Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Ahh, Christmas. Now that that's over with, Sonic Generations and Donkey Kong Country Returns. Yes.

Comparative analysis was always fun for me (I was a weird kid). I could never understand why it got such little use; so robust! In any case, I figured wheeling out the ‘side-by-side’ approach could be amusing (with the magical powers of editing I can say, in retrospect, that I may have been slightly over-optimistic). This kind of style has the advantage of being light on requisite experience: a vague familiarity with just a portion of a segment of a morsel of the series—either series—is all that’s needed for some concise (maybe slightly constricted?) points to emerge. And there was a smooth, even crisp, overlap of genre here. First, though: what are the threads that tie these two games together more than anything else? What is the unifying synergy? After a few minutes of thought, it struck me: rolling. Then, several minutes later, it struck me again: rolling is a stupid and arbitrary choice. So, instead, 2D platform games are happening.

I’ll go through some similarities first; differentiation is always better served in context. Despite variances in the end-products, the foundations bear more than a little resemblance. For one, Sonic Generations and Donkey Kong Country Returns—as far as throwbacks go—are executed with noticeable care. So you can expect an experience that is consistent with whatever demos or test-plays are available to you. It’s the kind of focus more often reserved for projects that push things forwards (or, at least, are trying to.) Make no mistake: these games do not do that. They are, for the most part, the antithesis of innovative. While this in no way means they’re bad, it is highly evident in the design choices that ‘How do we mix things up?’ was not at the top of either team’s agenda.

The fundamentals are simple: a combination of original content (updated visuals, all-new map designs, gameplay flairs) and highly refined mechanics. It’s the kind of gameplay that developers have had centuries to experiment with; over time the fundamental formula can, apparently, be twisted into a smoother and more idealised state. I guess it’s kind of obvious that most of what comes from this is dependent, not just on the taste of the player, but also the goals of the designers and what they have to work with. For me, both experiences delivered sustained entertainment. Sadly, the variance of user mileage is a thing that exists, so I’ll continue.

As I pushed through the campaigns here I grew more and more confident that they were each built on this consistent basis: a kind of ‘homage and sustenance’ thing. It’s a strong design goal. Drawing attention to sturdy conventions strikes as a worthy objective that money can get behind. That said, this should raise some warning flags if you hate things that aren’t new. I don’t know who this theoretical ultra-hipster is, but I think they would certainly hate the idea of these games. I would challenge even this hypothetical creature not to enjoy the products, though. This is where I need to differentiate a little.

With a simple framing device Sonic Team transforms the idea of a tribute into an actual functioning story. Our blue protagonist, the modern 3D Sonic, is thrown into time-travelling escapades with his non-talkative 2D self from the past. It’s the perfect excuse to split the gameplay into a clear dichotomy: the first act of every stage is played in the classic style, with the old guard of spin-dashing and platform negotiation taking the fore; the second act is a more mercurial beast. Ostensibly these levels are the 3D answer to the first stages, but to leave it there wouldn’t give the full picture. The fact is, there are depthless sections in every ‘Modern’ stage. If I had to pick one way this game stands out more than previous try-hard Sonic titles over the last decade, it would have to be this dimensional refrain.

Our 'Classic' protagonist, passing through some familiar territory. The Havok physics engine makes some of the older gameplay elements slightly off. Other than that, it handles very much like the Genesis/Megadrive titles.

Outwardly, Donkey Kong looks like the more original experience: it has an all-new set of banana-thieving antagonists in what I can only describe as Sentient Tiki Mask Guys; there is a vista of unique stages (which come with original enemy designs) and, promisingly, a revamped co-op mode. These facets aren’t out-and-out deceptive: they are new things. Still, I prefer to err on the side scepticism and say that the skeleton of this game resembles every other DKC game. In fact, there are several qualities which could easily provoke the idea that this is the least original title in the series yet. Some of the sections—the jungle area, the industrial area, the cave area—are more than a little familiar in concept; half of the music is lifted from the first entry in the series, imbued with smoother tones and mild remixes. The Donkey & Diddy Kong setup can’t really be faulted, but it seems relevant to this emulation theme that this was only used once before in the 'Country' titles, to begin the series. I know this may sound counter-intuitive, but the pronounced lack of risk-taking is kind of impressive. Maybe it’s the confidence that borders on swagger.

I take only a slither of joy in the irony that Generations—with a story that is singularly based on reliving the SEGA mascot’s past—looks to have a much fresher approach to progression. While DKC has a lot more levels than Generations, the tried and tested linear island-hub is not nearly as enticing as Sonic’s simple 2D time-scape. The freedom to choose between progressing through the conventional levels and tackling the many challenges that surround them was neat. And I mean that in the sense of economy and tidiness: no elements of the experience are ever more than a short sprint and a couple of jumps away.

Here's 'Modern' Sonic in the same place. As you can see his mere presence is, ahem, explosive.
Like most modern games, the creeping RPG influence makes itself no stranger here. Actually, all Donkey Kong has to answer for is the gathering of coins with which to procure throw-away items. While this system is open to ruthless and/or shameless abuse, it is not invasive. And its ease-of-access ends up making for a useful counter-balance to that most arcane of conventions: a limited number of lives. In Generations the need for a number which increases over time is sated by the passive acquisition of points as content is cleared. These points can subsequently be spent on extra lives and optional techniques that make the two Sonics even more savage. If you get a good rank, or simply complete a challenge, you’re gifted concept art and, our old friend, re-hashed music. It’s like a honey-comb of incentives: there are five ‘Red Star Rings’ hidden in every stage, too, that affect the aforementioned music, pictures and points; certain challenges will unlock new techniques to be bought from the shop, prompting you to gather yet more points. This kind of stuff almost pulled me away from the simple fun of rushing through some well-rendered scenery, but it’s all relatively auxiliary until the temptation of skill customisation takes over. Even though you’re not compelled to, I couldn't help but go through every challenge in order to gather more things. Extra music tracks, in particular, are irresistible to me. Choice aside, I think it is safe to say that some of the concepts to these challenges are half-assed. Perhaps even quarter-assed. 

I mentioned earlier that there is a lot more levels to Kong than Sonic. Part of the reason for this could stem from a greater effort on Sonic Team’s part to cut redundant content and keep the game concise, though I don’t entirely buy this. I’m sure design philosophy is a larger factor: as Sonic, speed is a thing you are conditioned to want. A density of visually stunning set-pieces flies past; twists into the fore and background are not uncommon, along with divergent routes and hidden paths. To contrast, the many stages of Country—while constructed smoothly and superbly—do not have any qualms with recycling their tricks, or following a linear path.

The speed element is seductive, to be sure, but it is also the main constriction of Generations. In short, inertia is a bitch. If you’re unfamiliar with a level, a suicidal jump is sometimes too easy. And I don’t think it was an unintended consequence of the fully-three dimensional areas that the speed is difficult to control; when it works (which is most of the time) the fluidity and power feels great. Sometimes it doesn’t work, though. While I’m talking about the new-age Sonic I should mention that camera failure is at an all-time low. It’s still a thing that happens, but in manageable doses.

The real issue with the new-found focus on the speed is that it limits the scope of gameplay: it sets a tone of necessary hurriedness. There is almost an audible clunk upon transitioning from blistering speed to careful platform-hopping. It's not that Generations can’t handle jumping sections, just seldom to a sophisticated or sustained degree. Again: inertia is a bitch. Donkey Kong Returns ends up feeling much more stable in this regard: the tenets of careful timing and patience root this game in place. The player is given the ability to move and change direction with rapidity and precision, and in this mode, much possibility is created.

I feel like this screen-shot is misleading. It gives absolutely no warning that giant waves will periodically crash into the foreground, and that said waves are more lethal than fire.

So, re-hashed music is another recurring element that I feel deserves some attention. Again, that pesky issue of unoriginality. In the case of Sonic Generations, its explicit emulation of past stages earns it much leverage with regards to re-mixing: it’s something that, given the story, anyone should reasonably expect. What follows is two distinct remixes per area: like the stages themselves, a ‘Classic’ and a ‘Modern’ version. It’s hard to pin down a predictable relationship between the two, though the strongest distinction seems to lie with the tones: the first act’s music makes heavy use of synth, while the second act reaches for more real sounds. ‘Rooftop Run’ makes for a good example of this. There’s a respectable variance in the styles Generations makes use of, and the over-all vibrancy is refreshing.

I found it harder to reconcile myself with Kong’s musical direction. Like the ‘Donkey & Diddy’ thing; none of the other Country games borrowed music from their predecessors. This is a reboot, though, so, we should be charitable? I don’t know. It is an overall strong soundtrack. More interestingly, it is very consistent in tone. The variance in Sonic’s music fits each disparate stage in turn, which itself serves the time-travelling theme; the over-all aesthetic is necessarily unfocussed. The tones of DKCR all fit an acoustic theme, and the layers of percussion, woodwind and synth here further feed into Retro’s model of consistence. Hell, the Evil Tiki Mask Guys are even shaped like instruments. It doesn’t stand out as much as the music of Generations, but it serves the synergy of the whole, which is probably a harder challenge for a composer.

All that’s left to comment on is the visuals, and, well, that's tall order. There are very few snags or ambiguities here that I can mercilessly attack with red-pen. Important visual cues are intuitive yet non-invasive, while vibrancy and variety fill the rest of the screen.  The size of your avatars and their position in front of the camera are traits one could predict, and with great accuracy. For the sake of these particular games, the developers couldn't move away from their roots: everything about the construction and appeal demands adherence to the formula. It's hardly surprising, then, that visual innovation is marginalisedlike other aspects of these gamesin favour of a mirror-shine. That sprinkling of new is nice, though. The example that sticks in my mind the strongest would lie with Kong. A few of his stages utilise a smooth, almost monochromatic, colouring style that ended up playing out far more handsomely than I had expected. Nothing so simple or suave for Sonic’s outing, but the clarity of viable paths and the variety of fantastic locations are sweet enough.
Simple, vibrant, mechanically synergistic and surprisingly relaxing, too. It could be the accompanying jazz remix of 'Jungle Hijinx'.
So, there we have it. The puzzles may not wrack the mind so much, but that doesn't matter: the main attractionto both of these gamesare the delicious mechanics. Also, I am a sucker for these kinds of reboot-spectacles. As much as I fear that this imbues me with overt bias, I know that this also corresponds with a pretty wide experience of analogous titles. The likes of Yoshi's Island DS and New Super Mario Bros. are the first that come to mind: Sonic Generations and DKCR laugh at them. As I said earlier: the kind of care taken on these two is not the norm.

Oh, one more caveat: DK was not marketed well. At all. These games match each other's quality (with their own unique grotesqueries), but Nintendo did themselves no favours with only a limited release. Generations was in  the Steam sale a couple of days ago, a service I would recommend to anyone who enjoys games on their PC. It was pushed to about seven pounds (so eleven to twelve dollars, I suppose.) On the other hand DKCR, a game that came out a year ago, is difficult to find and, when you do, somehow much more expensive than Generations. Words lose me at this. It's a sad thing, but they are still there. It is my hope that lessons have already been learned, and all we are left with now is good product.