Christmas 1995: a review of Donkey Kong Country 2

Christmas as an adult, the same routine:

Mom: What do you want for Christmas?

Me: (long silence) I don’t know.

Why is this question so hard to answer now? Used to, it was easy. As a child my parents didn’t have to ask and at some point a transition happened, from telling them what I wanted for Christmas to being asked. From the primary concern in my life to an afterthought. From Super Nintendo games to…money?


I used to feel sorry for those kids who woke up to blue jeans under the tree. Last Christmas I thanked my sister for my new flannel shirt. It’s red and black.

It matches the one she bought my wife.

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 InstinctYoshi’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.

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New Expat Jimmy Review

On a day in which my website was hacked and I had to endure Facebook burying my posts because I won’t pay them to show it, I mean “boost” it, some good news came flying in over the transom: another Expat Jimmy review.

Jetlagged and tired, Jimmy sees Wuhan, goes to many different places (and manages to not collapse from exhaustion!) and listens to Adam’s endless China tips. Crazy taxi rides, construction works everywhere, baijiu, hot water, accidents, shady clubs… this is China!

This review comes courtesy of Marta, who lives in Suzhou with her husband. She works as a translator and blogs about her life in China in both English and Spanish.

Check out her blog. Huge thanks to Marta for doing the review. Not all writers have automatic support systems thanks to their pedigree or gender, nor do we get book deals and coverage thanks to big media connections, so I appreciate every review I get.

In the meantime, if you haven’t already, check out Expat Jimmy, a tale of James’s first day in China, and the jaded seven-year laowai who shows him the dark side of expat life. Taking place in one day, it’s unique among expat novels in its approach, at least until someone well-connected writes a neutered version of the same book.

At that point, Expat Jimmy will be forgotten, so review it while it’s hot…

Expat Jimmy review roundup + TV Tropes page

I wish I had the support some other authors have, but I am thankful for the few reviews Expat Jimmy has received. They are genuine, and I’ll take four real reviews over a bunch of tossed-off five star write-ups from either people who expect a future favor from me or buddies in the publishing industry.

I am further detaching day-by-day.

On to the reviews:

First we have Quincy Carroll, author of Up to the Mountains, Down to the Countryside, which I reviewed here. It was recently reissued by Camphor Press out of Taiwan with a new edit.

 I very much enjoyed this story by Travis Lee and would recommend it to anyone who has spent time in Asia. There’s an undeniable sense of nostalgia permeating the narrative, and Lee successfully captures the “sensory overload” aspect of stepping off the plane for the first time. Tons of books have been written on the subject, but many devolve into stereotype and/or condescension. Expat Jimmy takes an honest look at what it’s like to transplant oneself across countries and cultures, and for that reason, I’d recommend it to those unfamiliar with China, too.

Ray Hecht, author of South China Morning Blues (which I reviewed and recommended here), offered his take:

In some ways the narrative is not particularly original—many expat authors (yours truly included) have covered the angle of an ESL westerner intrigued and shocked by the modern East. However, in condensing this rather archetypal story into one day, Lee succeeds at capturing the essence of this sort of story. Wasting no time, his tour of Wuhan in the mid-aughts covers everything a reader could want: all full of wonder, disgust, fear, and hope.

Jocelyn Eikenberg was kind enough to feature Expat Jimmy on her blog Speaking of China:

In 62 gripping pages, we follow the eponymous newcomer on a tour through Wuhan with Adam, a rather unscrupulous ESL teacher involved in some shady business. Lee skillfully captures those little details of living in China easily forgotten to longtime expats. It reminded me of how China appeared to me once upon a time, when I was still fighting jetlag and struggling to speak Mandarin.

And finally, Arthur Meursault. He wrote a great satire called Party Members which didn’t receive nearly the coverage it deserved. You can read my review here or go on Amazon and check some of the better reviews. David I Cahill’s is a good one.

The amount of places visited is unrealistic, though I can understand that the author is trying to present an introduction to all the weird and wonderful aspects of life in China within the vehicle of a one-day timeline. It doesn’t quite work and there is almost a little too much happening within the one hundred pages of this story for it to settle in the reader’s head and leave an impression

Huge thanks to the people who reviewed Expat Jimmy. I appreciate it. I’ll post more reviews as they come in.

In the meantime, check out the Expat Jimmy‘s TV Tropes page.

Missed Connections – a review of This Modern Love by Ray Hecht


It’s like real life, but better – Tinder slogan.

Apps like Tinder are a natural consequence of a world of pickup artists and pseudo-harems, where 10% of the men fuck 90% of the women and everyone else is left paying hucksters thousands of dollars to learn how to play a game they were never fit to play in the first place.

Datings apps play a big role in Ray Hecht’s new book This Modern Love. Everyone is connected but everyone is lonely and we follow four of these lonely lives in Los Angeles as they seek attachment.

Ben Weiss stands at the crux of this book. Ben is an introverted coder whose relationship coldly ends because his girlfriend discovered his profile on dating websites while maintaining such profiles herself. Ben comes off as particularly emasculated, lost in a world of text seduction. “Cuck” might be the going term, though I’d never advise you to use it.

The others fare no better, even Jack who understands how the game is played. As they seek meaning, Ben pays for a sensual massage, Jack goes through women, Andrea sleeps with a middle-aged man and Carla writes fanfiction and does drugs, and no one comes away satisfied. There is no app or social media website that fills the void in their lives and love, if it exists in this world, cannot be distilled into a few kb of data and remains elusive to these people.

Although I initially thought I couldn’t relate to the people in This Modern Love, I think I understand them. In college I tried my hand at dating, with terrible results, and while I can’t empathize with Jack, I do pity Ben. Like many young men, lost in an increasingly disconnected world and a contest of counterintuitive rules which no one ever wins.

This Modern Love is available at Amazon .

intReview: The Corpse Walker, by Liao Yiwu

I met Travis Lee on a cool November morning in 2016. He was waiting for the library to open, and I noticed he was holding a book. I decided to ask him about it…

W: What are you reading?

T: The Corpse Walker, by Liao Yiwu. I just finished it.

W: What’s it about?

T: This guy went around over the years interviewing people in China. This is a translation of some of his interviews.

W: What kinds of people?

T: The book’s subtitle is ‘Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom-Up’, and I guess you could say that’s true. These are all ordinary people. A lot of his interviews skew towards those who have been mistreated by the Chinese government.

W: Maybe it doesn’t skew; maybe it’s normal.

T: I’ve thought about that too. Of course, Liao Yiwu is a dissident writer. The introduction to this book makes that clear, with a good deal of mythologizing.

W: Mythologizing?

T: In the introduction, Wen Huang, the book’s translator, relates the story of Liao Yiwu’s birth: he was born when the Great Leap Forward was launched. During the famine, he nearly died from edema. According to Huang, Liao’s mother took him to an herbal doctor in the countryside who held him over a wok that contained boiling herbal water. The herbal steam miraculously restored him.

I like the use of the word ‘restore’ rather than ‘cure’. ‘Cure’ denotes serious weakness. Restore? Temporary weakness. Liao Yiwu wasn’t afflicted, not really, and the steam allowed him to return to his previously strong state. Pair it with ‘miraculously’, and a myth is born.

So, during a famine that killed 45 million people, we are to believe that Liao Yiwu was “miraculously restored”, a presumably divine act that would allow him to later live on the lam as a dissident writer, barely known in his own country. But there’s nothing “miraculous” about it; hydrotherapy is a well-known alternative treatment for swelling.

Throughout this book I had to wonder, is this true? Am I reading what people actually said?

Let me give you another example: The Human Trafficker. Now, according to the introduction, Liao gained these people’s trust. He interviewed this guy in prison and says that he could not take any recording equipment inside.

W: As you’d expect.

T: Right. He had to write up the interview from memory, but what is he remembering? What happened or what he wanted to happen? Take the ending. After the Human Trafficker expresses no remorse over conning young women into sexual slavery, Liao Yiwu claims he said this:

“If it were the judge, I would first cut off your tongue as punishment. It deserves to be cut off.”

I don’t doubt that Liao feels this way. But did he end the interview like that? Did it say it at all?

W: Does it matter?

T: It doesn’t ruin the book for me. It is interesting to contemplate though; what was lost or added?

W: You called him a “dissident writer”. Did he conduct these interviews illegally?

T: According to the introduction, most of his works are banned in China. Liao himself was arrested after Tiananmen Square for recording a poem dedicated to the victims of the massacre, among other things.

The introduction states that he has spent most of his career on the run.

W: Do you consider that more mythologizing?

T: Oh yes. He’s a renegade writer who was “miraculously restored” during one of the worst famines in history, remember? And now, the government fears him so much they will do anything to silence him.

W: It makes sense. From what I’ve, the CCP is quick to silence any dissent, however small.

T: True. Look at Liu Xiaobo. The Hong Kong booksellers. I don’t think he or his supporters are lying, but they are using it to craft a narrative. I don’t think anyone can deny that.

W: In his interviews, is Liao crafting a narrative?

T: When it comes to government reprisal, few in this book go unscathed. Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: The Tiananmen Father. Have you heard of the Tiananmen Mothers?

W: No.

T: The Tiananmen Mothers are a group of friends, relatives and parents of the victims. They demand that the Party acknowledge the massacre, name the dead, compensate families of the victims and punish those responsible.

W: I hesitate to ask how their efforts are coming along.

T: Ding Zilin, the group’s founder, is under house arrest.

W: How about the Tiananmen Father?

T: He’s a Sichuanese man whose son was murdered in the protests. The government did not let him take his son’s body home for burial. They let him view it, before hastily burning it along with the other victims’ bodies.

It’s a moving interview. Let me tell you how he ends it:

“Our life is too hard right now. We live on two hundred yuan a month. We have to raise our granddaughter and support her education. She is our only hope. She is the only thing left after the loss of my two sons. Despite this, we don’t want to bother Professor Ding [leader of the Tiananmen Mothers]. It doesn’t matter if we live or die. Professor Ding has to live. She is the one who helps keep the issue alive. It’s been sixteen years since the June 4 massacre happened. Sooner or later, justice will be done. We probably won’t live long enough to see the day. Whatever happens, we can’t let the Communist Party get away with the bloody debt owed to families like mine.”

W: Next year will mark twenty-eight years. No acknowledgement seems to be forthcoming.

T: I lived in China for the twentieth anniversary in 2009. People were scared. Perhaps they still are. The thing is, the Party is in power. All they need to do is wait. Sooner or later, all those pesky eyewitnesses will die, leaving rumor and hearsay.

W: There are records too.

T: Records can be altered. Destroyed.

W: History is written by the winners.

T: There are no winners here. In 1989 everyone lost.

W: Were there other stories that caught your eye?

T: The interviews near the end were weak. Some of what the interviewees said, such as the prison stories. There are about three people who were sent to Chinese prison, and they were tortured and sexually assaulted by the other inmates.

W: Are you saying it didn’t happen?

T: I’m saying the events seem exaggerated, yes. “Needlessly dramatic”, might be the right words.

W: How do you know it didn’t happen?

T: I don’t, but I suspect they’re dramatizing.

W: You hope they are?

T: Yeah, sure.

W: You’ve talked about exaggeration. Was there anything in the book besides the Tiananmen Father that you didn’t doubt?

T: It’s not that I doubt every interview in the book. Only that some statements, from the interviewees and Liao Yiwu himself, seem farfetched. I mean, the Street Singer claims that his blind father drowned in a river. The Street Singer was supposed to be watching him, but why was a blind man swimming in the first place?

What doesn’t seem farfetched is what we know happened. Tales from the Anti-Rightist movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution.

Liao Yiwu interviews a former Red Guard. He, the former Red Guard, has no remorse over what he did. They bullied, harassed, tortured and killed people, all in the name of Mao Zedong. If you want to see the power of a cult of personality, forget North Korea. Look at China, 1966 to about 1975. Mao Zedong knew he was on his way out, and he was determined to make his country pay.

W: You seem more inclined to believe people who were hurt by the government.

T: Even their stories don’t escape the narrative trap. The basic events…I mean, someone’s father was a landlord. They were persecuted. I’ll believe that before I believe that a leper’s wife was burned alive and no one did anything about it.

W: Some of the stories are more rooted in well-documented history, it seems. Did you enjoy the book overall?

T: I did. For all the questions it raises, it tells you a lot about China and the Chinese people.

This book is abridged, by the way.

W: How so?

T: Straight from the introduction: They selected twenty-seven stories that they felt were representative of his work and of interest to Western readers. I’m interested in reading the whole book, not what someone has decided would interest me.

W: That might explain the skewing towards people who’ve been mistreated by the government.

T: Perhaps. I want to read the whole book to find out.

W: Would you recommend The Corpse Walker to others?

T: Yes, as long as you know what you’re getting into. Read the introduction carefully. The translator’s acknowledgements too, where he treats you to this:

“Following his release from a Chinese prison, Liao Yiwu asked a blind fortune-teller to forecast his future. The fortune-teller felt around Liao’s face, inquired the date and time of his birth, and told Liao that his future would start to look promising because he would be assisted and blessed by several guiren, or noblemen.”

The translator than goes on to thank several people who helped bring the book to life. Without them, we wouldn’t have The Corpse Walker.

W: Seems that fortune-teller had a point.

T: I know, right? Who am I to doubt him?



The Corpse Walker is available on Amazon. Check out more of my reviews here.