Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest (Super Nintendo)

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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. 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’m 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.

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Battletoads (NES)

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There is it: The sweetest 10,000 points I ever scored. So ends my first full playthrough of Battletoads: No cheats, no warps, no mercy. And I only needed one continue!

This was…a really difficult game, not just to complete, but to review. After all the hours logged practicing its twelve levels, I’m honestly torn over whether or not Battletoads is ultimately a “good” game. Overall, I really think it is, but I also think that it may not be a good experience for most people.

What can’t really be debated is that this is one of the most wildly ambitious and best presented games for the system. Battletoads came out in 1991, when the core Famicom/NES hardware was already eight years old and had been thoroughly mastered by skilled programmers. It was created by the legendary British development house Rare, who would shortly go on to debut Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, and numerous other instant classics later in the decade. The graphics and music (by celebrated Rare composer David Wise) are some of the best on the system, rivaled only by a select few similarly late releases like Kirby’s Adventure. The game also has a fantastic sense of humor, with Tex Avery-inspired cartoony animations and a ludicrous plot and characters. You do play as two toad men from outer space named Rash and Zitz fighting to save a third toad man named Pimple from what appears to be a dominatrix clad in leather fetish gear after all, so embracing the stupidity fully just makes sense. I especially love how your sultry antagonist the Dark Queen will show up between every level to taunt you with horrendous puns and goofy threats that would make Skeletor proud and that she seems to have multiple bits of dialogue for her chosen at random each playthrough to keep this feature from getting too stale. There are so many nice flourishes like this.

The sheer scope of the game is also impressive. Twelve levels is quite a lot for an action-platforming game of the time and you’re literally never doing the same thing twice in any of them. You’ll fight a giant robot from the robot’s point of view, rappel down a cavernous shaft, speed through deadly obstacle courses on land, sea, and in the air, climb giant snakes, have snowball fights with living snowmen, race rats to defuse bombs, and more. The action seems to take every imaginable form and scroll in every possible direction. There’s such dizzying kaleidoscope of ideas at play here that it actually verges on overwhelming at times.

It sounds like a perfect game, but as almost everyone knows by now, it’s also a very difficult one to complete. There are a couple reasons for this. First and foremost, you don’t have unlimited continues here like you do in other difficult games like Mega Man, Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania, and Ghosts ‘n Goblins. You’re guaranteed sixteen lives (four to start and four more for each of your three continues) and you can just about double this if you’re good at scoring points and grabbing the 1-Ups scattered throughout the levels. This may seem like a lot, but it’s really not. At least not until you put in the time to get really, really good. Even though your toad has a six point health bar, most of your deaths in this game will come in the form of instant kills, whether from enemies (bosses and even many common foes can kill in one hit) or stage hazards like spikes, poison gas, or falls. Even the enemies that you can potentially survive hits from normally take 2-3 of your six health points per attack. Lose all your lives and it’s back to the title screen for you, and this hurts a lot more than it does in a game like Contra. A failed Contra run may cost you twenty minutes or so at most, while bombing out of a lengthy Battletoads session can easily consume the better part of an hour.

Unlike games with less variety in their action, the skills you’ll use to pass one stage in Battletoads often won’t carry over directly to the next. The core gameplay is actually so different for each stage that it often feels like a dozen games in one, each of which requires extensive memorization and perfect execution. All these factors combined impose a sort of psychological pressure on the player that most other game developers shied away from. You can laugh off a death in Ninja Gaiden and just try something different next time, but every death in Battletoads feels like a real catastrophe and it takes a lot of focus to not get rattled, lose your cool, and compound it with more sloppy deaths, ending the run. This pressure just keeps on mounting as you progress further and further, too, making Battletoads a very stressful, nerve-wracking game and setting it apart from other tricky titles like the ones mentioned above. Simply put, it’s very tough for me to relax and enjoy myself with Battletoads like I can with other difficult NES games. I certainly don’t think I’ll be playing it much again anytime soon.

But is this a flaw in the game or a flaw in me? That’s really what makes this review so hard to formulate. Few other games put players under the same kind of pressure that Battletoads does and that’s really what gives it its unique identity and why we still remember, play, and discuss it today. Would a less hardcore Battletoads be a better game? I don’t think so. Better for me? Maybe, although the sheer almighty satisfaction of finally conquering it makes even that verdict uncertain. The grim struggle/cathartic triumph cycle is arguably the engine that drives retro gaming as a hobby, after all. Battletoads may push this dynamic to its practical extreme, but hell, if somebody’s got to do it, it may as well be ’90s era Rare, right?

Until next time, stay mad, bad, and crazy! Ribbit.