Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Donkey Kong Country - Advanced Ambiance
Its graphics might have been the product of technological trickery, but the indelible memories left by Rare's aesthetic marvel were certainly no illusion.

"Where did the big ape go?" my friends and I wondered. "Why hasn't Donkey Kong, a true gaming pioneer, made a meaningful appearance on a Nintendo system in over seven years?"

It was one of the era's most enduring mysteries. Donkey Kong, whose debut title once ruled the arcades and inspired a generation's-worth of platformers across a range of platforms, had been missing in action for the better part of the NES' life-cycle, and none of us were sure why, exactly, that was. Sure--we could all agree that Donkey Kong 3 was pretty forgettable, and we regarded it as a strange demotion for the barrel-tossing icon, but none of us would go as far as to state that the game's commercial and perceptual failures should spell the end for the entire brand. Surely, we figured, the company's former marquee character deserved more from his creators--a better fate than being shunted aside, treated as an irrelevant holdover and relegated to token cameo appearances in the congratulatory ending sequences of Tetris and the like.

At times it seemed as though Nintendo was purposely disregarding the importance of its famous mascot. The best example was the company's announcement of its new racer, Super Mario Kart: Here we had a game whose cast was purported to entail a congregation of the Mario universe's biggest stars, yet Donkey Kong was nowhere to be found; for whatever reason, Nintendo decided, instead, to include his son, Donkey Kong Jr., who'd been absent from the scene for an even longer period of time. I had nothing against Donkey Kong Jr., star of my favorite Saturday Supercade short, but it was inexplicable to me that he could make it in over his father, who was certainly more recognizable.

It's clear in retrospect that Nintendo's true intention was to delicately reintroduce the Donkey Kong brand--precondition us in the run-up to its revival--but at the time we perceived it as a company distancing itself from damaged goods, which worked to erode our confidence in the Donkey Kong character and convince us that maybe his star had indeed permanently faded. That was the main reason why I was apt to instantly dismiss the upcoming Game Boy version of Donkey Kong, which otherwise looked to be nothing more than a throwaway effort--a quick-and-dirty down-port of the arcade classic--and a weak showpiece showpiece for the Super Game Boy. To my surprise, Donkey Kong turned out to be an amazingly expansive reimagining of the original, and I wound up loving it to bits, but the message it conveyed to me was that its title character was still a supporting player at best.

That's why I wasn't particularly interested when Nintendo Power revealed that Donkey Kong would soon be returning as the protagonist in his very own SNES game--the curiously titled Donkey Kong Country, which was riding closely on the heels of the recently released Game Boy game. That Country was presumably releasing in a proximate time-frame should have worked to its benefit--allowed it to garner immediate interest by feeding off of my continuing enthusiasm for the sterling Donkey Kong '94--but I just wasn't feeling it. Donkey Kong's was now a clearly defined role, and I couldn't see any appeal in the big ape as a lead character in a video game. "How do you build a competent side-scroller around a character whose skill-set includes standing there and rolling barrels along the ground?" I questioned, skeptically. 

From what little I'd gleaned, Country was being built up as though it were a graphical marvel--a transcendentally astonishing technical powerhouse--but the screenshots revealed a game that I'd described to be pixelated, gaudy and lifeless. It had a distinct style to it, sure, but nothing so jaw-dropping that I'd plunk down $50 (or ask my parents to do so) to see it in motion.

As great as Nintendo's track record was when it came to proving me wrong, I had little faith in the company's ability to convince me that Donkey Kong was a compelling enough character to carry a large-scale 16-bit video game, graphically impressive or not. Quite simply: Donkey Kong Country wasn't the game I was looking for, and I had no qualms about my decision to pass on it.

Donkey Kong Country's release was drawing ever-closer, and the hype for its arrival was intensifying, but my opinion remained unchanged: I couldn't have been less interested in reading about it or playing it. In fact, Kong's funky-looking new adventure was the furthest thing from my mind on that random autumn day when I reached into the wall-mounted mailbox beside our door and pulled out a boxed VHS cassette that bore conspicuous-looking cover art. The tape's sheathing was canvas for sharply rendered foliage, and the front side's upper-left portion featured an image of Donkey Kong--his likeness matching the official art from the Nintendo Power 's Donkey Kong Country previews--clutching onto the Nintendo logo. The text directly below read, "Enter the Jungle . . . Nov. 21st."

I could guess that it was promotional material of some kind, but its sudden appearance raised some questions: "Why is Nintendo sending this to me?" I wondered. "Is this somehow connected to my Nintendo Power subscription? And if so, why is further promotion necessary when they've already previewed the game in their magazine?"

I wasn't really itching to watch a lengthy video rehashing all of the information I couldn't care to absorb the first time, but I had nothing better to do that day, so I figured that I might as well throw the tape into the VCR for the purpose of killing time.

Honestly, I don't recall how long the tape was or how many segments it featured. About all I remember is some snide long-haired dude running around Nintendo's headquarters interviewing nervous-sounding company reps and some other nebulously linked folks about the upcoming Donkey Kong Country. They discussed some of the game's basic mechanics, as you'd expect, but they spent a whole lot more time talking up the technology that powered it. They said it "the biggest game ever" in terms of megabit count. 

Apparently they used space-age computers and "advanced 3D modeling" to render Country's wired-framed characters and its "layers upon layers" of hyper-detailed, breathtaking backgrounds and texture-work. They made it seem as though Country was the most advanced video game ever created. 

They were so proud of what they had achieved that they even saw fit to fire shots at "32-bit" competitors and "CD-ROM," which I found startlingly bold even though I had no clue as to what either term was referring. The former, I figured, had to be code for "Sega," against whom Nintendo was finally retaliating for all those nasty anti-Mario commercials. Otherwise, I had no idea what a "CD-ROM" was and assumed it to be a technologically superior computer of some type (or "allegedly superior," according to this video).

It was difficult not to be intrigued by what I was seeing. In motion, Donkey Kong Country looked absolutely amazing compared to the muddy-looking, pixelated images I'd seen in Nintendo Power. It wasn't the garish, lifeless game I'd deemed it to be; rather, Donkey Kong Country boasted palpable depth and the creative spirit to match--enough to leave me standing agape as I watched the video play out. There was so much to take in; I had to watch it a second time to get a handle on what was going on. I mean, supercomputers?! 3D modeling?! Motion-capturing?! I wasn't expecting anything like this! Suddenly I was a true believer.

Even then, the biggest factor in my newly found interest was Nintendo's zeal in pushing the game. If the company was so confident in its product that it was willing to send out this promotional video to millions of people, which it hadn't done for any other game, then it had to be something truly special. They went out of their way to convince me that the next big thing was looming on the horizon and I'd be regretfully missing out if I chose to ignore it. That meant a lot to me.

Now, sure--the video's pure-90s production was obnoxiously over the top, as was its host. Its montages were carefully edited to prevent close analysis (those in-game models didn't look quite as detailed as the computer renderings, after all). And its cringe-worthy interview segments were so obviously scripted. But you know what? It worked. Donkey Kong Country, which minutes before wasn't even in my periphery, had now found itself holding a top spot on my Christmas list for that year. 

My first play-through of Donkey Kong Country was all about seeing it action. Testing out the Donkey and Diddy's abilities. Observing how smoothly the "3D" characters animated and interacted with their surrounding environment. Gauging its stunning background work and marveling over its clean, realistic-looking surface textures. Listening to its introspective music. Hopping on Rambi and Enguarde, two of the Kong's much-vaunted animal friends, and watching how they operated--how they'd automatically plow through nearby enemies as if they had minds of their own ("Yoshi never did anything like that!"). Drinking it all in.

Country's visual style lent it an atmosphere that felt so much different from Mario's sprite-based games; try as I might, I couldn't at all reconcile the drastically different art styles or imagine these two heroes, who were once intrinsically linked, existing in the same universe. If its creators at Rare succeeded at anything, I thought, it was providing Donkey Kong his own unmistakably distinct world, its aura unlike any other I'd sensed. That it played really well was a bonus (though, I felt that its controls were a bit slippery and not quite as fluid as Mario's, which I'd attributed to the game's more-restrictive gravity).

But how well Donkey Kong Country played wasn't something that really concerned me at the time (it was a Nintendo game, after all; it was going to be decent at worst). Rather, it remained that the purpose of this first session was to judge whether or not its "advanced computer-generated" visuals could live up to the hype. And based on what I'd seen in only that first world, Kongo Jungle, I could confidently state that it more than delivered on its promise. Donkey Kong Country looked and sounded amazing, its impressive aesthetics wielding such power that they could overwhelm the senses to where even the game's standard platforming action felt next-level.

One of the early highlights--and another point of differentiation--was my first meeting with Cranky Kong, who had been described as an aged version of the original Donkey Kong (his true origin was a subject of debate between my friends and I; it was either that the Donkey Kong from this game was in fact Donkey Kong Jr. and Cranky's son, or localization had screwed something up and Cranky was merely the original's father/grandfather). In a game filled with instantly memorable moments, Cranky's nostalgically tinted rants were perhaps the most indelible. It was surreal listening to him complain about how easy modern games were, how they used technology as a crutch, and how inferior they were to games from his era.

Cranky's was a weirdly ironic humor--an unabashed shattering of the of the fourth wall--and not something you would expect from Nintendo; it was an important part of what made Country feel so unique. It told me that anything goes in this world--that the rules were there to be broken. As implied by the title screen's tonal shift (from Cranky's Victrola-produced, authentic Donkey Kong theme to the young, hip Kong's jammin', boombox-blasted interpretation), this wasn't your father's Donkey Kong (not that any of our fathers actually gave a damn about Donkey Kong or video games in general, but you know).

As I advanced further along into the game, Donkey Kong Country continued to successfully inspire awe with its lifelike visuals and its mesmerizing scrolling backgrounds. Any time I'd reach a new location, I felt it appropriate to hang around its opening area and take a few moments to gauge my surroundings--to get a sense of the setting's depth and imagine what could be lurking beyond the wondrous woodland and the glorious mountainscapes seen in the distance. Country featured many such unforgettable settings: Lush, vibrant jungles with their varying background accompaniment--an array of beautiful sunset and nightfall themes. Mysterious caves. Creepily lit mines. Caverns illuminated by glowing crystals. The winter wonderland with its majestic mountains. The ocean floor with its undulating flora. Temple ruins. Silently enchanting tree-top towns. And elaborately constructed factories. Each one would stick with me to where I could recall its smallest details without ever looking at images.

The breathtaking settings, the stunning background work, the incredible animation--Donkey Kong Country's technology truly felt as though it were somehow beyond the SNES' actual capabilities (which is what Nintendo wanted the market to believe). That was the magic of Donkey Kong Country.

Another of the game's defining traits was its music, which I'd come to describe more as "enriching ambiance." It had an understated presence, yet it managed to supply environments so much character and emotional resonance--the type of conveyance that was uncommon in platformers. The tunes varied in tone, ranging from calming to haunting to urgent, yet they all shared that same strain of melancholia that worked to establish Donkey Kong's new world as a place where happy endings weren't a given. This became apparent to me the first time I heard the appropriately titled Aquatic Ambiance, the game's lone underwater theme. Only seconds had passed since it kicked in, but I was already firmly caught in its grasp; all I could do was put the controller down and listen to it--contemplate why I was overcome with a sudden feeling of yearning.

Platformers weren't supposed to make me feel sad, but there I was feeling reflective a few minutes into Donkey Kong Country, which had unexpectedly invaded parts of my consciousness I thought was off-limits to its kind. I listened to it for about a minute and tried to figure out what the beautifully composed piece was trying to tell me. Answers proved elusive, but I didn't care; I'd rather it wash over me and take me wherever it wanted. For one thing, it had quickly become my favorite of the game's tunes. There were times in following when I'd switch on the SNES, load up Donkey Kong Country, and work my way to the fourth stage, Coral Capers, for the express purpose of letting this theme reverberate throughout our den; it was definitely among those that I taped with my tape recorder and listened to regularly (though, the TV's speakers did it more justice, I felt). Life in the Mines, a quietly powerful theme heard in the dreary, sparsely lit mine stages, worked to similar effect. 

Donkey Kong Country's music, it turned out, was just as important as its visuals when it came to immersing me in its world and stoking my imagination.

But the differentiation didn't end there. Rare sought to further distinguish Donkey Kong Country's from its competitors by crafting each stage around a unique theme as indicated by its playfully alliterated title. There were those that challenged me to blast across series of floating, directionally aimed barrels that were set up in a variety of permutations. Hop across wildly swinging ropes, Pitfall-style. Push tires around and use them to bounce over obstructions. Touch specially marked On/Off barrels to temporarily cease the movement of craggy Kremlings. Dodge and flee from giant Gnawty-controlled hamster wheels. Negotiate one-way ropes (vertical conveyor belts, I guess). Navigate a stage cautiously due to a flickering light source. And maneuver about on-rail platforms whose continued trailing required the Kongs' procurement of the fuel barrels that powered them.

It had those dreaded minecart stages, of course, but they were implemented sparingly; there were only two of them, the second of which--true to its designers' experimental nature--featured an alternate jumping mechanic to keep the idea feeling fresh. I was among the many who struggled to complete the minecart stages, with their limited field of vision and cruelly insufficient response time, but I didn't think they were the worst. No--that honor was reserved for the blizzard-besieged Snow Barrel Blast, which was hellishly constructed, bedecked with an endless series of spinning and swaying blast barrels (any of which could potentially launch me to my death), visually noisy in a way that induced stress, and twice as long as the average stage. Donkey Kong Country's had a few stages that were like that.

Donkey Kong Country wrapped up with another of its distinguishing moments: Following the defeat of the reptilian Kong K. Rool, fake credits began to roll. It was immediately obvious to me that something was wrong with the listing, which was comprised of Kremling foes rather than actual staff members, but I didn't know what to make of it. It was a ruse to get me to let down my guard down a bit--to set me up for a last-ditch ambush at the hands of the still-lingering K. Rool--and it might worked as intended, since I definitely saw this final sequence a second time during my first play-through. I'm not sure. Though, I can say with certainty that I found it to be a bold and creative way to transition to the final sequence of a boss battle. Neither my friends or I had ever seen anything like it before; it was one of the first things we discussed about the game when we met up in class on the first day back in school.

The fake-credits trick was one element that made the K. Rool battle far more memorable than it would have been otherwise. The other was the pirate ship's whimsical Gangplank Galleon theme, which continued to play all throughout the battle, its deceptive tones working to disguise the difficulty of a boss battle that was much tougher than its simple pattern-based design would suggest. It was a drawn-out fight that really tested my patience, since my deaths tended to occur during the last of the later cycles; also, K. Rool's propensity to nick me with his jumps started to border on obnoxious. 

If I was feeling a bit miffed when I finally achieved victory, then I was likely thankful to fall into the arms of its pleasantly wistful ending theme, which set the perfect mood for reflecting upon my experience with Donkey Kong Country and thinking about where Nintendo was headed from here. The music seemed to be hinting at the answer; it had an air of closure to it--not merely for the Kongs' adventure but perhaps for an era. "Is Donkey Kong Country the SNES' swan song?" I wondered.

It couldn't have been. If anything, Donkey Kong Country had just proven that the SNES had a whole lot of life left to live--so much more untapped potential. As far as I was concerned, the great unknown of the next generation could wait; Donkey Kong Country and the technologically transcendent games it was likely to inspire would be more than enough to hold me over. And indeed they did; those like Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, Doom, and the Donkey Country Country sequels fueled an additional two years of 16-bit excellence and provided a strong final run for one of the best consoles ever made.

Maybe the ending music was telling me to enjoy the remainder of the ride--to savor what was left of my childhood and go on creating the memories I'd forever hold dear. That's how I came to interpret it, at least.

My friends and I would return to Donkey Kong Country regularly in those final years, Rare's aesthetic wonder one from a core group of games--a list populated by Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Street Fighter II, Mega Man X, Super Metroid, and the like--we were sure to break out during the after-school hours. That it was loaded with secrets was a big reason reason why we spent so many hours with it in those first few months; driven by Nintendo Power-generated lore, which made it seem as though Country's shiny exterior was concealing the secrets of life, each of us wanted to be the first to find all of the hidden rooms, earn a 100% completion-rate, and obtain the mythical reward that was waiting there for us (though, none of us were crazy enough to try to collect every banana in the game--succeeding in which apparently granted the player immortality). Sadly, none of us were able to uncover all of the secrets.

I wasn't prepared to call Donkey Kong Country a masterpiece, since it quite simply wasn't as groundbreaking or as ambitious as its peers in terms of gameplay, but it was still great fun--whether I was playing it alone or with friends in the alternating co-op mode. And what it lacked in polish it made up for with an enchanting ambiance whose unmistakable tones were so evocative that Country was worth playing just to feel it--just to immerse myself in its environments and soak in its every vibe. A game's ability to convey emotions using music and atmospheric touches might not have been important to the average enthusiast, but it meant a lot to me.

These days, it's normal that Donkey Kong Country is instantly dismissed whenever its name pops up during conversation--any praise for the game met with synchronized eye-rolling. You know why that is. It's the same ol' story: Some guy whose opinion, for whatever reason, is valued above all others' arbitrarily decides that a game is "overrated," and then the rest of us have to spend decades listening to his mindless followers parrot the message until it becomes absolute truth. The culprit is usually a jaded games journalist or any of Youtube's array of emotional infants.

In this case, their collective has taken it up as a cause to tear down the "overrated" Donkey Kong Country, whose popularity is treated as a direct assault on the underappreciated Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island and Shigeru Miyamoto's work in general. Most galling is that this nonsense stems from a Miyamoto quote that was twisted entirely out of context; all he did was accurately state that gamers were likely to forgive a game's shortcomings if its graphics were amazing, which somehow became "Donkey Kong Country is mediocre, and people only like it because it looks good." He's since made his true feelings known, but crusaders predictably ignore these reports and continue to carry water for a fictionalized version of the man.

Donkey Kong Country isn't "overrated." It's rated just fine. It's not a replacement for Super Mario Bros., nor is it meant to be; it seeks to inspire the player in a whole different way. 

It's is not a masterwork, no: The controls are a bit unwieldy. The boss battles are stupidly simple. It's sometimes difficult to discern which parts of platform edges are solid. The Kongs' hit-detection is all over the place. And the level designers have a fetish for positioning enemies in such a way that you can't see them coming. And yet it succeeds in being fun, challenging, and aesthetically pleasing, which is about all you can ask for from a game. People like to call its pre-rendered graphics "dated," but I'd call them "wonderfully distinct." Nothing else on the SNES, or any other 16-bit system, looks like it or evokes the same kind of emotions (not even Vectorman, no); that's what makes Donkey Kong Country what it is and why I remember it so fondly. Even if I never played it again, it would still stand out in my memory for how it challenged my perception of what a platform should look and feel like. 

I'd agree that its two SNES sequels are superior games, but neither resonates with me as strongly as the original (though, I have to say that Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest has a terrific musical score and some outstanding visual themes). They did more with the technology, yeah, but they fell into that trap of introducing too many superfluous collectibles and an abundance of uninteresting secondary characters (the Brothers Bear). Give me Country's simple, straightforward action any day.

So Rare loads up the sequels with all of this content yet somehow forgets to include the most important element: Donkey Kong, himself. How did that happen? How is it that Donkey Kong didn't make it in as a playable character? It's his series, after all. That always bugged me.

Maybe it was all smoke and mirrors, and Donkey Kong Country was just a plain ol' 16-bit game hiding behind the veneer of graphical techniques that weren't nearly as advanced as advertised. But that was the world as we knew it; we couldn't see behind the curtain, and there was no Internet to explain the trick to us. Video games were magical creations that might as well have been spit out by quantum supercomputers in a floating castle somewhere over Japan. Not knowing was half the fun; it was what gave these games their special aura. It's the reason why Donkey Kong Country--one of the greatest magic tricks ever performed--remains an object of fascination for so long.

I'm no longer the type of person who would go out and buy a game based on the promise of its technology, alone, but I'll continue to reject the notion that a technology-centered game can't have long-term value. Were I to look away from it--allow myself to become a victim of the pointless graphics-versus-gameplay debate--I'd be potentially shunning a game that might have inspired me in ways I couldn't have imagined. I'd be potentially robbing myself of this era's Donkey Kong Country and all of the wonderful memories I'd derive from it. 

I'd be tuning out the message of Donkey Kong Country's ending theme. And that would be a decision I'd live to regret.

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