As a huge Nintendo fan, I’m no stranger to the 2D platformer. I grew up with the New Super Mario Bros. games and have since returned to explore the touchstone platformers from the NES era until now. I’ve even dabbled in the more obscure ones like The Legendary Starfy. Considering how the company has dominated this genre at a AAA level since the 80s, I’ve had no shortage of platformers to sift through. On the whole, I enjoy them. I really like Kirby’s laid-back, collectable-heavy loop. Yoshi’s Island’s egg-throwing gimmick is engaging too. Usually, if a 2D platformer has plenty of Nintendo charm and some gameplay hook that punches up the core design, I’ll have a good time. Where Nintendo starts to lose me, however, is with the more straightforward platformers in its stable. Namely, I have a hard time being engaged by 2D Mario, even though I have so many memories with the modern titles, and a great appreciation for the classics.
While it’s blasphemous to some, I find 2D Mario a bit too simple. These titles lack the gameplay conceits that differentiate a Kirby or a Yoshi, even though they undoubtedly hit all the metrics for success in their genre. When I think about those metrics, I’m usually thinking about raw mechanics. Is movement smooth? Does jumping feel responsive? How is the level design? Questions like these are what developers need to answer in order to nail the core tenets of the genre. And, Mario always clears those bars easily. Whether we’re talking Super Mario Bros. 3 or New Super Mario Bros. U, the simple act of platforming feels great.
However, I think there is much more that goes into the creation of a top-tier 2D platformer, especially a platformer that lacks gameplay more fundamentally complex than just running and jumping. Well, at least there is for my tastes. If I can’t be magnetized to unique mechanics, I want to engrossed in a beautifully-realized world. I want to feel as lost in a platformer’s atmosphere as the immersive feeling I get when exploring the richest 3D environments found in The Legend of Zelda. If fact, if a 2D platformer – even with simple mechanics – can nail that, sometimes I don’t even need the unique gameplay hooks that I mentioned earlier.
Donkey kong country: the top banana
My love of Donkey Kong Country is testament to that, as this subseries is my favorite set of 2D platformers. They certainly don’t do much that feels especially new gameplay-wise. They’re about as simple mechanically as a 2D platformer can be. You roll (sometimes you twirl or cartwheel), you jump, and occasionally you take control of an animal helper. So, there isn’t too much systemically. But these titles, especially Rare’s SNES trilogy, just nail the sense of adventure that I love. They accomplish this by building truly lived-in worlds, a feat that extends to every aspect of their design. And, no entry in the trilogy exemplifies this more than Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble, which features an overworld map so good that it elevates the entire game.
Before I get to the third game specifically though, I have to gush about the series overall. All three of Rare’s Donkey Kong Country titles embody a sense of environmental cohesion which connects me to their core gameplay. Every platform within a DKC level is anchored to the world and is not simply a floating obstacle to traverse. Donkey Kong and friends traipse across treetops and over mountains which feel organic. It’s difficult to find many instances of the inorganic platforms that comprise the lion’s share of 2D Mario levels. On a level-to-level basis, Rare’s adventures go much further than most of their contemporaries in evoking a sense of place.
Without this feeling, I find myself losing focus and viewing any obstacles as just that – obstacles – not necessarily worlds to traverse. I think Super Mario World is a great game. But when I start jumping through goal tape or across Crayola-colored floating platforms, I find myself disengaging. It’s hard for me to believe that anyone lives in these environments, or that Mario has any real reason to be there. When I’m in a level, I want to really care about my surroundings, not just nonchalantly jump over and around them. However, I’ve come to realize that what I really want is to care about my surroundings to an even greater extent, one which goes beyond the individual stages. This is where my love for Donkey Kong Country 3 comes in. What really asserts that game’s sense of scale, and its predecessors to a lesser degree, are the overarching elements that stitch individual, immersive levels together.
peeling away layers of design
I’m referring the series’ overworld maps, of which Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble easily has the best. Throughout the Rare trilogy, the maps progressively improved but always maintained a commitment to that idea of establishing place. The design of the overworld directly correlated to the motif of the unique level below it. That is a fine touch which really solidifies the notion that Donkey Kong and company truly live in the jungles they explore. Even when Diddy’s Kong Quest adopted rather bizarre level themes like Kremling amusement parks, I still believed that they belonged in the world since they were reflected on the overworld map. These sorts of details carefully drawn into the map bring it and its levels into conversation in a way that evokes the sense of immersion that I love. Not only do I feel like the DK Crew belong in each level they traverse, I feel like the levels belong in the world which houses them.
Still, while the rich detail of the first two Donkey Kong Countries were fairly immersive, they lacked a bit of engagement. This lacking engagement comes from how closely they stuck to established map trends of the era and the one that preceded it. Games like Super Mario Bros. 3 established the trend in overworlds where the player would simply guide their character from point of interest to point of interest. This style of map design, while full of bonus areas and offering a sense of geography, did not emphasize interactivity. Players weren’t given direct control of their characters, instead they guided them toward the next map point with a tap of the D-Pad. Whenever I revisit Mario 3, I feel like I’m telling Mario what level to walk to or which bonus house to enter. I never felt like I was Mario, exploring these locations myself. That’s a big immersion killer for me. Even when this design was at its best, like with Donkey Kong Country and its sequel, there was a sense that these overworlds were glorified menus, mechanically speaking.
Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble addressed this though. It matched the rich aesthetics and details of past maps with more engaged and hands-on gameplay. This was the puzzle piece that 2D platformers were missing for me. DKC3’s map is as populated as Mario 3’s, but it actually gives me a sense of adventure opposed to the veneer of one. Rare made the brilliant decision to give the player direct control over their Kongs in free-roaming overworld areas, establishing these as a place to explore in themselves, opposed to a branching but point-for-point level select that just feels flat.
slipping ahead of the competition
On Donkey Kong Country 3’s overworld, you have to directly traverse the game’s island to locate the hubs that house individual stages. Sometimes you’ll freely swim to the next level or walk to it. Other times, you’ll encounter natural hazards that require various vehicles to overcome. To acquire those, Dixie and Kiddy Kong have to visit Funky Kong’s Rental Hut to with parts won from boss encounters. There, Funky uses the parts to tinker around with the Kong’s ride, which he lent Dixie in the first place, upgrading it to be able to tackle the next environmental challenge. After, you’d be able to freely drive your hovercraft or other upgraded ride across the geography giving you trouble.
For my money, this is how you build a compelling overworld. You design it in a way that necessitates the sort of exploration which reveals just how far the DK Crew go in their adventures. When you’re freely swimming across a lake as Kiddy Kong, you gain the sense that you’re helping him traverse a gigantic body of water, not just commanding him to follow a mindless path across a water-themed tile set. I love this, and I find it to be a wonderful realization of that Zelda-like sense of adventure I spoke of earlier. When I walk from Kakariko Village to Hyrule Castle across Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time, I feel the distance between the locations and thus the scope of the journey. I would not connect nearly as strongly to Link if I simply gestured to a flashing Hyrule Castle map point and watched him walk to it independently. That would be so lame! It’s the same principle in Donkey Kong Country 3.
Sure, the overworld is still a path to the individual world hubs, which are then a path to individual levels themselves. It’s still a glorified menu of sorts, since the stages are the core of the experience. This is especially true since the trek across the island and the discovery of the next level set definitely won’t test your abilities. But, this added sense of exploration deepens the overall experience for me, and I’m sure it’ll do the same for you. The game makes finding the next level a more deliberate gameplay facet, even if it isn’t a complex one. I really believe that this overworld map adds a dimension and scope that other platformers leave on the table.
i’m out of banana puns
Again, ideas like these are certainly additive and non-essential for crafting engaging platformers. If I connect to the simple act of platforming and feel empowered by it, then I’ll probably enjoy the experience to some extent. Yet, in a genre of increasing mechanical precision, being able to offer a sense of geography and place on top of sharp, core gameplay is essential to me. This starts with a well-executed overworld map, and the interactivity of Donkey Kong Country 3’s really spoiled others for me. After all, while people praise maps like Super Mario World’s as the gold standard, I can’t help but see them as a bit static. The ability to roam around while discovering level hubs is an innovation that forever makes traditional maps feel stiff to me.
So, a lot of 2D platformer maps feel pretty darn boring for my tastes. Not even later Donkey Kong Country games implemented the design philosophy. Retro Studios’ reboot DKC titles are awesome, and Tropical Freeze is one of my favorite modern platformers by a wide margin. These take the dense level design of the Rare titles to the next level entirely. Those silhouetted stages in particular are just stunning. Unfortunately though, their maps are incredibly simplistic. This robs intricate levels of some weight, as they’re stitched together by an inorganic overworld. I don’t feel that DKC3 sense of scope as I lead Donkey Kong between stages in Tropical Freeze. Since Donkey Kong Country itself didn’t recapture Double Trouble’s open map design, it isn’t surprising that other franchises didn’t either. The Super Mario Bros. 3 style is obviously the prevailing map philosophy, and it’s adopted by AAA teams and indies alike.
When I play a platformer, I don’t want to just jump over obstacles and complete stages. I want to feel like I’m embarking on a true adventure. I believe that compelling overworld design is pivotal in that quest, as it becomes the glue which contextualizes the stages within it. Donkey Kong Country 3’s map design makes the whole experience a more compelling romp, even though the title feels otherwise iterative after its two predecessors. It’s because of this map that DKC3 is my second favorite in the series, right on the heels of the original Donkey Kong Country. Of course, those beautiful parallax visuals help a lot too. The game is a testament to what is gained through a commitment to establishing a world, and the value that environmental cohesion adds to a platformer.
If you don’t believe me, or you’re scared off by Kiddy Kong’s design (I wouldn’t blame you), do a bit of an experiment. Boot up Nintendo Switch Online’s SNES library and play the first worlds of both Donkey Kong Country 3 and Super Mario World. Contrast them directly, and consider which map better establishes the sense of adventure that both try to evoke. Maybe you’ll disagree with the notion that the map adds a lot. But I doubt that. I really think that this overworld adds a truly essential immersive dimension to the experience. If that rumored Donkey Kong Switch platformer is real, I hope its hub takes some cues from Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble.