Platform Nostalgia: Diddy’s Kong Quest

A cursory look back at my childhood inspires a lot of fuzzy, sepia-toned nostalgia. So much of it was insanely fun: spending all day, every day outside in the woods by my house, playing video games all into the night, and wearing a strangely Rastafarian-themed hoodie that my mom got me. Some of those things still happen, and other things of the 90s I’m sure are gone for good. I mean, do kids even like roller skating anymore? Slap bracelets? Super Soakers?!

Which leads me down a dark, dark path. As it turns out, my formative years weren’t all roses and Game Boys. Phone calls, the bane of my existence and professional writing career, were pretty much the only way to get a hold of someone. Bleached hair was a thing. And, much like the anti-vowel movement known as Web 2.0, people preferred words with swappable and swapped letters.

Like “beats” with a z. You know. Beatz.

Video games were exceptionally bad at this sensational spelling trend (or good, if you liked that sort of thing). Take for example Mortal Kombat. And then some games combined that with puns, like in Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, containing other such gems as Kaptain K. Rool, Kannonballs, and a whole host of enemies with names that begin with K.

But according to my memory, there was so much more to DKC2. So much more, in fact, that I just had to play it right here, right now. Luckily, the website exists. It hosts an SNES emulator built in Adobe Flash with a whole shit ton of games available. The best part? Cloud saves. Fuckin’ cloud saves.

Going back to games, though, especially after more than a decade, usually poses at least two problems. The first is that you have to get past the fact that this game is going to look suuuuper old. I don’t just mean “oh hey, these lighting effects aren’t all that great” sort of old, but I mean almost everything will come across anachronistic. Just look at the menu. When was the last time you saw one of those?

DKC2 is helped, though, by the fact that it was a faux-3D game. The characters and models looked ostensibly three-dimensional and fully rendered, but they are actually pre-rendered sprites moving on a static background. While it does have 2.5D characteristics like enhanced parallax scrolling, it is important to note the distinction. By having everything look ideal from the get-go but inflexible, DKC2 maintains much of its visual identity from all those years ago.

And by identity, I mean charm. Everything is just so…appropriate. The way Diddy’s hat vacillates on and off his head as he runs, the way the honeycomb levels just feel like they’re oozing stickiness, the way enemies explode with an “oh no!” emotion after you jump on them. Even with limited graphical prowess, Rare managed to capture the charm inherent in a game that puts a baseball cap on a monkey.

The same goes for the music. While the tunes go a long way in helping differentiate DKC2 from other SNES games, it also helps set it apart from every other game. The music is addictive in a way that few other games have managed. The loops are seamless and the beats are hypnotic. They aren’t just frenetic and pulse-pounding (though Haunted Chase certainly accomplishes that, too), but rather they set a mood you weren’t even aware was being injected into you, marinating in your ears for the aural feast. Stickerbush Symphony is ethereal and chilling, Bayou Boogie is Phil Collins minus Phil Collins, and Boss Bossanova makes you feel like you’re about the save the world 50 times over in every game you’ve ever played.

But it’s the little things that really make the game, small touches that add to the milieu, the polished irreverence. No one will ever know what a Kaboing actually sounds like, but the fact that Rattly sounds like a donkey when he dies seems exceedingly appropriate, as does the way your eyes bug out when you take a hit. And why does Squitter wear sneakers? Is that why he can’t climb walls? These things add up to make DKC2 feel the way it does. It’s serious but silly all at the same time.

All of that, however, almost seems unnecessary compared to how the game plays. Everyone talks about the mechanics and merits of Mario games as platformers, but DKC titles shouldn’t be left out of the conversation. The sheer movement of Mario is joy, but DKC2 allows for some high-level play. Cartwheeling off of ledges and jumping allows you to cover greater distances. The nuance necessary for popping between barrels—controlling when you hold run and how far you lead your movement—is demanding but rewarding.

Of course, the greatest testament to the quality of a platformer (or really any game) is that I never cursed the game, but rather just my own dumb, sluggish hands. The control granted to the player in midair is astounding. It’s a very real exercise in trust from the game to where DKC2 gives you everything it has and also expects in return everything you have.

And this is aside from mentioning the immense amount of variety in the game. In any given stage, new things are being introduced to you at a blistering pace. At first, you’re just jumping on rats and collecting bananas. But then you learn that you can ostensibly double jump by getting a bump off of hurtling obstacles or lurking enemies. Then you learn how rotating or timed propulsion barrels work. And then you’re teased into trying out the cartwheel/late jump combo. And teased again into learning that you can curve Squitter’s webs, or that doubling up makes you impervious to otherwise immobilizing honey pits.

And that barely covers everything you go through by the time you hit 25% completion.

But the amazing thing is that you are taught everything thoroughly and intuitively. For instance, the first time you encounter a barrel that you can manually aim, it’s used to just collect some bananas. It’s nothing life-threatening, but that’s the point. You can approach it, test it, and master it in just one go without worrying about dying. It also just so happens that the next time you use one of those barrels (which is about 5 seconds later), you’ll have to use it to progress. Simple, effective, and nigh perfect teaching.

It’s just unfortunate that Dixie’s hovering ability nullifies a certain amount of the challenge in this game. When you can’t helicopter around (such as after being blasted from a barrel or bounced off a crocodile’s schnoz), you’re reminded how difficult it is to make some of these jumps when you can’t go into old school bullet time. For instance, in a windy level, I was able to bypass an entire Kremkoin (doubling down on the sensational spelling) challenge by waiting for a strong gust and floating over to the end. It was too easy to be enjoyed, less that I was cheating the game and more that I was cheating myself.

I also had to resolve that I wouldn’t use save states to progress through the game but rather to just checkpoint my progress. I was tempted a fair amount of times, especially when my reservoir of lives dwindled to the low single digits, but persevering makes you realize the value of a game like this. It presents a challenge, and you can either overcome it or you can be overcome. No dynamic AI or difficulty settings will make it any more or less than what it is.

And really, that’s what I find most endearing about DKC2: its ability to be absolutely indifferent about what you think of it. Love it or hate it, you’re not going to change what the game is. No patch is going to come out and insert more story (which, admittedly, is severely lacking; it basically amounts to the Kongs exist and K. Rool exists, so let’s get down on it) or make it easier. And definitely no patch is going to make you forget the music that’s been seared into the deepest crevices of your brain like a metallic cattle brand dripping with rhythm, nor is a patch going to make you feel any better about failing to make the connecting jump to the next roller coaster track. You can’t make Flapper any more useful (or useless, considering how much I wish he was Squawks instead) and you can’t make that Cat-O-9-Tails throw you into that bee any less.

And you just have to accept that. Because DKC2 is an amazing game, even after all these years. I guess now I have to find out what else can keep.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,