Donkey Kong Country
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Credit: Nintendo, Rare

Platforming my way through the quarantine

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Apr 16, 2020, 3:00 PM EDT

To be perfectly honest, I thought I’d spend the quarantine playing Final Fantasy.

Before all of… this… went down, I'd completed collecting the first six installments of the series in one form or another, a casual goal for my retro gaming collection. Given how long it takes me to get through your average RPG, I figured it would be the perfect thing to focus on while rattling around my apartment for the unforeseeable future.

But after turning my trio of war orphans into killing machines and beating Final Fantasy II, I couldn't bring myself to pick up Final Fantasy III. It wasn't just the super-deformed aesthetics of the Nintendo DS remake that stayed my well-washed hand (though that certainly didn't help). With my usually active lifestyle suddenly and dramatically curtailed, I didn't want to command and I certainly didn't want to make decisions. I just wanted to do.

So instead of heading to Ur, I took a detour to Donkey Kong Country.

I'd started noodling with Donkey Kong Country before the quarantine. Last November, I acquired a reasonably priced Super Nintendo Classic Edition the same way I acquire the bulk of my games: intense Internet auctions in the dead of night against my better judgment. I wanted a Classic Edition to play some of the heavy hitters of the Super Nintendo's storied catalog, like Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars. Donkey Kong Country hadn't particularly crossed my mind.

But firing it up a few days into quarantine, I soon became obsessed. To the shock of absolutely no one, I discovered that this widely critically acclaimed and beloved game is good. Top to bottom, Donkey Kong Country still (hand) slaps as hard as it did back in the day. Okay, maybe the then-state-of-the-art graphics have aged poorly in a way that sprite graphics haven't, but the Super Nintendo Classic Edition offers a CRT filter that lets you commune with the 1994 spirit enough to kind of get it.

But what I love the most is how the game moves. Even during my first cracks at some stages, the marriage of how Donkey and Diddy's physicality with truly creative stages led to moments of pure rhythmic joy. Bouncing off a series of vultures to make it across a bottomless pit, nailing three Kremlings in a row effortlessly, getting a barrel blast juuust right. I kept replaying Mine Cart Mayhem, one of the game's iconic mine cart levels, just for the sheer rush of it.

After beating the game, I still kept coming back to it, gorging myself on the incredible work of the game's speedrunning community. (Every time I watch the world record run, I gasp.) I even 101%'d the game (relying entirely on the Super Mario Wiki to do so) to extend my stay as long as possible. Cooped up at home, all I wanted to do was swing through the trees with relative ease.

After completing the game, I wanted more. And without Donkey Kong Country 2 and Donkey Kong Country 3 at hand (literally, because I'll be picking up the Game Boy Advance ports when I can), I decided to dig into my collection and start platforming like my mental health depended on it.

Credit: Nintendo, Konami

I settled on the original Castlevania as my next platforming port of entry, via its Game Boy Advance port. I have a deep, recursive nostalgia for the Classic NES Series the port hails from. The Classic NES Series was a 2004-2005 collection of Nintendo Entertainment System ports for the Game Boy Advance. Basically, I'm nostalgic for Nintendo's early-aughts nostalgia of itself. When I'd gotten back into retro gaming a few years ago, I still had a few installments of the series from childhood, so I decided to add Metroid and Castlevania. In this pandemic, I'm feeling much too claustrophobic to brave the depths of Brinstar, so Dracula, take me away!

Obviously, Castlevania lacks the frantic grace of Donkey Kong Country. Simon Belmont, and I say this with great affection for a venerable series, handles like a brick. But Simon's square-jawed sturdiness fits the overt Hammer horror vibes like an elbow-length glove.

As one of the original classics of platforming, Castlevania is an exemplar of the joys of that genre. Chiefly, learning how a character moves and attacks and using that skill set to conquer increasingly challenging levels. Once I'd acclimated to the NES-era HUD and starting memorizing levels (those freaking fleamen!!!), I started achieving brief snatches of elegant gameplay… and sometimes I even managed to stitch those all into one run.

I still haven't beaten Castlevania as of this writing. Like many a classic NES game, it's Nintendo-hard — so hard, in fact, that there's a 1993 Japanese version of the game whose major change is adding an Easy mode. But I've hit that flow state that makes video games and platformers just work. After spending several hours getting through the first ten levels, I turned off my Game Boy Advance to go get a snack and clear my head, assuming it autosaved. It, uh, didn't, but taking everything I'd learned over the last several hours and translating into a wild run felt like the wind in my hair at last.

And that, fundamentally, is what I miss most about the outside world: movement. I'm like a dog; if I don't get my walks in, I'll start gnawing on the furniture. There's nothing in the world like a proper wander, especially if I can enjoy a coffee and half-heartedly shop at the same time. Under my city's current shelter-at-home guidelines, I am allowed and even encouraged to go for walks. But after one too many scares in my blind spots while out for a quick walk, I decided to stick with the lesser of two evils. Sure, pacing my apartment endlessly makes me feel like a caged tiger, but the alternative is playing extremely high-stakes Frogger with strangers.

In the past, I've turned to action-adventure or open-world games in pursuit of a sense of freedom. With my focus too shot by the constant stress of trying to live through a global pandemic to make decisions or absorb narrative, those are right out. But platformers like Donkey Kong Country and Castlevania are giving me the space to roam, explore, and achieve that I don't have access to in real life.

I have plenty more platformers in my collection to look forward to: after Castlevania, I plan to pick up Shantae. I am reserving Super Mario 64 if we end up sheltering at home in the summer; by then, I'll not only need to jump in my platformers, but fly.

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