Have you ever had an experience in gaming that changes the way you look at things? Donkey Kong Country did that for me. I remember seeing the minute long commercial spot for this game and just being mesmerized by its graphics and variation. Not to mention that it was the only ad I ever remember Nintendo running where they actually mention SEGA! With such boastful talk the game HAD to deliver. I was the proud owner of a DKC cart of my own a few weeks after the game hit shelves. And it is the same cartridge I have to this day.
To understand the effect that this game had on me, you have to look at the technology under the hood. Donkey Kong Country used pre-rendered graphics to create visuals and animation leaps ahead of anything available at the time. This feat impressed Nintendo so much they handed Rare one of their premiere characters to work with! It payed off, as DKC was one of the most popular games on the system, with series sales almost rivaling that of “The Plumber” himself! But enough hype, let us examine this prime specimen.
For one, I absolutely love Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong! This game is not about saving a princess or kingdom. It is the story of a greedy monkey trying to get his bananas back! To this end, he must journey across his island with only his jumps and rolls, and his fellow Kongs to aid him. The controls are simple, with nothing but a button to jump and a button to roll coming into play during the platforming. You can also “tag in” the other Kong to use his respective strengths. Donkey Kong is more useful for taking out enemies, but Diddy shines in his speed and jumping capability.
Did I mention the fact that you can ride animals? These buddies help you uncover secrets in the level you are on, and not only that, but they can make the stage a whole lot easier at times! This not only aids in your quest, but gives the game replay value by allowing you to experience parts of a level you may not have access to on your own. Secrets are handled a bit differently than Mario World, with parts of levels being hidden instead of whole levels themselves.
And I can’t talk about Donkey Kong Country without mentioning Cranky. The original Kong is both sarcastic and fourth-wall breaking funny! While the hints he gives are useful, it is the humor that always made me check in with him at his cabin. And while Funky and Candy are each interesting in their own right, they have nothing on the “OG” Gorilla. They do save your game and let you revisit levels, though. So you WILL appreciate them.
Now if I had to name one feature that sets Donkey Kong Country apart from its platforming competitors, it is variety. The first time I played this game I was in awe of how different each and every stage felt. Donkey Kong Island is as diverse a region as you will ever see, with jungles, caves, and even a factory standing in the way of your goal! One minute you may be thumping your way through a forest, the next you’re taking a ride in a minecart! It is hard to feel bored when you never know what is coming next, and the first time I played this game I was always excited to see what was just around the corner. No other platformer has ever made me feel this way.
The weather and background effects also contribute to the feel in each level. Mode 7 and layering effects are used with an effectiveness rivaled by none on the SNES! One level ends at dusk, and when you begin the next level, it turns to night as you play! One of my favorite stages takes place during a snowstorm which builds in intensity as the level progresses. It makes the game feel like a coherent adventure.
The water stages are the best in the series. Each one feels different, and all have a sense of relaxation and atmosphere rarely found in games these days. Think of them as an underwater maze that you must navigate while avoiding danger and you will get the idea. I don’t know if it’s the music, the serene background, or the level design, but Rare nailed it here, and I never felt this in the other DKC games.
I also like to see the barrels making a return to DK. Maybe it is just me, but I could not imagine this game without those iconic barrels in some form, so why not utilize them as a gameplay mechanic? Barrels can be thrown at enemies, and select barrels can be used to blast your way through a stage. This takes timing and precision to pull off without blasting yourself off a ledge, making these stages some of the most challenging in the game.
Overall, Donkey Kong Country cemented my fandom of old-school gaming. It showed me that Nintendo is what Genesisn’t, and that even a monkey could steal Mario’s thunder. It really is hard to explain how massive a deal this game was when it surfaced. There was really nothing like it, even on the PC or new Sony Playstation! This game probably bought 16-bit gaming a couple more years here in the States, which I am eternally grateful for considering how many of the system’s best titles appeared in the last days.
Combining standout visual design, superb animation, one of the best soundtracks on the SNES, and constantly changing gameplay was a winning formula for Rareware. It’s testament to what this system was capable of. There are some weak points-the boss battles seemed uninspired, and after Super Mario World I was rather disappointed in the lack of secret levels. But all of these were addressed in the sequels, and I could not ask for a better start to one of my favorite Nintendo franchises of all time! It’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys!
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