Oh, the first few levels are peppy, brightly colored, old-school fun. Bananas fly everywhere, secrets practically reveal themselves. And the collectible K-O-N-G letters dangle like low hanging fruit.
But then things take a turn.
The cursing began for me probably around level three or four. The praying at level five. The despair at level six.
During each absurd jump in difficulty, I told myself, This won't last. I've played enough games over the years to know that developers typically include sharp difficulty spikes before giving way to breezier portions of the game. Yet each spike in difficulty in Donkey Kong Country Returns [DKCR] only led to subsequent, even steeper spikes in difficulty. In all my days, in all my years of enduring you've-got-to-be-kidding-me games, including every installment in the Ninja Gaiden series--which I adore, by the way--I have never been so emotionally, physically, and spiritually beaten down by a game the way that I was by DKCR.
Then, just when you think things can't possibly get any worse, a nude, glasses-wearing pig appears, waving a small, white flag in your direction. He is, of course, offering his "super guide" services. Which, from what I understand, consists of short how-to videos showing you how to do what you, according to the pig, cannot do. I looked at the super guide once and only once, in the name of research for this post. What happens is this: A white-haired version of Donkey Kong appears on the screen. Perhaps his hair has gone white from the sheer terror of the level he is about to demonstrate for you. He proceeds to do all the incredible things that need to be done--spectacular jumps, last-minute leaps, mine cart hops, enemy circumventing, etc. And then he vanishes--poof--as abruptly as he had arrived.
Now, Joe DiMaggio could rise from his grave, grab a bat and ball, and hit a 400-foot home run over the cemetery fence. "Good one!" I would say to the reanimated corpse of Joe DiMaggio. Yet that would bring me, personally, not one iota closer to possessing the ability to be able to hit a 400-foot home run. I could watch a video of an extremely smart person taking the SAT. Yes, he seems to be writing a lot, I would note. Yes, having a second sharpened pencil was a terrific idea. But watching the smart person would not improve my score on the SAT.
How merely watching White Donkey Kong do what you cannot do is supposed to help you, in a tangible way, is beyond me. Which leads me to believes that the super guide is included solely to make you feel even worse than you already do. Think you can't feel any worse right now? Super Guide says. Well, watch this video of an albino kong making it all look incredibly easy! See? Wasn't that helpful? It wasn't? Huh. That's strange. It was supposed to be helpful. But it wasn't helpful for you? Hrmm. Well, do you feel 10-percent worse about yourself after watching the super-guide video? You do? THEN MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!!!!!!
The one true way to survive the hell-on-earth experience of DKCR is not to view smarmy guides showing you how to do it. You must devote yourself to DKCR like a zen buddhist. You must forsake all worldly goods. You must end any current/on-going relationships with any women/men. You must draw the blinds, shut off your cellphone, forego personal hygiene (yes, you will grow a beard that will eventually make you resemble an Early Man exhibit from the Museum of Natural History), and laser focus all of your gaming powers on this single, solitary pursuit.
And even then, after all that, there's still a chance you might not make it.
I wantonly blew threw thousands of Kongs during my time with the game. I began referring to Donkey Kong Country Returns as "the one-up wood chipper." That's what it felt like some days: like I was simply feeding one-ups--Kong after Kong after Kong (after Kong)--into a buzz saw. Near the end, I wouldn't bother attempting a level unless I had more than 50 one-ups in the tank. Whenever I'd run low, I'd return to the game's early levels, "harvesting" bananas and collecting Koins to blow in Kranky Kong's stupid shop, all in the name of stocking up on one-ups.
Do I sound obsessed? Oh, I was.
And at least a small percentage of the blame for my obsession must be attributed to that flag-waving, f***-faced pig. I remember at point point, as I endured an especially trying stretch in the game, after yet another period of embarrassing failure, F*** Face showed up and frantically began waving his f*** flag at me. That is when I said the following words aloud, in my living room: "Eat shit, you piece of shit-eating shit."
Let me repeat that: "Eat shit, you piece of shit-eating shit."
Yes, DKCR inspired me to come up with that beautiful line of poetry (and countless others). Not since God of War's "would you like to change your difficulty setting to EASY" offer have I been so angered by a game's offer to help me, and by extension, so motivated to finish the game without any of the game's help at all.
I hauled the Wii to New York City with me over the holidays--I made room for it in my overstuffed suitcase--in the name of furthering my obsessive pursuit. Finishing the game, enduring the experience, had become the gaming equivalent of Ahab's white whale. I needed to see this journey to completion, no matter the cost to my well-being.
Yes, I finally finished Donkey Kong Country Returns. No, I didn't bother collecting the orbs in the bonus sadist levels. And by extension, no, I did not press on into the Golden Temple. Enough was enough. This game had already taken enough of my life away from me.
The game's final, brief cut-scene is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Not because it is beautiful. At all. It is brief and efficient and largely unsurprising. It's beautiful because the final cinema, symbolically, meant that the experience was finally over. I'd spent so many hours, and so many Kongs, in this borderline-futile pursuit, thinking that this moment might never come, despairing in the truest sense of the word. And when it did finally arrive, I felt like a man stranded on a desert island, one who'd long given up hope of ever being rescued, who had just spotted a rescue boat on the horizon with a topless Cheryl Tiegs at the helm, waving her bra in my direction. In my metaphoric fantasy, I would fall to my knees on the beach, tears streaming into my unkempt desert-island beard, thinking, "It's over. It's finally over."
I finished DKCR, but I can't explain exactly why I finished DKCR. Why did I expend all of this energy? Why did I subject myself to such--there's no other word for it--punishment? How did I become so obsessed? Why, frankly, did I bother at all?
It's hard to say.
Sometimes games come along and get under my skin, and stay under my skin, in a way that catches me off guard. Part of it, no doubt, is my allegiance to Rare's original on the Super Nintendo. I played the living shit out of that game for years, finishing it multiple times. So, a small percentage of my unhealthy pursuit can be attributed to pure nostalgia, to hearing those old songs again (what a soundtrack in this game!), to rocketing around in barrels, and to seeing characters again that I've been fond of for nearly 20 years now.
But a larger percentage, if I'm going to be completely honest, is that I sort of began to enjoy the sheer masochism of it all. I saw Danny Boyle's 127 Hours recently, which was alright, but wasn't the gut-wrenching, transcendent experience people had promised me it would be. I've never understood those people who are into climbing mountains and engaging in "extreme" pursuits, and as a result, I never have any sympathy for the people who, for example, die on Everest. You had a good idea of what you were getting into up there, folks. I have friends who are climbing Kilimanjaro next month. I've told them both, point blank, that if I have to go up there to claim their skeletons I will be beyond pissed off.
Maybe games like DKCR, in some ways, are small-scale versions of extreme pursuits. It's simply fun and satisfying to occasionally do something, to subject yourself to something, that most people can't do, or won't bother to do.
I admit, I did feel a little depressed after DKCR went back on the shelf. I moved on to Super Mario Galaxy 2, which I'm currently trying to complete. I'm at 70 Power Stars and counting. I've been a bit disappointed--in comparison to DKCR--by how easy it is. It's not an easy game by any means. Yet each time I locate a new Power Star these days, I think, So that's it?
I miss having my dexterity and, beyond that, my patience pushed to the limit. Stranger still, I've come to realize that I miss the despair of it all. Or maybe that's not quite right. It's not the despair that I miss. What I miss is the extreme degree of unadulterated, heart-squeezing elation I'd experience whenever I would do something as simple as making it to a subsequent checkpoint, or in extreme cases in the final levels of the game, simply making it through two or three seemingly impossible jumps.
I'd get there, arriving at a destination I thought I'd never arrive at, palms sweating, knees shaking, and I'd think: Now that's entertainment.
All of which can only mean one thing: that I have an upcoming date with the notorious Demon's Souls.
Cheryl Tiegs Rescue Boat: Looks like I'll be seeing you again, real soon.