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FGC #498 DK: King of Swing

MOAR APESLet’s hear it for Donkey Kong, the incredible ape that only has a few actions, but can do ‘em a million different ways.

… Or at least three.

To start, we have to address DK’s most hated rival: Mario. Or… well… they seem to be getting along pretty well at this moment, but they do have the occasional issue over copyright disputes. Regardless, as you may be aware, Mario has starred in a number of games. And it’s not just his popular adventures jumping across the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario has been everything from a tennis ace to a kart racer to a medical doctor. Mario had more spin-off titles before the end of the NES than many gaming heroes had individual “main franchise” games. Mario, designed to be like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, or Tom Hanks, could fill many roles and serve many masters. Mario has to headline a golf game now? Sure! Princess Peach can be caddy for some reason.

But there’s a problem with Mario appearing in so many roles: he has lost sight of his original moveset. Mario runs and jumps. It has been there from the beginning, and his greatest hits have ultimately boiled down to those simple motions. Mario jumps. It’s his thing. And even when Mario leaps from system to system, you have a basic idea of how his physics are going to fare in the new dimensions. … Except, when, ya know, there is no jumping. There is, at best, a tiny hop in Mario Kart. Mario nary jumps an inch in Dr. Mario. Picross is right out. And even titles that are not action games, but do pay homage to Mario’s ups, feature a Mario that is, at best, hobbled. Mario & Luigi or Super Mario RPG literally talk about the great jumping Mario, but it’s still not the primary way Mario interacts with his world. It’s telling how quickly Mario discovers a fire flower or hammer (or both!) in those titles…

The new canonAnd, in a way, that’s absolutely fine! You don’t need running and jumping to toss pills of dubious scientific origins at viruses, and RPGs shouldn’t have puzzles where the solution is “run better”. Mario has existed across genres and playstyles, and the fact that he adapts to each new challenge like he always belonged there is a feature, not a bug. Mario can compete in the Olympics, and his caretakers don’t have to find a way to squeeze a mystical mushroom into the already complex, shot put-based gameplay.

But that does mean Mario loses something along the way. If you pick up Mario Kart expecting typical Mario gameplay, you’re going to have a bad time. If you only want a traditional Mario game, but with a whole lot more dialogue, then the latest Mario RPG is going to leave you wanting. Mario might be right there in the title, and he might be the focus of the core concept, but that’s no guarantee that Mario will be the Mario that you remember. Mario is always going to be Mario, yes, but there’s no promise his latest outing is going to feature a Mario that simply runs, jumps, and occasionally menaces turtles.

Donkey Kong, though, now there’s a reliable ape.

The Donkey Kong official timeline is a little blurry, but the first playable “Donkey Kong” was definitely Donkey Kong Junior. DK Jr. controlled much like Mario, though with the moveset addition of “can climb”. This was required across all levels, and, in some stages, was little more than an evolution of Mario’s ability to “press up”. However, some levels (including the finale!) were almost entirely climbing based, so, while a horizontally traveling DK Jr. was very similar to his father’s captor, an ape on a vine was a different animal from a plumber on a ladder. As such, we learned the one thing that DK has over Mario: he’s an experienced climber. DK Tarzan, Mario plain.

Spikey!Then Donkey Kong took some time off to discover himself, learn math, figure out how ties work, and eventually returned a decade or so later. The “new” Donkey Kong of Donkey Kong Country was not confined to a scant few stages, but had an entire, enormous island to explore. He had his own reptilian villain, a fresh addiction to yellow fruit, and a little buddy that was so happy, he’s doing cartwheels. But Donkey Kong? Donkey Kong, at his core, was still doing the exact same things. He ran. He jumped. He swung on vines. The only new addition for the player was DK having some offensive options, like tossing barrels, but that was something the big guy did right from his first appearance (even if the player didn’t have any input on when he did it). Donkey Kong felt different from his DK Jr. days, but the same basic moves were all there. To some, this might seem like the old monkey couldn’t learn new tricks, but to others, this was glorious familiarity. And that’s very important when a videogame character resurfaces on an entirely new system with unfamiliar graphics.

This iteration of Donkey Kong stuck around for a generation or so, and stayed consistent (give or take a coconut gun that can fire in spurts). And then, once Donkey Kong (and Nintendo) separated from Rare, things got interesting.

Four years after Donkey Kong 64, Donkey got his own official Nintendo Peripheral. The DK Bongos were a pair of bongos (of course!) poorly posing as a controller. They were Nintendo’s answer to the Taiko Drums or Guitar Heroes of other systems, but they were used for more than mere rhythm games. The DK Barrels led to not only the prerequisite Donkey Konga, but also Donkey Kong Jungle Beat. DKJB was controlled entirely via bongos, and felt very different from every action platformer that had ever come before. But you know how DK navigated this brave new world? He ran, jumped, and swung on vines. DK: Jungle Beat felt wholly new and different from literally any game that had come before, but Donkey Kong was still very much Donkey Kong. And that familiarity is a godsend when you’re trying to grapple with a controller that somehow involves clapping.

He can breathe anywhereAnd then DK’s experimental phase continued with DK: King of Swing. In this adventure, our dear Donkey Kong can run and jump, but he isn’t so much into those ground-based activities anymore. Donkey Kong has taken to the skies, and is going down swinging. Or up? He’s still going in whatever direction you want. In fact, he’s going in every direction, as the gameplay of DK: King of Swing is literally going in circles. The primary challenge involved is stopping the big guerilla’s rotation at exactly the right time. In this manner, DK is able to do all his usual moves, as “jumping” or “throwing” are now simply lesser facets of “twirling”. It’s an entirely different way to control Donkey Kong, but his moves are still familiar.

And that’s important when adapting your protagonist to different gameplay. Let’s face it, DK: KoS is the sequel to Nintendo’s long forgotten Clu Clu Land. This is the evolution, the “super” version of a game that was released in 1984. But it is not “a Clu Clu Land” game. This is unmistakably a Donkey Kong game. DK has a certain heft to his movements that is completely absent from other platformers. It’s the same weight that allowed him to roll off a cliff to grab a K emblem in the Donkey Kong Country titles. It’s the same weight that allowed DK to be controlled by frantic bongo drumming. It’s even right there at the beginning when DK Jr. cut across a stage with a well-placed jump on a spring. That same monkey momentum was taken to Clu Clu Land’s basic setup, and allowed for a hero that could propel himself through the air with a spin and a flourish. This is Donkey Kong moving like he has never moved before, but he feels right while performing those familiar physical feats.

Ouch!And that’s why Donkey Kong works. That’s why DK: King of Swing, Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, and his later return to Donkey Kong Country all work. Donkey Kong has been consistent in his appearances for decades, and that allows for some superficially inconsistent gameplay. Even though everything seems different, it simmers down to something that is very much the same, and thus immediately understandable. DK: King of Swing is a very different kind of Donkey Kong game, but it works because Donkey Kong continues to be Donkey Kong.

So, congratulations Donkey Kong, you’re more consistent than Mario, and that allows you to feature in more experimental games while still maintaining your identity. You finally beat that plumber at something.

And I bet Pauline isn’t even going to notice…

FGC #498 DK: King of Swing

  • System: Gameboy Advance, and then nothing ever again. The game was well-received in its time! I think!
  • Number of players: There’s an entire competitive multiplayer mode that is separate from the main, one-player campaign. It’s a four player game as a result, and at least one player can be Wrinkly Kong’s Ghost. It is exactly as macabre as it sounds.
  • What about single player? For some reason, only Diddy Kong mode is unlockable as an alternative to Donkey Kong. I’m not certain why the likes of Dixie or Funky are not allowed to also fight the lizard king, but Diddy can play hero all he wants. Maybe it’s because he has so much experience with kart racing heroics.
  • Here we goHey, isn’t Donkey Kong: Barrel Blast relevant to this whole discussion on DK appearances? Gogglebob.com does not formally recognize any titles involving sexy lady kremlings and Lanky Kong.
  • Story Time: DK King of Swing’s official plot is that the Kongs were going to have some manner of Monkey Olympics, but King K. Rool stole all the medals, and now DK has to venture through five or so worlds to reclaim all the gold before the games. What happened to simply having sports for the spirit of competition, Kongs? Do you really have to rely on these meaningless baubles? Do you actually need your patriarch to fight a gigantic, flaming bird so you can have a medal at the end of the day? You apes are too materialistic.
  • Favorite Character: Less you missed the obvious parallels, the star of Clu-Clu Land is the final unlockable character. Clu-Clu is a beast… and incidentally a silly little circle. I like simple designs.
  • For the Sequel: DK: King of Swing did receive a DS sequel titled DK: Jungle Climber. Its selling point is dropping the “cartoony” graphics of King of Swing for the more familiar “rendered” graphics of the 16-bit era. It’s otherwise a pretty pat sequel in gameplay and plot, and an inglorious end for this branch of the DK family tree.
  • Did you know? Given he hasn’t yet returned for Donkey Kong Country Returns titles, DK: King of Swing and DK: Jungle Climber were the last titles where King K. Rool appeared as an antagonist. He’s performed a few times since then as a generic “player” in baseball games and alike, though, so it’s not like Smash Bros. was his only spotlight in the last decade. Maybe we’ll see more of the big lug in the future thanks to Smash. It certainly worked for Fire Emblem
  • Would I play again: I’m always reminded how much I like this game every time I play it. It certainly has its share of weird bits (what’s this about eating my banana stock for health?), but it feels very right, so I might chase that feeling again. And I have to defend my King of Swing medals…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Ballz. Oh man, that game is balls. Please look forward to it, that, which is Ballz!

Weeeeee

FGC #009 Donkey Kong Country

Mine or rollercoaster?History is written by the winners, be they ape or dinosaur.

Donkey Kong Country was the big crazy holiday release for the Super Nintendo. It was a revolution in graphics available on the SNES, or so we were told, and a pretty alright game to play to boot. The console wars were over, Nintendo was the victor, and Donkey Kong carried the victory barrel over the kremling finish line. Somewhere, a Genesis kid wept bitter tears as everyone abandoned the diminutive blue hedgehog for a pair of primates. They had to go fast.

The following year, the war won, Sega floundering and assembling green balls into strange vectors, the Playstation still waiting with baited breath for the cloud of prosperity that would still be two years away, (Super) Nintendo games only had each other to battle. In one holiday season, we saw eternal triumphs like Chrono Trigger clashing for a child’s wallet with the likes of beloved mascot games, like Earthworm Jim 2. And, direct from Nintendo, we had two amazing games: Yoshi’s Island and Donkey Kong Country 2. The rivalry between the two games would echo through the annals of the then fairly fresh internet (popularly known as AOL in those days), and now, decades later, much is still made of the competitors, story book graphics vs. prerendered, indepth gameplay vs. run ‘n jump, “Trojan horse” marketing vs. charming, and I think I’ve even heard some good ol’ East vs. West enmity in there.

But here we stand, two decades later, and are forced to ask ourselves: who won?

First, we look at Donkey Kong Country. Poor, sweet, forgotten Donkey Kong Country. Oh? What’s that you say? Yes, I can hear you, gentle reader, out there in internet land, as your monocle flies from your face and your top hat reaches disagreeable heights, propelled by the steam rising from your ears. Yes, I stand by my statement, your incredulity aside, Donkey Kong Country has been forgotten by gaming at large, and I realized this only while playing the ol’ girl.

The bee is also spikeyDonkey Kong Country is, and I apologize for the heresy you’re about experience, Super Mario Bros. 3. I realize this may be antithetical to every belief you have, but attempt a run of Super Mario Bros. 3 without ever acquiring a super leaf, without ever taking to the skies, and then play Donkey Kong Country. Things will seem oddly familiar, I guarantee. Make no mistake, Super Mario Bros. 3 is one of the greatest platformers ever for a reason (that reason is The Wizard), and DKC cannot be held to its exacting standard, but if the folks at Rare were going to… ape any game in the Nintendo anthology for their creation, they may as well grab one of the best. Much though I’m sure the impulse was there, I’m glad they didn’t choose to introduce the new Donkey Kong in a game emulating, say, Clu-Clu Land. Who would want to play that?

I shouldn’t have to elaborate on this point, and I might be high on pesticides right now, but Donkey Kong Country is, like the finer, old Mario games, a game where you run from left to right, jump on an eclectic mix of antagonistic animals, and then clear the goal before wandering into the next obstacle course. The main theme of Super Mario Bros. 3 is titled “Still Running Around”, and that may as well be the central theme-theme of the game. Donkey (and Diddy, can’t forget the smart one of the stupid apes) are “still running around” through their entire adventure, with occasional breaks for swimming labyrinths (not unlike the more maze-y stages of SMB3) and maybe a minecart or two. Donkey Kong’s animal friends (is that redundant? That always seems to be the phrase used, but they’re all animals, apes, fish, frogs, etc., so aren’t they all just “friends”?) recall Super Mario World’s Yoshi mechanics; so much so that I still expect DK to punch Engarde in the face every time he wants the swordfish to propel forward. Dinosaur abuse is deeply rooted in my psyche. And then every world concludes with a boss battle that is primarily a skirmish of well timed jumps, save a few gimmicks that may include Bowser-baiting or Bee-barreling.

One day we'll find it...There’s a gameplay mechanic here that exists, but is no more important in Donkey Kong Country than it is in Super Mario Bros. 3, and that’s “collecting”. Yes, there are hidden stages in DKC, and, yes, there are KONG letters in every stage, but neither “collectible” is any more gameplay important than Mario’s Warp Whistles or Flying Coin Ships. Yes, you can score “100%” in DKC the same way you can collect every last coin in SMB3, but neither game ends with a message reminding you that you missed something, or a final boss that is locked away behind some outlandish condition. There are collectibles and “secrets” on Donkey Kong’s island, but they’re fairly insignificant compared to the fun of rolling toward the finale over as many lizards as possible. That banana horde is going to fill up no matter how many exclamation points you weld onto stage names.

And then came Donkey Kong Country 2, and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. As mentioned previously, they were released at nearly the same time, and much has been made of their differences through the decades. No one ever seems to take a moment to compare DKC2 to DKC, though, as DKC2 is seemingly universally lauded as the victor in that ape fight.

But we lost something between DKC and DKC2, and it was the same thing that was “lost” when Mario landed on Yoshi’s Island. As I mentioned in my Yoshi Touch & Go article, Yoshi’s Island introduced the “collection” elements to the Mario platformer universe, and that acquisition has never gone away. Whether it be stars or shines or giant coins, every Mario game is now expected to have some collection element, lest gamers just get bored with running from left to right, in 2D space or three, and additional game content is locked behind these collectibles. Some games are more intensive than others, but it’s there in every Mario game since 1995. Similarly, either thanks to some collaboration in the halls of Nintendo, or just a coincidence of parallel development, Donkey Kong Country 2 acquired a significant collectible element, adding DK “hero coins” and making the hidden stages of the previous game a requirement to see the complete ending and battle the true final boss.

Mine or rollercoaster?This is why I see Donkey Kong Country as forgotten, as the first thing most gamers mention when the DKC series rears its furry head is the “collectathon” elements that have been a staple of the series ever since 1995, DKC2 and DKC3 made the franchise lock significant content behind collecting, and Donkey Kong 64 made the collectathon elements its central focus, to the point that it basically retired the franchise and made the idea of collectibles in a game more of a threat than a feature. This is all absent in Donkey Kong Country, where running and jumping is all that’s required. Go go gorilla!

All of this is just circling back to my original question: Who won, Donkey Kong or Yoshi? As I write this in 2015, both franchises have enjoyed a new renaissance despite a decade or so of inactivity. DK has returned to his roots in Donkey Kong Country Returns and its sequel, and both games have been well received and fun. Yarn Yoshi is on the horizon, and Yoshi’s New Island didn’t cause any noticeable lesions on my body, which is more than I can say for most of the Yoshi franchise since its debut. Assuming Yarn Yoshi is everything it appears to be, both franchises seem to be at about the same plane of “alright”, so we can’t really judge them on that level.

If you see this coming in the ocean, you swim the other wayLet’s look at Mario. Mario has had a record number of 2D platforming games released recently, compared to the N64/GBA/NGC era when we never saw Mario just enjoying the simple pleasures of turtle stomping in limited dimensions. There’s even a pretty easy argument to be made that the recent Super Mario Land 3D branch of the franchise, despite being, obviously, 3D, is much more rooted in the 2D Mario games than the likes of Mario 64. And what happens in those games? Mario runs from left to right, often as quickly as possible, and collects along the way, three special star coins.

Huh, that sounds kind of familiar.

Replace those star coins with KONG letters, and you’ve got Donkey Kong Country to a T. Yes, Mario has power-ups and bob-ombs and whatever crazy platform mechanics that are based on how many people in the room you can get to sneeze or whatever Nintendo came up for the latest game, but in the end, it is nearly the exact same gameplay as the original Donkey Kong Country. It might be a plumber hopping on a dinosaur as opposed to an ape utilizing a rhino, but, in the end, it comes out very similar. And that’s what Nintendo is hanging their number one mascot/cash cow on in a series that doesn’t show any signs of stopping.

Your revolution is over, Yoshi. Condolences. The dinosaurs lost.

Cranky is my spirit animalFGC #9: Donkey Kong Country

  • System: Super Nintendo
  • Number of Players: 2, though it’s a much more frustrating experience with two players than one. Have you ever tried it? Whatever you do, don’t try it with a potential mate. I speak from experience. Just play Double Dash with DK and Diddy and claim it’s the same thing.
  • Donkey Kong or Diddy Kong? Despite Donkey having the clear advantage with his unparalleled ground pound and ability to tackle enemies that laugh off Diddy’s pounces, Diddy is my boy, and his cartwheels are just the bee’s knees. Worst part of Donkey Kong Country Returns is that they saddle you with Donkey and his stupid tie while Diddy is right there!
  • Been kinda hard on Yoshi lately, ya know? Blame ROB! I swear I like Yoshi’s Island just fine. It’s an excellent game! Its sequels and lasting impact on gaming seems to wither as I pay more attention to it, though.
  • Did You Know? Rare told me they studied actual real live apes to perfectly animate the Kong’s movements. I learned this from a VHS tape that arrived, unsolicited, at my home. I presume that Nintendo is waiting for the day it is profitable enough to fund time travel expeditions for Miyamoto to study real live Yoshi in their natural habitat.
  • Would I Play Again? I only re-played through the first three worlds for this article, and I am just fascinated that all this time I have been ignoring this game for its “superior” sequel, DKC2. I am seriously considering heading back to Donkey Kong Country in my nonexistent spare time.

What’s Next? Random ROB has chosen… Ice Climber!? ROB, you %^*$ son of a $$%@. Please look forward to it! I’m not!