“What will he find out there, doctor?”
-Zira to Dr. Zaius, Planet of the Apes
By time the ’90s came around, the iconic ape known as Donkey Kong had begun to show his age. A handful of games released in the early ’80s, beginning with the big breakthrough title Donkey Kong in 1981, made DK a popular, coin-eating, barrel-chucking baddie in the neon-lit arcades but the times were slowing changing. Video games were moving irresistibly away from the arcades to home consoles and nearly 10 years between new Donkey Kong releases all but ensured that DK risked becoming nothing more than a relic. Nintendo needed a “rare” solution to this problem to resurrect the grimacing gorilla. That solution came from overseas in the West.Tim and Chris Stamper were hard at work developing 3D sprites when the Big N’s eye fell on their Leicestershire company, Rare. Nintendo was so enamored with what they saw that they moved to acquire 49% of the company and Rare became a second-party developer. Donkey Kong would see the light of day again with a fresh, slick appearance through this partnership between Nintendo and Rare, and thus the former antagonist was given the chance to play the hero. Donkey Kong Country was born.
The glowering gorilla’s days of harassing Pauline and battling Jumpman were over. Shigeru Miyamoto’s creation was given a somewhat subtle facelift, yet the changes in his appearance were distinct enough to last decades to come. The now iconic red necktie stuck with the character, a carry-over from the quasi-remake of the original Donkey Kong released on the Game Boy just a few months earlier, but DK’s overall stature was diminished from monstrous and intimidating to lean and athletic. A smaller cranium made him appear less menacing, an expressive mouth that did more than gnash its teeth made him more accessible, a curled tuft of hair at the top of his head lent him a sense of style. The character leaped from 2D to new life in pre-rendered 3D.
“There was some wrangling over the look of Donkey Kong; we wanted to modernise the look and give him a different personality.”
-Brendan Gunn, Rare developer
I am sure a lot of my impression was informed by promotional material but it was easy enough to project that onto the game itself.
Only one villain was depraved enough to rob the apes of their dearest desires. Only one foe could be cold-blooded enough to steal away DK’s very sustenance and soul. King K. Rool (whose name is suggestive of the word “cruel”, in case you didn’t pick up on that) is the tyrannical burglar responsible. DK and Diddy must wade through the Kremling armies, liberating scattered bananas along the way, before they face down the final reptilian robber himself.
The fate of the banana hoard rests with you. Will you can guide DK and Diddy on their arduous journey? Will you brave this new world?
Cranky Kong, the character I find myself identifying with most, is the original arcade Donkey Kong reduced to an old, bad-tempered, irrelevant scold with a cool beard.
The sheen and glamour of Donkey Kong Country’s pre-rendered 3D graphics largely left with the turn of the century. Though these were some of the most impressive graphics you could find on 16-bit platforms, it seems to me that they’ve aged worse than clean, clear 2D pixel art from the same year. They’re blurry and indistinct with jagged, mis-colored outlines, causing me to wonder if initial fascination with their novelty was misguided. Bear in mind I’m speaking to the overall appearance of the graphics. It looks like a relic, which should be expected in the context of many ugly early 3D games.
What Donkey Kong Country has going for it in terms of specifics are a host of vivid colors. The jungle and forested stages are especially verdant, emerald realms lit by misted light, dappled day, and waning sunsets. These are especially juxtaposed with the comparatively dark and drab cavern stages, though there’s enough variety between all the areas in the game to please.
The best artifacts are the character sprites, by far. I read that the developers studied the movements and behaviors of real life gorillas while making Donkey Kong Country until they discovered that their research couldn’t be applied to a fast-paced game like this. They apparently chose instead to model DK’s movements after the galloping of a horse. Huh. This alternative ended up breathing all kinds of life and energy into the character. Between his newfound athleticism, the remnant gorilla-like displays such as thumping his chest and Diddy Kong’s childish cartwheeling, the two main characters had personality.
Personality then bled into the designs of the supporting cast: the embittered Cranky Kong, the groovy Funky Kong, and the lithe but garish Candy Kong. Beneath still that were the many enemies to encounter as well as mounts that DK and Diddy could ride on their journey: Rambi the Rhino, Expresso the Ostrich, Enguarde the Swordfish, Winky the Frog, and Squawks the Parrot. DK’s animal buddies are exemplars of the unrealistic caricatures of nature spread throughout this game, exemplars of the liveliness and humor of its character design. Yes, of course Expresso the Ostrich has running shoes on. That’s cartoon logic.
David Wise is now something of a legend in the folds of game music appreciation but he was still a freelancer when this game was being developed. His leading compositions along with Eveline Fischer and Robin Beanland for the music of Donkey Kong Country did earn him a position at Rare, though, and that was despite his own belief that his work was going to be replaced by a Japanese composer given the weight of the Donkey Kong franchise and its importance for Nintendo.
I’m sure he was as delighted to see his work make the final cut as the many millions were who became fans of it through this game. Drawing from a variety of inspirations from Koji Kondo to ’80s synth to mid-’90s dance, Wise created a unique musical admixture of natural, ambient noises and melodic interludes woven together to form a distinctive listening experience, one that would capture the imagination of an entire fandom as well as provide the foundation for the many future entries in the franchise.
Wise revealed in an interview his appreciation for the complexity of music when he stated he wrote “Aquatic Ambiance” for his own technical enjoyment.
I remember thinking even in 1994 that the music sounded noticeably different than the soundtracks in other mainline Nintendo games. It manages to be calming in contrast to the occasionally frantic platforming pace of the game while still capturing the rugged, primal power of DK and the jungle denizens. The only reason I didn’t score it higher is because Wise outdid even himself in the sequel, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong-Quest.
Donkey Kong Country is structured as a somewhat standard platformer in the Super Mario tradition: progression is done by completing sequential stages in a set of areas (or “worlds”), bananas are collected for extra lives, jumping is a main form of attack though there are also rolls which our heroes can utilize in this game. By far one of the best features of this platformer is the cooperative play between Donkey and Diddy Kong.
Two players with two controllers can take turns by swapping who the active player is at any time. If one player character dies, the other can pick right up where they left off. For two people sharing one game, this is much better than having to trade off entire levels. If you’re playing with a solo character, all you have to do is find and smash a buddy barrel to let out your companion, who essentially also grants you an extra hit.
Donkey and Diddy Kong have some unique traits in their movements and attacks, so even if you’re not playing two-player co-op, you have a few options between them. For instance, you might switch between characters if you want the agility of Diddy Kong but if you need to take out tougher baddies with ease then Donkey Kong is the best choice. Given, there’s not really enough distinction between the two heroes to make you feel “boxed in” if you’re unable to play as your favorite or the most efficient in a given moment, but the differences bring more dynamism to what is otherwise a pretty concrete genre of games.
A fairly simple control scheme makes for no surprises. Gaining momentum, running, jumping, adding in the occasional roll… these motions feel intuitive if you’re familiar with platformers. Even if you aren’t, you don’t need to worry about remembering a ton of rules in order to play. What impresses this mage most is when a game’s design can achieve a significant challenge of the player’s skills without relying on over-complicated controls. Donkey Kong Country is all about timing and developing a feel for its pace.
You can tell me to “git gud” about a game starring two cartoonish apes on a quest to save bananas, but I probably would shrug you off as being needlessly pretentious over something we likely both enjoy. When I read that Nintendo requested Rare dial back the difficulty of the game during development so that it could be received by a wider audience, I nearly spat my Trix cereal all over my bib, the one with the word “n00b” embroidered on it.
Anyway, the first mine cart stage in Donkey Kong Country is typically where I get off, and by get off I mean I literally just fall off the rails over and over until I switch off my SNES. That said, I found the determination to make it through this game for the first time ever thanks to the cooperative perseverance of my kid brother playing alongside me. He didn’t grow up on 2D platformers so this is an exercise of his gaming skills but it turns out he’s miraculously fantastic at chewing through the mine cart stages. I did supply the skill to defeat the bosses, I’ll have you know, but this most recent experience with the game girded my belief in couch co-op as being the best and friendliest way to enjoy games socially.
GIVE ME BANANAS OR GIVE ME DEATH!
Though a bevy of secrets await discovery in each of the game’s stages, I’ll riff off of what I said above. This game is a great title to use to introduce younger players to the 16-bit era because of that co-op. That’s the first and foremost reason why I’ve kept coming back to this game through the years, playing a few stages with friends here and there who never experienced it in the ’90s.
Rare did for Donkey Kong something which not every video game character has enjoyed. They repackaged him for a new audience successfully. They transitioned him from the bleeping and blooping cabinets of the arcades to the comfort of the consumer’s home, thereby establishing a basis for the growth of an icon in a new generation. While no longer the best game in the series, by my estimation, Donkey Kong Country’s value as the progenitor of DK’s Country life is priceless. To this day, we still see a lot of platformers, but I could wish that we saw more platformers lifting the pace, polish, and ease of co-op from DKC.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
The Super Nintendo, a 4th generation console, had to face down rising competition from both Sony and Sega’s 5th generation systems but a part of holding its own against the likes of the PlayStation and the Sega Saturn and the surge of new technology all the way into 1997 was due to the virtues of Donkey Kong Country in 1994. The SNES continued to fare well against the new 3D era, even briefly against Nintendo’s own N64 in the 5th generation, thanks to quality games like this one. Donkey Kong Country provided a polished platforming alternative to the crude and clunky gameplay and graphics of the early 3D age.
When I think of the Super Nintendo and its many incredible games, this one inevitably comes to mind. It is a sample of what the SNES was capable of. It is representative of an effort by Nintendo to play nice with foreign developers. It is an example of an exclusive Nintendo game that explains why people love Nintendo so much.
Aggregated Score: 8.8
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