Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that I’ve been waking up in a cold sweat the past few nights, given that this week represents the 20th anniversary of the release of Donkey Kong 64. Each night, sometime around 3am, I explode bolt upright in bed, the hellish pop of a red balloon lodged somewhere between the dream realm and the waking dark of night.
The metallic clack of 16-bit wheel on 16-bit rail, the constant fear of a crocodile rolling at light speed appearing out of nowhere, the lingering dread that a missed O is floating somewhere behind your head just out of reach. All of this existential fear drilled into me from a young age thanks to the great herring of 90s gaming; a hell so cunningly hidden it barely alerted anyone with a Super Nintendo controller in hand of the manic trap that they were gleefully about to stroll into.
Once you were in, there was no getting out. There was no escape from it. It was fight, scrap, claw, and somehow succeed, or succumb to the darkness and die.
It was the Mount Everest of my childhood. It was the Mine Cart Carnage level on Donkey Kong Country.
Immediately, when looking back on the level, the question needs to be asked: What borderline lunatic decided taking an otherwise rudimentary (if not challenging) cartoon platformer and shoving a level that requires its entire layout to be memorised pixel-perfect into it was a red hot idea?
Clocking Mine Cart Carnage required millisecond-precise timing of the jump button, a steely nerve, and a willingness to burn through 90-odd lives without putting your whole head through the nearest wall.
It was a malicious bitch of a thing where doing the exact same thing successfully 68 times in a row would suddenly start failing come the 69th.
Whipping through the whirring underground maelstrom, Mine Cart Carnage demanded players defy all natural instinct to complete it: Jumps that had to be executed either at the extreme last second or an hour before, jumps that defied even the loftiest of video game physics, jumps that somehow had to be made after falling into thin air. All level hazards ruthlessly assembled and designed to maximise the amount of gorilla murder they were capable of.
And yet, 20-odd years later, I can’t stop thinking about it.
The memory of finally finishing the level for the first time, only to realise I’d done so with the truly shameful K O – G, having left the N wanting, is burned in my brain. The agony and the ecstasy.
Perhaps games learned a lesson from Mine Cart Carnage and progressively eased up as the years ensued. Perhaps now we exist in a world too afraid of burning unsuspecting gamers with fiendish puzzles.
Are we all walking on eggshells because we promised a nice banana ape time but delivered a ghoulish hell cave? Do we fear what uppance may come from over-delivering in Satanic proportions? It’s food for thought.
But regardless, Mine Cart Carnage lives on as a dark scar in the crawlspace of my soul.
The level haunts me to this very day.
The monkeys, the cave, the cart.
The awful cart.