Monday, 1 October 2012

BitMob: Revisiting the genius of Donkey Kong Country's two-button gameplay

An article I posted on community-based game journalism website Bitmob was selected by site editors to featured on their front page. The article in question describes the simple two-button control scheme of Donkey Kong Country and how its simplicity was an improvement over Super Mario World's. If you have a moment to read a short, yet insightful 800-word article on an retro gaming classic then please click this link.

For those unfamiliar with Bitmob, it is a website that allows your average Joe Bloggs to write and publish articles onto a gaming website. The editors of the site, who themselves write articles and news posts for Bitmob, review each post and select the best to be featured on the site's front page. Articles that are picked by editors are edited, so it offers a good opportunity for one to hone their writing skills. Again, have a butcher's at my article and then have a crack at it yourself.

This is in fact the very first article I have written for the site. I wrote it in order to participate in Bitmob's September writing challenge on the topic of 'controls'. I had just bested the original Donkey Kong Country after buying it at the Retro Game Beurs I visited in the Dutch town of Deurne and had decided that it may be the best example of versatile yet simplistic controls in the genre of 2D platforming. 

Imagine my surprise to wake up this morning and have my girlfriend tell me that my article, now titled 'Revisiting the genius of Donkey Kong Country's two-button gameplay', was the top-most post on the front page of Bitmob. I've very grateful for site editor Eduardo Moutinho's decision to select and edit my article and I truly hope that this isn't the last time you'll see my name on the site.

Saying that,the Bitmob site shall very shortly be combined with the gaming section of VentureBeat, named GamesBeat, on which my article has also been published. According to Bitmob founders, this will mean even greater exposure to the community writers that post articles there.

That last thing I would like to mention is that the original, unedited version of my article titled 'How The Versatility of Two Buttons Dethroned a King', can be found after the jump. While I agree that the edits made by Mr. Moutinho increased the readability of my article, I feel that some of my personality was lost from it in the process. The actual changes are few and far between, but for anyone interested in exactly how the original article read, feel free to have a read.

 How The Versatility of Two Buttons Dethroned a King

-Michael Westgarth

When looking at Donkey Kong Country one may assume that such a rich looking gameplay environment would require a large arsenal of moves to navigate through. Legendary developers Rare, however, applied simplicity where it mattered the most; the controls. While many developers tried to make the most out of the Super Nintendo's six-buttoned controller, Rare utilised only two. One button for rolling, running and picking up barrels, and one for jumping. Sound familiar?

Super Mario World is considered by many to be the pinnacle of 16-bit 2D platforming. Nintendo took everything that guaranteed Super Mario Bros.3's spot as king of the NES and added to it; new moves, new power ups and, of course, Yoshi, and while no one would dare suggest that Super Mario World took the game one step too far in terms of its controls, one can't help but wonder if Rare's king of the jungle cheekily took the crown from the athletic plumber's head without anyone noticing.

Released in 1994, a full three years after the North American release of Super Mario World, Donkey Kong Country wowed all those that played it with its stunning pre-rendered graphics and rich soundtrack. Understandably it is the visual and audio aspects that dominate most player's nostalgic memories of the game, but upon returning to the game in present day, most are likely to highlight Country's greatest achievement, simple yet incredibly functional, and versatile, controls.

For those unfamiliar with Country's controls, holding down the SNES's Y button allows the game's two playable characters to run. Approaching a barrel with the same button held down will pick it up, with it only being thrown once Y is released. Jumping is controlled with a press of the B button. Such a control scheme, instantly accessible with just one thumb, matches that of Super Mario World's.

Rare founders, Chris & Tim Stamper, are unlikely to argue against the strong similarities between Country and World. The almost cheeky nod to Super Mario World's full name in Donkey Kong Country's suggests that the similarities were not only acknowledged but completely intentional. Turtles are now crocodiles, shells are now barrels, coins are now bananas and the simple plumber is a laid-back, neck-tie wearing gorilla; yet Country allows for greater manoeuvrability with a more simplistic control scheme, with nothing added but the ability to roll.

Carried out by pressing Y, the run button, rolling is a flexible move with several uses. Firstly it can quickly increase the acceleration of the primate protagonists' movement and, if performed straight into enemies, defeats them while increasing the length and the speed of the roll. A roll can also be jumped out of, regardless of whether or not our Kong is rolling on the ground or off an edge, allowing large expanses of horizontal space to be jumped over.

To recap, rolling can be used to gain speed, attack enemies and to assist in jumping, all which are controlled by the same button. 

Rare didn't simply take their roll and combine it with Super Mario Bros. simple run-and-jump mechanics, but fine tuned everything to a level that offered fluidity rarely seen in any game of the same genre. From a static position, our Kongs can instantly reach a maximum speed which can just as easily be negated by rocking the D-pad in the opposite direction, or by jumping. There are no obstacles between a player's mind and the sprite on screen, with the only challenges are the ones presented by the level design itself. In Donkey Kong Country, the jungle is your playground and you are the king.

Super Mario World is the more challenging game in terms of precision jumping, yet players' control over the eponymous character is hindered by the intentionally placed generation of momentum and the skidding that results from trying to slow down. This mechanic does not devalue the experience of what is one of the best 2D platformers of all time, but it stands in the way of the fluidity that Country achieved.

Both Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country are undisputed masterpieces of 2D platforming and game design in general. However, in this writer's opinion, the later proves that simplicity truly equals success and in a ironic twist of fate, Mario's very first adversary beat him at his own game.


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