You can’t rank the best Christmases by looking too far past your childhood. Whenever the transition happens (and for me I suspect it happened after college, not counting the two years I spent in China. Those were special circumstances), it changes something fundamental in your life. It marks the drop, from childhood to adulthood, from playing SNES all day to “adulting”, the current phrase for people my generation pulled kicking and screaming from their long-term adolescence to the pleasures of paying bills, fighting traffic and raising kids.
My daughter’s five. Her wants are simple, and with each approaching Christmas I think back to my own Christmases. I want to make them as special for her as they were for me, and out of all the great Christmases, Christmas 1995 stands apart.
It came at the right time, in the heyday of 16-bit gaming. Gamepro was still publishing. The Nintendo 64 was still the Ultra 64, not delayed yet, and the PlayStation and Saturn had just come out. There was a particular window when Nintendo hadn’t abandoned the SNES and developers were still pushing the system to its limits while Resident Evil only existed in beta form. In other words, there were good Christmases to come, but 95 won in the presents department.
I had Killer Instinct, Yoshi’s Island and Donkey Kong Country 2 under the tree.
Rare had torched the gaming world the year before with Donkey Kong Country, billed as the first video game rendered with computer graphics. They had the hype machine going: DKC graced the cover of the December 1994 issue of Gamepro (the first issue my parents bought me), Nintendo Power subscribers received a promotional video hosted by a comedian who’s probably panhandling today. Nintendo pulled out all the stops to make sure the first Donkey Kong Country was the hot seller for Christmas 94.
Donkey Kong Country 2 had no video, but it graced the cover of Gamepro’s December 1995 issue. I’d hoped that would be the start of the trend, but 1996 brought us the Nintendo 64 and the SNES’s death tolls. Christmas 1995 did come at the right time.
Donkey Kong Country 2 earned rave reviews across the board, and on this occasion the reviewers are correct. Good sequels don’t repeat what the first ones did. They examine what the first one did, fill in the gaps, making improvements where needed while leaving what isn’t broken alone.
In Donkey Kong Country 2, Kaptain K. Rool has kidnapped Donkey Kong, locking him away in a castle at the top of Crocodile Isle. Your long climb up Crocodile Isle takes you through a variety of levels and locales. The first Donkey Kong Country had pirate ships and snow levels; Donkey Kong Country 2 ditches the snow levels for swamps, beehives and bramble.
With the success of the first game and Nintendo’s backing, Rare felt free to experiment. Donkey Kong Country 2 takes chances, not just in level design but in extras and sidequests. The bonus levels, a much-hyped feature that Gamepro swore would take players 80 hours to complete makes a return here. The difference is that in Donkey Kong Country 2 they mean something. Completing a bonus level nets you a Kremcoin. 15 Kremcoins gives you access to a Lost World level while all 75 lets you in the Lost World’s volcano, where the final boss, Kaptain K. Rool, is pissed and ready for a rematch.
Donkey Kong Country 2 also introduces DK Coins. They are hidden in the regular levels and are prizes for finishing bonus levels in the Lost World. Just as there is an incentive for collecting Kremcoins, your reward for collecting every DK Coin is the coveted 102% completion…and Cranky Kong’s approval as Diddy stands in 1st place in the video game hall of heroes, ahead of Link and Mario.
Diddy returns, this time as the hero. His partner is a female Kong named Dixie, prompting many an under the radar joke in mid-nineties gaming mags, Diddy has the same abilities as the last game while Dixie can use her ponytail to helicopter across pits and dangerous enemies. Together, the two monkeys can throw one another to access out-of-the-way areas, bonus levels and DK coins. Both of them are fairly weak, unable to destroy larger enemies.
The soundtrack is as imaginative as the levels. Each track complements the level, where it’s the Hothead Bop for the lava levels, the Bayou Boogie as you jump from tadpole to tadpole or Stickerbrush Symphony for the bramble levels. In the final Lost World level, you transform into Squawks the parrot, fighting against the wind. Stickerbrush Symphony roars in the background, sweeping you from your real life concerns into the life-or-death world of platform gaming.
1995 in video games. Changes we haven’t seen the likes of since. Think about it: Donkey Kong Country 2 came out the same year the 32-bit PlayStation and Saturn with the Nintendo 64 on the horizon. The last time “next-gen” meant a real change.
Rare understood this, and they could have made Donkey Kong Country 1.5 and called it a day. They didn’t. They pushed themselves, and their hard work and good timing made Christmas 1995 the best, enriching the lives of millions lucky enough to be kids in the heyday of 16-bit gaming.