Donkey Kong. The name alone has a particular resonance far beyond gaming culture. Before there were “gamers”, at least as we know them today, people played Donkey Kong. It was a phenomenon like few things were up till then, and it was the foundation upon which Nintendo built its vast empire. But Donkey Kong’s eponymous villain never got to claim the success of his franchise. Instead, Jumpman, who we later learned was an Italian plumber named Mario, found stardom with Donkey Kong and would become the face of gaming itself in the 80s, while Donkey himself was relegated to being a special guest appearance.
But in the 90s, things began to change. Sonic had hit the scene, and his sense of style and attitude dazzled young gamers in a way Mario couldn’t compete with anymore. Suddenly, unless you were a hip anthromorph, you just weren’t rad enough to helm a platforming franchise. Even the once almighty Mario dared not show his face during what is now affectionately referred to as the “‘tude era”, letting Yoshi take the reigns (quite ironically) in his second 16-bit outing. But as Mario went on sabbatical, quietly plotting his revenge in the form of an earth-shattering 3D comeback, Nintendo needed an ace, something to compete with the Sonics, the Sparksters, the Bubsys, and all the other cool, happening, accessorized critters trying to get a slice of what was once exclusively Mario’s pie. And that’s when Nintendo remembered they already had a critter—and what better way to have one of those “800lb gorilla” games for the Holiday season than one starring an 800lb gorilla?
So Nintendo had their ace. But how would they go about making such a game? How would they create a platformer distinct from Mario, but with the same sensibilities and level of quality?
Things were really starting to change in the 90s, and it seemed pretty clear that Nintendo was looking ahead and saw a glimpse of a future where Japan didn’t have a total monopoly on gaming. Enter England-based Rare studio, who had already turned a few heads in the previous gen with games like Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll, Marble Madness, and the infamous Battletoads. Rare would be a portal through which Nintendo could still communicate with the steadily Westernizing American gaming populace while still publishing under Nintendo’s banner. This relationship would be most clear later on with games like the Mortal Kombat clone Killer Instinct and their legendary first-person shooters for the N64, but that’s a different story altogether.
Now Nintendo had their concept and the development team to see it realized. Now came the most crucial part: the hype.
At this point, whether developers wanted to embrace it or not, 3D was coming, and coming quickly. Unfortunately, the mere facsimiles possible on extant hardware at the time were rough, difficult to make, and not really facilitative to platformers. So Rare came up with the next best thing. From the moment images of the new Donkey Kong game utilizing the new Silicon Graphics rendering technology were released, Donkey Kong Country was the talk of the town – it was everywhere. You couldn’t escape it. It was on the cover of every magazine. It was on gigantic, imposing displays and marquees at Wal-Mart and Babbages. Nintendo even put out a promotional video with a bunch of baseball cap-endowed, long-haired wiener kids talking about how awesome the game would be. Regardless of any real impact this marketing blitzkrieg might have had, as the days leading up to Thanksgiving 1994 winded down, people got excited. For kids of the era, November 20th seemed like the eve of a revolution. And while what we got might not have quite been that (in fact, DKC would go on to be known for being overhyped by as many people who loved it), for a brief moment, the necktie-wearing gorilla was king, and Donkey Kong Country left its mark on gaming history and on the minds of a generation of adolescent gamers nonetheless.
The games star Donkey Kong and his little baseball cap wearing buddy Diddy Kong. There’s also Cranky Kong, the “original” Donkey Kong from the arcade game, thereby making the Donkey Kong in this game technically a grown up version of Donkey Kong Jr. (That is, unless you go by the retcon, introduced in Super Smash Bros. Melee, that this Donkey Kong is Cranky Kong’s grandson, thereby making him Donkey Kong Jr.’s son, but there are better things in life than to be worried about the amorphous continuity of Nintendo characters.) Other supporting characters include Dixie Kong, Diddy’s girlfriend, distinguishable by an out-of-place blond ponytail; Funky Kong, their hip friend; Candy Kong, another female gorilla; and several others. Some become playable in later games, but typically they offer services on the overworld map, like administrating save points or allowing you to transport beween worlds. The Kongs’ enemies are the Kremlings, a gang of anthropomorphic crocodiles ruled by King K. Rool. Many of their evil plots revolve around stealing the Kongs’ banana hordes.
This article covers all of the Donkey Kong Country games in the platforming genre. That means it won’t cover the earlier Donkey Kong games, nor will it cover some of the spin-offs, like Jungle Climber, Barrel Blast, or Diddy Kong Racing.
In spite of all of the hype, Donkey Kong Country turned out to be a pretty par-for-the-course sidescrolling platformer. On a conceptual level, it doesn’t break any rules. Walk to the right, jump on things, and collect tokens that give you more opportunities to fail. The only thing new here is the fact that you have two characters that you can switch between on the fly: strong, imposing Donkey and fast yet feeble Diddy. The differences between them are fairly insubstantial and they mostly function as a buffer to keep death one more step away. What makes Donkey Kong Country dynamic is the way it uses the familiar vernacular of the platformer to create something unique every step of the way. Each stage in DKC revolves around some kind of theme or gimmick which players are slowly introduced to near the beginning of the stage, and they must demonstrate some level of expertise with said theme/gimmick to make it to the exit, whether it’s being chased by giant, stone hamster wheels or navigating a factory where the lights flicker on and off every few seconds.
Adding to this short-lived-but-highly-focused design principle are the animal buddies. There’s Rambi the rhino, who allows you to tank your way through just about anything, Expresso the ostrich, who can move really fast and fly (or rather, fall really slowly), Enguarde the swordfish, who is your only means of defending yourself underwater, Winky the frog, who can jump really high, and Squawks the parrot, who merely holds a flashlight for you during a single, darkened stage. Each of these characters interacts in a very specific way with the themes of the stages they so fleetingly make themselves available in.
As you make your way through the game’s lusciously designed and meticulously detailed world map and stages therein, you’ll notice that everything is leading towards a sense of completion. Each stage in Donkey Kong Countryhas at least one bonus level (with the exception of underwater stages). The discovery of all the bonus levels in a stage adds an exclamation point to the stage’s title on the map and one percent of completion toward your save file, which has an ultimate goal of 101%. Aside from a modicum of personal satisfaction and a slightly altered ending, there really isn’t any incentive involved in attaining the coveted 101% complete save file. But this sense of completion would eventually become a staple of Rare’s design ideology (taken to an uncomfortable extreme in Donkey Kong 64 – more on that later).
But even with all this, DKC still feels like it’s missing something. First off, the boss fights are a joke. Secondly, yes, each stage revolves around a fairly unique gimmick, but a lot of other platformers do this while having a lot more to boast, like Sonic with its blinding speed or Rocket Knight Adventures with its jet pack mechanics. And while the level design is good, it’s nowhere near as brilliant as Mario. Worse yet is the fact that in 1994, DKC relied most of all on its aesthetic to impress, and it’s an aesthetic that has not aged very well. The level of detail is admirable, but it was clearly still experimental territory for Rare and most things in DKC more or less look like they’re made of plastic that’s been microwaved and is about to melt and drape over everything like a Salvador Dali painting.
That said, one thing that has stood up exceptionally well is DKC‘s music. Composed primarily by Rare veteran David Wise (with some of the more relaxed tracks by Eveline Fischer), DKC‘s soundtrack is a compilation of some of the more memorable tunes of the 16-bit age. What’s most noteworthy here is the sense of variety, from the jazzy jungle theme that goes through several distinct movements, the hauntingly beautiful underwater ballad, to the industrial electronic piece that plays in the factory levels (my personal favorite). There are attenuated pieces which are complimentary to their environments and therefore quite atmospheric, and there are pieces that are entirely consumed by their own rhythm regardless of where they take place and yet work just as well.
In short, DKC is a good game, but as far as 16-bit platformers go, you can do better. However, it was just a taste of things to come. As it has gotten older, DKC has struggled to find an identity beyond being a consumer research-generated relic of a bygone era, but if it fails at all other purposes, its entire existence is validated by its sequel alone.
DKC was ported to the Game Boy Color in 2000, using a lot of the graphics, sounds and music from Donkey Kong Land (and colorizing the former). This isn’t merely Donkey Kong Land in color, though. The game more closely resembles its console predecessor and is a much better game for it. However, the tiny screen still poses several problems, due to attacks from offscreen enemies, and the controls are a little dodgy too. The stages are more or less the same, but Winky’s Walkway has been extended and there is a new stage in the last world. There are also some minor changes on the world map and in some of the levels, like how Squawks illuminates the entire stage in Torchlight Trouble instead of using a flashlight to shine light directly in front of you. The most notable changes in DKCon Game Boy Color are the addition of paintings, which are marked by green bananas and must be unearthed by Donkey’s ground-pound maneuver, and a series of bonus games which, via link cable, you can play with someone else who has the game and a GBC.
DKC was also rereleased on Game Boy Advance almost 10 years after the game’s initial debut. This version isn’t exact, however, as many changes have been implemented. The interface, menus, and the world map have been entirely redesigned (for the poorer), the low-res, obnoxiously brightened graphics hurt the game’s already somewhat dated visuals, and the music here is poor mimicry of the original soundtrack. There are also a number of extra cutscenes with some new dialogue. Funky’s Fishing, one of the minigames from the GBC version, makes a return here, and it’s actually quite fun. It’s definitely better than the GBC release, since the screen ratio is roughly the same as the SNES version, and the controls are better. But, for the most part, this version is only worthwhile if you absolutely MUST play DKC on the go.
There was also a special competition cartridge released solely to Blockbuster Video stores. It includes timed version of the levels and a scoring system used for the Powerfest ’94 and Blockbuster World Video Game Championships II. Initially it was only distributed to Blockbuster stores, but was later sold publicly in low quantities through Nintendo Power. Only 2,500 cartridges exist, making it the rarest officially licensed SNES title. More info can be found at SNES Central.