorts, sure. In playing its sequel, I’ve come to the conclusion that what causes this discrepancy — this world’s difference between Mario’s earthly endeavours and this trek into the final frontier — is the manipulation of gravity, by means of physics, level design, and powers-ups.

In prior games, platforming consisted of moving and jumping to avoid chasms and squash enemies. However, with the Galaxy games Mario’s jumping is contingent on the gravitational properties of his grounding, and that of neighbouring planets. There was a time when jumping off a sphere meant falling off it. Instead, the Galaxy games allow for full use of the planetoid’s surface area, marking drops with 90° angles. No edge means no fall; ample space for creative use of cameras, hidden objects and platforms. Lateral jumping in Galaxy equates to riding the land mass’s orbit; working the same way as hopping a chasm, but forcing you to account for much more terrain, or the lack thereof. If Earth was a few meters in size, we could walk around the globe, just like Mario does — a motif inherent and thematically relevant to this galactic mini-series.

And while planet-trotting is stylistically a very striking feature, it seems like it’s a trait best fit for these Galaxy games, evidenced by Nintendo in their lack of planetoids in later entries. Both of those games did, however, feature levels where gravity is mapped to different surfaces in different ways. This only happens in specific levels where the camera’s fixed to expose a cross section and stipulate precise 2D platforming. Arrows on the wall indicate which direction gravity will pull in, meaning that if you’re to jump toward a section of a wall pointing a certain way, that’s the direction you’ll fall in; whatever stretch of land there is now your footing. Puzzles present themselves in the composition of these levels. A single jump can change the direction in which you fall, forcing you hop about as you determine what’s now a wall and what, if anything, constitutes as solid ground.

Volatile gravity in Super Mario Galaxy.

Power-ups have some interesting uses but new additions are much more ancillary. The Spin Drill, for instance, is sometimes involved in environmental puzzles containing areas that are only accessible by said tool. For the most part, the drill acts a quick way to travel the diameter of a planet — a shortcut to save you from running the entire mass. The Rock Mushroom looks neat, turning Mario into a reckless boulder, though I doubt there are many differences between this new fungus and the glassy, star encasing ball Mario runs on in certain levels. I feel like the only real difference between the two is one of speed, Rock Mario being able to roll faster, much quicker. The Cloud Flower is much more compelling, forcing you to make quick and precise calls on where to place temporary clouds, while limiting the number of floating platforms to three per flower. The hat Mario wears is a nice plus.

Be that as it may, the most exciting use of power-ups in the game comes with our dinosaur friend, Yoshi. Yoshi does what he always does: flutter jumps and eats. The real exciting bit comes with certain fruits that are power-ups specific to the dinosaur. Blimp Fruits take a note from the Bee Mushroom, inflating Yoshi and causing him to float. Dash Peppers are spicy, of course, burning Yoshi’s tongue and making him jet across platforms while leaving limited control to the player. Finally, I found Bulb Berries to be the most interesting power-up, as it creates an area of effect that surrounds Yoshi, illuminating hidden platforms while quickly shrinking its radius. Yoshi needs to consistently eat these berries to reset the radius, making you look around for hidden objects while frantically looking for the next fruit, because if Yoshi goes hungry, any hidden grounding you happen to be standing on will be no more.

On a side note, I found it kind of neat how these Galaxy games happened to incorporate some of the power-ups from Super Mario Sunshine. The Hover Nozzle was borrowed from Peach in Super Mario Bros. 2 (or Lina from Doki Doki Panic depending on how you look at it). The Spring Mushroom is the Rocket Nozzle’s successor, letting Mario puncture the atmosphere with a mere second’s delay. Dash Peppers take the place of the Turbo Nozzle, serving the exact same role of jetting across a strip of land like you would in a 3D Sonic game.

With all this said and done what really peaks my curiosity is what Nintendo plans to use in future instalments, and what is just a niche of the Super Mario Galaxy games. Maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it — maybe each Super Mario game is an amalgam of everything that surrounds it and came before it. I feel like the gravity bending, mind numbing level design is something that fits in within the surreal level design of the series, particularly the 3D ones. Running around planets may be a bit difficult to implement in lateral platformers but flipping the switch on gravity is something that could and should be implemented into future releases, just as it was in Thomas Was Alone. To top it all off, there’s no thematic limitation to gravity switching wallpaper so it can easily stick its feet to where ever its being pulled to.