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Donkey Kong Country 2 creates an atmosphere like no other | Why I Love

Lego Bricktales game director Tri Do Dinh reflects on a formative summer vacation spent seeing everything Rare's SNES classic had to offer

Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This entry was contributed by Tri Do Dinh, game director at ClockStone Studio, developer of Lego Bricktales, published by Thunderful that is now available on PC and console platforms.

It's 1994. I'm in a shopping mall after school with friends. A SNES console is sitting in a locked display case. Those 16-bits of advertised processor power is just a number, but the figure seems mythical; it's twice as much as 8-bit, after all.

A friend is talking to a salesperson – "Have you seen Donkey Kong Country? The graphics are crazy." With the lack of visuals my imagination runs wild. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, so the saying goes. And for a little kid, video games might as well be magic.

It's a mid-'90s summer. School's out and I'm spending part of my day shooting hoops until my hands are red from the dust on the rubber field. My basketball career didn't work out – I blame it on my being short. But another activity during those days would become formative. We weren't allowed to have video game consoles except for a Game Boy, but during summer one of the older neighborhood kids would go on vacation and we could borrow a SNES for a month or so. I'm sure the limited window of opportunity added to the special feel of it. During that time, my brother and I would work ourselves through a catalog of SNES classics. Among those games was the seminal Donkey Kong Country 2.

In those days, whenever that golden R appeared, you knew you were in for a treat

I still remember the excitement of waking up super early and lying in bed with open eyes, waiting for the sun to rise just enough to justify going into the living room and firing up the TV. The Rare fanfare greets me in my pajamas. In those days, whenever that golden R appeared, you knew you were in for a treat.

The first ominous chords ring out and the menu takes me into the game. The progress counter reads 0%. It's a platformer – you run, and you jump.

There are many platformers – Super Mario in all its variations is the big one – but this game seems different. It looks different. It sounds different. The movement is tight, but relatively subdued. Diddy and Dixie Kong don't soar like their Italian plumber colleague, but their rescue mission seems just as important. They must save Donkey Kong. Saving a monkey rather than a princess? What would Mario think!

But there's another villain in town – Kaptain K. Rool. Who knows what the K might stand for, but the game certainly doesn't pass up every available opportunity for puns. The whole king gig did not work out for him, so now he has turned into a Pirate Kaptain. The whole game echoes this change with a delightful pirate-y theme. K.Rool has retreated into the fortress high up on Crocodile Isle, so the two protagonists have to leave their home and venture into enemy territory, a perilous world that oozes atmosphere like no other platformer before. It's rich, whimsical, and colorful, with just enough gloomy darkness to give everything a dangerous edge.

Diddy Kong riding a snake jumping on a pirate ship's mast
Diddy catches a ride up to the mast of the pirate ship

Diddy and Dixie make for a great duo. Along the way they liberate animal friends from boxes and barrels, at times transforming into them to get every advantage they can. But the one companion that is constantly present, albeit non-diegetic, is David Wise's legendary soundtrack. Transcending the crunchy noise snares and jagged sawtooth bleeps of yesteryear, he conjures orchestras and booming drums, funky beats, and lush drawn-out synths that reverberate in caverns and skies.

The one companion that is constantly present, albeit non-diegetic, is David Wise's legendary soundtrack
Stickerbush Symphony as a music track is as iconic as it gets, but I will admit I am also very partial to In a Snow-Bound Land, another piece that radiates ambiance and melancholy way beyond what one would expect from a game where monkeys spend their time chasing bananas. It's a wonderful layer of depth. In a tweet from 2017, David Wise seems to confirm this one was actually composed by Eveline Novakovic (née Fischer), so credit where credit is due, even if the soundtrack is widely associated with him.

About two decades later I would learn how he made it, painstakingly programming each wave cycle into a tracker, a process that could take multiple weeks per track. It's all bits and bytes, numbers, hard science.

I remember my friend talking to the salesperson about its predecessor, Donkey Kong Country. He was right, the graphics are crazy. With this second installment of the series, they seem even more refined. The sprites rendered from 3D give it a unique look that stands out from the usual pixel art. The depth and dimensionality of it feels exciting and new. It pulls you in. These days one might scoff at the low resolution, but shot across a CRT TV into the imagination of a wide-eyed kid, it makes for better graphics than some newfangled RTX GPU could ever produce – at least that's my memory of it. And I've since learned that memories are a powerful currency to buy creativity.

Dixie Kong making her way through a giant beehive
Dixie makes her way through a beehive level

The game does well to keep you on your toes with gimmicks and themes to mix up your running and jumping. Climbing on honey, roller coaster rides, perilous winds, hot air ballons and the trademark barrels in all possible variations, you could sense that the developers were willing to explore the variety of platforming to the fullest.

The game also doesn't hold back with its difficulty either, and the further up we get on Crocodile Isle, the more white-knuckle tense the challenges get. Navigating thorny brambles with Squawks the parrot or climbing a tower with Rattly the snake while neon-green acid rises underneath is burned into our minds. I suppose in part because it is memorable, but also because we got so many repetitions in. But we reach the top in the end. The boss fight is just another challenge to be taken.

Kaptain K.Rool is beaten, he tumbles into the depths below. The game progress counter reads something like 90% – that's not enough. But we saved the day, didn't we? Not quite. So my brother and I fire up the console again.

Game secrets hit differently in a pre-internet age

Armed with a sheet of paper and a pencil, we go through each level with a fine-tooth comb, leaving nothing unexplored, marking off each secret one by one. They are expertly hidden, far from random, with little teases and twists that give you a great sense of accomplishment when you do figure them out. And accomplishment is a good way to put it. I'm not one to proclaim that things were better back in the day, but I will say that game secrets hit differently in a pre-internet age. When all you had was rumors, hushed conversations among kids and at best some magazine that you got your hands on once in a blue moon, actually uncovering a game secret truly carried weight.

We trade our Kremkoins for passage to the secret Lost World. One level after another we beat the relentless challenges until we reach the volcano in the middle. Shiver me timbers! Kaptain K.Rool has escaped his watery grave and must be felled once more. Me and my brother in front of the screen, Diddy and Dixie behind, the fight is on, and the fight we win. We get the secret ending and the 3 Kongs stare into the sunset. The game progress counter reads 102%. We are beaming with pride as the final scene plays. And we even went as far as to record the ending on VHS, just to commemorate it.

Summer's over, school starts again. I wonder how a game like that is made. Some years later I saw a Nintendo magazine showing wireframe renders of Donkey Kong, talking about SGI computers. I understand none of those words, but they seem enticing. I have played many games at that point in my life. Making one, this concept of 'game development,' still seems like an impenetrable arcane discipline. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It's 2022, I sit in front of my PC, housing a 64-bit processor, and work on a game that will become known as LEGO Bricktales. The level editor is open, and I nudge a secret chest into place in one of the dioramas. It is filled with bananas, huh. The wizardry of making games has become science and hard, logical problem solving to me. But I still chase magic, nonetheless. I suppose my parents weren't too pleased back then that I invested so much time in playing games. But as I said, memories are a powerful currency, and two and a half decades later I get to cash in a bit.

I think 12-year-old me would be rather amazed. And I still love Donkey Kong Country 2.

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