Monday, August 22, 2011

Why DKC 2 is better than DKC Returns

In my personal opinion, the SNES Donkey Kong Country trilogy offered some of the best platforming gameplay ever designed. My opinion is undoubtedly clouded somewhat by nostalgia seeing as Donkey Kong Country was the first videogame I ever owned (except for a weird handheld Sonic game in which the titular hedgehog could occupy about three positions on the screen, the music to which I have spend the better part of two decades trying to erase from my memory).

I have, however, replayed the 2nd and 3rd installments within the last year or so, and they hold up. I also recently had the pleasure of playing Donkey Kong Country Returns, a lovingly crafted throwback to the original series by newcomer Retro Studios. Returns is a great game, with some truly stellar level design, but I'd like to lay out a few reasons why for me it doesn't quite dethrone Donkey Kong Country 2, which is probably my favorite platformer of all time.

Reason 1: The Roll
I've been a minor Wii defender for the past few years. Sure it has as bad a case of shovelware-itis as the iPhone app store, and when a game is ported over, the motion controls are usually implemented horribly (gestures are not buttons!), but most of the first-party stuff has been top notch, and the Virtual Console is like a candy store for a retro gamer.

And yet, in a title that obviously had a great deal of care and effort put into it, made specifically for crotchety oldschool fans such as myself, we have one of the two central actions assigned to the "shake" motion, with no other control options. There's no reason it had to be like this; the game only needs two action buttons which the Wiimote, conveniently enough, has. Maybe they thought no one would want to use the "shake" command if the player could change it to a button. I can't say I'd dispute that.

Aside from the issues that come with the waggle, such as the roll not always registering when you want it to (which doesn't happen too often, but one in a hundred times is still enough to be a little infuriating), the move itself just isn't as interesting as it used to be. In the SNES games, the roll speed/distance was heavily influenced by your prior momentum, and you could easily jump and change direction mid-roll. This made it much easier to incorporate rolling into your gameplay since it would hardly break your stride. The roll in DKC Returns sends you forwards much farther, always, making it eminently possible to overshoot a ledge. It may be partly due to my comfort with them, but in the originals I utilize the roll constantly and unconsciously, whereas in the new one I found myself thinking "doesn't look like I can make this just by jumping, better break out the roll." It becomes a key to open figurative locked doors strewn about the levels which, combined with the physical invocation, breaks flow somewhat.

Reason 2: The Economy
I'll just come out and say it: the economy and lives system in this game is essentially broken. Extra lives were always rare in this series (heh, "rare"),and this entry is no exception. However, they've added a store wherein you can spend coins to purchase, among other things, extra lives. You accumulate coins like Pigpen accumulates dirt, and lives are roughly two coins apiece (15 for 7), so before you complete the first world you'll be able to buy enough lives to open a balloon conglomerate.

Thankfully the game doesn't actually need a lives system, so this isn't a huge problem, but it feels like the developers were afraid to implement such a system, but also wanted to be oldschool, and compromised by implementing one that should have no effect on the game's difficulty whatsoever as long as the player is awake (although they may start to run down if you're playing coop, which is a weird disincentive).

I have mixed feelings about harsh failure penalties, but I will say that some of the most exciting parts of replaying DKC2 were when I was running low on lives and trying desperately to reach the next save point. That's the kind of gameplay you don't get much anymore. It's not like playing a modern game with badly placed checkpoints, you're fighting for your life so that the previous 40 minutes of gameplay weren't for naught. There are valid reasons why you don't see this kind of punishing gameplay anymore, even in hardcore indy titles like Super Meat Boy or I Wanna Be The Guy, but all the same something has been lost.

It's not that the difficulty has been dialed back much. Some of the unlockable temple levels are quite challenging, and the secret fruit-float level is about as challenging as anything in the originals. The game is clearly aimed at those looking for a challenge, so it just irks me that the lives system is generous to the point of being completely irrelevant.

Reason 3: The Bosses
Not sure exactly why, I think the reasons varied from boss to boss, but I didn't particularly enjoy most of the boss fights in the new game, whereas I generally have in the previous entries. Here they were presented less ominously, and rather than epic struggles, they mostly just felt like "complete this pattern several times without screwing up." Not a huge deal, but slightly disappointing. I would like to do a more in-depth analysis, but apparently they were also pretty forgettable as well.

This isn't to say that everything in the new game is a step back. The level design is some of best and most varied I've ever seen in a platformer, the ability to grab onto moss is interesting and well implemented, and simultaneous coop is a lot of fun. Also they didn't include Kiddy Kong.

Overall I'm really happy with the job Retro Studios did, and I hope they consider continuing the franchise. Now if you'll allow me to put my nostalgia goggles back on, I need to go watch the rest of Cadillacs and Dinosaurs.

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