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Donkey Kong Country is not really a game I got into when I was younger. I never owned it as a kid and whenever did I get the opportunity to play it, I didn’t play it for long. I remember it being difficult and there was just something about it that didn’t appeal to me. Developed by Rare and published by Nintendo, Donkey Kong Country was released for the Super Nintendo in November, 1994. For this review, we played the SNES Classic version. I absolutely loved Donkey Kong Country Returns and Tropical Freeze so I figured this was a good a time as any to check out the original game and see how the series truly got started.
Just like a lot of platformers from the era, Donkey Kong Country’s story isn’t exactly anything to write home about. Donkey Kong normally keeps a banana hoard under his home and one day he discovers it’s all gone. He somehow knows it was stolen by the evil King K. Rool and the Kremlings so he and Diddy Kong embark on a journey to recover the banana hoard. The plot is simple, easy to understand, and only exists to set up the gameplay. There is no real voice dialogue but characters will say things in text form when encountered. Some of the lines are humorous and silly but the story and writing are probably not the reasons you would play this.
When you first fire up the game you have the option to play the One player mode, Two player contest, and Two player team. One player is obviously single player. Two player team and contest both involve player one and player two taking turns after a player dies but in contest, it’s all about who can complete the most stages. Jeremy and I played through the game in the two player team mode. Player one is Donkey Kong and player two is Diddy Kong. Unfortunately, both players cannot play simultaneously. No matter what mode you decide to play, if Diddy is following Donkey, you can switch between characters at any time during gameplay. Diddy also doubles as an extra hit point of sorts because if Donkey gets hit, you’ll immediately start playing as Diddy. Both characters can run, sprint, roll, crouch, and jump. You need to find and break DK Barrels to reveal Diddy or Donkey, depending on which character is alive. Once both characters die, you lose a life, and can restart from the beginning of a level or the last level checkpoint which is acquired by destroying Star Barrels. Like many other platformers, you can jump on most enemies to kill them. But I think the biggest difference between the two characters here is that Diddy cannot kill Klumps by jumping on them. He has to roll into them. Some enemies late in the game cannot be killed by jumps from either character and you usually learn that the hard way. Although, you can also throw barrels at enemies to kill them. Another difference between the characters is that Diddy seems to move a bit faster than Donkey Kong. But no matter which character you decide to play as, this game is very trial-and-error and you’re probably going to die. A lot.
The game is set on Donkey Kong Island and you can navigate the Island’s what I’ll call “worlds” and stages from the map screen. The Island is broken up into multiple “worlds” and each world consists of multiple stages and ends with a boss stage. You must complete a stage to move onto the next. You can revisit any already completed stages from the map screen. Each world also contains Kong allies you can visit. Cranky’s Cabin where you meet Cranky Kong who will provide you hints about where to find items in various stages. You can visit Funky Kong to travel to any already completed stage in any world. Finally, you can visit Candy Kong to save your game. Throughout the stages are bananas you can collect and after collecting one hundred, you earn a balloon which is an extra life. Balloons, themselves, are also hidden throughout the stages. If you manage to collect all of the K-O-N-G letters in a stage, that, too, rewards you with an extra life. You can also collect animal tokens and collecting three of the same kind grants you access to bonus rounds where you can earn extra lives playing as one of the animal buddies. The animal buddies can also be found throughout the stages and they will aid you. Rambi the Rhinoceros can basically rampage through the stages and is probably the most useful. Winky the Frog allows you to jump extremely high. Enguarde the Swordfish is only useful in underwater stages and can stab foes. Expresso the Ostrich cannot attack enemies but he can fly to a certain extent. Finally, there’s Squawks the Parrot which only appears in one stage and uses a lantern to light up dark areas.
Naturally, being a platformer, the stages are filled with platforms, gaps, enemies, and collectibles. Sometimes you’ll have to climb and swing from ropes, you’ll have to utilize tires to jump higher than normal, and if you look hard enough you can find Warp Barrels that will warp you to the end of stages. I think my biggest issue with Donkey Kong Country is that there’s too many blind jumps as in you can’t see what’s ahead until you jump or move forward. These blind jumps can result in a lot of deaths which borders on frustration. Memorization is key in this game, especially during the later stages. There’s a couple of mine cart stages and the series is kind of known for these. It’s literally just trial-and-error. Ride in a mine cart and if you fall off the track or hit anything, you die and must try again. There’s a few other gimmicky stages that also consist of trial-and-error gameplay. Tanked Up Trouble is one and has you riding on this platform that requires fuel to keep going. If you miss any of the fuel canisters, you’re going to die. Loopy Lights is a stage where the lights will be timed and you need to hit the on/off barrels to turn them back on, otherwise you just can’t see. Even in the so-called “normal” stages, the gameplay consists of trial-and-error and that’s really what this series is about. Get it right or die. There are secret areas you can find that will take you bonus stages which give you the opportunity to earn extra lives. I think extra lives are extremely valuable in this game and in the Millstone Mayhem stage, you can exploit a glitch to earn as many lives as you want. It’s quite convenient.
Donkey Kong Country’s stages are filled with all different kinds of barrels that are basically meant to aid you. DK Barrels spawn either Diddy or Donkey, depending on which character you’re playing as. Wooden Barrels contain nothing but are great for throwing at enemies. TNT Barrels explode when destroyed. Star Barrels act as checkpoints. Steel Kegs can be thrown and you can also ride on top of them and just plow through enemies. Barrel Cannons will launch you into the air upon command and Auto-Fire Barrels will automatically do it shortly after entering. Donkey Kong Country requires proper timing. One wrong jump or blast from a barrel could mean death so you always need to be aware of your surroundings. The stages are populated with plenty of enemies, most of which can be killed easily by jumping, rolling, or by simply throwing barrels at them. All of the enemies have a movement pattern and the real challenge comes from not knowing what’s up ahead. Now the actual boss stages, minus King K. Rool, are easier than the stages that preceded them. Every boss has an attack pattern that can easily be memorized and once you’ve got that down, they become extremely easy to beat. One thing I don’t like is that some of the bosses repeat in the later worlds, albeit with new attack patterns but it would have been nice to face a different boss every time. The actual King K. Rool fight offers a significant spike in difficulty compared to the previous bosses. We had to slowly memorize his attack patterns because we had no idea what he would do next and he does have multiple phases. He’s the kind of boss that you’ll wish had a checkpoint so if you die you don’t have to restart the entire fight over. But, unfortunately, that’s not the case.
I would say Donkey Kong Country looked pretty damn great for a Super Nintendo game. The visuals have obviously aged since 1994 but this is easily one of the best looking games for the SNES. I believe the developers actually created 3D renders of the characters and then converted them to sprites. But the game gives off the appearance that everything is in 3D which is quite impressive, given the hardware it’s running on. Besides that, the game has some great parallax scrolling going on, the backgrounds are well detailed, and the animations are pretty smooth, at least for the time. If I have any complaint with the visuals, it’s that some objects in the foreground can obstruct your view. That should never be a thing in side-scrolling games, especially one that employs trial-and-error gameplay like this. As for the audio, the music is phenomenal. There are some really memorable and catchy tunes here, some of which became staples for the series. The music in combination with the visuals is what really drives the presentation. The sound effects are good, I can’t complain, but I can’t say anything about them really stands out. They’re what you would expect. You’ll hear monkey sounds, some enemies groan when killed, and other typical cartoon-y sound effects that fit in with the whole tone of the game. On the technical side, the game ran pretty smoothly throughout. We did experience a few frame-rate dips but it wasn’t often. Overall, the game performs well.
I had fun with Donkey Kong Country but I’ll admit, I went into this expecting to be frustrated and I wasn’t wrong. It’s a frustrating game. I think the newer games like Donkey Kong Country Returns and Tropical Freeze are far superior to their SNES prequels but there is still plenty of fun to be had with these older titles, including this game. I think all the blind jumps is my biggest issue with the game because the gameplay is trial-and-error by nature and this just adds another layer to that which makes things more frustrating than anything. Not being able to play the two player modes with another player simultaneously kind of sucks but it is what it is and most of the boss battles are bit a underwhelming. But, overall, Donkey Kong Country is a solid game that’s worth playing. It controls well, movement is smooth and everything has nice a flow to it, at least until you die, and it has all of the elements that make up a good platformer. It’s just a little rough around the edges in some areas.
Donkey Kong Country is a great game, it was a powerhouse for the Super Nintendo, and was developed by Rare, back when they were a force to be reckoned with. I would highly recommend Donkey Kong Country to fans of platformers but if you’ve never played this before, beware that it can be unforgiving. It’s aged in some areas and many things were refined in future titles. This was released before games really held your hand so you learn by playing which usually means dying and trying again until you get it right. However, the game does offer plenty of replay value thanks to the K-O-N-G letters and all the secrets you can find. It’s one of those games that will kick your ass but you’ll feel an amazing sense of satisfaction when you manage to overcome a difficult obstacle. Luckily, if you play this on the SNES Classic, you can utilize the save states and rewind feature to make your life easier but if you decide to play it on the original hardware, be prepared for a fun and challenging experience.