RETRO REBOOT: Donkey Kong Country (SNES)

Super Mario World holds a reputation for being the best platform game on the Super Nintendo (opinions are always up for debate, of course). If there's one game on the platform that nips at its heels, or is strongly considered being better, is the game that put the studio Rare on the map, Donkey Kong Country. With its plethora of hidden puzzles, warps, bonus stages, DK's romp through the jungle does more than hold its own. It could be an interesting Vs. series entry, but that's a talk for another day.

Developed by Rare exclusively for the SNES in 1994, Donkey Kong Country is probably the first game that almost brands itself as the "not your grandfather's video game!", it's literal in this instance. The original Kong, the now retired Cranky, is reliving the good old days by playing his arcade tunes on a wind-up phonograph. Suddenly his hip, cool son Donkey, now grown up since his Donkey Kong Jr. days, crashes the scene with a boom box, a new arranged version of the classic theme song, and some dance moves, leaving his dad beside himself. Just remember, if you ever made fun of Fortnite dances, how embarrassing they are, and how they're leading to the decay of society, you've turned into Cranky Kong. Like Abe Simpson told Homer and Barney in their youth, "It'll happen to YOU!"

In this new adventure, the format shifts from the arcade action puzzler into a side-scroller. Donkey Kong and his nephew Diddy embark on a journey to recover their banana hoard from the dastardly King K. Rool and the Kremlins. Like Sonic The Hedgehog 2, DKC can be played co-op. Or competitively, as players 1 and 2 can race against each other. The island is vast, sporting tons of levels with lots of secrets, and a good variety of level layouts to keep the challenge fresh.

Donkey and Diddy aren't doing it alone. Throughout stages, animal buddies can help you out. Rambi the Rhino, Winky the Frog, En Garde the Swordfish, Squawks the Parrot, and Expresso the Ostrich aid the ape's ability to traverse terrain, find bonus rooms, and gain extra lives. Unlike Yoshi, they serve a singular use in a stage, but aside from being mounts, collecting gold statues of a respective buddy throws you in a bonus stage and a chance to gain a ton of lives. 

That's one thing about Donkey Kong Country that separates itself from Super Mario World (going to hold off those comparisons as much as possible from here on out, for the sake of future observations), both games give you ample opportunity to earn lots of 1ups. I feel like in Donkey Kong Country, you're going to really need them, as I feel the game provides a little more of a challenge. More on that later.

The one thing about DKC that's immediately striking are its visuals. The pre-rendered 3D models really stand out for the era, and while it's easy to take for granted the graphical provess these machines boast today, it remains impressive to see what this 16-bit beast was capable of. Branded "Advanced Computer Modelling" (uh...take that, Blast Processing?), the compression is very easy to spot nowadays on high-def TVs, but it allowed for some pretty deep detailing in modelling the characters, the animation, and the stages. All of this with absolutely zero slowdown or game lag. 

The music is very memorable and Donkey Kong Country has some notable sound effects. I have no problem saying that the Super Nintendo's audio output is great, sometimes some tracks that emit from it sound a little like their muffled in comparison to Genesis ports (I talked about that in my Earthworm Jim review), but Country has incredibly crisp music and SFX. It's a tiny detail, but it sounds very rewarding to grab that 100th banana to earn an extra life, or getting to timing down on the tracks for mine cart levels. Sound can be synonymous with gameplay, and this is one of those games that exemplifies that. It's pretty immersive. It also goes without saying, the OST on the underwater levels is very serene, I could play it on a loop and use it to doze off to, it's that relaxing.

I think controls are the one area I have a little bit of a fight with. Not because I think they're bad, but it feels like because of this game's engine, there's very little weight and physics with Donkey Kong and Diddy. Sure, there's some enemies Diddy can't take out with one simple jump on the head, like the helmet-wearing Kremlin goons, but both apes can feel like they slip around with ease. And just as easily, they lose momentum when coming to a stop. When I first played this, it took a little bit of getting used to, years later after playing the modern games like Returns and Tropical Freeze, it's a world of difference.

That being said, controls are responsive and snug. A lot of the timing isn't overly demanding and feels pretty good. This would change in later games in the series, but Donkey and Diddy each serve as a hit point. They can be recovered, and the game is rather merciful with "DK" barrel drops and checkpoints. The boss battles have some fun variety to them, though they are a little underwhelming compared to the ordeals you face leading up to them. If there's anything the DK series hasn't quite nailed are the boss battles, it's always a "huh...that's it?", any time I defeated one, even King K. Rool is fairly easy. 

Donkey Kong Country is pretty iconic for a reason. It's a game and a series that further cemented and increased the popularity of the Super Nintendo into the mid 90's, even letting it hang with the Sega Saturn and the debuting PlayStation into 1995 with sequels Diddy's Kong Quest and Dixie's Double Trouble in 1996. The first one holds up well, it's still a viable to play to this day.

 

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