Donkey Kong Country (1994)

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What will he find out there, doctor?

His destiny.

-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.49e05ab2e90821c14887b7d178aaf261.jpgTim 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.

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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.

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“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

The redesign of this new hero needed a sidekick and this came in the form of Diddy Kong, who was not a gorilla but a chimpanzee with a red ball cap and tank top. The prototypical Diddy (initially “Dinky Kong”) was meant to be an update of Donkey Kong Jr.’s character but the change proved too much for Nintendo, who, in typical Nintendo fashion, demanded either DK Jr.’s appearance be made more consistent with his past or the character instead be made an entirely new one. Rare opted for the latter.
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Perhaps the most immediately obvious change in the DK franchise was the implementation of Rare’s pre-rendered 3D. Donkey Kong Country was one of the early home console games to use pre-rendered 3D graphics, preceded by Killer Instinct, which was also produced by Rare, and succeeded later by Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, as well as many others. On the Super Nintendo, Rare’s pre-rendered graphics gave Donkey Kong Country a distinct and attractive appearance. At the time, I remember being wowed by their fluidity and detail, the almost plastic perfection of every palm frond, character gesture, and banana.

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.

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Donkey Kong Country, as the name suggests, is set in the sprawling dominion of DK: an island frighteningly, coincidentally shaped like his head. Was this bizarre tropical cloister a habitat formed by the arbitrary hand of Nature, or did the raw power of the apes themselves shape their world in their furrowed image? Certainly this was not the Earth which God intended.
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Joking aside and on a much more serious note, DK’s banana hoard (at the scale of an Arabian Nights cave of wonders) has been ransacked. The emptiness of the cave where once his sweet but pilfered potassium-ey treasures lay put a mirror against the howling vacuity of his gorilla longing, and so DK and Diddy embark on a quest fueled by the awesome rage of revenge.

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?

5929334327e0538fc2b017d7b0d27827Cranky 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.

 

 

Visuals icon Visuals: 7/10
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.

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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.

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Audio icon Audio: 9/10
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.

Gameplay icon Gameplay: 9/10
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.

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Accessibility icon Accessibility: 10/10
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.

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challenge Challenge: 10/10
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.

rbxkdfzng3myqbbki5ciGIVE ME BANANAS OR GIVE ME DEATH!

Replayability icon Replayability: 7/10
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.

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Uniqueness icon Uniqueness: 9/10
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.

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my personal grade 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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16 thoughts on “Donkey Kong Country (1994)

  1. An absolute gem of a game. One that, as you pointed out, stopped Donkey Kong from becoming a relic from the arcade era and propelled him to stardom by making him the star of a platformer. The review was an absolute blast to read on account of all intriguing information you poured into it. Excellent job, as usual.

    Anyway, I agree with Red Metal when he says the sequels are better and feel more full-fledged. I still cannot understand why so many people seem to look down on the third game.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for reading and giving me some feedback! I appreciate it! I used to look down on the third game because I didn’t like the baby character but now I realize it’s just because I haven’t had that much time with it. The second one is definitely my favorite!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As always, a great review! I was lucky enough to play Donkey Kong Country when it was released, thanks to a friend who owned a SNES. At heart, it was a classic (good) platform game, but with those incredible graphics and music, it was an amazing experience. After that I also played DKC2 also in an original SNES. Now, and even if I find extremely expensive for a port (Nintendo Tax I guess), can’t wait to return (no pun intented xD) to the saga next May witt Tropical Freeze.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, my friend! I really love DKC2 and I’m happy to attempt to review it next, someday, now that DKC is out of the way. The 2nd one is my favorite of the first three Country games. I haven’t forgotten about the coming Tropical Freeze remake! I’m excited for that one since I didn’t get to playing the original.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The DKC games were games that took me a little bit of time to appreciate. They looked nice, and had challenge. But as a child of the 80’s I always preferred Donkey Kong, and Donkey Kong Jr. as a teen in the 90’s. Don’t get me wrong, I liked DKC enough. But I liked DK94 more, as it was the evolved gameplay of the arcade game. Still, even back then I had to admit Rare had made a really good Donkey Kong platformer. The two sequels really improved on its foundation. I felt the transition to 3D movement wasn’t as smooth. DK64 veered too far into the “Get stuff” aspects of platformers of the time, and began to feel mundane. It had some cool moments but the Super NES games were more straightforward, and fun. I really enjoyed Retro’s updated versions of the formula a lot. DKCR on the Wii was very well crafted, and DKCTF on the Wii U was even better.

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    1. I have to admit I’ve never played DK64, likely for some of the symptoms I cited here of the ugliness and clunkiness of early 3D platformers on home consoles. That game in particular always looked garish to me and I already preferred my DKC2. Years later, it still seems like DK’s foundation goes back to DKC and not DK64. I only ever remember it thanks to a few memes and the… ugh… DK Rap!!! 😛

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  4. In all honesty, I don’t think the original Donkey Kong Country has held up as well as its sequels. It was certainly a great achievement for its time and revisiting it is fun, but after playing its two sequels, which I feel offer more variety among other things, it feels a little like an incomplete prototype. Indeed, the final world doesn’t introduce any new backdrops – something the next two installments made a point to include.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting! I like this game a lot and I think it’s a swell foundation but I think it’s outdone by its sequels, too. DKC2 is my favorite of the first three. I think in terms of the music and the better level design (vertical levels!), DKC2 takes everything good about DKC and makes it a ton better.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can agree with that. I think a lot of that continued into Donkey Kong Country 3. I especially liked the Lost World in both games, as it gave players a proper incentive to find all the secrets while not making them terribly difficult to find. As it is in the original, a lot of the secret areas are hidden in obscure places few would think to look and there’s no reward for finding them all (discounting the extra lives up for grabs).

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Right, and I think when the series got beyond the border of secrets-as-extra-lives and into secrets-as-extra-content, such as in Super Mario World, well then that’s plenty of reason to play and dig around everywhere. I actually still appreciate secret extra content more than trophies/achievements as incentive to looks for everything.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yeah, I 100% completed Donkey Kong Country 2 and 3 multiple times before I finally did the same for the original Donkey Kong Country. If secrets lead to extra content, that would motivate me to seek them out. If they’re just achievements, I usually don’t bother and the game is over once I’ve achieved an ending.

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