Friday, March 6, 2015

[REVIEW] Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest
Played on: Wii U (Virtual Console)
Originally available on: SNES
Genre: 2D platformer
Developer: Rare
Publisher: Nintendo   

So, what do you do when you release a game that turns out to be one of the defining killer apps for an entire console generation? For good old Rare of the nineties, you immediately start working on a sequel to improve every single aspect of the original. This is pretty much Donkey Kong Country 2 in a nutshell: a bolder, prettier and significantly better-designed follow-up that is breathtaking in its restlessness to set the standard of unforgettable 2D platforming.

It's hard to imagine that a game these days would eschew the title character of a series in favor of newer, less known sidekicks, but that's precisely what DKC2 does. After the wacky events of the first game, villain K. Rool kidnaps Donkey Kong and takes him to the summit of Crocodile Isle, the creepy kremling homeland. It's left to Diddy Kong to rescue the big ape, and in this he's helped by his girlfriend Dixie. Like in the first game, each character plays very differently: Diddy is still very quick and agile, while Dixie is slower, but can helicopter-spin her hair in mid-air to break her falls, a move that helps reach faraway places while giving novices a better chance of overcoming the game's most difficult platforming sections.

Obviously, K. Rool needs to hire a gardener.
If Diddy's Kong Quest seems eager to differentiate itself from its predecessor when it comes to its main characters, the same is true for its setting. Crocodile Isle is a far cry from the (mostly) tropical DK Island of the first game; instead, it's a gloomy, ominous, bramble-infested mountain that is home to the kremlings, the series' trademark bad guys, and their commander K. Rool. There is a strong pirate theme that eventually gets mixed with a horror atmosphere, and the combination makes the most original and exciting setting the series has ever seen. This is all supported by graphics that are much more lively than they were in the first game, super colorful even in their bleakness, and filled with attention to detail.

The music was one of the highlights of the first game, but here things are taken to another level entirely. To fit the new setting, composer David Wise created a magnificent collection of eerie tunes that constantly one-up each other in their sheer awesomeness. A few of them still showcase the playfulness seen in Wise's previous upbeat jungle tracks, but the majority are much more slow-paced and atmospheric; melancholy, even. This is the original home to the famous "Stickerbrush Symphony", and also to "Forest Interlude", which may just be my favorite video game tune of all time. It really is a soundtrack that should be appreciated like you would a fine album by your favorite band.

Playing as my favorite animal buddy, listening to my favorite tune. Things are good.
Aside from all the eye- and ear-candy, I think the almost magical joy of playing through this game has a very specific root, and that's because it seems the old Rare staff was hellbent at making this a pitch-perfect experience. The level design is simply relentless: every single stage has its own specific "schtick", meaning that no two of them feel truly the same. The difficulty curve is implemented in a very organic way, too, letting players get accustomed to specific kinds of challenges before going all in on them. Every new world is harder than the previous one, but the challenge always feels fair and well thought-out.

Just as impressively, the game manages an extremely (ahem) rare middle ground when it comes to its collect-a-thon aspects. Unlike the previous game, even the most well-hidden collectibles still feel well-placed, meaning that, with enough perseverance, players should be able to track them all down without outside assistance (which is an awesome feeling). It also helps that the game's mysterious atmosphere is an invitation to thorough exploration, which is not that common in linear, level-based platformers. Yet you'll still have an incredible time if you never chase after collectibles at all, getting more than enough bang for your buck when it comes to satisfying challenge.

A kremling's idea of fun: riding creepy carts in a creepier rollercoaster.
If you do choose to go after 102%, however, you're in for an even bigger treat. Each stage features two or three bonus minigames (each awarding you a "kremkoin" should you succeed), as well as a single well-hidden DK coin. Kremkoins are used to acess the Lost World, an entire new area that has to be completed in order to get the game's beautiful true ending. The DK coins, on the other hand, are huge, majestic golden medals that have to be collected if you want to top Cranky Kong's podium of Video Game Heroes. This means that the game's collectibles offer tangible rewards for tracking them down, not only a maximum completion rate at the game select screen.

Last but not least, the animal buddies, one of the best ideas from the first game, return for another go. Rambi the Rhino and Enguarde the Swordfish are both back with new supercharge attacks (activated by holding A, useful to kill rows of foes and to find hidden rooms). Rattly, a cute coil-shaped snake, is the new high-jumper, while Squawks the Parrot has newfound usefulness as the main flying buddy. There's also another new buddy, and this one is my favorite: Squitter, a sneaker-wearing giant spider, able to use its web to shoot foes and make platforms. Another great new idea are animal barrels, which make the monkeys fully transform into the buddies. This allows for stages that can only be completed by specific animals, further boosting the diversity in level design.

Ooooh, shiny!
Diddy's Kong Quest is not only the best game in the Donkey Kong Country series, it's one of the finest platformers ever made. It follows the basics of classic 2D sidescrolling gameplay, but throws its own twists and turns at every opportunity, making every stage feel like a memorable adventure. Its fast-paced yet meticulous breed of platforming is so well implemented that it hasn't aged a day since 1995, with stellar level design to back it up. Simply put, it's a masterpiece that should be experienced by every single person who calls themselves a gamer.

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