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Monday
Mar222010

The Secrets of Donkey Kong Country 2


Nintendo has a long history of so-called platform games--games where you jump from platform to platform. Over the last 25 years, these games have evolved, though I would argue that even to this day, Rare’s 1995 game
Donkey Kong Country 2 nailed the winning formula like nothing else before or since. (Make sure to click the SNES version if you follow that link.)


Before we go on, here’s a list of platform games relevant to the discussion:

It’s interesting that Shigeru Miyamoto basically invented the genre with Super Mario Brothers and re-invented it Mario64. These two titles were far and away the most innovative given what existed when they were released, but Donkey Kong Country 2’s handling of secret items deserves special mention. Before I explain why, let's consider the progression of these games over time.

In the early days, platform games were about trying not to die. Dying occurred frequently and the main goal of the game was to get through all the levels. As time went on, we see less and less emphasis on the dexterity of passing levels and more and more emphasis on finding secrets. There certainly are dexterity challenges in all these games (see the no-jetpack sections of Mario Sunshine or that damned Luigi’s coins level of Mario Galaxy), but collecting stars and secrets are definitely the focus of the modern ones.

The most extreme examples of moving away from the old model of “just avoid dying, try to pass the levels,” were WarioLand 2 and 3 for GameBoy where Wario cannot die. If he touches fire, for example, he runs quickly for a moment until he cools off, allowing him to travel more quickly or cross tiles of floor he wouldn’t normally be able to cross. The entire emphasis on those games is puzzle-solving and secret-finding, not death-avoiding.

WarioLand aside, the notion of finding secrets in platform games led to the "dual goal" platform games of today. A casual or younger player's goal might be to simply get to the end of a game. This doesn’t even require completing every level, because of warp zones and non-linear map screens that allow you to skip levels. A more demanding gamer's goal, though, is to uncover every secret the game has to offer. In Mario64, this means finding all 120 stars (only about 60 are needed to "win" the game.) In Donkey Kong Country 2, this means finding all 40 DK coins as well as finding all 102% of the bonus rooms. These dual goals allow a single game to appeal to a wide range of players.

If platform games are becoming more and more about finding secrets, we should define what a "secret" actually is. To a really old-school player, a secret might be a near-impossible-to-find item that's virtually randomly placed. That's not the type of secrets I'm talking about. In fact, a "secret" in the sense of modern platform games is a hidden something-or-other that is actually meant to be found.

This DKC2 skateboard is not related to our story, but it's awesome. 

Think of these secrets the same way a mystery author thinks about his plots. A mystery is not a zero-sum game of writer versus reader. The writer actually wants the reader to figure out the answer, just not too early. The answer has to be hidden enough that there's a sense of accomplishment in finding it, but there have to be enough clues to make finding the answer possible. The answer, just like a secret in a platform game, isn't randomly created. It's carefully designed and hidden, and carefully pointed out by clues.

Donkey Kong Country 2

And now the jewel of the genre and in my opinion one of the best designed games on any platform to date. The game is fairly easy to "win" simply by completing all of its levels. Dying is somewhat frequent, but the difficulty is pretty low and free lives are plentiful. Even very young players should be able to get through the difficult parts through repetition. The real game, though, is to uncover all the secrets. Each of the 40 levels has one to three bonus rooms and a single "DK coin."

I believe the DK coin is the greatest innovation in all of platform games. It's a ridiculously large, shiny, spinning coin that somehow manages to be hidden on every level. There's something magical about finding that single, well-hidden secret on every level that just isn't the same as finding 5 Jingos (Banjo-Kazooie), 100 coins (Mario64), or any of the ten zillion tedious things on your shopping list in DK64. And don’t get me started about blue coins in Mario Sunshine.

Donkey Kong Country 2 has a well-designed hierarchy of secrets. Each level has one super secret (the DK coin), one to three other secrets you "have to" find (the bonus rooms), and other, less important secret items (banana coins and free guy balloons). At any time, the player can check how many total DK coins he has and the percentage of bonus rooms he's uncovered. He can also easily check if he's found the DK coin on any given level, and if he's found all the bonus rooms on a given level. All the while, the character Cranky Kong taunts the player by telling him how he has no hope of finding all the DK coins and bonus rooms. This gives the player a clear idea of his mission: to prove Cranky wrong.

"This site still sucks. They should really put me back in charge."

Having a clear system to keep track of which secrets have been found is critical in this type of game. Knowing that there are 40 DK coins hidden out there somewhere in a huge world and that you've found 23 of them so far, simply isn't fun. It's daunting. If you want to feel daunted like that, try finding all 100 packages in the enormous, sprawling world of Grand Theft Auto 3. By contrast, it’s a fun challenge to know that somewhere in this one particular level that isn't even all that big, there's a tauntingly large, spinning, golden coin that you can find.

Unwritten Rules of DKC2

Part of the magic of DKC2 is the way all these secrets are hidden. The highest compliment I can give the game is to say that I felt every DK coin was placed by a single intelligence--by one person. As the game progressed, I came to know how he thought and what he'd be likely to do. In essence, the game was felt not like an action game of me versus the computer, but a strategy game of me versus the designer.

In order to create this feeling, the game established and religiously followed a few unwritten rules. First, bananas (the common items littered everywhere on every level) are always helpful. If they spell out a letter or an arrow, it's always a genuine clue, never a trick. If a single banana is placed in some precarious, seemingly impossible to reach spot, it's always pointing to a secret. If a banana is over a pit, it always signifies that jumping in the pit will not kill you. In effect, the bananas themselves are a character--an entity--trying to help you at all times. DKC1 did not follow this rule, and that resulted in much frustration and throwing of controllers.

This is not a real game, but it should be. 

Another interesting unwritten rule is about running at full speed through dangerous levels. Anytime there's a series of obstacles that require timing to navigate (swinging vines surrounded by deadly bees, spinning cannon-like barrels over pits), you can always progress safely by running at full speed and taking every jump as soon as possible. Just put your fears aside and have faith that jumping from vine to vine at full speed will somehow work out, and that you'll never touch a deadly bee. What's the point of this? As I'll discuss later, most of the gameplay of this game is the act of looking for secrets. Running through levels at full speed isn't going to help you find any so there's really no "cheating" involved. It's just a convenient way to get to a particular part of a level if that's where you think the secret is. Again, the game is trying to help you, and stays true to its promise, never tricking you and never losing your trust.

You also learn a certain consistency to the methods of hiding secrets as you play, if you’re observant enough. The oldest trick in the book is that a big secret is often hidden just barely beyond a small one. It might look like the screen would scroll up a bit if you jumped to that cliff...and it does, revealing a not-so-valuable banana coin. You found the "secret" so time to move on, right? Well the all-valuable DK coin might be just a little bit higher if you noticed the smaller cliff above the one you're standing on.

The game also constantly tests the players assumption and first instincts. After 10 levels of starting on the left side of the screen and scrolling right to progress, it trains the player to assume all levels are this way, then sneaks in a level where the DK coin is mere inches to the left, barely off-screen. Most players will never even realize going left was an option. And where is it "legal" to hide a DK coin? I'm sorry to ruin this secret, but I just can't resist. Spoiler alert to skip to the next paragraph, if you must. 39 of the DK coins are hidden somewhere inside a level. Exactly 1 DK coin is hidden in a bonus room inside a level. A secret within a secret. The game has trained the player to assume that no secrets will be in a bonus room, so what better place to hide something? This particular secret was very memorable to me because after I failed to find it several times, I put the controller down and simply thought about it where it could possibly be, then realized a certain bonus room on that level had something suspicious about it, and that it must be “legal” to hide DK coins there after all!

More subtly, the layout of levels often subconsciously suggests a certain path. Jumping from this ledge to that vine and so on just looks right. It feels like the right way to go. And as soon as you believe it's the right way to go, the game has got you. And that is the beauty of Donkey Kong Country 2: it's a constant psychological battle against your own assumptions. Every step of the way, the game is trying to fool you. The bananas are on your side, the but the rest of the level is not. Like a good mystery, there's always a clue--there's always some indication--of where a secret is. There's a way to find every secret without having to constantly kill yourself by jumping into random pits (the bane of Donkey Kong Country 1).

Suspense and Secrets

In my article about suspense (not currently on the site anymore, maybe someday it will return!) I talked about how making something scary happen 5% of the time makes the player very careful and on-edge the other 95% of the time, even when there's nothing to be afraid of. The player doesn't know there's nothing to be afraid of since every little step might be that 5%. Donkey Kong Country 2 creates that exact same feeling. The game is so clever and so cunning that every careless step you take just might be the one that bypasses the secret. This means that even though it's a platform game, running to the end of each level is the last thing the player wants to do. It takes only 1-3 minutes to run through any level of the game, but since the real challenge is to find secrets, not pass levels, there's much more gameplay. A player might spend 10 minutes on a 1 minute level...or even longer.

I'll close by leaving you with the thought of how little of the game's art and programming assets were devoted to these secrets. The graphics for the DK coin, the bonus rooms, and the system of keeping track of which secrets have been found are all miniscule compared to the design of 40 levels filled with animating enemies. Look how far some solid design carried this game. By designing levels around secrets--not sticking secrets into levels--this 5% of development effort made the difference between a C- game and an A+ game.

After DKC2

Life does exist after Donkey Kong Country 2, but only just barely. Seriously though, Mario Sunshine has a really fun jetpack, Mario Galaxy has amazing spherical landscapes and mind-bending gravity, and New Super Mario Bros. recaptures old-school goodness with many new mechanics.

Somehow though, I think these games never really matched the quality of secret objects that DKC2 had. Banjo Kazooie and Donkey Kong64 both posited that if finding 40 DK coins and around 100 bonus rooms was fun, maybe finding four times that much stuff is four times the fun! It’s not. It’s tedious is what it is. Mario Sunshine was doubly guilty of making your shopping list so large as to be a chore (thirty blue coins hidden in every level, not to mention all the other junk) but also hiding tons of these blue coins and Shines in seemingly random places, rather than according to any sort of designer-intelligence. Mario Sunshine is actually the only game in this list for which I ever had to look up secrets on the internet. After looking them up, I wondered “if I were in prison for 20 years with no entertainment other than Mario Sunshine, could I find all these blue coins without a FAQ?” Probably not, I concluded.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii adds a co-op mechanic to the genre (notable in itself!), and does a pretty good job with the secrets. You can even watch gameplay movies within the game itself that show you where the secrets are, if you get really stuck. Each level has three secret coins (no DK coin, so you don’t get that really satisfying BIG secret each level like in DKC2). There’s no Cranky Kong trash talking you into getting the secrets, but instead there’s a gameplay reason to get them. After you beat the game (which consists of 8 worlds), you gain access to a new 9th world. This world has 8 levels, all locked by default. To access a level in world 9, you must find every single secret in the corresponding main world. For example, get every single secret coin in world 4 to unlock level 4 of world 9.

Take that, Cranky. I told you I could find all the DK coins!

This is interesting and drives home the dual goal of “get to the end” and “find all the secrets, too!” well. Though it’s a good system, I somehow felt more motivation to show that damned Cranky Kong that I really could find all his coins, and I certainly got more satisfaction from finding a ridiculously large “hidden” DK coin in every level.

As a last note, 15 years after DKC2’s release, OC ReMix released this remixed album of the game’s music including one track from DKC2’s original composer. Enjoy!

 

References (1)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (24)

I fell like a huge game you missed in the whole idea of "secret finding" was Toejam and Earl 2: Panic on Funkotron. While the game itself is vastly overshadowed by it's older brother, almost EVERY bit in the game contains some sort of secret or interesting tidbit. The game also had a main storyline that is followed by a collecting part of the game as well.

The music was awesome as well, but that is another story.

March 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPhoenix

Loved this article, glad its back. I remember a long time ago being the only one in my group of friends to think DKC2 was better than either 1 and 3, even when I couldn't put my finger on exactly why.

Still, hit the nail right on the head with the reasons why, especially the clear marking of what secrets you've hit, and where things are that you missed. As much as I love NSMB wii, one of the most frustrating things about it is that in many cases its not clear what levels have secret exits (shame they took away the "red level, yellow level" method of SMW). I literally spent hours hopping around in World 7 replaying levels trying to find the secret that would take me to 7-6... and finding "oh its just jump into a random wall in the mid-world castle" was decidedly a let-down. Also, the fact that they use the "invisible blocks" to hide secret coins and secret exits means that sometimes players have to do a lot of jumping everywhere in a level to find something, in some cases with no real hints as to where that invisible vine block could be.

March 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterx1372

Thank for you articulating why this game is so amazing. I have been trying to explain to people why it's so good for years, never quite getting them to understand the effect it had on me.

March 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJordan Fehr

The secrets themselves are certainly well designed and placed and offer a nice big shiny reward, but they're just little virtual trinkets that, in the grand scheme of things, do nothing in the game other than giving you something to seek out. They are their own reward, which is fine for obsessive completionists, but I much prefer the secrets of Super Mario World or Metroid. In SMW (equally well designed in some cases, like that devilish one where you have to fly off Yoshi *under* the main exit) the reward for finding a new way out of a level is generally a new route or path in the game world. You can play the game straight, or you can find a secret and another and end up in something like the star world (or beyond) or skip entire areas altogether. They expand the world. In DK2, you just get a pat on the back.

March 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commentern0wak

The secret about the tricky pits in DKC1 is that you were supposed to do a roll attack into the pit and then jump cancel the roll to survive. You can tell by the length of the pit if you were supposed to fall in or roll jump. I still agree that that was a bad game design choice because it is often only discovered by fluke or by a really technical thinking gamer. (or by looking it up online)

I discovered it by accidentally rolling into a pit and then mashing the jump button while I panicked.

March 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterProblemo

Great article. DKC 1 and 3 will always have a special place in my heart, as I played them in my childhood and only got a chance to play DKC 2 somewhat recently on Virtual Console, but I now further get why there was something I found with DKC 2 that just seemed so right. I'm very much a completionist gamer, so the well-thought secrets placement just unconsciously went well with me.

And related, I now know what I was missing in the recent platformer I designed. Certainly ammo I need to keep in mind if and when I design the next one. The "single intelligence" part is particularly telling; no amount of coordination among multiple designers could have brought about the same results unless they were so greatly on the same page that they could almost be considered clones. Though maybe that's why those early Rare games were considered so well designed?..

March 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSparton

It's more than the secrets.

DKC2 is similar to Super Metroid. It's a game where everything simply fit into place so perfectly. The difference, though, is that in DKC2 it was all planned and thanks to a few geniuses while Super Metroid is mostly so great due to accidents and overlooks in design.

DKC2 still has big appeal in its graphics and atmosphere, and honestly, I think it even looks better than all those Wii games and platformers.

The music is godly. No one can deny it. Whatever happened to Dave Wise while he was in Paris composing those masterpieces, I doubt it will happen ever again.

The physics and gameplay are incredible and well programmed. No bugs/glitches whatsoever and the momentum you get when rushing through the levels is Sonic-like, it pumps you with adrenaline.

The story is non existent, which is perfect. I couldn't care less about stories in video games and I hate it when designers feel the need to shove some mediocre story written for children down my throat. See: Newer Zelda and Metroid games. Not so in DKC2. If I want to play the game, nothing interrupts me, no walls of text, no cut scenes, nothing, I'm in control 100% of the time.

DKC2 is one of the best video games in history for more reasons than just the very witty secrets.

I think that the main reason the NES and SNES games are so much better than their modern counterparts is that video game designers back then were nerds and created video games for nerds, for challenge and fun.

Nowadays it's just a business where the ultimate goal is to make as much sales as possible and to appeal to as much people as possible, at the expense of depth, challenge and quality.

March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShinespark

I was hoping you'd make some comments on the original Yoshi's Island for the super nintendo.

Probably one of my favorite platformers when I was younger because the stylization really drew me in. It was the first Mario game that I played since Mario 2 (and we all know why that was) that felt "different," not that there was any thing wrong with the regular Mario games.

Either how, I enjoyed the crap out of it and enjoyed just getting to the end. And sometimes just going through and completing levels since I actually had borrowed it from a friend and couldn't erase his saves so everything was unlocked already.

Howevert... When I went back and played it back in 2006, fresh, I couldn't make it through. I, being more of a completionist now, attempted to find all of the red coins as well as all of the flowers in every level. I think it was twenty red coins and 5 flowers per level.

All the way through world 1 it was cool. But early in world 2, I think, I just couldn't figure out where one of the flowers and some of the coins were. Turns out they were in a secret room.

I believe, in order to get there, you had to step on one of those "P" things that traditionally change blocks into coins, then run to some spot on the ground and "go down" like a pipe.

It seemed so random and arbitrary that I stopped after that. Sure, I now knew that you could do that, but I had no desire to continue to see what other goofy@$$ crap the developers wanted to throw at me to blur my vision while I try to find things.

It made me not look forward to the future challenges, knowing how those particular developers minds worked. Kind of sad. Who knows... Maybe that was the only "stupid" secret in the game.

March 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDS

ya know, i just flew past the levels on those donkey kong games. I just wrote off finding coins and stuff as busy work. I had no idea how fun trying to find secrets may be. You may have opened a new gaming window for me dave.

April 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commenternihiltus

Sorry for the reference Sirlin, but I just wrote an article in response to this with a few more examples of what I thought were some clever, well thought out ways certain games hid secrets. None of the trial and error stuff either like leaps of faith into bottomless pits.

But it's awesome to see this article back on your site, do you plan to bring back all the other past articles I remember reading in the past? Like the articles on video game difficulty and what not? Great article here though.

April 22, 2010 | Unregistered Commentercheat-master30

I've just had so much to do that I never got around to adding those old articles back and reformatting them, updating them. You're probably right that I should for the Difficulty in Games one though (and probably Save Game Systems one too). Those are probably pretty useful.

April 22, 2010 | Registered CommenterSirlin

I think I remember the save systems one. Wasn't that where you mentioned the whole star coins in New Super Mario Bros being a bad system bit? If it was still up, I'd add how New Super Mario Bros Wii keeps the same system, and Super Mario World used it too back in the early 90s (I think?). But yeah, those articles would be great to be able to read again.

April 22, 2010 | Unregistered Commentercheat-master30

This article brought back so many found memories, I am glad someone shared the awesomeness that this game was. I would definetely recommend Braid for anyone willing to relive do DKC2 experience - finding the hidden stars was quite fun as well.

May 30, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterbertu

Thanks for the article, allowed me to articulate to someone why I don't like platformers anymore.

I find it much more rewarding to beat a game because of my jumping skillz or whatever than to "complete" a game because I wandered around long enough to find all 5 zillion doodads

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWill

The secrets in NSMB Wii, while decently hidden, are killed by the time limit imo. Several of the secrets require time-consuming actions, such as hugging walls, crouching on random pipes, looking for required power-ups, and hitting every ? block in case a climbable flower might pop out. Several times I've located a secret and had to either finish the level without it or kill myself(making it even harder to get power-up required secrets) because of the time limit. Sometimes I didn't have time to even look for the last secret if there were two located after the checkpoint(which cuts your time in half upon dying). This is absolutely frustrating and almost ruins an otherwise great game for a completionist like me, who doesn't care to constantly reference GameFAQs while playing.

Besides that, great article, Sirlin. You're a real "gamer's developer" if there ever was one and I would love to see you tackle a secret-driven platformer at some point. You definitely have a mind for 'em.

July 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterboomerthom

thx for the article and reminding me just how great and inovative the SNES games were. The fun had from them really shows what gives them their quality. The puzzles and secrets to solve really do help to broaden your problem solving mind.

August 12, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjchamp

Sirlin, I know you're busy, but have you had a chance to play through Super Mario Galaxy 2 yet? I think it's a significant improvement on SMG1 and that it does an admirable job of hiding/hinting/rewarding secrets. The green stars, in particular, are essentially a second quest mode devoted to secret hunting. A few are annoying in that they're blatantly obvious and are just there to fulfill the requirement of 2-3 per level; you'll get them essentially for just replaying a stage. But most of them are interestingly hidden and require you to get to places you never realized were possible or would have thought to try on the first play through. I didn't think any of the secrets were unfairly hidden either, as I was able to find everything in the game without having to look anything up, which I usually don't pull off (I had to look up a couple very cheaply hidden things in NSMB and NSMBWii).

September 3, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterforty

I only played the very beginning of it, so I can't say. I'll try to get to playing the whole thing.

September 4, 2010 | Registered CommenterSirlin

SMG2 is good, most SMW fans would appreciate Haunty Halls Galaxy I think : )

September 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMinwu

Sirlin? Are you planning on getting Donkey Kong Country Returns? ;D

I can't wait. xD

(So many awesome games coming out this year as well. ;P)

September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPMario64

Long time reader, first time commenter here, but I was so excited to see that this article was finally back online that I just had to take a moment and let you know how much I enjoy reading everything you write. I was sorely disappointed the first time I referenced this article in a discussion with a friend, only to have him inform me that it was no longer here. You're a fantastic writer - thanks for all the thoughtful discussion and entertainment you've provided me these last few years.

September 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJason Mansfield

One thing I've heard talked about DKC v. the new game on Wii is for players who do like the story aspect of a game, having a traditional protagonist team on an adventure really clicks with a lot of people. If so inclined, you can write a whole story in your head, and a few people I've spoken with found the new game to lose that. It felt more like a bunch of (great, well thought-out) levels, although in the levels themselves sometimes there'll be connections to the level or world before or after at the end or beginning. . I loved the newer Donkey Kong on the Wii, only musing on some little things they did that I preferred in the SNES game(s).

Just an example - With DKC2, your map cursor is the charactes, even having to buy coins to fly out to another world-level to get coins, lives, whatever. DKR on Wii has the same overview map style as Super Mario - where you have an arrow cursor, huge bubbly circles which take away any subtle realism to the map. And the characters on super nintendo moved faster and kept the flow better than this tacky and awkward Giant arrow. Even trying to pause, DKR takes longer to because they animate "Resume, quit, etc" coming in from the side. Nobody cares about that, I haven't met anybody who would prefer to see the cutesy moving words in and out of the screen over a quick simple, pause do you thing and continue quick.

They're my favourite games, great concept and music, well I don't have to tell anybody here that.

December 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJensen

This is the best article I have read in a long time, and about one of my favorite video games ever. You really translated my thoughts into words. Thanks, I'm so glad I stumbled across this.

September 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterE.J.

Sirlin, have you played Donkey Kong Country Returns for the Wii? It has a secret system similar to New Super Mario Bros., and some of them are quite cleverly hidden! Plus the level design and graphics are great. Very good game.

September 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterN

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