Comparisons to any of its sequels may not be exactly favorable to Donkey Kong Country; still, the amount of signature elements it introduced and the creative ways in which they were employed make up for a remarkable experience
Donkey Kong Country is, quite literally, a major finding. And that is because, before it, the mascot whose name adorned the arcade cabinets containing the game that put Nintendo’s brand on the map of the electronic industry had lived a pretty limited life. Although by 1994, the year of Donkey Kong Country’s release, the mighty ape had already shown up in five different games, his roles had been rather straightforward. Always standing on the upper portion of the screen, he had either been the aggressor, launching a barrage of harmful attacks with the goal of stopping the protagonist; or the victim, sadly locked inside a cage by a villainous mustachioed plumber who tried to make sure he would not be rescued by his son, Donkey Kong Jr., and unleashed upon the world once more to kidnap defenseless damsels and take them to the top of the nearest tall structure.
That all changed when Nintendo, upon visiting the small British headquarters of a development studio to check out their work with pre-rendered 3-D sprites, was so stunned by what they saw that they quickly proceeded to buy almost half of the company and urge them to use their impressive graphics technique in the building of a game for the Super Nintendo. Expressing their desire to work on a title based on the character of Donkey Kong, the Stamper brothers – the leaders of Rare – soon got the permission to do so. As such, the universe of the character, which up until that time had mostly consisted of a black screen decorated with ascending metal beams or a series of vines, was expanded with so much quality and vigor that it ended up birthing a franchise of platforming titles that would often walk side-by-side with the seemingly unbeatable Mario series.
In that fresh fictional realm, Donkey Kong and the rest of his family rule over an island. And amidst all natural glory of the place, their most treasured possession is certainly their massive banana hoard, safely tucked away in a cave right below Donkey Kong’s home. Sadly, for them, the shiny yellow beauty of the piles of fruit calls the attention of the Kremlings, a race of anthropomorphic crocodiles who are led by the evil King K. Rool. Arriving on the island aboard a pirate a ship, the crew takes advantage of a night when Donkey Kong assigns his young best friend, Diddy Kong, to watch over the bananas. The reptiles subdue him, take the treasure away, and Donkey Kong, who overslept and failed to relieve Diddy of his duty, sets out, alongside his buddy, across the many regions of the place looking to banish the Kremlings and recover his beloved loot.
The passing of the years, the abundance of Donkey Kong Country games that followed, and the deep integration of the title’s gameplay and world into the gaming culture, as if they were two of its vital organs, have made it terribly easy – perhaps criminally so – to take for granted many of the signature elements coined within Donkey Kong Country. Nonetheless, and serving as a statement on how this particular adventure has a knack for establishing strong pillars, even when put on a balance against the great level design displayed throughout the quest, it is the sum of everything that the game conceives, seemingly out of the blue, that is its most astonishing trait. And it is especially mind-boggling to realize how a lot of it has endured the passing of console generations, the arrival of new gamers, and the coming of more advanced technologies.
There are, of course, both small and big creations. The game completely revamps the design of Donkey Kong and makes him one stylish gorilla by giving him a red tie. Furthermore, it spawns: Diddy Kong, his faithful sidekick; Cranky Kong, the original Donkey Kong who has now taken it upon himself to, while resting by his cabin, give players advice on secret bonus rooms found within the levels; Funky Kong, who allows gamers to return to previously cleared worlds when they visit his shop to ride on his weird mix between a barrel and a plane; and the lovely Candy Kong, who runs the save point of every world and whose appearance will come as a relief to players who are running low on lives fearing they will lose their progress.
Finally, there is the constitution of Donkey Kong Island, a setting that has served as the background of many adventures and whose scenario variety, notably different from that of the Mario series thanks to its leaning towards more realistic locales, gives life to the game’s six worlds; and the forming of the versatile Kremling army, which will throw all its rather unique units at the Kongs hoping to stop them.
Given the stars of the show are, by all means, the levels themselves, it is only natural the game’s most important inventions, which would serve as the base to its many future installments, appear in them. Firstly, there is the relatively original gameplay setup. As a pair, Donkey and Diddy Kong do not, unfortunately, ever truly work together, a feature that would only be introduced in the sequel. However, that duality does greatly affect the game in many ways.
While Donkey is heavier and slower than his partner, he can slap the ground to reveal hidden bananas – which add a life to the counter when one hundred are collected – and deal quite easily with armored foes thanks to his strength. Diddy, on the other hand, due to his nimbleness, executes the hardest jumps much more easily and offers great midair control. That versatility comes quite in handy because, whenever both Kongs are together, players can press the select button to switch between both, allowing one to take control of the Kong that is more suitable for a certain situation or even choose to protect one of them by making him stand on the back.
Additionally, that configuration, allied with the fact Donkey Kong Country is a game whose difficulty rises to some pretty noticeable levels as soon as the second world comes in, causes quite a little tension. And that is because the leading Kong instantaneously goes away after just one hit, and he can only be recovered when a DK barrel – which appears frequently enough to make the game fair but not frequently enough to make it easy – is found. At all times, therefore, and in the best case scenario, players are just two mistakes away from having to restart either from the beginning of the level or from the barrel that represents the mid-stage checkpoint.
To counterbalance that thin line between success and failure, Donkey Kong Country offers: a generous save system, as players can visit Candy in any world as many times as they want; plenty of ways to gain lives, which can be gotten from bananas, life balloons, collecting the K-O-N-G letters in a single run through a level, and bonus rooms; not to mention the ability, via Funky Kong, to return to early stages, where prizes are abundant and danger is minimal, in order to hoard a bunch of lives.
With that, Donkey Kong Country is very hard without ever being unforgiving, hence setting players free to bask in the greatness of its stages. And nowhere is the game more inventive than in those. There are plenty of vines that either swing or float sideways as enemies pop out of nowhere; there are lots of barrels that either serve as shortcuts or timing challenges that dare players to press the A button with enough precision to blast the Kongs into the following barrel; there are the deadly mine carts that will fearlessly send the pair of heroes towards death if gamers do not react to broken tracks quickly; there are rubber tires that catapult the apes into insane jumps; there are moving platforms that need to be refueled; there are insane beavers inside fast spinning wheels; and there are many other ideas that make each stage have a clear defining trait, with a few of them easily solidifying themselves as the best of what the franchise has ever offered. It is in the conjunction of these unique obstacles with a satisfyingly large cast of enemies that Donkey Kong Country engineered its stages and started the building of its legacy.
Out of the pieces that make up such a strong fabric, the animal buddies are unquestionably a highlight. Rambi the Rhinoceros, with his brute force; Winky the Frog, with his stunning jumps; Enguarde the Swordfish, with his trusty natural pointy weapon; Expresso the Ostrich, with his speed; and Squawks the Parrot, with his lantern, all debut here in style, adding a great deal of variety to the gameplay and often serving as the stars of the stages in which they appear.
In addition, they also come into play in fun bonus segments that are triggered when three animal tokens (which are very well-hidden across the stages) of the same kind are collected. In these, transformed into one of the creatures, the Kongs need to desperately run through special levels designed around the abilities of the animal to collect as many golden mini-tokens as possible, with every one hundred that are gathered amounting to an extra life.
To those who feel that playing the thirty-eight levels that separate Donkey and Diddy from King K. Rool is not sufficient, Donkey Kong Country offers alternatives. Firstly, there is the option to play the game with a friend, as either both gamers take control of a member of the pair or of distinct duos that, each following their own path, take turns advancing through the game. Secondly, and in what is far from being a spotless addition, there are the bonus rooms located in most stages, which – if found in their totality – will amount to the coveted 101% completion rate.
From a positive perspective, the game makes it quite easy to know when all of those hidden locations have been found in a level by adding an exclamation mark to its name. On a sour note, though, it is impossible not to notice how absurdly obscure the entrance to some of those places is, as they are often, especially in later levels, uncovered either by using barrels to break walls that reveal no signs of weakness or by taking leaps of faith into bottomless pits. To make matters worse, Cranky Kong, whose role in the game is hint at how one can find bonus rooms, gives absolutely dull advice that does nothing to clarify or help.
Those, however, are nothing but small smudges on a surface that is quite shiny, and the problems that Donkey Kong Country ends up causing to itself are minimal. Still, that does not mean the game gets to the finish line without faltering. And the reason behind it is that its major issues solely stem from the inevitable comparison between it and all its sequels. The Donkey Kong Country games that came after it reached such a grand level of excellence that, when it is put beside them, the original installment – though a remarkable beginning – feels very humble.
Technically, its visuals, despite being groundbreaking at the time, were greatly improved by its two Super Nintendo sequels, which polished character models up and forged backgrounds that were far richer in detail, diversification, and life. Within that same scope, its soundtrack, by all means excellent, was taken to the level of musical masterpiece by Diddy’s Kong Quest and Tropical Freeze.
Moreover, the Kremling army as well as the obstacles that formed the levels and the gameplay quirks around which they were built were done more creatively and given more variety in the titles that followed. The animal buddies, an incredible invention, appear – here – with a frequency that, sadly, seems very shy when compared to the prominence those friendly critters have in Diddy’s Kong Quest. The worlds, featuring unusual realism for a platformer of the sort, feel thematically restrained if measured against the darkness and colors of Donkey Kong Country 2, and the stunning nature of Donkey Kong Country 3. The bosses, which close all worlds, repeat themselves and are taken down in relatively mundane ways.
And, finally, not only are bonus rooms far from being as amusing as the mini-games introduced in Donkey Kong Country 2, but they are also hidden much more unfairly and there is no actual reward for finding them all, a problem all subsequent games of the franchise would solve via extra unlockable levels or an additional full-fledged world that contained the game’s true ending.
That does not, obviously, mean Donkey Kong Country is a bad game. It is, actually, a major finding; a discovery of a universe of gameplay possibilities that, before it, simply did not exist. It transformed Donkey Kong from a usually mindless villain into a hero of his own vast and rich world, and it constructed an adventure that ranks among the Super Nintendo’s best platformers.
The fact it comes out rather bruised from a comparison to all its sequels speaks more about their stunning quality than about Donkey Kong Country itself. Its gameplay has been improved; its visuals have been taken to higher heights; and its soundtrack, of very unique instrumentation and tone, has inspired much better ones. However, its birth paved the way to a historic franchise that is an integral part of the gaming vocabulary, and the resulting adventure is – by all means – still a fantastic and enjoyable gameplay experience, even if other Donkey Kong Country games end up amounting to packages that are more complete, well-balanced, and creative. It is, after all, only natural, because they have all had a pretty spectacular base upon which to build; and it was here that those original pillars were put in place.