RetroGrade Review #1: Donkey Kong Country (SNES – 1994)

The first video game I played was Donkey Kong Country, and I’ve been in love with video games ever since. It is a game filled with vibrant colors, impressive environments, evocative music, and memorable characters. The game suffers, however, from occasionally sluggish mechanics and, in certain ways, it lacks direction.

The game released late in 1994 on the heels of some highly successful releases for another of Nintendo’s IP’s (you know, the one about the kingdom with no princes, knights, towns, cities, or kings, but with a couple plumbers, one princess, assorted humanoid toadstools, a family of dinosaurs, and a surplus of reptilian baddies) including Super Mario World, which remains the best-selling SNES game of all time. The first thing that defines these two franchises are their art styles. While there is not much to be said about the game graphics on a console that is primitive by today’s standards, it is equally incredible to see just how much Nintendo was able to improve over the course of the few years that separate Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country. It is evident even before you turn the latter on. Mario’s colors are bright and fun, of course, but even Donkey Kong Country’s box cover and the instruction booklet artwork illustrate how much more effort Nintendo put into the game’s graphics.

The detail is truly impressive. While the box artwork and book artwork are substantially more detailed than the gameplay itself, you can still see the texture of Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong’s fur, the leathery-ness of Rambi the Rhinoceros’ hide, the veins on palm leaves, the countless individual ferns on DK Island, and the scales on the reptilian Kremlings (does Nintendo have some vendetta against reptiles?). The 3-D graphics were groundbreaking for their time (it used the same engine as movies such as Jurassic Park and Terminator 2) and lend themselves perfectly to DK Island’s environments, which are unique and immersive.

The first environment you meet is, of course, the world map – a large island carved in Donkey Kong’s own image (hardly a natural formation, as you can imagine). From the world map, you can see where most of the sub-worlds will be: DK’s treehouse and the surrounding jungle, a large cave opening, a forest, a glacier, and a factory built conspicuously into DK Island’s forehead. The sub-world maps provide similar clues to each level. For the most part, this works swimmingly. The level that starts out of DK’s treehouse? His treehouse is there on the map. Going to be swimming for the whole level? There’ll be some body of water on the map. Going to be barreling through a darkened cave in a mine cart? The map will show you a cave opening with a cart track sticking out of it. The boss levels, which feature impossibly large banana piles, are indicated on sub-world maps by impossibly large banana piles. And there is an excellent sense of continuity between the levels, again, for the most part.

The maps are not without their problems, though. The final sub-world’s location does not make sense, unless the levels take place inside the island’s nose, and is not well-represented on the world map. The forest sub-world that is on the side of the mountain on the world map also includes a second area that is more tropical with a bridge across to what appears to be another island (not represented on the world map) and a boss level on still another small island that follows an underwater level (presumably a swim out to that island). After winning the battle on the island, you are jumped up the side of DK Island to the glacier, which has a snowy tree-top level placed on the side of a cliff wall with a small smattering of trees behind it. Cave levels are frequently represented by an opening, but not an exit, leaving you to go through a cave level only to walk around it to the next area on the map. The factory sub-world, in spite of being represented by a giant factory on the world map, is taken up by rocks and caves, and there is a large bridge that the level-placement blatantly circumvents.

The levels themselves, however oddly placed, are excellently designed, with a difficulty curve that progresses smoothly as the game goes on. The pacing of the levels is also well-done, with early jungle levels feeling relaxed and simple, and mine-cart levels feeling rushed and frantic as you speed along above a bottomless pit. Other levels feature gimmicks that force you to change pace as the trek goes on – invincible enemies who move rapidly back and forth in certain conditions but are still and harmless in others, enemies in giant rolling stone slabs force you to sprint frantically through a level and then slow things down with a sigh of relief once that enemy is no longer an issue, and steep, slippery slopes in glacier levels require that you commit to a plan of action lest they fall into the pit below. Design confusion occasionally comes with ropes and vines that hang from thin air, but this is something you will not care about as you gleefully (or frantically) swing from one to the other.

The icing on the level-design cake is the music. The soundtrack is comprised by twenty-three songs that, due to how rarely tracks are reused, give each of the levels its own distinct feel. The over-world music is playful and fun, the caves are made eerie by ambient noises and low tones, the temple music is mysterious, the glacier music is slow but picks up speed as the weather worsens, the boss-battle music is frantic and fast, and the factory music is intense.

The last (and most important) great thing about Donkey Kong Country is the cast of characters. Character development in DKC goes far beyond any of the game’s competitors, with just as much detail and care given to the side characters and animal companions as to the two main characters. In fact, Cranky Kong receives more exposition than Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong put together. There are even short back-story blurbs about the Kremlings and other enemies. It is clear that Nintendo put a substantial amount of effort into building the Kong family, with each member having a unique personality from the curmudgeonly Cranky to the swimsuit-clad Candy and the just-too-cool Funky. This effort is not wasted, as each character gives you something different to look forward to in each new world, and even being beaten over the head by Cranky’s walking stick is a welcome reprieve between later levels.

Donkey Kong Country is not without its shortcomings, however. While the game mechanics in general work like a charm (Donkey and Diddy move smoothly, with Donkey being larger, stronger, and a bigger target and Diddy being smaller, weaker, and better at core platforming), the mechanics of the underwater levels are painfully sluggish. At times, it feels more like the Kongs are attempting to swim through some form of gelatinous mass than through water. Additionally, bonus levels are frequently hidden with no clues about where they are, and Funky’s Flights and Candy’s Save Points are frequently near the end of the sub-worlds, leaving those who do not backtrack to save completely out of luck if the new sub-world proves too difficult.

The problem with the bonus levels is of particular note because finding them is the only way to earn 100% completion of the game (which is not expressed anywhere). The instruction booklet hints that the goal is to collect every banana in the game, but there is no physical way to accomplish this and it is not a tracked activity. The game’s story itself suffers from no lack of direction. In fact, it is perhaps one of the most straight-forward stories in gaming – the bad guys stole Donkey Kong’s stuff, and he is on a quest to get it all back. But nowhere does it say that finding all of the bonus levels (accessed either by hidden breakable walls or through barrels that look no different from nearly every other barrel in the game and are occasionally hidden just outside the screen in bottomless pits) is the way to finish this quest in its entirety. While this is hardly an experience-killing issue, it does turn 100% completion into a daunting task.

Despite these minor shortcomings, Donkey Kong Country remains a great game and a spectacularly good time. It is the perfect game to play when introducing new players to the video game community. The artwork is excellent for its time, the level design is well-done overall, and the music and characters only serve to make the experience that much more immersive, welcoming, and memorable. If you are reading this review having never played the game, I strongly urge you to go do so. You will not be disappointed.

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