Recently, I learned a well-kept secret about Mine Cart Carnage, the eighth level of Donkey Kong Country for the SNES. My childhood memories of playing this particular level are all negative, nothing but frustration and endless, wasted hours. When I found out what the secret was, I wanted to kick myself. It would have saved me a ton of heartache and time 22 years ago.
The secret was so secret, in fact, that Nintendo Power didn’t reveal it in their Donkey Kong Country official strategy guide, which was my Bible in 1994. The strategy guide contained easy-to-read maps of every single level and bonus stage. Take a look at this map for Barrel Cannon Canyon, and notice how cleanly everything is labeled.
The map for Mine Cart Carnage, however, provided paltry guidance. There were no bonus area directions or hidden items. But there was a bit of vague, provocative text that raised some questions.
The text reads:
Ride the rails and watch your jumps—the timing changes depending on your speed and situation. There are plenty of Krashes riding the rails toward you. There is also a deep, dark secret in this mine shaft, but only the most intrepid explorers will find it.
I remember fruitlessly peering at the map, looking for some kind of clue or marker. I spent a lot of time looking for the secret—mostly by throwing myself headlong over ledges—but I came up empty-handed. Eventually I decided that the “deep, dark secret” was a bluff and stopped searching.
Mine Cart Carnage was a level that deliberately played with your emotions. It had no precedent—it was the first vehicle level of its kind in the game. Five of the seven prior levels were standard platformers, each with a new, instructional wrinkle in gameplay. Jungle Hijinx introduced basic mechanics. Ropey Rampage introduced vine swinging. Reptile Rumble introduced bouncy tire physics. Barrel Cannon Canyon introduced barrel cannons. Winky’s Walkway introduced a frog buddy named Winky. These levels were difficult, but progressively so, and they scaffolded in a way that was fair and non-punitive.
The other two levels prior to Mine Cart Carnage were Coral Capers and Very Gnawty’s Lair, an underwater level and a boss battle respectively. But even though they were a complete change of pace, featuring unfamiliar gameplay and brand new strategies, they were also extremely easy. Unless you’re designing a horror game, there’s no point to sudden, steep learning curves, which make a player feel helpless and stressed.
Mine Cart Carnage conjured both feelings. You rode in a single mine cart along rickety rails, and you jumped over obstacles in your way. Its premise was deceivingly simple, but it required a level of reflexes and eye-hand coordination that none of the prior levels demanded.
Up until Mine Cart Carnage, one could best describe the pacing of Donkey Kong Country as ‘leisurely.’ You could backtrack to find its secrets, follow multiple paths to a level’s exit, and take time to explore and soak up the game’s beautiful graphics. There was something very loose and easygoing about the entire experience.
Mine Cart Carnage, on the other hand, was an automatically scrolling level, forever pushing you to the right of the screen. You had no control over the speed of your mine cart; your job was only to react with twitches. It was the direct antithesis of everything that came before it. The time for screwing around was over: if you wanted to reclaim Donkey Kong’s banana stash, you had a long and aggravating road ahead of you.
The first major problem in the level was your initial inclined jump, from one rail to another. All prior jumps were from one horizontal plane to another, which made your arc predictable.
But when you jumped on a diagonal incline, the trajectory was foreshortened, and you would land at a closer distance than you might have calculated.
The level required multiple jumps at both inclines and declines, over pits of varying width, all while traveling at varying high speeds. It was aggravating and unpredictable, especially in light of what the game had given you before.
Then, around the halfway point of the level, the designers added toppled mine carts to the track, which you had to jump over. They could either be placed at the start of the jump, which meant you had to start your jump early:
Or they could be placed at the landing of the jump, which meant you had to start your jump late:
The final third of the level added Krashes, lizards in mine carts who tried to knock you off the track. Because they were headed in the opposite direction as you were, they were on top of you in an instant. As a kid, my twitch reflexes were not up to the task. I had to play this section multiple times and memorize all of the Krash locations to avoid them.
Finally, at the tail end of the level, the designers gave you a big, hearty middle finger. They showed you the Exit Arrow sign, so that you knew you were close to your goal. You cruised along for five seconds on an empty, obstacle-free track, which solidified your false sense of security. And then, right before the exit, the designers sent one last surprise Krash to take you out. It was the shitty punchline to a terrible joke.
So what’s the “deep, dark secret” of this level? It’s a shortcut that allows you to skip the entire level! I was miffed to learn that when I was 10 years old I had jumped down every possible pit except the one that contained the secret.
Usually, right when you enter the level, there’s a barrel cannon that you jump into, which launches you into your mine cart. But instead of jumping into the barrel, you jump over the barrel and bend your trajectory to the left. You’ll land in a cannon hidden beneath the screen, which will launch you to the exit. When I saw this happen on a YouTube speedrun, I had to try it myself, just to see it in action.
For the average, pre-Internet kid in the 90’s, there was no fan community to fall back on, no hive mind of players who have every secret sussed out by lunchtime of launch day. Had I known about this shortcut, I would have used it happily and without question. But instead, I struggled for days to beat this level ‘the regular way.’ It’s a little ironic that a secret, which would be most beneficial to struggling players, would be so difficult to find and nearly forgotten.
It took me back to my childhood. Every month, I would open my newest issue of Nintendo Power, flip to the middle of the magazine, and find the Classified Information section—those prized, manila envelope-bordered pages—and pore through the codes and secret strategies. I still remember my favorites: To set up a mirror match in Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, press Down, R, Up, L, Y, B at the Capcom Screen. To skip to the Genie’s level in Aladdin, enter Genie, Jafar, Aladdin, Abu. And of course, to regain full health in Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan, press Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A. You could even fight a second Bowser in Super Mario Bros. 3! In hindsight, these were not confidential reveals; Nintendo itself was giving them to us, which is like robbing Peter to pay Paul. But these secrets felt insidery and exclusive at the time—like we were hacking the game, making it do things it was never intended to do.
I got a little of that old feeling when I found this shortcut in Donkey Kong Country. And it was a thrill to see something that intimidated me 22 years ago now crumble so easily.