Just a few notes about Kao the Kangaroo: Round 2

OK, I just said, a mere few hours ago, that I probably wouldn’t post about this. But I’ve played through the first world of Kao 2, and I’m finding it pretty engaging, especially in comparison to its predecessor. It’s different enough from Kao 1 that I could almost (but not quite) believe they’re completely unrelated, that the two games were written by different teams that just picked up the boxing kangaroo theme independently, much like Atari 1Well, Sunsoft really. Atari was the distributor. did back in 1982. Kao 2 has camera-relative analog controls, and supports a different moveset, including rolls and double-jumps. It’s not designed so much around practicing levels until you get good at them: you get infinite lives now, and any power-ups required for advancement respawn if used up. Levels are less random in their theme and contents, and feature enemies that reasonably belong in their environments. There’s characters, and a story, and rather annoying voice acting. And, unlike the first game, it’s all about rescuing other animals. In short, it’s a lot more typical than the first game. Not as wacky and idiosyncratic. Probably less racist, although I haven’t played enough to be completely sure of that. Made in the same mold as the stuff that Yooka-Laylee and A Hat in Time look back on fondly. It reminds me of how old cartoon characters like Betty Boop that started off as borderline surrealist got remade into safer, more family-friendly versions of themselves in an attempt to compete with Disney. But I can’t definitively say it’s not an improvement.

The voice they chose for the title kangaroo is particularly revealing: he talks like a young boy. Maybe that’s how the developers were thinking of him all along, but it changes my perception of the character enormously. (Headcanon: It’s not the same character. In the first game, you may recall, the player character was really Denis. Kao was presumably off trying to rescue Denis throughout that game, that being his thing, and not having much luck because Denis had already rescued himself. This also explains why Kao doesn’t seem to have a pouch in the second game, although it’s possible the he has one but it’s concealed by the baggy boxing shorts he wears now.)

(Incedentally, now that there’s voice acting, we have a canon pronunciation for “Kao”. It’s neither like “cow”, as I had assumed, nor like “kayo”, as I had read online, but sort of like “kah-oh”.)

One thing I’ve seen that goes against my impression somewhat: In one level, there’s a crate full of dynamite, and sticks with lit fuses come out of it and chase you around, running on little legs. That doesn’t quite seem like a Kao 1 thing, but it definitely seems like something you’d see in an old Max Fleischer cartoon.

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1. Well, Sunsoft really. Atari was the distributor.

Kao: Finishing Up

I’m flying out to the east coast shortly to attend Narrascope, an interactive fiction conference. I was hoping that I’d have Kao the Kangaroo off the Stack and out of my brain before that happened, and it looks like I’ve succeeded. I took the final set of levels in a rush. I had accumulated 25 lives, and figured that would be enough. And it was, provided at least that I reloaded instead of accepting a death when it happened very near the start of a level.

The final set of levels, once you’ve beat up the boss alien, seems to be set in Australia. That is, it looks a lot like the tropical parts of the first few levels, but it’s got crocodiles (which function as platforms rather than enemies), and more of those dark-skinned primitives I was complaining about, and some long-legged birds that I took for ostriches when I first encountered one back in the shipboard level but which could just as well be emus. It all ends in a nice little puzzle-boss confrontation with the hunter from the intro cutscene that I didn’t think I’d ever see again. I guess it wouldn’t be a satisfyingly complete story without him, but I honestly wasn’t expecting a satisfyingly complete story. There’s also a nice bit of come-full-circle immediately before that, with a level that’s basically a recapitulation of level 4 in structure, but harder. Why recapitulate level 4 instead of level 1? Probably just because level 4 is more interesting.

Apart from the racism, the game is pretty much what I thought it was before I played all the way through it. It’s certainly not the worst-designed game of its kind — it’s got a decent amount of variety of action, at least, with its vehicle sections and puzzle bosses and maze levels (where the coins act like bread crumbs, showing you the paths you haven’t taken) and switches to side-view and Crash Bandicoot-style running-towards-the-camera-from-a-rolling-boulder bits. But when you’re not running from a boulder or piloting a vehicle, it’s mainly all about being careful and taking things slow. Maybe I’ll actually give Kao 2 a try. It was free, after all. Don’t expect me to post about it here, though, unless it really surprises me in some way.

Kao: Conversations with Winnie

The trick for beating the third boss was obscure enough that I wound up resorting to GameFAQs to learn it. Like the first two bosses, the trick was easy to execute once I knew it, but I don’t know how anyone managed to discover it. By dint of having more free time they’re willing to devote to the game than me, I suppose. By now, I’ve gotten to that level that I thought would be set in China, because the icon for it looked like a group of people wearing conical hats, but it turns out to be set on an alien spacecraft instead. What I took for heads and hats were just some sort of fluid tank that seems to be a common component of alien technology. What can I say? The icons are small, and grayscale until they’re unlocked.

One other thing of note about that GameFAQs walkthrough. The game lets you know how many collectables there are on each level — that is, how many coins, boxing glove powerups (missile weapons that you can use to literally “throw a punch” at distant enemies, like Rayman), and extra lives. Thus, the writer of the walkthrough, one “winnie the poop”, knew that there was an extra life on level 3, but was unable to find it, and pleads with the reader “If you found it, PLEASE e-mail me and let me know!” In fact I did know. I’ve mentioned Level 3 before; it’s the hang-glider-in-a-lava-cave level where I had gotten stuck in my first attempts at the game, so I was fairly familiar with it. The extra life is in fact right above the level’s starting point, where you can’t see it unless you jump up the stairs to where the hang glider is and then turn around instead of going hang gliding. I think that my theory back in the day was that in order to reach it I’d have to find a place in the cave that was wide enough to turn the hang glider around and glide all the way back to the beginning. This turns out to be unnecessary; a big leap from atop the pillars flanking the stairs followed by a tail swipe to extend your reach just a little bit is sufficient.

Winnie the poop was a prolific contributor to GameFAQs once upon a time, but this walkthrough was fifteen years old. It seemed unlikely that they were still interested in this information. Nonetheless, I had to try, didn’t I? So I sent an email to the address in the walkthough, and was unsurprised when it bounced back, addressee unknown, a reminder that even the people who once cared about this stuff have largely moved on.

It feels like that happens more and more as I play the older games in the Stack. The more they age, the less relevant they are. It can make me question my motivations, but it also comes with a certain sense of freedom. To me, an essential part of the pleasure of playing videogames is the idea that they’re something you do even though no one wants you to. It took me two months to write a post about Hypnospace Outlaw mainly because I felt like there was a chance that someone would be interested in reading my take on it. Kao, though? No one cares about Kao. That means the pressure’s off.

Kao: Random Gripes and Observations

I’m a bit more than halfway through Kao the Kangaroo now, having encountered, but not beaten, the the third of what I believe to be five bosses. Boss levels in this game all seem to be similar: you’re put in a boxing ring or similar small arena with an enemy. To win, you have to punch that enemy three times, but he’s normally immune to your punches. So you have to figure out a little puzzle. To spoil one of those puzzles: The second boss, who appears after a shipboard-themed level, is a sea-captain with a hook hand. When he takes a swipe at you, you have to jump backward to avoid it, causing his hook to get stuck in the floor briefly, rendering him vulnerable. This trivial once you know how to do it. The only difficulty is that it involves jumping backward, which is a move that I hadn’t ever needed before and didn’t know was possible.

In the last several levels, the world-travel premise has finally started to become visible. There’s a level themed after Greek ruins, another that’s vaguely Arabian in its architecture. And along the way, I’ve had to fight some truly unfortunate cartoon depictions of dark-skinned savages. What the heck, guys? This was released in 2000, not 1932. Is it the wacky, anything-goes cartoon vibe that made you think this would be okay? Judging by the level icons, there’s some Chinese-themed areas coming up, too, and I’m anticipating the worst there. Maybe this is the reason that they decided to re-release Kao 2 and not this one.

While I’m complaining, let me talk about the controls. This game uses tank controls — that is, character-relative controls, like Tomb Raider. And this is fine most of the time, because most of the time, the camera is behind the kangaroo, which makes them equivalent to screen-relative controls. But every once in a while, there’s a section with a fixed camera angle, be it a wide view of running towards the camera from a rolling snowball or a side view of the equivalent of a 2D platformer. And this makes it really hard to control where you’re going. It becomes very easy to run at a slightly wrong angle and off the edge of the platform you’re on. I’ve hit a groove where I’m finding most levels pretty easy, and gain lives about as fast as I lose them, except on the fixed-camera sections, which I fail again and again.

Last post, I talked about hoarding checkpoints. It turns out that I still didn’t understand fully how they work. It turns out that you don’t keep checkpoints between levels, the way you do lives; each level starts you with exactly one checkpoint, and you only get that plus any you pick up on that level. So deploying a checkpoint and then not dying doesn’t “waste” it any more than not deploying it at all before the end of the level. Understanding this is affecting how I play.

Kao: Levels and Lives

Unlike most games in the cartoon-animal-based 3D platformer its genre, Denis the Inadvertently Non-Binary Kangaroo doesn’t involve rescuing anyone. The intro movie to shows our hero being trapped and caged by a hunter, so perhaps there’s some other kangaroo out there trying to rescue you, but as far as I can tell, nothing within the rest of the game reflects or references your abduction in any way. Instead, you just get a series of levels in sundry random environments, including tropical islands, caves, and icy mountains, where your goal in each is to reach the exit and pick up as many coins as you can along the way. Occasionally there’s a boss, but The readme explains that Denis escaped captivity some time between the intro and the first level, and is trying to make his way back home to Australia. I don’t know what his starting point is, but he’s taking an awfully roundabout route regardless.

The reason you want to collect coins, apart from “because they’re there”, is that every 50 coins you collect gives you an extra life. Yes, there are limited lives, but it’s not as bad as it could be. You can save your progress between levels, and there are multiple save slots. I’ve been using the topmost slot as a “This is the farthest I’ve gotten without losing any lives” slot, which I periodically return to and attempt to advance it further when I run out of lives in my more advanced runs. I wind up replaying levels a lot, but that would be the case anyway. It’s very much a practice-makes-perfect game.

The treatment of checkpoints is a little peculiar. I’m not entirely sure I actually understood how they worked back when I first got the game; this could have contributed to the frustration that led me to abandon the game at level 3. The idea is: Checkpoints are collectables. You pick them up, and then you drop them wherever you want to respawn when you die. The thing is, they’re in limited supply, so that gives you a reason to hoard them. And that gives the whole thing a press-your-luck aspect. You’ve just come through a difficult bit. Do you drop a checkpoint now, or do you wait a little longer? If you die before using the checkpoint, you have to go through the difficult section again. On the other hand, if you drop a checkpoint and then finish the level without dying, you’ve basically wasted a checkpoint. What you really want to do is, of course, practice the level until you can complete it without losing any lives, at which point you won’t need to use any checkpoints. Checkpoints are mainly useful for getting that practice.

Kao the Kangaroo

And now, a palate cleanser. A few days ago, Kao the Kangaroo: Round 2 suddenly showed up on Steam at a temporary price of free, probably as publicity for some other upcoming game, and it reminded me that I still have the game it’s a sequel to on my Stack.

Kao is a 3D platformer, released simultaneously for PC and Dreamcast in 2000. Like in the classic arcade game Kangaroo, the hero is bright yellow and wears boxing gloves. Enemies include grinning purple spiders, panting venus flytraps, and pigs wearing party hats. Clearly aimed at children, it’s a bit like Crash Bandicoot without the nuance — it’s more polished than Bugdom or Rocko’s Quest, but it still feels like a B-list title, and did back when it was new. I picked it up a copy when it hit the bargain bins, but never got past level 3 (of 30), which makes you hang glide through a lava cave. I’ve already passed that point now just by relaxing my stubborn insistence on perfectionism a little — that is, I’m skipping the optional Challenge levels, but I’m still trying to nab every collectable in the levels I play. Because, as with much of the Stack, a certain measure of bloody-minded stubbornness is necessary to motivate me to play the game at all.

Apparently you’re supposed to pronounce “Kao” as “K.O.”. At least, I’ve just seen this claimed online; I don’t think there’s anything indicating pronunciation in the game itself. Personally, I’ve been mentally pronouncing it to rhyme with “Tao” or “ciao” all this time, and don’t intend to stop. If the discrepancy bothers you, you can always call the hero “Denis” instead. That’s what the developers called him during development, and the readme file on the CD still uses that name. It also uses masculine pronouns for him even though he clearly has a pouch, but I’m willing to accept that. Cartoon kangaroos have as much right to their own pronouns as anyone else.

Heaven’s Vault: Ending

Heaven’s Vault is a slow, quiet game, and it has a slow, quiet ending. At least, that’s what the ending I got was like. It’s clear that there’s some branching, including a last-second binary choice. I wouldn’t describe the earlier parts of the game as branching, because it’s far more free than that — it’s more like you have a whole lot of opportunities and can follow up on them as you please. But eventually you start to run out of goals to pursue, either because you’ve completed them or rendered them uncompletable, and the story funnels you towards the Vault, one way or another. And when it does, it starts to feel like you’re going down a path to inevitability, especially when you make the trip to the final destination, knowing you won’t be able to go back home until the story is complete, if ever.

Inevitability is also suggested by the way that the narrative starts near the end in a sort of flash-forward prologue, then jumps back in time to the beginning. When you land on that final site, you recognize it, and know exactly what your robot is going to say. Weirdly, though, the prologue wasn’t quite accurate in my play-through. Avoiding spoilers, I’ll just say that my earlier choices had resulted in a visible change that the prologue didn’t reflect. Past a certain point, I felt like the game wasn’t quite anticipating that I’d do the things the way I had done them, that I was getting bits of the story out of the order the author wanted, solving problems before they were posed and finding basic explanations of concepts I was already very familiar with. Earlier parts didn’t feel like this, despite being more freeform — perhaps just because I had less personal history to get tangled up.

This feeling was largely the reason I took the final plunge past the point of no return when I did, despite still having a great many untranslated inscriptions that I probably could have resolved if I kept puttering around longer. Searching random ruins and shipwrecks while out sailing is basically this game’s version of grinding, and, as always with grinding, you eventually just have to decide you’ve done enough of it. The game did try to impel me towards the conclusion with ominous warnings about a coming darkness, but it never felt urgent. Indeed, I tended to forget about the darkness whenever it wasn’t being mentioned. It seemed a little superfluous. The prospect of learning the secrets at the heart of the world is compelling enough motivation in itself.

After completing the game, there’s a New Game+ mode, which seems very appropriate for a work so concerned with the idea that history is cyclical. In a combat-based RPG, New Game+ would typically mean starting over with the stats and/or equipment you ended the game with, but also with tougher monsters. Here, it means starting over with all your accumulated knowledge of the ancient language, but also with longer and more complicated inscriptions. This actually makes things make more sense, story-wise; the first time around, we’re told that Aliya has been studying the language, but she literally knows none of its words whatsoever. Moreover, this is a game that demands to be played multiple times. I know there are sub-plots I never even glimpsed in my first pass, as well as goals that I tried and failed to accomplish. (You can’t always revisit sites that you were forced to leave before you got what you wanted from them.) Refreshing the word-hunting in this way should help to keep replays interesting.

At any rate, it’s a lovely game, and makes me a little jealous that I didn’t get to work on it. Before moving on, there’s just one more thing I’d like to comment on, and that’s the title. Spoiler alert, because we don’t learn just what “Heaven’s Vault” really means until the very end. We’re told it’s a place, and we’re told it’s a ship, but what we ultimately learn is that the word “vault” refers to part of the ship’s functionality, that it’s “vault” not in the sense of “room for storing valuables”, or even in the sense of “chamber with arched ceiling”, but in the sense of “jump”. And that’s a step over the line into “To Serve Man” territory. “Heaven’s Vault” is a translation from the ancient language, which is made of glyphs representing semantic units, not phonemes. This particular kind of ambiguity, of words with multiple unrelated meanings, shouldn’t be possible in this writing system at all, let alone with the same specific double meanings as English. On the other hand, examining the word that gets translated as “vault” shows that the glyphs say exactly what it turns out they mean. It was always “Heaven’s Jump” all along, and you had the clues you needed to realize this. Furthermore, I don’t think anyone in the game ever actually interprets it incorrectly, however misleading it is to the player. It’s just a weird trick to pull, especially at the end of such a generally thoughtful and mature piece.

Heaven’s Vault: Story and Setting

I’ve been commenting a lot on the gameplay of Heaven’s Vault, but I haven’t said much about the story or setting. I’ll be getting into spoilers here, although there’s still a lot I’m not certain about yet.

The story is two-layered: there’s the lost history of the nebula and its empires, and there’s the story of Aliya’s investigation into that history. Such a structure is not unusual in adventure games, but usually there isn’t a whole lot of thought put into how the two layers relate to each other. In HV, it’s easy to see how Aliya’s story reflects and continues the history of the nebula.

That’s because both layers have a lot to do with class tensions. Aliya was born in the slums on a moon called Elboreth (which always makes me think of Nethack). Her mentor Myari found her there and, for reasons best known to herself, decided to take her away to the university at Iox, the capital of both the modern Protectorate and the Empire that preceded it. So she has roots on Elboreth, and has old friends there, but at the same time she’s spent enough time on Iox that strangers immediately identify her as Ioxian, and resent her for it. When people call her Ioxian, you generally have the opportunity to insist that you’re from Elboreth. I haven’t bothered. The important thing, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t where she’s from, but how she lives now, and it’s clear that she enjoys a degree of privilege that most people do not.

Meanwhile, the history that we uncover is one of oppression and rebellion. That’s a more typical scenario for a sci-fi epic, I suppose. You always have evil empires and rebel alliances, not protagonists who are passive beneficiaries of social injustice. And yet it’s not so simple here. When the ancient empire fell, it was simply replaced by another empire. Elboreth, we learn, was once the seat of power, long ago. The popular religion holds that history is cyclical, and it’s easy to see a basis for that in how empires keep rising on the corpses of previous empires.

And I haven’t even gotten into the robots, the ultimate expression of this cycle of power and oppression. Robots are, in this milieu, an ancient and forgotten technology. That is, robots are still in use, but no one builds them any more; they just dig them up and reactivate them. The robot that Aliya calls “Six”, assigned to her as caretaker and watchdog on her expeditions, is clearly self-willed, and willing to argue with Aliya about her decisions, but ultimately submissive and deferential, addressing her as “Mistress” and following her orders (to the extent that they don’t conflict with Myari’s orders to keep her safe). But there are indications of human/robot conflicts in previous times, and times when the robots were in charge of human laborers. One of the ancient machines we encounter regards Aliya as Six’s property. Not that this necessarily means robot overlords per se — we learn very early on that it’s possible for human minds to take over robots, and eventually we find that dying royalty could achieve a sort of immortality by putting recordings of their brains into robot bodies. As a result, the past isn’t truly dead. It’s just dormant, waiting to be found and reawakened. I’ve managed to recover the mind of an empress, and she’s bossing me around like her empire never fell. Six definitely had a life before reactivation that it can’t remember, outside of a few fragments and vague recognitions. Perhaps all the robots pressed into service on Iox were princes once.

Heaven’s Vault: Separation of Knowledge

At this point, the passages I’m translating are getting longer and longer, but, due to my earlier translation efforts, have more and more words already filled in. Moreover, I have enough words with definite translations that I’m noticing patterns. Glyphs seem to be not phonetic letters but lexemes. That is, specific glyphs have meanings. There’s one that, if I see it included in a word, I know that the word indicates a place. Another glyph indicates negation. Sometimes recognizing these things is enough to positively identify the correct translation from the list that the game gives me without any other context. The frustrating thing, though, is that the game has no way of acknowledging my certainty. It only knows about Aliya’s certainty, which is formed only after seeing a word in enough different contexts. But Aliya’s certainy is only very loosely related to mine.

When you first make a guess about a word, that guess will show up in any further translations with a question mark by it. When Aliya is satisfied and the guess locks in, the question mark goes away. This is useful, but it doesn’t acknowledge the difference between words that I took a wild guess at and words that I’m very certain about but haven’t seen enough instances of for Aliya to share my certainty. What I really want is a third status. Lacking it, I’m considering taking a stab at completely eliminating the wild-guess category. Taking paper and pencil and making a comprehensive lexicon of glyphs I’ve seen in the hope of figuring out what they all mean. The game gives you enough context-specific help that I haven’t really needed to take external notes yet, but it may be time to start. Not because I need to in order to finish the game, but just for my own satisfaction.

There’s a similar separation of player knowledge and character knowledge going on at the story level. The game has a repeated pattern of Aliya coming to realizations about the true purpose of sites or buildings. A minor example: At one point, you find a building with rows of benches facing a central platform with a statue of a goddess. Clearly a temple of some kind, says Aliya. But the statue strangely turns out to be made of wood painted to look like stone, which is a bit of a mystery, until she finds a fake sword in a prop chest and realizes: It’s not a temple, it’s a theater! Oftentimes Aliya’s observations run ahead of my own, with the effect that her dialogue explains the site to me, makes it so that I don’t have to figure things out. But occasionally I’m a step or two ahead of her. When I first saw that “temple”, my immediate thought was that it looked like a theater, or possibly a lecture hall. I’ve just been through a site, which I won’t describe in this post, that combined these two things oddly: Aliyah made some deductions that I don’t think I would have thought of on my own, but at the same time didn’t piece them together with the part that I thought was obvious.

I’ve commented before about frustration in games like Phoenix Wright where it’s impossible to act on deductions that you’ve made but the player character hasn’t. Heaven’s Vault avoids this by giving the player a great deal of freedom of action. So I’m going to just call these moments “dramatic irony” and leave it at that.

Heaven’s Vault: Choice and Abundance

To elaborate on what I was saying in the last post: The sense of abundance is a major part of the feel of Heaven’s Vault. It isn’t just that there are inscriptions everywhere, it’s specifically that it feels like there are more inscriptions than you need. That you can miss a few here and there and it’s okay, because, with occasional exceptions, they’re not individually important. The moment-to-moment gameplay is like an adventure game, but this is a radical departure from the usual adventure game world view, in which each and every little thing is crucially, individually important — perhaps not to every path through the story, but to some branch.

It isn’t just the inscriptions, either. There’s a whole system for finding clues to the locations of sites. When you have a vague idea of where some artifacts came from, you get a greyed-in region on the world map. As you find more artifacts, chunks of the region get carved away. Understand that this is rather abstract; you’re not told how or why each artifact reduces the search area, just that it does. Again, each clue is individually inessential. The player gets to decide just how much precision they desire before doing the rest of the search manually.

Mind you, even knowing this, I’m trying to be thorough in scouring each site for artifacts and inscriptions. Maybe it’s partly just ingrained habit from other adventure games, but, like I was saying before, most of the joy in the game is in finding stuff. Usually there comes a point in my explorations where my robot companion points out that I’ve already made whatever discovery is necessary to advance the story and asks, repeatedly, if I’d like to return to the ship now. And I’m always telling him “No, I’m not finished here”. As long as there are rooms I haven’t poked around in, I’m not done. I want as much of that abundance as I can find. But once I’ve poked around to my satisfaction, it’s comforting to know that anything I missed was probably unimportant.

And that extends to narrative choices as well. Choice often brings a sense of anxiety in games, a worry that you’re cutting yourself off from opportunities if you choose wrong. Here, I know for sure that I’m cutting myself off from opportunities, but I’m not particularly worried, because it seems like there are going to be plenty of others. The story starts with a character named Myari sending you on a mission. Some time back, I made a major discovery relevant to that mission, one that Myari would want reported to her. And ever since then, the game has reminded me, every time that I launch it, that I should do so, that giving my report to Myari is, essentially, my primary mission now and the thing that advances the plot. But I’m pretty well advanced in the game now, and I haven’t gone back to Myari. I was unsatisfied with the mission’s resolution, so I decided to check out some more details first, and that led to more things to follow up on, and so forth. I’m basically doing the same thing that I do when exploring a site, but at the story level: continuing to search thoroughly even though the game has given me permission to move forward.

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