the Donkey Kong magnum opus

Christian Patterson
2018-12-30
Underground Mall

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Donkey Kong has seemingly been designated Nintendo’s 2D platform series, with the DKC Returns games. But let’s suppose they allowed DK to have the Mario treatment, how would a 3D, flagship Donkey Kong platformer work? This post will go in detail what I would do to make the ideal Donkey Kong magnum opus.

First, we should pinpoint the characteristics of Donkey Kong games that most specifically expressive of that franchise. An easy way to pinpoint these characteristics is to juxtapose Donkey Kong with Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, because they represent two poles of the platformer spectrum.

In one sense, DKC is more like Super Mario, in terms of pace and style of platforming. However, DKC does have some elements of Sonic, because Donkey Kong platforming emphasizes a rhythmic, methodical approach. For example, the Donkey Kong minecart levels emphasize rhythmic jumping, which feels like a more Sonic trait than Mario.

Another element of Donkey Kong is the cast of characters. In most Super Mario games you play as Mario, barring exceptions like Super Mario World 2 and Super Mario Bros 2. If you don’t play as Mario, you play as Luigi, who controls only mildly different than Mario. Sonic on the other hand has a wide array of different characters, and depending on the game, you could play as many of these characters, and they all feel different.

Donkey Kong on the other hand has always emphasized multiple characters, since Donkey Kong Country. For Sonic, multiple characters adds gameplay and level diversity. For Donkey Kong, multiple characters are an integral part of gameplay. This is juxtaposed with Sonic, but also Mario, where Luigi functions more like a palette-swapped, mildly unique clone of Mario. Donkey Kong characters are more different than Mario and Luigi, but every character is still capable of completing levels on their own.

Donkey Kong Country games are clear in character dynamics: In DKC, DK is big and can do a somersault attack. Diddy Kong is fast and does a cartwheel attack. There’s minor differences between their physics, in terms of running speed and jumping height. The game is entirely completable with either character, like Mario. But the characters control more noticeably different from each other than Mario and Luigi.

This type of character platformer is more highlighted in Donkey Kong 64, but DK64 also adds a lot of problems. In DK64, there are five playable Kongs. However, these characters splintered the game. All five characters collect different bananas, access different areas, and use different weapons. This causes a lot of repetition and backtracking. There are really cool things about DK64, and I played it a ton from the ages 8-10. But it definitely doesn’t age as well as the SNES DKCs.

I also want to mention another Donkey Kong game: Donkey Konga, Nintendo’s Donkey Kong rhythm game with a bongo attachment. At the time, people saw it as bizarre, and now, people don’t think about the game at all. But, I would argue Donkey Konga represents the core mechanic of DK, reapplied to a different genre. Going back to the original Donkey Kong, DK games have always emphasized rhythm. Arcade Donkey Kong‘s only gameplay mechanic is timing jumps. DKC was 90% timing jumps and occasionally timing attacks (although jumps functioned as attacks sometimes). You see the emphasis on jump rhythm in 2D DK games, especially DKC1 and 2, due to their reliance on jumping over a high amount of bottomless pits.

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I would design the Donkey Kong magnum opus to be an open-world platformer, in a truly open sense, like Grand Theft Auto, rather than the Super Mario 64 model of a hub world connecting individual levels. I would make the world pretty large, but dense. I don’t want it to be easy to get from one side of the world to the other, but I want it to be possible. I want a world that’s absolutely brimming with gameplay elements.

One exemplary game I wanted to highlight is Burnout: Paradise. I recently played the Remastered version a lot, and will make a whole post about it soon. But what is great about this game is how its open worldness manifests itself in the gameplay. By that I mean, a lot of open world games feel like a single path going forward. It may have branching off paths i.e. side quests, and the world may be open and fully explorable, but the engagement with the game when stripped down is fairly linear.

Instead, in Burnout: Paradise, there’s no main quest line. There’s no fast traveling around the map. You’re simply dropped in the city and told to race. Do you want to do a race on the other side of the map? Well, find a nearby race that goes to the other side of the map, and get there. The entirety of the gameplay elements can be reduced to being in the world. Everything goes back to the fact that you’re in a world where all you do is drive.

In Burnout, you don’t need to fast-travel, because you drive places to drive, so why not drive some more? There are ramps and secret passageways everywhere. There are much more secret and hidden roads and ramps than there are conventional roads. There are parking garages that only exists to drive up and launch off ramps into billboards. Also, everything in the game gives you points. Every time you drive through, or over, specified objects, of which there are hundreds, you get a point. You unlock cars by driving them off the road. Everything is open and comes back to a simple gameplay system.

Another good game series to look at is Tony Hawk. I often describe Burnout as a racing game that feels like a Tony Hawk game. That’s because Tony Hawk (at least the first 4) were all about skating. That’s all you did and that’s all the game was. You did a fun gameplay loop, and everything in the world existed to fulfill that gameplay loop.

And then a third game I want to gesture to Dark Souls. I also wrote about Dark Souls 3 here if you want to read more. But what I love about this series is that it’s truly an open-world game. But unlike conventional “playground” (to use an outdated marketing term), the world itself is the obstacle. The only thing stopping you from walking from one side of the map to the other are a huge mass of difficult enemies.

When people think about Dark Souls, they think about difficulty, but a Donkey Kong magnum opus wouldn’t be that difficult. The thing to take away from all of these games is that the only objective is the gameplay.

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So, what would a Donkey Kong magnum opus look like, now that I’ve teased out the primary features?

In many games, you have to complete quests to unlock access to new stuff. Or, like we saw in Donkey Kong 64, where you unlocked new areas by collecting things. Instead, in the games I mentioned, the gameplay isn’t in service of unlocking new things, the gameplay is the game.

The Donkey Kong magnum opus would be like this:

Donkey Kong awakens on Donkey Kong Island to realize his banana hoard was stolen. The area around DK is a dense jungle in every direction, filled with trees, swings, barrels, treetops, enemies, etc. There’s nowhere in particular for you to go, but everywhere looks designed to be jumped on/over. You pick a path that seems to lead upward, jumping from hill to hill, over pits, and then swinging on to rooftops until you are on the treetops and now you are jumping into rocket powered barrels, shooting you over the treetops to other rocket powered barrels.

Or say you go a different way, jumping through the jungle and end up on a beach, filled with collapsing wooden docks you can jump on and across. Or you go down a cave, jumping over pits and rolling into enemies, before finding a minecart and riding through an elaborate track system.

As you traverse through the world, you unlock new characters who allow you to go more places more easily, Donkey Kong 64 style. But unlike DK64, it wouldn’t be in service of backtracking, and most characters would be able to get past most obstacles, with varying degrees of difficulty.

The point of the magnum opus is to open up the world, not in the open world playground model that was paradigmatic in the PS2/XBox360 era, but in a way where the world is open to be interacted with, with the core gameplay elements.

What I’m proposing is combining some of the best elements of the Donkey Kong series. DKC 1 and 2 features tight, rhythmically paced, jumping-over-pits, style platforming. Bring that style of platforming to 3D, rather than the N64 model of 3D platformers.

DKC3 was not as popular as the first two, and had a different gameplay approach. Namely, levels would often include high-concept and more unkillable environmental hazards that followed movement patterns. There could be some segments like this as well, because that’s an interesting approach to 3D platforming.

And finally, the 3D, pseudo-open world elements of DK64, and its fixation on collect-a-thons, are outdated. But, we have clearly seen a wide swath of developments in the open world formula, in the collecting formula, and the 3D platforming formula. In other words, I have faith that some people in Nintendo can make a large open world, that complements the rhythmic nature of DK’s gameplay; that has an openness without backtracking, constant zone restrictions, etc; and an open-world with intrigue!!

As I close this, I want to make a few acknowledgements. For one, I don’t think this game will actually happen. I think Nintendo is satisfied with Donkey Kong as the 2D, first party platforming series on Switch, at least for now. On the other hand, there’s a precedent for new games in major Nintendo series doing this kind of upgrade when being reiterated on the Switch.

For example, you may have noticed I didn’t mention Super Mario Odyssey or Breath of the Wild.  This is only because I’ve never played those games. I’ve heard about them a lot though, and I think my ideas for Donkey Kong are pretty similar.

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