This article was originally published at Another-Castle.com
One of the finest platformers ever made.
At the time of the original Donkey Kong Country’s release I was in upper primary school and owned a Sega Mega Drive. If you were like me, you could probably barely believe what you were seeing the first time you saw it. I still remember seeing the advertisements on television with phrases like “The First Fully Rendered Video Game Ever” displayed in between short gameplay clips (I’m pretty sure this is it). I didn’t know what any of that meant but it sounded good and certainly looked great. But what made Donkey Kong Country truly stand out was that it wasn’t just pretty – it was a genuinely well designed game.
Unlike many of my previous Another Take articles, I had actually played Donkey Kong Country 2 (DKC2) at the time of its release and it is one of my favourite games. So I didn’t just want to jump into writing with only nostalgia guiding me. The fondness gamers have for certain games must frustrate developers making sequels to those games today. Romance after all, often triumphs over reality. So after getting out a Super Nintendo, an s-video cable and my cartridge copy of DKC2 and clearing a game file, I began the game anew. My goal was to complete and not just finish the game – something I’m surprised to say I’ve never done.
My initial impressions gave me new appreciation for the two recent sequels by Retro Studios. For a start, the levels are a lot shorter than I remembered and initially quite easy to traverse. This is a stark contrast to Donkey Kong Country Returns and Tropical Freeze which have lengthy levels, most of which have a unique tweak on the gameplay. The visuals aren’t as jaw dropping as they were but that is certainly to be expected after twenty years. The character animations do remain impressive though – especially with the little touches such as Dixie using her finger to scoop up honey in the giant hive levels. The soundtrack by David Wise from the catchy sea songs to the melancholy melodies are as wonderful as I remember.
The first world may be easy but I knew from memory that things would soon get far more difficult. Coming to this classic again as an amateur critic means I am a lot more observant with game design and mechanics, so I was quick to notice the way new enemies and items are introduced slowly before having them appear again in challenging ways. This is everything from the hooks and ropes of the ship levels to the deadly spinning starfish in the underwater levels. From the second world onwards, DKC2 gently leads you in before the challenge spikes. A great example of this is when the rotatable barrels with timers are introduced by having one placed safely to practice with at the beginning of the level. Soon after that though, you’ll have to react quickly to safely blast the primates through a series deadly obstacles.
I strongly indicated my preference for Donkey Kong in my review of Tropical Freeze and I have always disliked the way he was removed from both sequels to Donkey Kong Country – this was especially silly in the third game. In DKC2 however, the transition made some sense. Donkey Kong was noticeably slower than Diddy and many players disliked the weighty controls of Donkey Kong, opting to use Diddy exclusively when they could. As sequels are want to do, DKC2 introduced Dixie Kong who can use her hair to spin-glide like a helicopter. So even with both characters being speedy, Dixie’s glide gives her the advantage over Diddy. The speed and agility of Diddy and Dixie had the advantage of allowing designers to make speedier challenges which they certainly took advantage of. With frantic chases over rugged terrain, swings and hooks that wouldn\’t have worked as well – if at all – with a slower, heavier character.
The original had introduced animal companions and Rambi the Rhino and Enguarde the Swordfish return along with Squawks the parrot in an expanded role. Squawks and two new additions, Rattly the Rattlesnake and Squitty the Spider really add to the gameplay with each using a unique mechanic. The latter being the most interesting as Squitty can use his web to attack enemies and make platforms but is unable to jump attack like others. The other new element of course is that these animals are controlled by themselves in many levels. In going for completion I finally played what is arguably the most challenging level in the game which involves using multiple animals and is only unlocked after finishing the main game. I dare not say its name but all who have played it will know what I’m talking about.
My experience with the game was not all joy. While I love a challenge, the aforementioned level had a particularly fiendishly designed area involving strong winds and brambles which took me quite a few turns to pass. The save system is also somewhat annoying as you have to both pay to save and unlock Granny’s School in each area to do it. Both your coins and life count also reset each time you play. This is still a lot more forgiving than many other games at the time and with a bit of patience can certainly be overlooked. There are also issues with hit detection with both backgrounds and enemies – which is especially frustrating in later levels. Even with the highly forgiving design changes in place today, I didn’t feel cheated by glitches or unresponsive controls.
Another aspect that delights me about this game and indeed the series are all the little things. The character animations that I already mentioned, the humorous writing which with age I’m able to see the “Britishness” in. The references to other games and tongue-in-cheek insults to other mascots and Nintendo properties. Even the way chimp noises are used to make up part of the soundtrack. There are so many little things that can easily be missed if you don’t pay attention. This all makes it easy to overlook the Sonic influenced “dude with attitude” concept that influenced so many platformers of the time. The Donkey Kong Country series managed to transcend that because it wasn’t merely the product of that trend.
In the end, I did complete the game all the way through. It wasn’t quite as difficult as I was expecting but the difficulty did make me wonder why complaints about the Retro developed sequels often relate to those games difficulty. People making those complaints either didn’t play or perhaps just don’t remember these games. I also played through the original which quickly confirmed just how much DKC2 improved as a sequel.
DKC2 was everything a sequel should be. While retaining the core gameplay, it added exciting new environments and challenges. Even if the sequel, DKC3 had brought Donkey back in combination with Dixie rather than introduced a boring new character, the level design never quite reached the excellence of Diddy’s Kong Quest. This game remains the high point of the original series and playing it today as said has given me new appreciation of the sequels and how well they brought new life to the formula rather than trying to ape it.
If by chance you haven’t played this or any of the games in the Donkey Kong Country series, there are plenty of ways to play. All three games were re-released on the Game Boy Advance and they are available on the Wii U Virtual Console. I’d definitely recommend opting for the SNES originals over the GBA versions though.