There's a level in the first world of DKC Tropical Freeze that drove me nuts because there is no checkpoint. The level must be finished in one go. And guess what, the platforming is bloody difficult.
While obviously I had to play the previous few levels to get to the one I'm talking about, it wasn't until this bloody level (God I wish I knew the name of it. I mean I could go to my Wii U right now and turn it on, or search the internet, but I'm too god damn lazy and can't be bothered.) that I realized just how good DKC TF actually was.
Sure I already knew the graphics were beautiful, and the controls were tight and the soundtrack was amazing, but this hair pulling level shows just how darn good the level design AND game design is (actually, I read on the internet that Time ATTACK also really opens up just how well every level is designed).
Now, level design is an easy concept to understand. Game design is not. What do I mean by great game design. I guess, the term is quite broad. It probably represents all the aspects that make up a video game. But for me it stands for something far more specific. I see the core concept of game design being about how the gamer is able to learn the mechanics of the game (without tutorials) and sharpen those mechanics as the game progresses.
In so many games today it's really, really hard to understand this concept, from my perspective. So many games today are about gaining skills and abilities and leveling up (or just find cheap ways to get around A.I. ---like so many action games these days), that it's really hard to tell if the gamer has mastered the mechanics or is just some super powerful hero (or some dude who figured out how to cheat the system). Not to say that one way is the right way and the other the wrong way. Just thaemt there is a difference. Look, I wrote a whole blog on this topic awhile back so I don't want to make this blog about this topic.
I'm hear to chat about DKTF. The level I was just talking about, is so tough and you die repeatedly, but each time you die you learn a little bit more about the level the obstacles and how to control DK. By the time you've completed it, though you haven't technically "leveled up" like in some World of Warcraft way, you will probably feel like your personal DKTF skills instead have leveled up. I'm not going to suggest that tutorial levels are a waste of time (which they are--and a blog post for another day), but with great game design, the gamer will learn through trial and error. With every trial and error, the gamer realizes something minor. They make adjustments. They try new ways to approach the same situation. The best modern examples of learning through trial and error that I can think of, besides DKTF, are Braid, Knytt Underground and DARK SOULS.
I can now say my two favorite full-on console games of the last few years are DKTF and Dark Souls. Though I might take a lot of shit for this, DKTF makes the Wii U worth it.