Impossible Landscapes: Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, Thomas Was Alone, and Robot Unicorn Attack 2

Nintendo Donkey Kong Country Returns 2

Why do we still play 2-D platformers? Especially when so many other venerable video-game genres have fallen out of favor and become dependent on old-school curators? The platformer is, after all, a modest genre. Even its best games seem to spring more from expert craftsmanship and considered design rather than some deep well of artistic inspiration.

And yet, say the term “video game,” unqualified, and Mario still comes to mind, midjump. There is something so iconic, so essentially video-gamey about that figure in a landscape, willfully limited by two dimensions. By contrast, the other genre most likely conjured by “video game” right now is the first-person shooter, and the difference is telling. An FPS may often be bombastic beyond belief, but it still aspires to give players an experience they could theoretically have in real life. Guns, firefights, squad-based tactics, these are all real, however unlikely for most players, situations. The first-person perspective is certainly real enough. It’s no wonder that so many FPS games aim for increased realism with each technical upgrade. Their vicarious thrills depend on it.

Of course, games don’t just ape real life. They transmute it. But insofar as they seek increasing realism, they raise our expectations as players. Why does this cobblestone pattern look wrong to our eyes when repeated throughout an outsize fantasy world? Why won’t Lara take that guard’s coat to put over her wet T-shirt when she’s obviously freezing? Why are there so many health-boosting pineapples in the pockets of dead dystopian policemen? Realism is so exciting in screenshots and yet so treacherous when you actually get to play.

2-D platformers revel in their unrealism, in their self-enclosed rules, and thus rarely suffer from such dissonance. How realistic can a two-dimensional perspective even be? (Fez already taught us well the inherent distortion that comes with compressing a 3-D world onto a 2-D screen.) And what other experiences do they draw on anyway? Classic Looney Tunes? They mostly remind us of other platformers. They aren’t alone in being so purely video-gamey, but they’ve survived longer than most doing their thing. So what is their thing?

Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D has a plot that is at once both ridiculous and perfect: D.K.’s beloved bananas have been stolen, and he must rescue them. There’s no confusion about valor and honor, good and evil. Even a 2-year-old understands that if you take what is mine, YOU WILL GIVE IT BACK. The entire game abides by this toddler/monkey ethos. You collect letter blocks (to spell your own name, of course); you bash at will, always on the verge of tantrum; you suss out secrets and get into absolutely everything. Each section of the island has a name downright badass in its simplicity — Beach, Ruins, Factory — and when you are rewarded with D.K.’s final fruit fantasy as the last unlockable level, it turns out to be a nightmare of gluttony and hard landings.

These landings, and the raw animal physicality that surrounds them, are what the game is really all about. DKCR demands precision at every turn. It’s not that the game is slow and methodical, but carefree acceleration is almost always a bad idea, and measured, intentional movements are rewarded. Unlike the Mario Bros., DKCR is not a game of momentum and course correction. The second button typically used for running in platformers begins instead a sloppy roll that must be quickly reined in. Donkey Kong’s jumps start out open-armed and reaching but finish quickly and heavily, with a thud of finality. Even a high rebound off a hapless enemy, a platforming staple usually accomplished by simply holding the jump button, requires a precise second tap. In a strange trade-off, the presence of your only regular power-up — Diddy Kong and his hovering jetpack — actually makes this even more difficult.

Donkey Kong Country Returns 2 3D

There’s no getting around it — Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D is hard. Its platforming challenges are remarkably varied (there’s a likable mini-game every few minutes), but they circle around the same set of values: quick reactions, occasional memorization, patience, and commitment to your actions (second-guessing will get you killed). This kind of difficulty is sometimes charged as elitist, excluding both newer gamers and the hand-eye uncoordinated alike and catering to hardcore gamers looking to stroke their own egos. What this misses, however, are the very real pleasures that come through syncing with a game’s most demanding rhythms and experiencing its audiovisual-kinetic heights. Like playing a difficult piece of music, the experience is not simply one of technical accomplishment, but of giving form to an idea and uniting with its aesthetic.

Difficulty is a fine art that demands much finesse to avoid the twin demons of unfairness and boredom, and it depends a great deal on players’ tastes. For me, many of DKCR’s best moments come in its always-on-the-verge-of-crashing rocket barrels, its factory world where the machine rhythms are made explicit, and its merciless secret-temple levels. Unifying with not only your childish avatar but the whole virtual world that binds him is a video-game pleasure that can’t be dismissed just because it can’t be accessed by everyone, all the time.

The 3DS version of DKCR offers a new mode that is slightly easier (one extra heart, primarily, and also new items that can be bought in Cranky Kong’s shop), but it is by no means watered-down. In fact, having played through both versions, I find the new mode superior. It maintains all the best environmental challenges, reduces the danger from enemies and bosses (which were always the most unsatisfying deaths anyway), and leaves more room to explore all the secrets in its gorgeous world. With 2-D Mario having iterated himself into a polished rut, Donkey Kong Country Returns remains the best old-school 2-D platformer of this generation.

Sony has shown increasing enthusiasm for indie games, and its recent release of the remarkable Thomas Was Alone for the PlayStation Vita adds a unique voice to platforming. Thomas succeeds through simplicity: take various quadrilaterals, put in a familiar game space of line and shadow, further differentiate shapes via their locomotion, add personalities that correspond to shape and movement, add a wry narrator to voice these personalities and a dash of self-consciousness to boot. What’s most surprising is just how essential to the genre the whole thing feels the very first time you play it.

Thomas Was Alone

Screenshots may give some idea of how far Thomas Was Alone takes its minimalism. Past cartoon iconicity, past evocative style, not all the way to full antirealism (whatever that might be), but settling somewhere around geometric expressionism. What they can’t suggest, however, is how the soundtrack’s emotional drone and shoegazing fuzz color the experience and prime you for the knowing yet sympathetic voicing of each character. Tall, talented John, with his practiced niceness and insatiable ego; Chris, slow and squat, bitter and jealous, resentful of his neediness; odd, gentle, bullied James, his gravity permanently inverted; the double-jumping prodigy and high adventurer Sarah, so childlike, curious, arrogant, exuberant.

Thomas himself is your garden-variety protagonist, bland and friendly, the very definition of average (his size and jump establishing the norm for the others), but he is also defined by his titular loneliness. In fact, every character has some fear or need that brings them into each other’s orbit. John needs to be admired; suicidal turned superheroic Claire needs to save others; Laura fears abandonment if she’s not useful. Once introduced, you find yourself constantly switching between characters to move through each level, and it’s the temporary embodiment of each character, spry or sluggish, lean or square, that makes the narrator’s inner monologues truly felt.

This would-be fellowship mostly plays out as a series of lite platforming puzzles, which thankfully are minimally convoluted. It’s a kind of multiplayer game wherein you end up being all the players. Constantly switching between characters can be tedious, but it also prevents the usual gaming solipsism that treats every figure onscreen as a simple extension of or liability to the self. That said, I found the simplest levels often the most evocative.

The whole game is suffused with a self-consciousness that puts the player in an interpretive mood. The vivid rectangular shapes on the screen remind you of the vivid, less rectangular shapes outside that screen. They make you wonder how anyone still argues for objective video-game criticism when the reality of shared experience and individual interpretations is so powerfully evoked in the game itself. Thomas Was Alone ultimately asks players to reconsider the expressive potential of video games. Why can’t the most realistic-looking game characters muster half the humanity of these humble rectangles?

Platformers and iOS are not a natural fit. Without a tactile directional pad, basic movement lacks finesse and requires too much recentering (fingers drift). And yet there are plenty of iOS platformers that take their cues from endless runners and eliminate direction altogether. Canabalt achieved a rare purity, but most turn out to be piddling trifles like Banana Kong. In fact, I wasn’t sure there were any worth playing that were true platformers.

Then I played Robot Unicorn Attack 2. This is the kind of game that immediately confronts you with its ridiculousness, even in the title. Its aesthetic draws from many traditions — high romantic fantasy, ’80s heavy metal, pulp science fiction — all of them very cheesy. It overwhelms with cornball visions of pastel alien planets, metal steeds trailing rainbows, palaces piggybacking on seahorses, an ice-crowned snow owl the size of the moon staring you down. There’s an imitation Fortress of Solitude in front of what must be Coruscant at night. And that deep, lovely moan could only come from a flying whale with a unicorn’s horn. Whatever should one call that? I doubt it can be spoken in the tongues of man.

Robot Unicorn Attack 2

Robot Unicorn Attack 2 provokes its own kind of language crisis, as if describing video games weren’t hard enough. But the difficulty in describing this experience points again toward the usual necessity of play. Once you gallop across its otherworldly vistas and learn its rhythms, the appearance of camp falls away and you are simply in it. The platformer is, after all, a sincere genre, an earnest genre, and it prefers to be approached in kind.

The music in both Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D and Thomas Was Alone is excellent, but it is absolutely fundamental to the joys of Robot Unicorn Attack 2. Even the pricing model reflects this: The game itself is free, while individual music tracks cost a familiar 99 cents. And though the game comes with two perfectly delightful synthesized confections, the game is designed around the same song the first RUA featured: Erasure’s “Always.” This is celestial pop that rises and loops endlessly without exhausting itself. It is a song that asks the same question of video games that it does of lovers — “Am I here in vain?” — and answers with an ecstatic “There will be no shame!”

“Always” reminded me that I used to play some video games just to hear the music. I would repeat the stiff adventuring of ActRaiser’s first board for its rousing score. Melodies from the higher levels of Blaster Master, heard for mere minutes before death, compelled me to improve. I would regularly play through Super Castlevania IV and Thunder Force III to sync with and thus fully experience their music. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was seeking some sort of aesthetic experience that only a video game could provide. Later, when I could finally listen to the MP3s divorced from the game, something vital was missing. My hands had nothing to do. I was no longer fully in the music.

This, too, is the pleasure of Robot Unicorn Attack 2. It is a relatively easy game to get “good enough” at. The goal structure tops out quickly, shopping for power-ups is mostly useless (outside the sine-wave wings that let you fly at top speed), and high scores seem beside the point. The goal is simply to keep the song going, to keep the experience going. Once you enter the zone, that fabled flow, what can you do but embrace its aesthetic, unicorn whales and all?

You run and leap and dash and fly through emotional landscapes. You stare at the center of the screen, not your horse, and enter a meditative space. You make it a daily ritual and do your best thinking about all the non–Robot Unicorn parts of your life. (You imagine another game structured around Sunset Rubdown songs.) You sync in that specific audiovisual-kinetic way that you associate with video games. You wonder if this, too, might qualify for what Nabokov called “aesthetic bliss”: “A sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”

As a child in Kentucky, my family would often drive old U.S. 27 between Garrard and Jessamine counties. I usually sat in the back seat on the passenger side, so I always had a clear view of the countryside outside my window. One thing that always struck me was how fast the weeds and fences nearby passed compared to the houses and trees further off. The distant hills were slowest of all, and I would try to stay fixed on one as long as the road would allow. I sometimes imagined a man outside running parallel to our car, somewhere in the middle ground, trying his best to keep up.

These were the days of Atari, long before I encountered Super Mario. When parallax scrolling became more prominent in the 16-bit era, I was immediately fascinated by the illusion of depth through the TV glass. The games were still clearly 2-D, and yet the 3-D-seeming backgrounds mesmerized me. Their power hasn’t actually changed that much for me in 20 years, so when I watch the layered backgrounds moving in Robot Unicorn Attack 2, I still get a little thrill. Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D uses its complex backgrounds to even stronger effect. They appear so full of secret nooks and paths untaken, paths untakeable in fact. Sometimes the game will throw you into the background for a momentary detour, but it’s just a tease. The landscapes I long for always remain out of reach.

This is what 2-D platformers provide: impossible landscapes. As these three games make clear, platformers offer a range of pleasures. But they also frame those pleasures with a profound sense of place. Their foregrounds provide hard boundaries (except where they give way to secrets). Unlike the illusion-breaking invisible walls of so many 3-D games, a 2-D wall is anything that stops horizontal movement, and there’s no threat to believability. A platform is something to stand on, no matter what it looks like. This is part of their impossibility, the part that says a landscape is whatever the game says it is. And crucially, you don’t mind. It still feels like a landscape. The illusion holds.

The other part of the impossibility lies in the background itself, forever out of reach. Two-dimensional platformers are honest this way about the flat video-game screen. They taunt with untouchable backgrounds but revel in the legibility of their flat onscreen motions. We read these landscapes for stable footing and safe passage, for irregularities that mark secrets, for every nuance of their representative geography. When they move, they scroll, suggesting the impossible viewpoint and elided distortions of the panorama. We are reminded in yet another way that, as with landscape painting, 2-D platforming is foregrounded as an interpretation. And that is why it’s so evocative.

In these three games, we see the impossible landscapes of 2-D platformers moving in different directions. Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D feels like the culmination of an old-school aesthetic, a full realization but also perhaps an end. The biggest danger now is simply being iterated into the ground. Both Thomas Was Alone and Robot Unicorn Attack 2 point the other way, toward some yet-uncharted genre frontier. Thomas suggests a raised awareness going forward about both the representational power of 2-D platformers and the humanity often missing from the figures in their landscapes. Robot Unicorn honestly seems like it could fly right off the genre map, into blissful oblivion. Perhaps, though, it might inspire a motley crew of games that assumes no limitations about how we might sync with a machine and instead seeks new ways to pull the player into the impossible (and impossibly cheesy) landscape of the video-game screen on the way to some undiscovered aesthetic bliss.

Tevis Thompson (@tevisthompson) writes video-game essays and fiction. You can read more of his work here.

Filed Under: Mobile Games of the Month