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:
- Super Mario Brothers 1 though 3 (NES)
- Super Mario World (SNES)
- Donkey Kong Country 1 through 3 (SNES)
- Yoshi’s Island 1 and 2 (SNES)
- Mario64 (N64)
- Banjo-Kazooie (N64)
- Donkey Kong Country 64 (N64)
- Mario Sunshine (Gamecube)
- New Super Mario Bros. (DS)
- Mario Galaxy (Wii)
- New Super Mario Bros. Wii (Wii, of course)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!