Devlearning: DKC series, Secrets

The Donkey Kong Country games are classic platformers, but I'm more interested in talking about the evolution of secrets in the games... in part because they're a more explicit, readily articulated system, but also in part because I'm a lot clearer they did evolve in a meaningful way.

In DKC 1 secrets come in two forms -some cannon barrels are secrets, not specifically marked as different from regular cannon barrels, and then there's the cave entryways you can enter. (Usually you have to break them open first, and some cave entryways are just for transitioning through the level)

Secret areas play special music and will simply eject you back into the main of the level if you should die (Where death is even possible) but it's not necessarily obvious to a new player that, for instance, using one of the level-skipping shortcuts sprinkled throughout the game doesn't count as finding a secret. (Indeed, even after I'd 101%-ed the game, I spent a few years thinking they were included)

Your only indication you've found all the secrets in a level is that the level's name gains an exclamation point (!) on the world map. This is really easy to miss. I spent weeks under the impression some levels just had EXCITED!!! names, entirely unaware the exclamation point hadn't been there when I started the level. Even once I did notice a level gaining an exclamation point on completion, I still wasn't sure what it was about.


After. The exclamation point is the only change.

(You know, I only just noticed: why is it 'Jungle Hijinxs'? What's the 's' doing in there?)

The GBA version, notably, takes a cue from the later games and more clearly signals secrets by having a 'this is your challenge' screen after you've entered a secret area, like so:

It's... pretty silly, honestly, as a lot of DKC's secrets are just little rooms where you can find an extra life or the like, but it's nice to have a clearer marker of what is and isn't a secret. This 'find the exit' screen might lead you to believe that the room is some kind of maze, but the room in question is literally a straight hallway with some bananas and a life balloon. No danger, no challenge.

It's at least more of a hint that there's something significant about such a room... though on the other hand, the game also has a screen like this for some shortcut barrels, exacerbating the problem that a player might think the shortcuts are counted as secrets for progress when they're not. The GBA version is a bit of a wash, really.

DKC 2 invents actual signalling that secrets are worth commentary. Most of them are Bonus Barrels,

and one of the main exceptions is the even more distinctive cannon.

In addition to the distinctive visual designs letting you know you've spotted a secret ahead of time, any secret you enter transitions you to a screen that briefly lays out the challenge you're about to be doing, with distinctive music marking out the sequence as different from the main of the level, like so:

Additionally, completing the challenge always gives out Kremcoins, further marking them out as different from simply finding an alternative path in the level. (Which is worth commentary, as some secrets function as shortcuts, and some shortcuts exists that don't count as secrets!)

So now a player knows secrets exist, knows roughly what a secret looks like in several senses (Before entry, upon entry, the fact that they come with a quick little challenge to complete...), and has a reason to pursue them, even if it's not clear what the point of accumulating Kremcoins is initially.

This is a big step up in clarity and motivation (In DKC1, the only reasons to look for secrets are A: the joy of exploration and B: if you have a completionist streak), without sacrificing the fundamental idea of a secret. Secrets are still hidden -past the earliest ones, which are used to introduce you to the idea of secrets, and their basic mechanics- but no longer will a player find a secret and have no idea anything of significance has happened at all.

Kremcoins as a reward is particularly brilliant. What do you use Kremcoins for? Unlocking access to some of the hardest levels in the game, past which the True Ending lies. A relatively casual player can beat the main game, unaware they haven't really completed the game, and uncaring besides. Maybe they'll come back later and start digging around for the secrets, maybe not. If they do, though, they'll find the game has more gameplay than they thought it had! Much harder gameplay, at that, the kind that a lot of players would probably have been frustrated by if it was barring them from completing the main game instead. and conveniently any player who has bothered to hunt down all the secrets is probably a fairly dedicated player, and thus probably fairly skilled by that point, ready for the challenge.


DKC2 also adds in Video Game Hero Coins, which are a separate layer of Important Hidden Things. Arguably they're more akin to secrets in the original game than Kremcoin-based ones are: a thing only worth pursuing for bragging rights. Even so, the game does a much better job of signalling that they're something interesting and worth pursuing, with a distinctive graphic, Cranky Kong explicitly talking about them if you talk to him, and the game informing you of your progress as you collect them.

And of course, when you beat the game, Cranky Kong rates you on your success in this regard, so even if you haven't thought about them before then, it's a good signal for how to get more value out of a game you presumably are having a lot of fun with.

You still only get an exclamation point at the end of the name on the world map for getting all the Kremcoins in a given level, which is still easily overlooked if you don't already know about it, so that's a bit sad. On the other hand, you're a bit more likely to notice it since the Video Game Hero Coin's mark for having beaten a level is a lot more obvious, guiding a player to paying attention to level names.

The minor disappointment aside, this is huge gains.

DKC 3 makes its secrets more consistent: all secrets are now Bonus Barrels, and when you enter a Bonus Barrel it always has the marking on the barrel fade away while a distinctive sound plays.

This behavior occurs in DKC2, but only in cases where it's not visually appropriate for the Bonus Barrel to fire you from that particular location. This can lead to cases of a Bonus Barrel being hidden behind a foreground element where it's not obvious until the challenge is being laid out that you just found a secret -this actually matters, because in DKC 3 you will always know to commit the area to your memory while you can still see the area the Bonus Barrel is hidden in, where in DKC 2 you might think you just found a cannon barrel up until it's too late to try to memorize its location.

So that's a nice step forward.

Kremcoins are replaced with Bonus Coins, but this isn't a meaningful change to the game design. They get used in pretty much the exact same way. The only real difference is that the post-game levels you unlock with them are unlocked in a fixed order, where in DKC2 you could unlock them in whatever order you wanted. The coins themselves are functionally identical.

DKC2 also renames Video Game Hero Coins to DK Coins, which is less of a mouthful even if it kind of misses the point, and switches from hiding the Coins to having a standardized enemy (Koin) placed in every level who usually acts as a minor physics puzzle. (You need to hit him from behind with a Steel Barrel, taking advantage of how Steel Barrels bounce off of walls)

Koin is arguably a bit of a step backwards, actually, as Koin is more limiting on level design. Video Game Hero Coins could be placed anywhere, in the air, underwater, whatever. Koin has to be placed on dry land, and has to be placed somewhere where a Steel Barrel can be bounced from behind to hit him. There's a number of levels late in the game where Koin isn't hidden in a meaningful way and the physics challenge is a joke, because the level design doesn't have a natural place for Koin. In a level that's meant to be entirely underwater, the game ends up providing a token area at the end of the level for the flag, in which Koin will be somewhere nearby as well, at which point it's really obvious what part of the level Koin has to be in, even if Koin isn't immediately visible in the end of the level area, undermining the whole 'find the hidden Koin' thing.

The game doesn't manage to come up with enough different physics puzzles to make him interesting in every level, either. There's a decent variety, don't get me wrong, but not enough variety for the number of levels in the game. Koin was an interesting experiment, and in some ways I quite like the idea, but it was probably a misstep in practice.

It also adds Banana Birds and an entire lineup of Quest Junk (Those eight question marks are misleading: in cases where one item gets exchanged for another, the slot gets overwritten), but I generally don't count those because they're not really handled as secrets to find. They're given at certain checkpoints of the game (eg beating a boss) or as a reward for finding something on the world map or as part of interacting with the Brothers Bear. They're also... well, very clunkily handled and annoying all-around.

The summary of your overall progress is nice, at least. It didn't matter in DKC1, but in DKC2 Kremcoins and Video Game Hero Coins are separate tracks of progress, and it was a little annoying being unclear which one you needed to focus on.

The biggest improvement by far that DKC3 makes is in the realm of indicating progress at finding secrets: when you complete a level, you raise a flag, and the flag is either flying all the way or is hanging listlessly. The former indicates you got all the Bonus Barrels, while the latter indicates you missed at least one.

An untouched end-of-level flag...

... and now it's been raised! (It's pink because Dixie was my lead Kong. Kiddy makes the flag blue) But that's a pretty lackluster flutter. That's what it looks like if I haven't collected all the Bonus Coins in the level.

This is what it looks like if I have. Almost rectangular in its flight.

Now, this is pretty opaque by itself, but the world map reflects the difference as well.

On the left you can (barely) see the pink flag fluttering down below the golden flag. On the right it's fluttering behind it. (Also notice how the exclamation point signal was retained: for returning players, you can still pay attention to that. Oddly, they got rid of the Video Game Hero Coin/DK Coin appearing at the end of the name, though. DKC3 is a bit erratic like that)

The golden flag, incidentally, is up because I collected the DK Coin.

So firstly, this can lead to you paying more attention to the end-of-level flag-waving, wondering why sometimes it's one way and other times it's the other way. You can start noticing patterns: if you go back to a level and beat it again, a limp flag may be replaced by a full flag, but the reverse is not true, indicating it's some kind of permanent progress. You can deduce that the full flag/exclamation point is indicative of your status on finding secrets/Bonus Coins in a level, much more plausibly than you could work out the equivalent idea in DKC1 and DKC2.

Secondly, it's just plain convenient: in DKC1 and DKC2, determining which levels you'd found everything in required a manual sweep of every. Single. Level. (On the world map) This wasn't a huge burden, but it was very irritating, especially since it made it easy to whoops miss one, sweep the entire world map, and have to start over again from the beginning because you have no idea which lack-of-an-exclamation-point/VGHC-symbol you missed. (This was further exacerbated by the need to spend Banana Coins on Funky's Flights for exiting a given area) In DKC3, you can just pop into a region and make a quick visual check: any flags missing/flying low? If yes, go to those levels and start searching for Bonus Barrels. If no, leave the area and look at a different one.

Thirdly, being able to see all the flags at once is a lot more noticeable to the player in general. When I played DKC3 myself, the point at which I started getting clued into my progress or lack thereof was from seeing that in the first and second area I had golden flags and full flags for almost all the levels, and I had a lot fewer of both in later areas. (This is one case where the quests help with the gameplay: they encourage returning to earlier areas to deliver stuff to the Brothers Bear, making it a lot more natural to end up noticing such a pattern in the first place) Since I was struggling a lot more with finding secrets and Koins in later areas, it was a fairly easy intuitive leap that these were correlated points.

About the only thing I think the DKC series dropped the ball on is that you never do get a good signal for whether a given secret is one you found before, aside from VGHCs/DK Coins.

You can see that in DKC2 a previously collected Video Game Hero Coin has a checkmark over it -and less obvious in screenshot form but actually a lot more striking in gameplay is that it isn't animated- and in DKC3 a Koin you've gotten the DK Coin from replaces the DK Coin they're using as a shield with a trash can lid. Either way, A: you know not to bother when you've spotted them within the level and B: this makes it easier to connect the world map signal for completion (The VGHC at the end of a name in DKC2 and the golden flag on the world map in DKC3) to the fact that the coin has been collected.

The closest secrets come to this is that the Kremcoin/Bonus Coin ends up with the same checkmark/lack of spinning as Video Game Hero Coins that you've collected before in DKC2 get... which has the problem that the Kremcoin/Bonus Coin doesn't spawn in until you've completed the challenge successfully. So you won't know going in that you've done that challenge before, and you won't know to not bother until you've already succeeded at the challenge anew!

Th Kremcoin hasn't spawned because I haven't beaten the baddies....

.... oh, I've already done this one. Darn it.

So I really wish DKC3 had realized it should have Bonus Barrels, themselves, somehow marked as Kompleted if you've gotten the Bonus Coin.

Still, it's neat watching Rareware clearly learning as they go, refining the process of handling secrets. Even DKC3 having missteps is still a kind of learning curve, and it's just too bad there wasn't a DKC4. (Donkey Kong 64 is, when it gets down to it, more 'Banjo-Kazooie 2' than it is 'Donkey Kong Country in 3D')

And it's useful for thinking about the design ideas in other realms.


Next time, I'll be talking about the collectibles of the games, how they evolved and became more meaningful.


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