I’ll be brutally honest. I think I owe you all that much at least. It was originally my intention to do a combined Square Roots of Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest. It was going to be a glorious double bill; a tour de force retrospective that would blow your minds and capture your hearts.
To say things did not go to plan is an understatement. I am ashamed to admit that I spent the best part of an entire evening just trying to complete the Minecart Carnage level from the first game. Even my four year old daughter was disgusted at my efforts, as she repeatedly tried to pry the Classic Controller from my shaking grasp. Perhaps I was simply too tired or had consumed too much alcohol to be able to handle this hellishly difficult level. Or, perhaps my assertion that games were simply harder in the good old days is actually correct. Whatever the reason, I had to admit defeat and therefore, I ashamedly give you my thoughts on the first installment of this classic series.
Just when I thought I’d never have to experience this again…
It’s a well known fact that Donkey Kong Country was the game that breathed a new lease of life into the Super Nintendo scene, prolonging the console’s lifespan and dragging those looking forward to the looming release of the PlayStation back into the welcoming, loving arms of Rare and Nintendo. I can clearly remember how amazing the game looked when it was first released, its pre-rendered CGI graphics giving my malleable young mind the impression that I was looking at true 3D levels and character models.
Having played through the game again, though, I don’t feel that it has held up very well visually, although this could simply be due to the fact I was playing the game through an HD television. To me, everything just looked blurry, like I was viewing the game through a fine mist. For all the graphical hype that accompanied the game’s release, I still believe that it lacks the timeless look of games such as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Super Mario World. That said, the characters do have a wonderful sense of movement and fluidity to them, and bounding through the levels with the two main protagonists is an absolute joy due to the fantastic responsiveness of the controls.
The level design is where the game excels and the majority of the game’s levels are absolutely spectacular. From the dark echoey caverns of Reptile Rumble and the blizzard that engulfs you halfway through Gorilla Glacier to the storm that lashes into life midway through Ropey Rampage and the lush beauty of any of the jungle based levels– everything is rendered beautifully. Butterflies flutter on the imagined breeze, the sound of insects emanates from the background, and as you progress towards the end of certain levels, day turns to night. It’s little touches like these that truly immerse you in the game world and make you yearn to see what the next level will bring. All of the levels have a wonderful sense of depth too, which at times masks the fact that you are playing what is essentially a very traditional 2D platformer.
That said, a number of the levels still have the ability to excite and take you by surprise, an early sign of Rare’s dedication to innovation. Levels such as Stop & Go Station, where you had to hit a succession of barrels to stop the enemies in their tracks, and the aforementioned Minecart Carnage still have the ability to bring a child-like smile to my face, and thankfully levels like these are sprinkled often enough throughout the game to prevent any boredom from setting in. There’s always a new mechanic or challenge round the corner, and you can be certain that it will have you pulling your hair out until you nail it.
The game isn’t perfect, though. The level design may be one of the game’s strengths but the same cannot be said of the enemies you encounter along the way. A few variations of jumping crocodiles, vultures, beavers and snakes are pretty much all you have to contend with during your adventure, and while I’m not saying that this particularly detracted from my enjoyment of the game, it would have been nice to see a bit more variety in terms of enemy character models and behaviour. Some levels do accomplish this to a certain extent, such as the barrel throwing orangutans, but this happened far too infrequently for my liking.
Also, for a game that is generally so damn hard, the bosses are laughably easy. Maybe Rare intended this to be the case so that gamers like myself wouldn’t descend into a pit of utter despair every time they died, but this really only serves to bring the game a sense of imbalance. The bosses are also very similar in design as well, whether it be a giant beaver, vulture or wasp; you still essentially just have to jump on their heads five times, and Cranky Kong’s your uncle.
But one cannot look back on Donkey Kong Country without mentioning the soundtrack, which I believe to be one of the greatest of all time. The music will force itself into your cranium and take up residence there for days on end. Not only this, but the various tunes perfectly compliment the levels that accompany them too. From the bongo drums that kick in as soon as you are thrown into level one to the incredible Aquatic Ambience theme that resonates throughout the underwater levels, it’s clear that the soundtrack was an absolute labour of love. The music’s only half the story, though, as all of the sound effects are similarly superb, elevating the overall experience to one that is almost hypnotic. The jungle levels, for instance, feel like you’re moving through a fully inhabited ecosystem, just as the snowy peaks of the later levels will almost have your teeth chattering, and don’t even get me started on the sonics. Play through Coral Capers for a couple of minutes and you’ll know what I mean; it’s like someone is pouring honey into your ears– but in a nice way.
Mmmmm… Aquatic Ambience…
What’s not nice, however, is the game’s difficulty. As I mentioned previously, Donkey Kong Country is hard. Playing through it again after all these years, I was honestly shocked at how punishing some of the levels were. This is absolutely not a complaint, though– just beware that if you do decide to revisit this game, you’re in for a considerable challenge. The save points are sporadic at best, and whilst extra lives are always easy to come by, you’ll need as many as you can find because you will die. That much is certain. To my mind, it’s the very definition of “old skool”. It’s about playing through a stage again and again, simply flying by the seat of your pants and relying on nothing more than instincts and lightning-quick reflexes. You will curse, and through gritted teeth you will try and blame the game when you die for the tenth time in a row, but you know that ultimately the game and the controls are both incredibly fair. Certain levels may be a true war of attrition but you will keep coming back for more, I guarantee it.
In short, Donkey Kong Country is a true femme fatale of a video game– it teases and tantalises, always revealing a little more flesh, before callously laughing in your face– but if you’ve never been seduced by Donkey Kong Country before, I really do urge you to give it a try.