Something I love about museums: the diverse locations captured inside those musky buildings are a perfect trigger for old memories. Between sweaty crowds of tourists and schoolchildren in droves, I can pick slivers of the past to entertain my mind away from the increasingly humid environment, and any unpleasant odours that may shift in my direction. Itís like travelling through time, only without the complicated speed-of-light-round-the-sun analogy that makes ďrealĒ physics impenetrable to me.
In a recent visit to Londonís Museum of Natural History, just a secondís glance at a fully realized dinosaur skeleton was enough to send me back to the time where I actually lived it. Beastly green reptiles actually crossed the earth, dangerous at each corner of a two-dimensional map. The painted foliage around me quickly becomes green with life and sixty five million years flash before me, in a dashing blur of parallax scrolling and mode seven effects. Whisked away, Iím encased in a childlike world of wonder and discovery where anything belonging to that memory is possible. My mind re-shapes as a hero in a distant land; paradise in bloom. The world around me sees a much more distilled image: a blithering idiot, standing in one spot, with anyone attempting communication only hearing faint mumbles of ďthat time I played Chrono Trigger and it was awesome.Ē Sure my partner who has to carry around my empty husk for the rest of the day is pissed off, but at least Iím happy, like a small child. In childhood, you donít really have to think of anything much, apart from what matters to you.
Pictured: Chrono Trigger, through the eyes of someone not quite in touch with reality.
I saw this rock later on, it was blue, and it reminded me of that ice level from Donkey Kong Country 2. Now before it becomes the focus of this piece Iíd just like to make a point: I love how people are able to associate these overtly menial objects with old memories. One manís refuse is another manís treasure, as the saying goes. It is a beautiful practice to be able to draw out your own past from insignificant glimpses, or subliminal hints from afar. These mortal powers we all contain could essentially pull an adventure out of a dumpster, and in my far-too-optimistic-for-this-day-and-age mind, Iíve come to believe that the whole world is a canvas of beauty and mystery, waiting for our thoughts to paint a story that will be meaningful to our individual lives. Looking over my shoulder, I would have to tread some divine responsibility for my ridiculously sunny outlook on the world of Donkey Kong itself. Still, Iíd never have dreamed it any other way. It was just a rock really: ask anyone. But most importantly, it meant something to me.
Somewhere between the ages of seven and ten, I lived this game. And for good reason too. I can fly. I can soar through the trees at blistering speeds. Physics go unquestioned as my hair keeps me afloat from danger, and Iím absorbed by the sounds of the jungle. Music fills the air, pulsing with a powerful tribal rave. Each thump-thump-thump of the drum is met with a squeak-squeak-squeak of enemies being crushed underneath my own weight; the synchronicity of the environment is enough to keep me absorbed here forever, in perfect Zen. Birds chirping, animals squawking, monsoons dripping down in front of my eyes; it created a powerful hypnosis whose effects made you forget that the entire world corresponded to four buttons on a piece of plastic. (If only the rest of the world was this simple.) Miraculously, the tether that binds us to this world is just a single wire that comes out from the television.
The aforementioned ice level. Pretty, ain't it not? I have a thing for shiny surfaces and snow.
As a young person, I loved this game. As an adult, I find it to be a relaxant, allowing passage between two distinctly different ages, while also appreciating some of the more subtle nuances that would have been invisible to me as a child. Off the bat, it pleases me to no end that I can say after fifteen years it is free from the burdens that hindsight brings, and that the expert design I came to remember wasnít just an illusion created by a different me. Imaginative decisions such as a regularly changing environmental and level structure and a range of different ideas that donít stop flowing even by the time the credits roll around (and even after) are the lifeblood of this title, showing a degree of care and attention that harks back to a different era. It starts off simple enough, with the kind of by-the-ropes introduction youíd expect from the platform genre. What unfolds then however is a truly enchanting realm, dispersing into a number of challenges that often require eyes from a handful of different perspectives to tackle. Moving through the bramble-infested skyline is difficult on its own, but having to race it through under a time limit, or battle against the transforming winds adds a layer of new challenge to similar environments. As a young boy I didnít notice the amount of variety that came in this package. Now, the package itself is secondary to the impressive world that yesterdays design team managed to accumulate, keeping a considerably fresh experience apparent throughout its entirely mesmerizing runtime.
Itís not just the world around you that changes either, but you yourself. Developer Rareís obsession with giving the player a significant number of characters to tackle is not a commodity that began with their Nintendo 64 effortsí stupefying amount of playable personalities. (1) The reins of many exotic animals will be thrust upon you so frequently that it becomes a way of life. Gliding through the air under the guise of a web-shooting spider soon becomes second nature, as the game tricks your mind into believing in its solid physics. You know when to open a platform in the air in order to swiftly jump across; you know which position you should be to get a perfect strike with the swordfishís point; you know how long you should be moving forward so to bounce every killer crocodileís head with that erratic snake. In motion, when your mind is tweaked to its practices the experience is sublime. Before long youíll find yourself dancing to the sounds of the savannah, scampering through mastered stages like the troubles once overcome with patience and control no longer exist. Engagement takes its meaty clamp on your life for so long that you know the ins and the outs of every mechanic on this planet. Or at least, you think you do.
Beautiful environments exist to be explored at every turn. It's truly a sight to behold.
My greatest fascination with this game - and why I write this with childhood so heavily in hand Ė is how the mechanics appear to replicate, and epitomize what being young is all about. Take a look at the setting and imagine the kind of backdrops weíll be involved in during this long adventure: the deck of a pirate ship to inside of a volcano, from a haunted house to misty woods, exploring an icy cave then emerging halfway atop a castle with a zeppelin commanding from above. Naturally beautiful areas are recreated for exploration; so much so that it makes exotic holidays with your parents and the uncle who wandered in whilst planning that much more mysterious (I wonder if there is a flying sword living inside that volcano) and a decade of geography lessons that much more bearable. As children, the world is full of inexplicable mystery and wonder, slowly becoming unravelled with the flow of time. There is no Santa Claus, as far as I care to believe, but there is a beautiful world packed with all sorts of hidden treasures out there; a feeling, which my young life in this Country helped provoke and prolong in me for a later time.
The worldís lore is tied up in around forty stages; some hidden so fiendishly that upon finding them youíll think the game has broken with something much more uncanny taking its place. There lies its true depth. Tearing down the digital walls you once thought were concrete is akin to the first time you crossed that side of the road, where your parents told you not to play. A great deal of power has entered you, as if anything is possible. Adrenaline kicks in and your mind starts to race around, with the desire to explore overriding the guilt of being in this forbidden valley. Itís all about the thrill of breaking boundaries and running around outside of where youíre supposed to go; a natural compulsion that Donkey Kong Country 2 actually encourages in the player. Constantly youíre teased with the promise of secrets, and information just off camera where you donít think you can go, followed by the desire to go back and mine every level for what itís worth. And as I said, if youíre really good you can find the gameís biggest enigma: the hidden Lost World, whose mystifying post-credit existence will twist your perception of simplistic videogames and the world around you forever. (2)
You can search all you like, but you'll never find it. Unless you have ninja skills. Or Gamefaq's.
I also have to admit that as a person whoís just achieved reaching life in his early twenties, I can no longer find these secrets like I could back when a two digit age seemed a lifetime away. Iíve sifted through stacks of old Nintendo magazines, looking for guides I may have used to help me finish the game, ending to no avail. It must be a growing up thing.
Of course, if you didnít grow up with a Super Nintendo with a young impressionable mind between the ages of something and whatever its unlikely that you can relate, but this was my experience, and that is what I would like to share. Every lifelong gamer has a title (or a few) which is eternally burned into their memories, to on occasion be surfaced to rekindle the brightly burning flames of ďthose happy times.Ē This one is mine.
Rare certainly knew how to make blue skies and sparkling oceans. The whole game feels alive!
Retro goggles be gone! Do I still listen to the soundtrack when Iím in the shower because it was actually good or because of the memories I associate with it? The answer would be both. Sound designer David Wise mixed a great array of ambient, exciting and dramatic tunes that perfectly complement the levels they belong to, but they are also great standalone mood pieces (I only have to whisper the name Stickerbrush Symphony for most people to agree) only mildly pushed in the same direction by the innate joy Iíve already tied to this experience. Genre fans, retro heads, and depressives in need of some ambient choons: this it is definitely a game I encourage you all try out at some point, as youíre sure to find something to enjoy within this motley package.
This gameís level of depth, mystery and worldliness was only followed up by Banjo-Kazooieís ultra-hidden eggs and ice key, which played another childhood obsession of mine a bit later. Nowadays, those classic Rare tropes seem to have fallen away from existence, being bound by the era they were conceived in. My advice: grab a copy now and get yourself on the next backwards ride around the sun, stepping off when youíre approximately eight years old. Iím confident youíll be in for an exciting journey, both in game and for the many years to come.
One of my favourite box-art's ever. There's so much going on, really gives a shape of things to come.
(1)See Donkey Kong 64: the game that asks you to play each of its worlds five times with five different characters, collecting five different golden bananas, fifty regular bananas, a bunch of banana coins, five blueprints, something called a crystal coconut, these flittering fairy things that only appear while looking through a special camera, and new abilities on every stage. Did I mention you have to do this with every character? I used to lap this up as a kid, but going back to it today just makes me wonder how much Iíd rather be doing last nights washing up.
(2) Having a world exist beyond the credits back then blew my tiny little mind. Its only now that I realize Super Mario World did it first, but whatever. You couldnít play as a monkey in that game, making Donkey Kong infinitely better.