Dominant Mechanics in Kao the Kangaroo: Round 2

I can’t stop thinking about this weirdly self-defeating segment I played in Kao the Kangaroo: Round 2.

Kao 2 is a PS2-era collectathon platformer that was recently ported to Steam. Early in the game is a level called “The Great Escape,” which is one of those something-big-is-chasing-you-so-run-toward-the-camera sequences where you can barely see what’s coming. (Here’s someone playing it if you want to see it in action.) You are told that to outrun the bear that’s chasing you, you’ll need to pick up the speed boost power-ups that are littered on the path ahead, and that you’ll be able to find them because they are preceded by trails of coins.

So, even though you can’t really see what’s coming, you’re still given some advance warning so you can get to the right place to collect the speed boosts - and the pickup radius on the coins and speed boosts is quite generous. Also, each speed boost pickup lasts far longer than the amount of time it’ll take to get to the next one - you can miss a lot and as long as you don’t miss too many in a row you’ll be fine.

In principle, this seems basically fine and roughly in line with the relatively low level of challenge on offer for the first portion of the game. There are, however, a few problems with this setup. The first issue is that coins stay collected even if you die, so on repeat attempts any trails you’ve already picked up are no longer there. The second problem is far worse.

The path features bottomless pits and bodies of water. Stepping into any of these is instant death and they are not foreshadowed the way the coin trails foreshadow the speed boosts. As a result, they completely dominate this section mechanically. I died several times from pits and water and never once came close to running out of speed boost - it was only after several attempts that I even noticed there was a speed boost meter in the corner of the screen that drained over time and was refilled by picking up the boosts. The speed boost mechanic could have been removed completely without really changing this segment.

The way the speed boost system is set up makes me think this was intended to be a fairly forgiving level (which feels appropriate to me for an early level that’s the first use of a gameplay style that also is inherently more difficult than what’s previously been on offer). But the instant-death obstacles you can’t really see coming turn it into a strict and punishing memorization gauntlet that’s a huge difficulty spike compared to the surrounding levels - and they render pointless the mechanic created specifically for this type of level.

I’d love to know how the developers felt about it, but as a player it feels like design by committee where a lack of unified vision lead to compromised mechanics. It’s like taking a driving lesson with an attentive instructor with their own brake pedal to protect you from any mistakes, but then having the lesson take place on narrow platforms suspended over the grand canyon.