Friday 14 August 2015

Snes Review - Diddy's Kong Quest (Game 087)

When you sell a platformer on the strength of its graphics, how do you attract an audience back for a sequel, when the novelty of the visuals is no longer there?

Developed by Rare
Published by Nintendo
Released in 1995

"It's taken 22 man years, 32 megs, 32768 colours
and 1 super computer to make him look this awesome".

It's hard to pretend that 'Donkey KongCountry' wasn't a game sold on the strength of its graphics. Even the most casual glance at the publicity that surrounded the game's launch make it abundantly obvious that Nintendo were pitching this game as one that was stunning to look at, rather than one that was brilliant to play. So much so, Nintendo even saw the need to post millions of VHS tapes to homes all across America, just so consumers could see the splendid graphics in motion. 

It's right that the publisher we're proud of the visuals of course. With its pre-rendered 3D modelled sprites and lush colourful dynamic backgrounds 'DonkeyKong Country' was a game that looked far beyond what many considered possible on a Snes. Everything from its swaying lights to its huge bosses screamed 32 bit and some critics even wrongly presumed it was a game on Nintendo's next console, rather than its ageing Super Nintendo. Beneath the pioneering graphics of course was a brilliant but infamously hard game, not that anyone noticed. People leaped on 'Donkey Kong Country' because of the way it looked and the great gameplay was, for many, a pleasant surprise. It was promotion that clearly worked as 'Donkey Kong Country' went on to become the second best selling game on the Snes, shifting over eight million copies. In an era where success equated to sequels, the announcement of 'Donkey Kong Country : Diddy's Kong Quest' surprised no one. Customers it seemed, couldn't get enough of Nintendo's tie wearing Ape, but there was a problem. The first game had really pushed the Snes as far as it could go. It had been a graphical leap from what had previously existed on the console certainly, but a sequel could only look as good as its prequel; it was near impossible to advance the visuals much further. 'DonkeyKong Country' had been a giant step on from the way 'Super Mario World' looked, but all 'Donkey Kong Country 2' would be able to do was a baby step on from what had already been achieved. "It'll look very attractive indeed, but we've come to expect that from the purveyors of some of the finest graphics ever to appear on 16 bit hardware" Super Play magazine said when they previewed the game. "From what we've seen so far, little appears to have changed ... familiarity breeds comfort perhaps". 

Critics it seems were no longer wowed, they had become accustomed to 'Donkey Kong Country' quality visuals and the sequel simply didn't seem as revolutionary. "I suppose were all a bit blasé about this graphics nonsense after a year of seeing it in every games magazine on the shelf" game critic Zy Nicholson once said.

With just a year to bring the game to market Developer Rare had a challenge on their hands. With easily jaded consumers, astronomical sales were no longer guaranteed simply because 'Donkey Kong Country 2' looked nice. To pull in the punters they would have to do what developers always should do, create a great where graphics are decoration not substance. Rare’s approach was the perfect one, look at all the things that made the prequel so strong and build on it. 

The box boasts that there's "more secrets and challenges than Donkey Kong country', tons of new moves and finally some proper challenge to the game". 'Diddy's Kong Quest' feels simultaneously familiar and yet also new.

It tweaks the 'Donkey Kong Country' formula enough so it seems fresh without loosing the original's magic. Accordingly, like its predecessor 'Diddy’s Kong Quest' is a 2D platform side scroller, with a focus on exploration and puzzles rather than speed. As before, while two characters appear on screen only one can be controlled with the player swapping between the two to utilise each character's strengths. Levels are spread across world maps, with the monkey double act traversing all sorts of varied and increasingly abstract environments throughout their adventure. While the first game saw monkeys in mine carts and Aztec ruins it never saw them exploring a giant Bee's honeycomb, or joining a circus. The first game garnished praise for having animals steeds with varying abilities, so these make a return in the Second game. While the prequel had four rideable animal buddies, ‘Diddy’s Kong Quest' has five, each with a different skill which of course varies the game play further. Occasionally, they're only there to help you with a bonus area, but in some cases entire levels are built around their abilities. These new animal buddies though are not the only additions.

The Kong family has seemingly expanded and while Cranky and Funky return to assist the player, icons for wrinkly and swanky also appear on the map. These new characters seems to exist just to take you hard to earn in game currency, as the infamously hard series now seemingly charges you to save your game. Of course the most significant new character addition is Dixie Kong who joins Diddy as a playable character; owing to the fact that Donkey Kong has been kidnapped. However this for me at least, is the game's biggest misstep as Diddy and Dixie are a very different double act to the Donkey/Diddy pairing. 

The previous game saw much clearer differentiation between the two playable characters. Donkey Kong was slower but stronger, Diddy was faster but weaker. The larger ape could kill everything but was much less agile. Meanwhile the series newcomer would helplessly bounce off rather than kill some enemies but was far more likely to leap across a bigger gap. It was a speed or power tandem and it was easily understood. In 'Donkey Kong Country 2' Diddy is marginally quicker than Dixie but the difference is not as noticeable as it was in 'Donkey Kong Country'. In fact the two simians play very similar to one and other except that Dixie's pony tail allows her to glide.

This a huge help in the complex platforming sections that make up most of 'Donkey Kong Country 2' '. In the first game I found myself alternating between the two characters as and when the situation demanded it. In the sequel I can't remember a time when there was a reason to choose Diddy, and the only times I did control him was because I was waiting to regain a chance to play as Dixie. When you have a character than can allow you to correct a mis-jump rather than simply plummet to your death, why would you not use her? With newly vertically focused levels comes a nice nod the Donkey Kong's roots though, as climbing animations seem to feel lifted from the original arcade's 'Donkey Kong Jr.' The original 'Donkey Kong Country' received praise for its imagination; while most levels required you to head from the left of the screen to right, what you did during this journey was hardly ever the same. The mine cart levels rightful are the most fondly remembered, but also as inventive were the underwater stages, and infamously the stop go station ; where an astonishingly hard level could only be completed if you continually hit the enemies off switch.

In 'Donkey Kong Country 2' many elements have been lifted from the previous game, something Super Play magazine were initially critical of. "Many new levels look like mere updates of the original" they claimed in a preview, however once they played the game the magazine quickly changed their opinion. "Superficially at least, it appears to be little more than a rehash of 'Donkey Kong Country' but once you start playing you begin to notice the differences" noted Zy Nicholson in his review . Yes, They may look similar but the levels in 'Diddy’s Kong Quest' have been refined so that they are now less frustrating and more enjoyable. It isn't until the sixth (and final) world is reached that you'll see your first slippy slidey ice level for example, even though it's a (generally despised) staple in this sort of game. Rare clearly know that the general consensus is one of hatred though, as part way through this seemingly mandatory generic inclusion you'll go underwater and have to ride on the back of Engarde the swordfish, one of the game's many animal helpers. "The ice level" feels like it's there only in tribute to generic expectations explaining why it isn't long before the stage veers off in a different direction. This means you'll be completely unprepared when, a couple levels later, the ice returns and you're not only forced to navigate it, but to do so at a fast pace before it melts and you plunge into the jaws of an unstoppable piranha. Nothing in 'Donkey Kong Country 2' seems that predictable and it seems like Rare delights in taking the players expectations from the first game and deliberately turning them on their head.

Continuing this logic, the famous Mine cart stages have been replaced with roller coaster ones and are much more forgiving as a result. They also play differently to the first game's equivalents, with the player having to throw switches and outrun enemies while they jump gaps. On another stage Dixie and Diddy must traverse a lava pit by riding slowly deflating balloons and to be successful they have to be refilled with heat from spouts of hot air. It's a much more forgiving way of including suddenly collapsing platforms, without the frustrations that comes with a unavoidable death caused by the floor unexpectedly falling away beneath your feet. Boss fights in the first game were impressively but in the main they just required you to do the same thing. With possessed swords and angry giant wasps chasing you through levels, the bosses in the sequel are varied and memorable. Even better, there's not the same repetition to them. You may fight the ghost of the first world's boss in the fifth world, but the second confrontation is so much more complex and challenging so you'd be wrong to compare the two. That being said, some problems that plagued the original game have made it through the net and they have the same detrimental effect in the sequel . Falls off platform edges are not consistently safe or dangerous. sometimes a player will loose a life instantly because they have missed a jump. However, on other stages, a similar looking fall will see the screen scroll and the player's character is saved. Platform games require a certain Amount of precision, an avatar needs to jump as soon as instructed to do so and it should always be clear what is and isn't stand-onable.
Super Play was one of many magazines to notice this short-coming, claiming that "because of the intricacy of the graphics your sprite can sometimes safely overlap part of a danger zone. And because the animation is so fluid it's difficult to tell when your spin attack starts and stops being considered effective." Some critics even believed this flaw was the one factor that meant the 'Donkey Kong Country' games would never measure up to Nintendo's other platformers. Tony Mott for example noted that "you can't perform the precision stunts of a 'Mario' game when the graphics are so organic and imprecise". As was the case in the previous game, sometimes it's impossible to tell what is background and will not effect the player and what is foreground and is therefore something that Diddy or Dixie needs to traverse. "This kind of carelessness in a game simply shouldn't happen any more" fumed Super Play. 

The first game was known for being punishing but it never really felt like difficulty in lieu of content. Many platformers disguise their lack of imagination or content by making what little is in the game stupidly hard. in this way the levels take longer to complete and by extension the game feels longer. While the stages of 'Donkey Kong Country 2' do get exponentially tougher as the game goes on, at its heart, it wants you to win. Lives are plentiful and continue points are liberally scattered across stages .Failing at tricky sections of the game, by and large feel the fault of the player, rather than the game being unfair. With each life you get incrementally further through a challenging section, chipping away until even the most imposing part of the game seems possible. Like the first game, despite a harsh but largely fair difficulty it's all still a bit short though. The seven worlds can be completed comfortably within eight hours and the brief game length is only elongated due to the volume of stuff to find and collect.
As Retro Gamer magazine retrospectively remarked, if you want to see the origins of Rare's obsession with collectables look no further than 'Diddy’s Kong Quest'. There's not only bananas to find but also DK tokens, extra lives, coins with crocs on them and plenty of hidden bonus room entrances. Getting to (and completing) all the bonus levels and finding the well-hidden Coins can be a tough time consuming endeavour. But at least there's a point to the enduring the frustration and it's not just because you can brag about having a 102% complete save file. Coins are used to buy access to five special harder bonus levels. Completing these unlocks a hidden the final chapter which itself is a a fitting epilogue for the main story and worth doing. 

There are many games that rightfully lay claim to having the best music on the Snes, but you would be wrong to not include 'Diddy’s Kong Quest' amongst them. It is, by a considerable margin, the pinnacle of David Wise’s brilliant career and there is not a single tune in the game that could be singled out as weak. It's not uncommon for players to even pause the game just so they can focus on the soundtrack and there's even a weird sense of joy that comes from having to restart a level because that will mean getting to hear a tune for a longer period of time. The slight problem with the majestic melodies though, is that David Wise readily admits that he loves getting inspiration from other songs. so much so that a few of his tracks even push what is considered "fair use" by copyright law . Indeed a vocal minority claim that this is the reason why the 'Donkey Kong Country' games were removed from Nintendo's download service and why the entire soundtrack was redone when 'Diddy's Kong Quest' was ported to the GBA. However, the original composers of the music that apparently "inspired" the game's soundtrack have never taken any sort of legal action and there has never been a confirmed reason why the games were removed from Wii's Virtual Console. The most famous example of this apparent plagiarism was the use of a the percussion track from Phil Collins' 'In the Air Tonight' which appeared in the game's song 'Bayou Boogie'. Wise has even acknowledged that the two sound similar on Twitter. When asked if it's strange that people think of the track while playing the game he remarked that it was "No coincidence. I was trying to get the SNES to sound like the Roland CR78 that Phil Collins used for 'In the air tonight'." Controversy aside though, The music for the game is held in such high esteem that David Wise was invited to returned to the series when the 'Donkey Kong Country' games were rebooted on Nintendo's modem console. He composed tracks for 'Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze', collaborating with Kenji Yamamoto, who is probably best known for the equally atmospheric 'Super Metroid'. 

When promoting 'Donkey Kong Country' Nintendo was certainly guilty of allowing their customers to believe it was an advanced 3D game, one that eclipsed what the competition could do with their new fancy 32 bit machines. Nintendo banked on the public's general inexperience with 3D graphics and glossed over the fact that there was nothing special inside a 'Donkey Kong Country' cart. It was a game that they tactically used to convince people not to trade in their Super Nintendo systems for something better. It was a slight of hand that Nintendo got away with, largely because in 1994, When people thought of advanced computer graphics, they thought of the dinosaurs in 'Jurassic Park' or CGI movies like 'Toy Story'. 'Donkey Kong Country's sprites looked much more like Buzz Lightyear than the blocky real 3D polygons games seen on Sega's Saturn or Sony's Playstation. So, To the masses a 2D 'Donkey Kong' game which looked 3D was more attractive than actual real time 3D models. It was a perception that didn't last though and as authentic 3D games become commonplace, the illusion upon which The first'Donkey Kong Country' was built was shattered. By the time of 'Donkey Kong Country 2's release, the pre rendered 3D look may have lost is novelty but it hadn't lost its aesthetic appeal. Even today, it’s a game that looks and sounds as good as its predecessor. However as customers started to demand more than a pretend 3d game, the required gameplay developments and refinements meant it became the perfect sequel. 

All the best things of the first game remained and in many cases they were improved and expanded upon. many of its frustrating elements were removed. The incredible soundtrack somehow was topped and with countless things to collect the game felt much longer even if the level count is similar. 'Donkey Kong Country' was a superb game and its sequel is even better, (even though you spend the whole game choosing to play as one character rather than both). The fact that the 'Donkey Kong Country' games have stood the test of time proves that despite it being the drive behind Nintendo's promotion, impressive graphics really wasn't what made these games great. 

Where did I get this game from? 
According to Retro Gamer magazine 'Diddy's Kong Quest' sold a little over half the number of copies that the original did. Even if this is true it was still enough to make it one of the ten best selling games released for the console, such was the monumental success of the first 'Donkey Kong Country' game. For collectors, popularity is a double edge sword. While it means more copies of a successful game are available, there are more people that want to repurchase the game since it featured so heavily in more childhoods. I got my copy from eBay and on a good day you can grab this game for under £20. However, it's not uncommon for a mint copy to sell for twice that, which amazingly is actually still less than the suggested retail price twenty years ago.

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