Mario has a land and a world, several in fact, but Donkey Kong has his own country. In the early 90s there were two mainstream brands of platformer. Mario and Sonic. It was difficult for anyone else to compete or innovate, let alone take a character that had been forgotten about for the past decade to make him the star of the game. Oh but Donkey Kong was never a hero, he was the villain in the original Donkey Kong, then a captive in Donkey Kong Jr.
With a setup like that, you might think the odds were against the developer Rare, but Nintendo took a gamble and put all of its might behind the game. Donkey Kong Country isn’t a Mario clone, nor is it a Sonic clone, it takes elements from each franchise, but it managed to be its own top notch game that kick started a franchise with two sequels in the 90s all for the Super Nintendo.
Donkey Kong Country is a fun 2D platformer that uses digitized graphics to make it stand out from the pack. This was an answer to Sega’s 32X. Why make an entirely new console when you can just digitize the graphics? Its what Mortal Kombat and others had done, but in this case Rare did it with computer generated models. It was a brilliant idea and these models added a lot of charm, personality and flair to an excellent game. The backgrounds are beautiful and have a lot of detail to them. The characters were smoothly animated, even the enemies. Its a grand slam stand out that still stands out twenty years later.
Its not just the graphics, its the game play. You have two characters, Diddy Kong and the man himself, Donkey Kong. Wait is he a man, ape, gorilla or well… donkey? These two can both jump, roll or cartwheel to attack and carry barrels. Enemies are defeated by hopping on them, throwing barrels at them or rolling through them. You can even tag between them and your partner always follows you. There’s a two player mode where the first player is Kong and the other is Diddy.
Donkey Kong is the brute of the two, he has more weight, so he’s better at taking out bigger enemies. He can also slam on the ground with his hands to reveal secrets. To balance Donkey Kong, Diddy is faster and he’s better at finding secrets, because he doesn’t carry a barrel overhead like Kong, no he carries them in front, so you can walk up to a wall with a barrel and boom, the barrel will find the secret without you having to waste the barrel by throwing it.
There are other nuances to the game play, like being able to roll or cartwheel off a platform, then jump in mid air to get to safety. The game has plenty of secrets and collectables that require the trick to survive them. You’ll also find barrel cannons that when you hop in, you can fire yourself out. This is one of the simple joys to the game that really mix up the game play. Barrels are marked on the side if they automatically fire or if they rely on you. It turns into a game of timing, you need to be quick or precise to shoot out at just the right moment.
A lot of the game feels like rhythm, waiting for the right moments. You can roll or cartwheel at an enemy, and the more enemies you roll into the further you’ll go. Your roll will stop at the end, so you need to time things or you’ll get hit. Taking a hit disables the character and then you’ll have to find a DK barrel to get them back. Losing both characters costs you a life. That’s right, lives are a thing.
In a modern age where lives have been forgotten about, Donkey Kong Country has lives, but I’m happy for them. Why? The game has six lands and you can fly between all six with the use of Funky Kong’s Flight Service. Since you can fly to any level you’ve unlocked, it gives you a chance to take a break from whatever life losing level you’re on to go back to a fun and easy level to get more lives. It keeps the game from getting frustrating when you’re forced to get more lives.
Donkey Kong Country didn’t just bring back Donkey Kong, it brought in a wealth of new characters. Cranky Kong, who I assume is the original 1980s Donkey Kong from the arcade, Funky Kong and his flight service and Candy Kong’s save service. That’s right, you can only save at a save point that you’ll find in each of the six lands. Its the same for Funky’s Flights. As for Cranky Kong, he’s there for hints and advice.
There are also a slew of animal friends that you can ride on. An ostrich that can run fast, flaps its wings to prolong a jump and its even tall enough to stand over enemies without taking damage. A rhino that automatically rams enemies and secret entrances. A toad that can well jump high and hop on bees that otherwise couldn’t. A sword fish that can dart at enemies, who feels a lot more precise to swim using the directional pad. There’s even a parrot that follows you with a light for a specific dark level. Each of the mountable animals has their own bonus stage that you play as the animal itself. You’ll plow through hundreds of icons and at the end of a time limit you’ll get extra lives for every 100 of them you’ll collect.
This game is a collect-a-thon. You’re not forced or required to collect anything, but its all just there. Collect 100 bananas, get an extra life. Collect a red balloon get a life. Collect three of the same animal tokens to play the animal bonus stage. All 40 levels of Donkey Kong Country have letters that spell out KONG. Collecting all four in a level will give you an extra life. There are numerous bonus stages with a lot of variety to each of them. Everything from aiming a barrel the right way and staying out of the pit below to hopping on enemy heads for bananas! Now that’s a game show! There are even standard games of 4 barrel monte and matching 3 of a kind to get the item like a slot machine that you need to touch one slot at a time. Its all so engaging and it keeps you in the game. You’ll find all of these bonus stages usually by finding bonus barrels that are hidden off or on screen. Donkey Kong Country rewards your exploration.
The diversity goes beyond bonus stages, the levels themselves offer a diverse array of themes. Lush green jungles, yellow temples, brown caves, snowy mountains, icy caves, metallic industrial zones, and tree house villages just to name a few themes. There are a number of different weather and lighting effects. You’ll even see a level begin to snow before it turns into a blizzard by the end. The sun will set in the back of an early jungle and it will begin to rain or lightning. These are all really cool details that Sonic and Mario never had on their 16 bit systems.
To keep your interest, there are several different gimmicks for each level. Rare was always a master of using different styles and gimmicks as evident from playing Battletoads. Its more than just typical platformer tropes like icy sliding levels, there are levels where you’re stuck on a platform. At first there’s a level with a moving platform, but then the next time the platform requires you to touch fuel barrels to keep the platform on the track. Donkey Kong Country also introduced the famous mine cart levels that put you in a mine cart and force you forward. You’ll need to time your jumps to make it through and after playing dozens of “runner” games, these mine cart levels stand head and shoulders above any runner. One level has a giant beaver powered wheel chasing after you. Another level has you hopping on platforms that will move the direction their arrows are pointing. Others have triggers that either keep the lights on or keep the enemies asleep.
With Donkey Kong’s new characters, there are plenty of new enemies and fresh takes on old ones. You’ve got standard crocodiles, but then bigger version that need you to roll into them, others that are impervious to a forward attack, but you can always hop on them. Snappers require you to hop on them, because their mouths will hurt you instead of bigger enemies that will bounce you off them. Manky Kong will throw barrels your way in an old school Donkey Kong arcade way. Armadillos cannot be hurt when they’re in a ball, but rolling into them will open up the ball.
There are water levels with some very soothing background music where you’ll swim by tapping the jump button. You can also sink like a stone by pressing the down and that’s a nice sense of control. Especially when the later swimming levels turn into octopus chases.
All six of the lands are tied together with a country map and each land consists of two maps that have six worlds, a boss and several other locations. The bosses are pretty simple and feel like just big versions of enemies. They have different attacks, but two of the bosses get reused. It feels like in this big game, bosses were an afterthought.
How can I talk about Donkey Kong Country without talking about the music? Its some amazing synthetic Super Nintendo music. I own the soundtrack! Some tunes are happy and upbeat, others are mellow and tranquil. Still others build slowly over the length of the track. The sound design is excellent as well. There are a lot of fun, goofy sounds that add to the game’s charm.
Donkey Kong Country is still easily a classic game that I can plow through in about two hours. When I was a kid, I remember going through it every weekend at least once. Its not nearly as difficult as Donkey Kong Country 2 and you know what? That’s not a bad thing. Its a fun little romp of a game.