Games | Tragedy of the Collectathons

Article by Merus | July 6, 2008

There's something has been bugging me for years. Donkey Kong 64? was praised to high heaven upon its release. It earned a score of 90 on Metacritic, and was praised for its technical excellence, its expansive worlds, and just how much fun it was. Ask anyone now, though -- even the people who wrote those words in the close of the 20th century -- and they'll tell you: Donkey Kong 64 is not a good game. It's tedious and demeaning, and it marked the beginning of Rare's decline into mediocrity.

Donkey Kong is only one
of many who look back on
Donkey Kong 64 with regret.

What's going on here? Are reviewers perpetually talking out of their collective arses, praising heavily-hyped games to high heaven however pedestrian they turn out to be, while hanging the memorable classics of the medium out to dry? Well, no; cynicism is a fun indulgence, but it's ultimately childish. The fact of the matter is that at the time, people did think Donkey Kong 64 was fun. People thought Sierra adventure games were fun, too, until LucasArts proved you didn't need to do those things that everyone just accepted as being part of the game. People thought Turok? was fun until GoldenEye 007? showed people how to do a console shooter with focus and polish. People thought Tomb Raider? was the bee's knees until Super Mario 64 showed people that you could give gamers a 3D world without forcing them to move clumsily around a grid and Ico showed developers how you could make climbing feel like an adventure. But Donkey Kong 64 served as a lesson all on its own -- which might be why its lessons weren't truly taken to heart, and continue to drag down otherwise excellent games even today.

If the Whistle were in a modern game,
it'd either be telegraphed to buggery
or taken out three months from release.

In theory, collectathons are a great idea. There are plenty of secrets in the best games, this theory goes, so why don't we quantify them? Why don't we mark them with a little item that you carry around with you as proof of your find? Indeed, many genres are built on quantifying the unquantifiable, RPGs being the prime example. Players appreciate explicit rules, and like knowing exactly how their decisions are going to affect the game world.

The problem is one of subtlety. Mario's many secrets work, in part, because they're secret -- every one's a surprise, with little to no indication that it's there. Players stumbling across it wonder how many other secrets there could be, and just how big this game is. Donkey Kong Country 2 had plenty of secrets that weren't "marked," and it was definitely a better game for it, but players knew they'd probably seen most of the level once they had all the secret rooms and the DK Coin.

These stars are all on one screen, and are
relegated to a surprisingly challenging
bonus game. This wouldn't last.

It's Donkey Kong Country 3, the first game generally referred to as a "collectathon," that went overboard -- probably because people kept stumbling upon unmarked secrets and being disappointed that they weren't the bonus level they were looking for. Trying to fix this is a trap.

DKC3 manages to be both linear and non-linear at the same time, with the choice to do any one of a number of gimmicky but ultimately straightforward A-to-B levels at any time. Well, at least once you get past the interminable first five minutes where the game tries to teach you about the world map instead of letting you bounce on rats and tag-team between the two playable characters to work out which is the most tolerable (hint: they're not the playable ones) like it promised on the box. Every one of the half-dozen collectibles ties into the secret end of the game somehow, all of them being more or less equivalent; thus the needless confusion.

This is the first DK Kremling you find in the game.
You throw the steel barrel over his head (left),
and he drops the DK coin when it bounces on the
wall and hits him in the back (right).
Repeat 39 more times.

The biggest point in favour of the DKC series is that you've got to do something for each of its (relevant) tokens, even though the tasks outside the bonus rooms are away from the core gameplay and aren't particularly polished or interesting. The DK Coin in DKC2 was used to great effect as a kind of "level mastered" coin, always cunningly placed and usually a reward for paying sharp attention to the stage layout and learning the game designer's tricks. In DKC3, the coin was instead repurposed to be the prize for hitting a particular armoured enemy in the back, which for the most part involves rolling a barrel in such a way that it rolls over the armoured crocodile and bounces backwards. Usually, players stumbled across the enemy without having to look for it, and the puzzle to defeat it was a minor distraction at best.

Both bonus coins and tokens are mostly useless for much of the game, as well. In DKC2 you quickly learned that the bonus tokens unlocked really hard new levels, and that the DK coins were a prize for "mastering" a level but still only a trophy; even when the game coyly revealed they did have a use after all, it was (mostly) only as points for an in-game high-score table, with classic Nintendo heroes in the top spots. DKC3, however, organised its collectable hierarchy so that bonus coins are next to useless until you're halfway through the game; you know what to do with the DK coins but you need all of them to be able to do anything; and the banana birds, the new collectible in DKC3, are basically pointless until the end (making them effectively interchangeable with the DK coins) and no fun to get unless playing Simon is somehow new to you.

Okay, so you get them as rewards for sidequests, too.

Granted, the DKC games were ultimately about buying time for Nintendo. Those rendered graphics sure looked pretty when all you had was a blurry, crappy TV, just as the N64 also looked pretty good on those blurry, crappy TVs. (Of course, the N64's anti-aliasing causes it to make every game look like it's running on a blurry, crappy TV, but we digress.) Anyway, the N64 arrived, making the DKC series obsolete while bringing on the next wave of 3D platformers. Hand-in-hand with this innovation of sorts was the next game to take upon the legacy of the collectathon, Banjo-Kazooie?, which was Rare's answer to Mario 64. Their answer was phrased something like, "Wow, 3D games are great, but what's with those stars?"

You see, Mario 64's stars served an important purpose in replacing the more structured world map of the 2D Mario games. Instead of finding a level exit to unlock a new level, players found stars -- not coincidentally placed at the end of the level -- and collecting enough of them opened new levels. The trick here is that the stars were goals, both an end and the means to another end. Each star had a name, a location, and often invoked a number of changes to the level that made it easier for players to concentrate on finding it. There was very little second-guessing, as the game made very clear the path and requirements for finding each star. Subsequent 3D Mario titles go a step further, blocking off portions of the level not relevant to finding the selected star. In addition, one star was awarded in each level for finding 100 coins. Each level had a large amount of coins in it, so players were usually able to gather the requisite coins with only a little effort.

Conversely, Banjo Kazooie gives out Jiggies for little effort, particularly at the start of the game. There are a lot of Jiggies lying around in the open.

Somehow, Banjo-Kazooie managed to take Mario 64's design and mess up every portion of it. The game's equivalent to stars, the Jiggies, are spent to unlock new levels, while the game's coin equivalent, the Notes, are used to unlock further areas of the hub level. Both are scattered throughout the level -- Jiggies are awarded for completing particular goals, but you're not told upfront what those goals are. Because all Jiggies are available at once, the game loses the opportunity to reuse similiar areas and rearrange game elements, focusing each level into one cohesive experience. One Jiggy is always awarded for finding five pointless doodads in the level, which smells of designers who had more good places to hide rewards than there were rewards to dole out.

As for the Notes, there's a hard limit of 100 Notes in each level. The way the maths work out, players need about 90% of them in order to fight the last boss. How many people are going to have the patience to get all those notes when so few players even finish the games they start? The biggest problem with the Notes, though, is one that ass-bites pretty much everyone who makes a whole bunch of collectibles scattered around the map: The last collectible is geometrically harder to find than the first. This one's tricky, so let me get a diagram.

I never claimed it was a good diagram.

Here's a map of a level with collectibles dotted around it, represented by red dots, or as we're calling them to glam 'em up to hide that they're useless doodads, Crimson Starorbs. Note how these Crimson Starorbs are laid out: Some are used to guide you through the level (the curve on the beach and the spiral in the cave, and we presume that some of the orbs on the walls are on stairs); others are laid out in patterns to attract players over to them; and still others are hidden in random corners or out in the middle of the ocean simply because the level designer's a dick and wants you to check everywhere just in case this time there's a collectible. You know what I'm saying, Psychonauts?? As we play through the level, we find 95 Crimson Starorbs. Our level now looks like this:

If you'll pay close attention, you'll notice that we have no marker of where we've been, and we can't guarantee we've actually fully explored an area. In fact, we missed a couple of Crimson Starorbs, including one in a rock or something next to a Crimson Starorb we collected. Try and work out which one! If you decided not to bother, well, now you're thinking like every sane player ever.

If you're wondering, But GameSpite! Nearly every game does something like this! To which we'll say, Yes, they do, and they're all doing it wrong. And you'll say, Aha! But what about <insert game here> where the collectibles were fun to get? And we'll say, Man you like that game? You sure have some bad tastes, son, because we're big elitists here. It's an amazingly common pattern, though, and the difficulty of finding each usele-- er, Crimson Starorb goes way, way up once we get down to the last few items. Yet the reward for the added effort is still the same. Finding that last note in Banjo-Kazooie is deeply tedious, because you essentially have to run through the entire level again. And because you need so many Notes in order to finish the game, you'll have to do that sweep at least once.

The Notes in the water are only drawn if you're standing on this side of the bridge. This is stupid.

Most collectathons took their design cues from Banjo-Kazooie, in some cases (Earthworm Jim 3D?, for instance) ruining perfectly good franchises that previously tried to forge their own identity instead of just being a Mario clone. Which brings us to the apex of collectathons -- or nadir, if you prefer: Donkey Kong 64?. A game so collection-heavy we have to give it and paragraph just for all the crap you have to collect.

Item: Five-hundred (500) bananas per level, colour-coded and thus only collectable by the appropriate character. These are spent to unlock a boss in each level. Item: Banana coins, used as currency to buy new moves, also colour-coded so that only one character can collect each different color. Item: Twenty-five (25) golden bananas per level, five per character, used to unlock the entrances to new levels on the hub. Item: Five (5) blueprint pieces per level, which are worth one golden banana for each handed in, and give you extra time to complete the final level. Also colour-coded! Item: Five (5) banana medals per level, one per character, earned by completing a mini-game for each character and used to unlock the Jetpak game. Item: Two (2) banana fairies per level, and four (4) in the hub, used for unlocking items in the bonus menu. Item: One (1) battle crown per level, and two (2) in the hub, earned by completing a mini-game in which you kill a bunch of enemies, used to unlock a door in the final level. Item: One (1) Boss Key per level, usually found by defeating a boss, used to unlock the final boss fight. Item: One (1) Rareware coin, earned for reaching a particular score in an emulated version of Rare's first game, Jetpak for the ZX Spectrum. Item: One (1) Nintendo coin, earned for completing eight boards of an emulated version of the Donkey Kong arcade game. Both coins are used to unlock a door in the final level that contains a Boss Key. And all of this is ignoring the ammo for weapons, the musical instrument charges for special music-based attacks, the orange grenades for shits 'n' giggles, the banana-skin film for photographing (and thus acquiring) the banana fairies, and the crystal coconuts for special movement abilities.

Item: One (1) embarassing white-boy rap for torturing your Smash Bros. opponents into submission during DK stages.
  • If you've noticed that the battle crowns and banana medals are pretty much the same thing, give yourself a point.
  • If you've noticed that the two branded coins appear to be rewards for going through Rare's cheap filler, give yourself a point.
  • If you've noticed that the battle crowns and branded coins have the exact same job, give yourself a point.
  • If you've noticed that the blueprints are pretty much equivalent to a golden banana, and thus could safely have been a golden banana so long as you found some other way to do the time-limit, give yourself a point.
  • If you've noticed that you basically have to go through the same level five times to get everything, give yourself a point.
  • If you've noticed that there are more varieties of ammo for weapons and abilities than there are for most first-person shooters, give yourself a point.
  • If you've noticed that a platform game appears to have grenades, something that makes absolutely no sense for a genre where health is plentiful and enemies mostly only have melee attacks, give yourself a point.
  • If you've noticed that Rare is really flogging the banana theme for all they're worth, and are wondering why they didn't come up with anything else that could appeal to gorillas (for instance, the original Donkey Kong was awfully fond of Pauline), give yourself a point.

Now, add up your score. If you scored 1 or higher, congratulations! You scored higher than Rare's designers did.

What can we take away from Donkey Kong 64? What separates it from vastly superior platform games that seem, on the surface, to have exactly the same problems? Funnily enough, the problems that plague Donkey Kong 64 have the same root as the problems we've already talked about in other collectathons - the uneven rewards in DKC3, Banjo-Kazooie's poorly signposted Jiggies and the difficulty spike in finding the last Notes, which affects many more games than just Banjo. The root of all these problems is this:

The more rewards you add for players to go exploring, the less worthwhile exploring is. The less rewards you put in for players to go exploring, the less worthwhile exploring is.

It's partly a psychological effect -- and if you're going to argue that psychology has nothing to do with games, I have a World of Warcraft? player you should talk to about addiction. Uh, right after he finishes his raid. It's also partly a consequence of short-sighted game design and a failure to understand the concept of "diminishing returns." Argue all you want about wanting 100% completion being a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but if you're going to give people a target to shoot for you can't say it's their fault for taking aim.

If DKC3 (and Donkey Kong 64, for that matter) hadn't been pushing to make the game seem larger and more feature-packed, they might have been able to take the good ideas they did have and develop them further, making the game itself exciting instead of trying to simulate exploration by throwing in gimmicks and items. If Banjo-Kazooie hadn't wanted so badly to reward players for combing its levels, it would have been free to emulate Mario 64's multi-purpose levels instead of forcing players to undergo a late-game fetch quest to ensure they went exploring, dammit. And if designers had paid more attention to Donkey Kong 64 instead of doing the sensible but unprofessional thing and staying well away from the train wreck, maybe they might have come back to their own games and noticed the same problems.

David Jaffe gets a lot of flak from forumtards, much of it deserved, but he certainly seems to have taken the tragedy of the collectathons to heart: In God of War, there are more places to put health and magic powerups than there are powerups to go around, so the "spare" locations drop experience points instead. A fitting reward, and no one's bitter that they missed a chest back in the Aegean Sea because they were too busy having fun killing stuff to explore. Everyone's happy, except for forumtards, but screw 'em. The 3D Marios that award players with a star for earning 100 coins in a level are more or less the same thing, and Metroid II? also achieves this with its Energy Tanks.

Along with letting people smack lots of monsters into a bloody pulp, God of War featured a lot of admirable design features. For instance, those background scaffolds aren't hiding something that you'll never see again if you pass it.

In Metroid games, though, players usually end up getting stuck looking for that last expansion with an entire game world to look in. The Metroid Prime spinoffs are infamous for their infuriating late-game fetch quests, something the 2D games usually avoid by arranging their map so that players have to traverse most of the game world just to get back up. The first Prime very nearly managed to do the same -- Samus reaches full strength at the bottom of the Phazon Mines, and has to go back through most but not all of the earlier areas to reach the endgame. Prime 2? and 3? didn't have this going for them.

Even the later Mario games fall into this trap at times. Super Mario Sunshine's blue coins are perhaps the biggest design misstep in the series' history -- randomly hidden coins that translate into the game's star equivalent that were tedious to find, which made it difficult to judge if they'd all been found. Some levels in Super Mario Galaxy, too, have post-boss purple coin challenges -- these task the player with finding 100 purple coins scattered around a level. Others, like Honeyhive Galaxy, ask the players to tramp all over creation looking for the coins, at times taking on the character of those blasted Crimson Starorbs. Crash Bandicoot? worked for a very similar reason -- as each level was completely linear, players saw every crate and knew that if they'd been hitting every crate they'd seen, everything behind them had been completely explored.

Some games, like Assassin's Creed (with its flags) and Grand Theft Auto IV? (with its flying rats), fall even harder -- both games only reward the player once every collectible is found. This is particularly galling in GTAIV; previous games in the series rewarded players who went looking for collectibles with a stack of cash (normally, $1000 for each package already found, an arithmetic progression) and increasingly more entertaining weapons spawning at the player's hideout. San Andreas? even went so far as to leave behind a sign that you'd collected what was there, useful for the inevitable trip for GameFAQs to go check out each hidden package location.

Of course, the best approach, other than having more hiding spots than collectibles, is to cut the difficulty for the last few -- Twilight Princess' heart pieces can be located at random by a fortune teller for a small fee -- as the fortune teller locates heart pieces regardless of whether you have the tools to get them, the odds of being clued into a heart piece you can actually get increases as you find them. Players might well see this as cheapening their discovery, though, and it's hard to argue otherwise.

The problem that the old Mario games deftly avoided with their actually secret secrets, and the reason why you seem damned if you reward exploring and damned if you don't, is that players find fun in different ways. Some players will explore as much of the level as they can. Others will want to beat the game, seeing their mastery over the game as the goal. Trying to force the two together only ends up pleasing neither, which is probably what the reviewers discovered only after they'd lauded Donkey Kong 64 for its wide variety of stuff. In the end, the players are the ones in control, and they're the ones who know best what's fun. The worst thing a game can do is get in the way of that.

Donkey Kong Country 2 and 3 images provided by the always excellent VGMuseum. God of War image shamelessly lifted from | Back to GameSpite Issue 8