The Mezunian

Die Positivität ist das Opium des Volkes, aber der Spott ist das Opium der Verrückten

Great Stages: “Bramble Scramble” & “Screech’s Sprint” ( Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest )

Bramble Scramble

“Bramble Scramble” is 1 o’ those levels like “Tick-Tock Clock”, “Rusty Bucket Bay”, “Grunty Industries”, & the F.L.U.D.D.-less challenges in Super Mario Sunshine that some people hate on simply ’cause it’s hard, not due to genuine design flaws that make difficulty unfair or tedious.

“Bramble Scramble” is lucky in that it gets the least criticism ’mong this list, probably thanks to its aesthetics. Anyone reading this is probably already familiar with Donkey Kong Country 2’s famous bramble theme1 — an uncommon level theme — & the serene symphony music that contrasts with these areas’ reputation for difficulty. This juxtaposition hadn’t been done much @ that time, — the closest I can think o’ is the Lost Levels title screen music in Super Mario All-Stars — probably due to Donkey Kong Country 2’s particular era o’ gaming & its relationship to difficulty. During the NES & early SNES era, video games in general were just difficult with not much focus on certain games being hard & others easy. As for its particular relationship to difficulty, the Donkey Kong Country series had a steep difficulty curve, making it easier to emphasize hard levels. Unlike Lost Levels, where every level is hard, or Kirby games, where everything is easy, Donkey Kong Country 2 could have easily made the easy levels have “Stickerbrush Symfony”; the choice to not do so is conspicuous.

But a good level isn’t just aesthetics ( message to those who call Tropical Freeze’s “Grassland Groove” — or truly just any level from that game — the greatest level in the whole series ). After all, the 1st bramble level, “Bramble Blast”, is not mentioned in this article title. Anyone who has played it will know why: it’s something o’ a slog that requires you to shoot yourself from barrel cannon to barrel cannon mo’ than 30 times. It’s not a terrible level; but the fact that this is, essentially, a gimmick already well-worn in the 1st game & the fact that this level sticks a bit too closely to its gimmick, like a Donkey Kong Country 3 level, knocks it quite a bit down from “great stage” level. Similarly, “Animal Antics” isn’t nearly as bad as people say ( in fact, its wind section is far better than “Gusty Glade” or “Windy Well”’s; a’least “Animal Antic”’s wind follows a consistent pattern so that if you know it, it’s impossible for the game to suddenly zip you by surprise ); but take ’way the wind & it’s just a generic, half-implemented “Bramble Scramble”. & that’s just 1 part o’ the level. ¿Does anyone remember any o’ the other sections o’ that level nearly as well? No, ’cause mo’ than half o’ that level is just Rambi & Enguarde charging through everything & Squitter being able to just skip everything ’cause he can basically fly.

Pictured: “Bramble Blast” in a nutshell.

In contrast, “Bramble Scramble” avoids the polar extremes o’ “Bramble Blast” & “Animal Antics”: it’s much better @ creating variety by interweaving breaks in the main Squawks theme o’ the level with on-ground sections, but still feels like a cohesive level. Succeeding @ both o’ these seemingly opposite ideals is done by having 2 themes: the general bramble theme, which fills the whole level, & the mo’ specific squawks theme, which gets breaks. & peppered throughout are e’en smaller themes, like dealing with Krooks on land, on rope, & on Squawks, or Zinger formations.

In particular, “Bramble Scramble” holds 2 sets o’ Zingers flying in place, crowding space so that the player has to weave ’tween them. The 2nd set packs the Zingers in mo’ tightly with less space ’tween them, but with yellow Zingers that the player can destroy if they can balance shooting with fluttering through tight space. It also has 3 sets o’ Zingers spinning in circles, the 1st o’ which mainly has yellow Zingers you can shoot down ( since the space before it is wide-open, shooting these Zingers is much easier than the packed-together Zingers mentioned before ), the 2nd all invincible red Zingers that force you to fly a half-circle through the space round them, & the 3rd the same, but forcing you to go in a full circle thanks to 1 red Zinger flying in space, blocking 1 direction.

Neither o’ these are unique to this level, ’course; but “Bramble Scramble” uses them just ’nough that they don’t feel thrown in arbitrarily & don’t feel like they don’t belong, but also don’t feel too repetitive.

Something not so oft brought up is the shape o’ bramble levels. Most levels in the Donkey Kong Country series are linear left-to-right paths. In fact, the 1st Donkey Kong Country & Returns only have linear levels, while Tropical Freeze only has maybe 1 or 2. “Bramble Scramble” is notable in that it zigzags all o’er the place, but is technically linear. This apparently tricks quite a few players, as I still regularly read commentators call this level a “maze”, despite the dearth o’ meaningful branching paths: 2 o’ the 3 branching paths are just bonuses that merge with the main path right @ the beginning, no different from half the bonuses in every other level. There is an interesting branch wherein you can choose to either maneuver a particularly tight bramble tunnel or dodge a Kannon’s downward cannon balls; but these, too, only merge with the main path less than a screen afterward.

Despite all the zigzagging in this level’s map, it does a remarkably good job o’ filling in the rectangular map’s space, with only empty space in the top left corner, while still hiding that the map is a rectangular ( by necessity, thanks to how level data is held & the rectangular shape o’ the screen ) & without conspicuously adding padding or having sections that feel awkwardly short. I can say from my own experience trying to do this with a level I’m working on for Boskeopolis Land that this is not easy to do.

While Donkey Kong Country games are known for their gimmicks, Donkey Kong Country 2 could create some excellent setpieces using just the basic mechanics, too. For instance, I always found “Bramble Scramble”’s beginning quite memorable. For 1, the right path is to go left ’stead o’ right for once, with the right just leading to bonus — a harmless trick on the player that still rewards the player a li’l for their trouble ( a lamer game would’ve just wasted the player’s time, giving them nothing, or outright killed them ). Past the small hole in the wooden floor under you with a bramble path ’neath, basically telling you that touching the brambles hurts you, you have a jump that’s rather precise for this early in the game, requiring you to go quite far to make it o’er the short bramble wall, but not so far that you smack into the Zinger just ’bove & to the left o’ the wall, forcing you to weave ’tween them.

The only weak point ’bout this level is its hero coin placement ’hind a bramble wall that you can magically move through safely, with only a wooden platform & a banana on the other side as a hint. The logical assumption would be that you can reach that area from ’nother side in the maze & that this is just a sneak peak, not that terrain that the game up to that point had consistently treated as solid & deadly is suddenly as secure as air. But they couldn’t e’en leave it @ that: you have to go through 2 ghost bramble walls, the 2nd o’ which makes the puzzle mo’ obvious by having a banana inside a bramble wall, which looks janky & rom-hackish.

Finally, I like the subtle subtext o’ the darker palette this has from “Bramble Blast” from the previous world, as if trying to warn you that this would be much harder than a cute li’l barrel maze. Embarrassingly ’nough, I only just realized that this level was probably s’posed to take place @ night, — or a’least twilight — since it’s in the nighttime “Krazy Kremland”.

Screech’s Sprint

While “Screech’s Sprint” also balances its gimmick with mo’ traditional platforming, it does it in the opposite way, focusing the 1st “half” ( in truth, the section before the midway point is mo’ 1/4th the size o’ the level — but then, flying is faster than monkey movement, so it doesn’t feel that much smaller ) on traditional platforming, while the 2nd half is all dedicated to racing through the bramble maze gainst the eponymous Screech.

Howe’er, like “Bramble Scramble”, “Screech’s Sprint”’s traditional platforming isn’t boring. In fact, it requires some o’ the cleverest, trickiest maneuvering in the game to pummel into your mind that this is the final level. Right after the 1st jump you’re faced with a Cat-O-9-Tails in an alcove too small to jump, forcing you to rush back into the open space without letting the Cat-O-9-Tails grab you ( where it will definitely throw you into brambles ) so you can get space to go round it. After that we have what I think is probably the only time a Donkey Kong Country game requires you to roll off a platform & jump in midair to simply beat a level. Then you have to jump rather high up to avoid hitting a bramble wall, but not too high so you don’t bonk your head on the ceiling dipping down, & you have to not go too far forward so that you bonk a Klinger hanging on the 2nd rope on the row o’ ropes. After this, you have to jump ’tween a bramble wall & Zinger, jump o’er ’nother high wall, zip past 5 Zingers going up & down in a horizontal line, dodge 2 Cat-O-9-Tails without smacking into the low-hanging bramble walls, & finally, after a simple climb past a bunch o’ Mini-Neckies, make a couple tricky jumps ’cross the small wooden planks floating in the sea o’ brambles, including ’nother jump that requires rolling & jumping while in midair if you’re Diddy.

Other than maybe the rope climb past the Mini-Neckies ( which is a clever breather if you realize you can just rush forward & the Mini-Neckies will ne’er be able to touch you before you pass them, but already done in “Bramble Scramble” ), every 1 o’ these mini challenges is a clever twist on challenges you’ve experienced since “Topsail Trouble” that test your platforming aim without being unfair.

The bonus is well constructed, too: you have to pay attention to your surroundings & notice the wooden plank platform near the top o’ the screen as you go through the last land section & throw your partner ( which means getting through the whole 1st half o’ this level without getting hit, as the only DK barrel before the midway point o’ no return is @ the start o’ the level ) up @ the plank with precise aim to avoid throwing your partner into brambles, & then you have to jump ’cross wooden plank platforms while holding a canon ball weighing you down. The bonus itself is the ultimate challenge to using Dixie’s helicopter twirl to weave through thin passages ’tween bramble walls.

& all this great level design is just the build up to the main attraction, the ultimate squawks challenge. Yes, e’en mo’ than “Animal Antics”. While Squawks sections are notorious, they can all be rendered much easier with 1 simple trick: move carefully. What makes squawks hard to control for those not used to him is his traction ( very similar to novice’s negative reaction to Luigi’s controls in Lost Levels ). But with slower, mo’ careful movement, the slowdown delay is reduced, making Squawks easier to control. This applies to “Animal Antics”’s wind section, too. People oft get screwed by the wind ’cause they just rush through the level, leaving them vulnerable to sudden wind changes throwing them in its direction. Howe’er, if the player doesn’t crank down the arrow button in any direction, wind changes won’t be so extreme, making it easier to adjust to them.

Pictured: Most players’ experience playing “Animal Antics”.

“Screech’s Sprint” doesn’t allow these mitigations, howe’er, ’cause you can’t go slowly — you’re in a race. So you have no choice but to sharpen your flying aim.

Much like the rest o’ the level, the ensuing maze is full o’ clever twists. For instance, the designers threw in a few risk/reward sections with narrower shortcuts, including 1 right after the midway point, that is harder to squeeze through, but will give you mo’ distance in front o’ Screech ( or get you closer to him if you’ve fallen ’hind ).

In contrast, you have the devious placement o’ the hero coin, which requires you to go through a detour, losing you time in the race. ’Course, Donkey Kong Country 2 is nice ’nough to allow you to keep the hero coin once you grab it, whether you die or not, so you can just grab it, die, & then focus fully on the race hereafter. Still, there’s always that urge to challenge oneself to grab the hero coin & still beat the race in 1 try.

Round this point, in the middle o’ the race, the designers introduce an actual mini maze with dead-ends with banana coins. These would be unfair if the designers weren’t merciful ’nough to put trails o’ bananas leading you through the correct passageways. Howe’er, some “wrong turns” are, in fact, shortcuts; so while it’s easy to avoid dead-ends to beat the level by following designated paths, the level still offers rewards to those who risk unmarked paths.

The last 3rd o’ the maze begins throwing in “Bramble Scramble” Zinger challenges, culminating in 1 area full o’ Zingers flying in place with thin space ’tween them — but now the player has to weave through them while still racing forward.

In terms o’ aesthetics, “Screech’s Sprint” is the best-looking bramble level, & probably the best-looking level in the game, applying an autumnal brown-orange to the brambles & making the sky purple. Autumn, being associated so well with endings, works well for this end-game stage.

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Posted in Great Stages, Video Games