This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.
All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.
So what happens when you’re in the middle of a week where you’re leaving your house at 9AM and getting home after midnight, every night, and then going to work on your other job? You get lazy with your weekly column and break out one of your favourite games of all time, naturally.
Of course, this week’s game is somewhat controversial on its own merits. Before Rare became Microsoft’s official bitch, they made great games that were notable for looking exceptionally good, especially by the standards of the Super Nintendo. Donkey Kong Country was Rare’s first game after Nintendo purchased a 49% stake in the company, and it was the first to use Silicon Graphics (SGI) technology. It was also arguably Rare’s most successful game alongside Goldeneye 007, selling over 9 million copies and becoming the second-best selling Super Nintendo game in history, behind only pack-in title Super Mario World.
Despite that, criticism of the game is easy to find nowadays as people have seemingly judged the game as either overrated or nothing more than a graphical engine with an immense marketing push behind it. I’ve been on record for years as stating this line of thinking as ridiculous; the jaded eyes of history look back on any platformer, especially one that ended up being milked as badly as the DKC franchise was, as being inferior in the first-person shooter era. However, it got me thinking: what if I’m wrong? What if my own rose-coloured glasses are getting in the way of my objectivity when looking at a game that is my favourite platformer not named Super Mario Bros.?
The ultimate question going into this difficult piece: is Donkey Kong Country as good as I think it is?
HOW WAS IT THEN: It’s fair to say that Donkey Kong Country refined the template behind just about every platformer that came after it from both a mechanical and base standpoint. Mechanically, there really weren’t many changes from the old Mario template. Either Donkey or his friend Diddy Kong—for the uninitiated, think Batman and Robin if Robin was useful—can jump, sprint (and jump farther), and bounce on the heads of most enemies to make them go away. Like Super Mario World, stages could be reached from an overworld map with save points scattered throughout. There were even some cameo appearances by Cranky Kong, ostensibly the old Donkey Kong from the Jumpman-era ’80s; and Funky Kong, a surfer du— er, monkey who could fly the main characters to previously cleared worlds.
In terms of playing the game, however, there were many innovations, some larger than others. Both Donkey and Diddy Kong had their own strengths and weaknesses, and one isn’t complete without the other. Donkey Kong can throw barrels farther and is stronger over all, but Diddy Kong is quicker and gets more air out of his jumps. He can also roll-jump farther, a technique that lets either monkey initiate a sprint off of a ledge and effectively sprint in mid-air before jumping to maximize distance. If only one character is available, the others can be found in barrels with the DK logo on them, after which they can be hot-swapped out until one of them takes a hit. If they both get hit or fall into a pit, that’s a life. This was a level of strategy outside of the normal confines of level design, and it was amazing at the time.
In addition to those small changes, some stages had animals that could enhance gameplay and provide different perks. This wasn’t new per sé; Adventure Island 2 and its sequels had a very similar mechanic which worked in almost the same way. However, these animals could also be used to reach bonus stages and other areas that weren’t normally accessible. This was critical for anyone who wanted to really beat the game because the last thing DKC truly brought into vogue was the 100% completion mechanic, or in this case, the 101% completion mechanic. To fully beat Donkey Kong Country and get the true ending, every bonus stage had to be found, as well as every letter, every stage, everything. When players beat a stage fully, a “!” showed up next to the stage name. For those without Nintendo Power’s strategy guide, that often meant a lot of fruitless exploration, some of which just involved jumping off of random ledges to find bonus stage barrels with usually disastrous results. This was great for the OCD crowd, as it gave months of replay value without taking too much away from people who would rather move onto other games.
The main selling point for the game in 1994 was the graphics. Simply put, we hadn’t seen this level of computer generated animation on a 16-bit system, and it was impressive for its time. Both the main characters and enemies were animated well, and transitions between actions were seamless. Even the pre-rendered backgrounds had a finish to them that added to the atmosphere of whatever they were depicting.
Donkey Kong Country sold over 9 million copies, won numerous Game of the Year awards, and has been often replicated but never duplicated even by Rare themselves, who made two sequels that were technically better games but didn’t have the same magic as the original. Game releases simply don’t get much more legendary or successful than Donkey Kong Country, which was a perfect storm of a popular genre getting the full attention of the best developer and publisher of their era.
HOW IS IT NOW: I mentioned earlier that it’s hard for me to take off the rose-coloured glasses when it comes to this game. It’s like grading my high school flames by my standards that I apply in my 30s; the old standard simply can’t be replicated, but does the new standard matter?
After playing through DKC again, the things that made it so mesmerizing to children still apply. That doesn’t make the game perfect, however.
The first thing that stands out to me today is the level design. Even though Shigeru Miyamoto didn’t direct this game, his influence stands out in how the levels, particularly the early ones, were drawn up to gradually give players a tutorial without having to spell the game out for them. This was in the days when people were actually supposed to read instruction booklets, so there was no need for in-game tutorials to tell you, “Press B to jump, you moron.” The game didn’t waste time on such menial tripe; instead, players were educated in the first couple of worlds by visual cues. The very first jumps lead to an extra life for anyone who cares to look for it, emphasizing the coming exploration that would be necessary to nabbing that 101% in the game. In some stages, a row of bananas (think coins in a Mario game) would lead to a bonus stage or an item. These types of visual cues are perfect for communicating to the player how to think before the difficulty ramps up in later stages and the player is left to fend for him or herself. This, and not the crap that Zynga peddles, is what we talk about when we discuss psychology in video games, and it’s a mechanic that remains challenging to adults while teaching children deductive skills.
Second, the controls are still great. Maybe it’s due to muscle memory from years of playing the game, but controlling the characters, even with their different attributes, feels natural as Donkey Kong feels heavier and Diddy feels flighty at times. The roll-jump takes a few times to learn, but once it’s mastered, it’s easy to execute. The times when getting hit or dying feel like something that had been unavoidable or cheap are few and far between; in almost every instance, it’s a mistimed jump or going too far ahead without being careful that ends a life. Even the swimming levels aren’t a chore, a rarity even in 2012, though the camera is a bit too zoomed in for comfort.
A lot has been made of the game’s graphics and how they haven’t aged well. To tell the truth, while some of the renders have a bit of an uncanny valley feel to them, I’ll still take Donkey Kong Country over virtually any 3D PlayStation game. DKC still looks better than virtually any other platformer on the Super Nintendo, and it looks good enough to play even today. No, it’s not as revolutionary as it was in 1994, and no, the look isn’t as timeless as Mario‘s or Link‘s, but anyone saying this isn’t a good-looking game is searching for flaws a little too tightly.
After all of that, the game still looks good and plays well with outstanding level design. What’s left to criticize? For one, the emphasis on exploration got a little silly in later stages. Someone playing DKC for the first time in 2012 without a strategy guide would be hard pressed to reach the 101% level required for the full ending. They likely wouldn’t want to because reaching that level relies on reaching every single thing in each stage that has to be reached, turning the replayable portion of the game into a hunt for trinkets. This looks worse in 2012 because many games after the fact, across multiple genres, took these mechanics and tacked them onto their games to fluff them up a bit and make it look like there was more incentive to play than there really was. The 101% issue was blown to absolute smitheries in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which has a final count of 200.6%, an almost mocking number. Due to this, most of the criticism of these mechanics comes from how they were so openly stolen and bent to the will of other game developers. How the gamer feels about them is up to the beholder.
In the end, Donkey Kong Country is still a brilliant video game with some small flaws that are barely noticeable and are all but forgotten by the end of the day. One can speculate as to the reasons why this game has seen such a backlash over the years. Pushback against mass marketing and some uninspired sequels and remakes are probably the top two answers on the board. However, nothing should take away from what I consider to be Rare’s biggest achievement.