They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.
–Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
“The following is a contributor post by the Moronic Cheese Mage.”
Okay, this is a highly personal review for me. Donkey Kong Country 2 was a game I became obsessed with as a kid, way back in 1995, and I’ve played it regularly ever since. Why? Well, it’s a classic. The successor to Rare’s 1994 smash hit Donkey Kong Country, there was a great deal of anticipation to see what Rare (rapidly breaking out as one of the world’s leading games developers) would add to the experience.
Although the series’ more famous first outing was a graphical triumph, a landmark title, and a good game, revisiting it now you can see some flaws – it’s too easy, the levels generally only offer linear gameplay, and it’s too short. It shifted some nine million cartridges, though, so it was only natural British developer Rare, situated in its cozy location in the tiny village of Twycross, produce a sequel.
The result hit the shelves in November 1995, only a year after the original had launched, with the team (headed by Rare co-founder Tim Stamper) paying close attention to fan feedback. The result? DKC 2 was an enormous improvement over the original – a vibrant, dramatic, challenging, and complex 2D platformer with surprising emotional heft and artistic values.
Commercially, it didn’t reach the original’s heights (five million copies sold worldwide, enough to still make it the sixth best selling SNES title), but I bet many DKC aficionados would say this is a much better game. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the best games on the console, which also happens to include a legendary soundtrack from a genius just going about his thing. Let us reminisce.
Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest
As our esteemed editor, Mr. Mage, covered in his excellent Anatomy of a Game Review: Nostalgia post recently, I’ve approached this one as objectively as possible. I’ve reigned in the sycophancy as much as possible, although if I fanboy too much then I’m a dismal failure.
Anyway, I pointed out the “plot” of DKC games in my Tropical Freeze review – usually it involves a character, or some bananas, getting kidnapped/stolen and then you set off on your journey. Exposition is over within a minute, usually, in favour of launching you into the fun. Fun it is, too, from the word go – the sparkling opening screen features dramatic pounding music, then the equally dramatic level section screen really gets you stoked for your adventure.
The first world is set around a giant pirate ship. Wham, into it you go with a sea shanty sounding in the background of the first level, Pirate Panic, as you traverse a giant ship, complete with creaking and groaning noises as it shifts in the water.
The evolution of the series is obvious straight away. Aside from the more expansive levels, Dixie Kong (making her video game debut) can team up with Diddy to perform some nifty tricks to reach areas which, initially, appear out of reach. Dixie’s hair spinning move is particularly important as it lets the player reach distant areas and, essentially, paraglide across entire levels. It offers a terrific sense of freedom as you can launch yourself into the air without fear of plunging to your doom – even now, decades on, I use it and immediately realise how inspired its inclusion was.
Diddy, of course, doesn’t have this ability, but he’s lightning fast and agile; you can swap between the two easily at any stage in the game (unless you’ve lost one of the Kongs – if you get hit, the respective monkey will scarper in a panic) to manage the many new challenges you face. With these two, though, you’re provided with some excellent tools to take on this adventure and beat it.
The range of levels is still impressive. After the fairly tame opening stage, you move higher up into the sails of the ship for Mainbrace Mayhem with its glorious, concise, looping music and sense of isolation. This gives way to other stages including swimming through the bowels of the ship, and it’s during these opening stages you come across helpful animal dudes such as Ratty the Rattlesnake. There are plenty more along the way to get to grips with, my favourite being Squitter the Spider who becomes your most frequently used acquaintance.
The boss battles are also a big improvement on the, frankly rather lame, selection from DKC. This starts with the bird dude pictured above, with the eyeball-popping reactions from the Kongs being an example of Rare’s famous sense of humour. However, most of the bosses aren’t exactly memorable (DKC 3 tried harder in this respect) and the main source of enjoyment from DKC 2 will be taking on the 52 levels.
The adventure ramps up with each new world – this is not a case of a load of levels cobbled together for the sake of it. There are, however, a few moments of disappointment – this is, likely, due to the short amount of time Rare had to turnaround the sequel.
Whilst 52 is an impressive total, there are several later in the game which are derivative of earlier efforts (with only minor changes, such as a different colour background). Plus, some of the high concept ideas for stages are taken from other games. Plenty of other platformers do this, though, and Rare added some spark to the ideas to make them their own (the main example here is a wind direction changing stage, which I first came across in Ninja Gaiden on the NES).
On the whole, you’re faced with an inspired and impressive challenge that’ll really test your gaming skills. One of the best examples is a tense, even exhilarating, update on the famous Mine Cart Carnage level from DKC – this time, you’re on a skull at a fairground (like you do) racing against the clock to wipe out enemies.
This is all complemented by the tight as a snare drum control system (it’s really incredibly streamlined, one of the sharpest I’ve ever come across), impressive graphics (including environmental effects like fog and rain), and an exceptional attention to detail. Retro Studios has carried this across to the modern era titles but full credit to Rare for all the little visual, musical, and intertextual references added throughout.
The difficulty really does ramp up, too. By collecting enough DK coins hidden around normal levels, plus the Kremkoins from beating bonus areas (usually two a level – sometimes three), you can open up the tough as nails Flying Krock and the Lost World areas. It’s a big challenge – to get 102% and annihilate the game, you need to get all the hidden coins, complete all levels, bosses, and visit all four Kong family members at least once. The latter is the easiest bit, obviously.
As it was so lovingly crafted, the love and appreciation for the game remain strong. This is to the extent that some people have produced passion projects such as HD upgrades for the famous Bramble Scramble level. Naturally, there are speedrun competitions online and live streaming sessions on YouTube. DKC 2 has also been a regular addition to Nintendo’s virtual consoles on the Wii and Wii U (there were also Game Boy and Game Boy Advance versions).
Ultimately, DKC 2 was just an enormous step up in every single way. Rare could have easily reeled off a dodgy sequel to rake in some cash but they so clearly put their backs into it to land a title that’s quite sweeping in its scale at times. Coupled with the exceptional soundtrack (more on this below) and you’ve got a hugely immersive and strangely beautiful and moving video game which hits a real artistic high.
With these two games under its belt, and with the N64 on the horizon, Rare was about to enter a stage of genius creativity. By the end of the 1990s, it was one of the best games developers in the world, challenging even Nintendo’s output. Its plummet back down from those heights began in the early 2000s and most of the team behind its classics have since moved on. Recent releases such as Sea of Thieves have met with mixed reviews, but there’s still hope that title will spawn a new era of creativity.
Super Simian Soundtrack
Due to its exceptional quality, inventiveness, and emotive nature, I’m happy to claim DKC 2’s soundtrack is one of the best in video game history. All you have to say to some gamers is “Stickerbush Symphony” and they’ll collapse in a heap of happy tears (possibly, I’ve never really seen this happen).
Legendary British composer David Wise got behind the project, having produced a brilliant piece of work with DKC. For the sequel, I’d still say this is his masterpiece – there are so many clever little compositions, such as Jib Jig from the second level. It’s perfectly suited to the windy, rainy happenings as you scale the ramparts of a ship, shivering as you go along, but delighted as those wind and rain effects surge in and out.
My favourite from the whole lot is Hot Head Bop, first heard in the Hot Head Hop level. It’s a lava stage which requires some seriously good timing, whilst drifting almost serenely across giant lava pits via mini-hot air balloons. Strangely enough, due mainly to the music, DKC 2 offers these moments of quiet repose and reflection regularly.
Early in 1996, one evening I was sitting there taking this level on and (having become rather transfixed with the music) began recording it on my £10 dictaphone so I could listen to it on cassette whenever I wanted. Primitive stuff, but, for any younger readers of a pre-internet era, this is how you had to go about things back in the ’90s if you wanted to groove to some video game jives, man.
The soundtrack was composed entirely by Wise (on DKC 3 he had less of an input, and there was a notable drop off in overall excellence) – one of his major influences from the games industry is the equally legendary Koji Kondo, but the often dramatic nature of Wise’s music is a lot different. Its construction is almost classical as if Mozart or Bach had had a say in it.
Bayou Boogie, for instance, is on various swamp levels across the Krem Quay world. It reminds me of Krautrock band Can’s classic Sing Swan Song from 1972 in many ways, but it’s distinctive in its own right and perfectly suits the levels. This type of music was, of course, a dramatic shift away from the bloopy-bleepy nature of soundtracks from many 2D platformers of the era, which was also championed to some extent by Earthworm Jim 2 composer Tommy Tallarico (he even used samples of Beethoven’s 8th Moonlight Sonata, 1st and 3rd movements).
In the interviews I searched through for this post, Wise cited rock music, opera, classical, Latin, jazz, and “anything as long as it’s good, and anything that’s inspiring to listen to” as his preferences. Interestingly, he said he doesn’t tend to play video games as he finds them too addictive, so he stays away from them in order to be able to work (his example being losing three weeks due to becoming infatuated with The Legend of Zelda on the NES).
Of the game’s most famous track, Stickerbush Symphony, he said of its creation to Fact in 2014:
“I was trying to emulate filter sweeps and synth effects – which of course the SNES can’t do as it doesn’t have a resonant filter. It was intended for a water level in DKC 2, but as we didn’t have water, it probably wasn’t going to be used in DKC 2. However, they made a brambles level, and whilst I would have made a completely different piece of music for a brambles level, we simply didn’t have enough time. So it stuck.”
Well, Mr. Wise, for your sterling efforts I, and many millions of other gamers, give you a hefty pat on the back. Bon!
The 8-bit Review
Brilliant for the time and, even now, there are so many spectacular visual flourishes – it’s astonishing to think the game was made in 1995. The SNES was, however, throwing up some remarkable-looking games towards the end of its lifespan (think Earthworm Jim 2 and Yoshi’s Island), so it’s no surprise the very best developers were getting the most out of the machinery.
David Wise’s masterpiece – it’s really an astonishing piece of work, one that really draws you into the gaming experience. It also elevates the imaginative world Rare created to deliver quite the dramatic experience, transforming what could be misguidedly seen as a “kid’s game” into higher artistic territory. In other words, you really do feel like you’re on an epic quest to right some wrongs, becoming emotionally invested as you do so.
It’s certainly one of the best platformers on the SNES, this being a console which had more than its fair share of them. Rare’s keen eye for building on the landmark DKC ensured there were myriad new gameplay features, including a stunning array of levels, plenty of bonus features to unlock, an inspired two-way character system, and endless bonus levels.
Unlike the more recent versions, the DKC SNES trilogy was a real “pick up and play” experience. This is a much more challenging game than the first outing, but it’s nevertheless possible for any sort of gamer to launch themselves into it and enjoy. It’s only much later in the game where less experienced gamers might hit stumbling blocks, as it does get tough.
Rare was well aware of the shortcomings with DKC, so upped the oomph factor with the sequel. It’s a much more challenging game but it’s designed to ensure the more casual gamer can blast on through having fun, whereas someone looking for the full challenge can unlock all the secrets and take on the difficult hidden worlds.
I always make sure I play through DKC 2 once a year (if not more). I’ve done this since 1995! Certainly, for me, the replayability factor is there, so if you’re a fan of top rate platformers then you should find yourself in luck.
It’s a 2D platformer – plenty of those around. It does, however, deliver some innovative level design, plus its artistic approach (graphics, soundtrack etc.) still ensure it stands out in today’s world of SNES-era riffing indie titles.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Up until Tropical Freeze, I think most fans of the series would have said this was the masterpiece. It feels right a more recent game has conquered its status, especially from those workers of wonder Retro Studios, but DKC 2 is still a special experience. It’s a shame Nintendo didn’t include it on the SNES Mini, frankly but I imagine it’ll make its way to the Switch to make up for that oversight.
Whenever Nintendo does decide to do something with its latest console’s basic features (we can’t complain, really, given the brilliance of some of the games which have arrived on the system), including launching a new virtual console, then DKC 2 should be one of the first titles to head to.
Forking out for it again is of little consequence, I believe – this is an inspiring and enduring classic which, in handheld mode with your earphones in, would match any modern AAA title in an instant. It’s quite the marvel.
Aggregated Score: 9.0
The Moronic Cheese Mage is also known as Wapojif. That’s Mr. Wapojif to you. He’s a self-deprecating humorist with his head on straight. For silliness and surreal humour, definitely find your way to his blog at professionalmoron.com.
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Categories: Game Review