Ooh. Pretty colors.
This ends my first playthrough of Donkey Kong Country 2. I really enjoyed the game, but I’ll probably ruffle some feathers when I say that I still prefer the original overall.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The original Donkey Kong Country was a breakout smash hit for publisher Nintendo and developer Rare in 1994. The combination of masterful platforming action, the return of a fondly remembered character to gaming after a decade-long absence, and striking CGI graphics that seemed impossibly futuristic at the time managed to sell over nine million copies of DKC, making it the third best-selling game for the system. A sequel was inevitable, but an interesting one was not. To their credit, Rare opted not to rest on their laurels and 1995’s DKC2 is a wildly ambitious game that changes things up considerably.
First and foremost, Donkey Kong himself is missing from the action here. He’s been kidnapped and his sidekick Diddy Kong and new character Dixie Kong must launch a rescue mission. Believe it or not, this is actually what put me off from getting into the game back around the time it came out. I was a child of the 80s arcade golden age and I’ve had a huge amount of affection for Donkey Kong ever since I can remember. These days, it doesn’t bother me so much, although if I could hop in a time machine and make this game star Donkey and Dixie instead, I still probably would.
Aside from the lead character switch, the level design saw some major diversification. DKC was primarily a horizontally scrolling left-to-right affair, barring the underwater levels. DKC2 has some levels like this, but introduces tons of verticality to the mix. The variety is appreciated, but it sometimes becomes apparent that the game’s camera really isn’t optimized for vertical panning and you can sometimes be taken by surprise by hazards you should have been able to see coming.
Another big change is the increased emphasis on the “animal buddy” characters that assist Diddy and Dixie on their quest. You’ll alternate between controlling a rhino, parrot, snake, spider, and swordfish and some levels can only be played as a specific animal. Each animal has their own unique controls and special abilities. This aspect of the game can be very enjoyable, but I feel that the designers leaned on it a little too hard and the end result sometimes feels gimmicky and obnoxious as a result. As fun as these guys are to control occasionally, I find that their gameplay is still not as fleshed-out and enjoyable as the Kongs’ is overall and the back half of the game in particular feels packed to the gills with mandatory animal buddy levels. By the end, I almost felt like I was playing a Squawks the Parrot Country game where Diddy and Dixie were the sidekicks! And don’t even get me started on the spider, who moves so incredibly slowly compared to every other character in the game that his segments are just torture to sit through. It’s a pity they tried to make the spice into the main course with the animal buddies this time. It’s just too much of a good thing.
Finally, DKC2 is the start of a divisive trend in Rare games that would continue through the N64 era and beyond: “Gating” game content behind collectables. The game’s final five levels and true last boss and ending require you to unlock them by spending “Kremcoins” that you find inside the hidden bonus barrels scattered throughout the rest of the game. This means either replaying already finished levels over and over to find every barrel yourself or grabbing a walkthrough and going through it checklist style. Yes, it’s Rare’s first so-called “collect-a-thon.” Let me say up front that I’m well aware that some people really adore this sort of thing. I’m happy for these people. Really. That being said, I don’t get it. At all. Never have, never will. When I play a platformer, I just want to finish all the levels, kill all the bosses, watch the ending, and move on with my life. Having to collect all 974 of the super-rare hidden brass monkey butt coins to see the true ending or whatever is pretty much a surefire way to prejudice me against your game. It always seemed like a transparent attempt to sell more strategy guides. It definitely alienated me from Rare’s N64 era platformers in a big way, that’s for sure.
Wow! I sure do hate DKC2, huh? Except I totally don’t! Not at all. In fact, this game rules! When it’s focusing on what it does right, platforming with the Kongs, it’s one of the most stimulating and addictive gaming experiences going. I literally could not put this game down last night as I worked my way through the final levels. Controls are absolutely perfect and the two main Kongs both have interesting abilities: Diddy can run and climb faster, while Dixie can spin her ponytail to hover in the air. Levels are long, varied, and extremely challenging. This game is not just “Nintendo hard,” it’s “Rare hard” and I love it. In fact, it’s easy to see the Battletoads influence on some of these levels. DKC2’s “Screech’s Sprint” reminds me of a mashup of Battletoads’ “Rat Race” and “Clinger Winger” in the best possible way. In addition, boss battles have been radically improved over DKC’s super basic and easy encounters. Every boss fight has multiple distinct phases with new movement and attack patterns to deal with. If DKC2 had added these improved boss mechanics and nothing else, they’d be enough on their own to make a case for it over the original.
In terms of graphics and sound, this game improves on the original DKC in every way, and that’s saying quite a lot, since a lot of people were amazed that the original game was even possible on a 16-bit console. The characters and backgrounds appear more detailed and the colors used are more striking and varied. The soundscape incorporates tons of crystal clear ambient sound samples, like the creaking ropes on the pirate ship levels and the bubbling lava in the caves, and these really set the mood and demonstrate the things that the Super Nintendo sound chip could do that just weren’t possible on older consoles. These are in addition to David Wise’s legendary score, which incorporates jaunty sea shanties for the pirate ship, soothing New Age synths in the otherwise tense bramble mazes, clanking mechanical percussion for the mine levels, and more. You really, really don’t want to play this one with the volume down.
So, yes, I loved DKC2! As much as the original? Maybe not quite, but while I missed playing as Donkey, might have preferred fewer animal buddy levels, and despised the coin collecting, I still recognize that a lot of these gripes are personal in nature and that this is in truth a masterpiece and very close indeed to being a perfect platforming video game on every level.
I’ll be back, for sure, trying my best to focus on that soothing, serene “Stickerbrush Symphony” track as I fly headlong into pointy spikes again and again. Good times.
(Originally written 7/2/2017)