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Donkey Kong Country Return: The triumph of sadism
1/7/2011: This was edited to transform it from a review into an article discussing arcade design instead.
Can you feel it, that electric feeling, that shiver of cold running down your spine? Your assumptions are true I fear, our cruel masters have returned, they brandish a jagged whip in their hand and let fly proudly their banner of torture. Yes, friends, it is high time for sadism in games to rise once more.
If ever there were any doubts in my mind then surely Donkey Kong Country: Returns put them all to a lullful rest. Sadism is back in vogue in the world of video games, and it has not grown any weaker in the intervening years of its absence, in fact it seems that it has been training in its long exile.
As to why I with the title in question, well, you need only play the game to have the conundrum unravel before your eyes. Donkey Kong is back donning his platforming paws and though I never bothered with any of his previous titles, if this latest installment is any indication, then I have done myself a great disservice.
Alas, as with any game of the sadistic persuasion, I am of two minds about the game, for you see, I at the same time love, and hate it. This is not a new thing mind you, for this tender love followed by rueful hate is a design dynamic traceable back to the very early age of games.
I am of course referring to the progenitor milieu of games, the long fallen dominion of arcades, where the rules of conduct for game designers were very different from their current modern counterparts. Donkey Kong Country: Returns is a game made according to the strict formula worked into a sort of dogma in the early days of the arcades.
Levels are to be no more than10 minutes of length, and ideally should take the player 10 times as long to conquer. This is the universal founding law upon which almost every level of this game is designed. Just like arcade games of old, levels are kept purposefully short, but the challenges of each tiny stretch is made that much denser by the result.
What more this density is manipulated with a genius like sadistic flair to continually see you fumble like an idiot, with death and lost progress as the generously bestowed punishment of choice. This sort of punishing game design, of course, slaps 20 years of evolution in lenient console game design straight across the face, and then lets its gauntlet fall as a challenge to all comers.
Most games today fear nothing more than to have the player fail, to have them reattempt a certain section. Each new of the only handful of game mechanics introduced are ever so gently presented to the player by taking great care to allow the them to ample time and opportunity to adjust to it. Never is the pacing or progression mechanics of a single level allowed to change or suddenly shift from one to the other. Modern game design advocates games as a seamless experience, like so much interactive movies, and they view death and retries as so much obnoxious commercial breaks that shatter the mood and pacing.
But not arcade games, these are titles that make an uninterrupted session something of a distant fantasy in the minds of their player, only attainable after countless hours dedicated to slavish training. Mind you also, that the nature of this training is counter to what is often demanded in modern games.
When one thinks of any lauded modern title that has a potential for challenging the skill of the player one often thinks of the combo action titles, such as Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden and the God of War series. These are games where an expert mastery of the intuitive control mechanics, and combo trees will enable you to easily get by even on the hardest of difficulties. This is how modern games deign to challenge the player, sort of in an gentlemanly manner, requiring them only to hone their skills and understanding of the game mechanics in order to be able to overcome the challenge ahead.
An example of God of War throwing down the gauntlet is by first introducing you to a powerful enemy by way of an isolated encounter allowing you to learn how to deal with it. Then later the same enemy is introduced with an entourage of its own to up the level of challenge ever so slightly in an iterative manner, assuming that you skills in handling such situations has also evolved.
Not so with games of the arcade design persuasion, here skill means next to nothing, because the game mechanics are usually deceptively simple. Donkey Kong Country: Returns is a platformer, thus its mechanics were set in stone in the dawn of games, you run, and you jump, that sums up your chief occupation.
Not that there is not some wiggle room in place for interpretation of the exact physics of the running and jumping, because this too is likely to be a point of contention for many gamers playing this title. Amid my infinite frustration with the difficulty demanding pixel perfect finesse combined with purposefully ham-fisted platforming physics it did more than once occur to me that playing this game was like playing Mega Man with sackboy as my character.
Donkey Kong is far from the athletic and nimble character which his danger filled world of platforms would demand of him. He has momentum, yet he is a heavyset fellow, taking his good time to accelerate to the speed required to traverse any large gap, and once he lands he does so with a heavy thud causing him to stagger for a crucial moment, making it difficult to chain a series of successive precision and time critical jumps, such as the game often demands you perform.
Of course arcade games wont even let you get by on mastery of game mechanics coupled with dexterity and quick reflexes alone. These things are prerequisites, sure, but if you believe that you can conquer a game by aid of them then prepare to be humiliated, for at every turn an arcade game is designed to break you, by breaking your pampered skill based logic.
Arcade only demand of you only two things; a good short term memory and an unbreakable resolve. In order to make a 10 minute level last an hour they rely on forcing the player to play through the same diabolic section dozens of times until they have it so well memorized that they will be able pass it by aid of muscle memory alone.
This is the crux of arcade game design, and I hate it, for I hate having to progress by aid of repetition and memorization, because I infinitely more prefer to progress by means of skill. Alas skill means little in arcade designed games, their core mechanics are simple after all, so instead every screen stretch has been mulled over by the designers, pondering how they are going to break the gamer’s logic there.
In Donkey Kong Country most levels change their pacing and design logic with an almost dizzying speed. The game continually throws three instances of the same thing at you, just long enough for your pampered gaming sentiments of the last 10 years to think, “I get it, all I need to is do this”, and then when time comes for the fourth rapid iteration, the logic is changed to something completely different without much forewarning.
You may get by if you possess an almost inhuman level of attention and dexterity, but most often, as indeed is what the designers have in mind, this trickery will net you a death until you make a note that here in this level, I need to do this instead of that. In fact most often you get better on by aid of dumb luck than by any calculated means.
Each level is a chain of such lessons which one needs to keep in mind all while the designers do their very outmost to put enough challenges and distractions demanding your immediate attention to force you to pass these lessons learned out of mind, netting you countless deaths until you have perfected your routine of level traversal.
This setting up of consistency followed by a breaking of it is a great tool in the hands of the game’s designers. They wield it like the whip of a cruel master, and the lack of intuitive game design will frustrate you who have become so used to it. This sort of archaic game design philosophy, with short levels, sparse checkpoints and punishing difficulty full of underhanded trickery necessitating repeat play and memorization is experiencing something of a low-key revival lately. But it is strange to see a product in perfect keeping with this most unwelcoming design coming from Nintendo of all places, these being the main advocates of making games as mainstream as possible.
But this is an undeniable trend, Demon Soul’s is as much a member of this revival as is Donkey Kong Country: Returns and even Nintendo’s internally developed Mario Galaxy Games. This design philosophy is not one to jive with the mainstream, thus Nintendo is sure to be aware that all titles made in accordance to it are unlikely to meet with the same commercial success as titles made with the mainstream well in mind.
So why do it? well, despite my own deep seated loathing for the arcade design philosophy there is still something that draws me to it, as is the case with many other core gamers, and Nintendo’s support proves their continued pledge to throwing the old dogs a bone or two, and what a delectable one this is.
Last edited by kamiboy; 01-07-2011 at 07:34 AM.