The original Donkey Kong Country is one of my favorite games of all time, but one that I haven’t gone back and played for quite a while. An instant classic when it was released in November 1994, Donkey Kong Country was ported to both the Game Advance and Game Boy Color (to say nothing of the Donkey Kong Land series for Game Boy), and was the first Virtual Console title I purchased when I got a Wii.
With that kind of accessibility you would think that a fan like myself must have played hours and hours of this game on multiple consoles. But honestly, I haven’t. The memories I have of playing this game back in the day are so vivid and emotional that playing it now is so intensely nostalgic, it’s almost painful.
But let’s review this game anyway.
Christmas 1994, I used one of my annual game-getting opportunities to ask my parents for X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse, a game that I fervently desired to satisfy my fanatical Gambit obsession. I received my X-Men game under the tree, but I also received enough gift money from the holiday to afford a second game. The day after Christmas I was back at Target, purchasing a copy of Donkey Kong Country.
1994 was also the year that my parents got divorced. It was a time when my Super Nintendo, already my most prized possession, became my source of diversion from a changed home life. At the time, I was definitely struggling to adjust. That’s the beauty of video games, much like a good book or movie, they’re always there to give you some escape. To provide a little relief from whatever reality is throwing at you at the moment.
When I think of playing DKC, I think of playing it at Mom’s house, and playing it at Dad’s house. It was the first game that I distinctly remember progressing through in my two separate homes. I would play it solo for hours, or play cooperatively with my little brother—I’d take Donkey and he’d take Diddy. Just hearing the music sends me right back to fourth grade. Aquatic Ambience (the music from the water levels) is just so hauntingly good, it still affects me when I hear it today. I’m right back there, a confused kid struggling with my parents’ breakup. It’s funny how hard I took it at the time.
Speaking of the soundtrack, DKC has one of the all-time greatest. This was actually the first video game soundtrack I ever owned. I had it on cassette, in fact, a gift from my cousin Sarah. Composer David Wise is a game music god and this is where he proves it.
Visually, Donkey Kong Country looked amazing back in the day, like nothing we’d ever seen before. 3D wireframe models provided sharp pre-rendered images that developer Rare deftly turned into 2D sprites. There were vivid environments with bright colors, expressive cartoony characters, and all the elements came together in a consistent aesthetic that effectively brought the player into a new world; a jungle island besieged by pirate crocodiles.
These days Donkey Kong Country’s revolutionary visuals are showing their age. Somewhat grainy and pixelated, the game's resolution doesn’t look very sharp at all. The animation on the other hand, especially character animation for Donkey and Diddy, still looks silky smooth. Sure, it’s no spring chicken, but even with its aged look, the gameplay remains rock solid.
Brilliant and varied level design throughout keeps things interesting all the way through to the game’s climax. Swinging on vines, blasting out of barrel cannons, riding mine carts, Donkey Kong Country invented so many satisfying evolutions of traditional platformer gameplay. And while the player explores DK’s island home, there are secrets galore to keep things interesting. Bonus rooms, some better hidden than others, are scattered throughout and are always satisfying to find. For the completionists out there, you’ll need to find every single bonus room to get up to 101%. (Why it goes over 100%, I don’t really know.)
Playing DKC now, one thing that strikes me is that some levels have a dramatic sense of buildup. For example, there’s the iconic musical buildup in the first level, Jungle Hijinxs. And then there’s the increasingly whiteout blizzard in Snow Barrel Blast. The nuanced delivery of these sections is subtle, but very effective.
The use of quiet—in contrast to the action-punctuated, pulse-pounding moments—is one of the most unappreciated elements of the game. The quiet time give necessary variance to the action, providing time to build atmosphere, create a sense of tension (like in Stop & Go Station or Misty Mine), or ever just give a breather to the player.
I’ve always considered the roll maneuver a definitive element of DKC. An attack that allows you to charge through (some) enemies, you can also jump out of the roll at any time—even in mid-air! At first this seems like a glitch, but later becomes something of a necessity. If you want to get the K-O-N-G letter that’s hovering just above that bottomless pit, there’s no other way to do it.
Protagonists Donkey and Diddy Kong are equivalent enough, but have distinct differences. Donkey Kong’s greater mass allows him to kill bigger enemies with a jump attack that little Diddy cannot. He also has a ground pound move that Diddy doesn’t. Diddy is supposedly faster and more nimble. A surprising benefit, Diddy holds his barrels in front of his body. (He also throws them without a big windup.) This enables Diddy to carry his barrels directly into enemies, or to check for secret rooms without actually throwing his barrel. Wielding items is a bit more convenient with the monkey.
These differences make each character unique and the ability to swap your lead Kong potentially mean something. Plus, when playing cooperatively with your little brother, the nuance between characters feels right. This seemingly unnecessary imbalance not only makes sense within the game world, it’s the kind of small touch that adds a lot to the immersive quality of the game overall.
The supporting Kong cast is kind of a mixed bag. Cranky Kong—retconned as being the original Donkey Kong, the titular antagonist from 1981 arcade classic—is a truly fantastic side character. There to offer reluctant advice, the curmudgeonly bearded old Kong provides some great opportunities for Rare’s designers to harken back to arcade gaming’s yesteryear. Oddly, the older I get, the more I feel like I can relate to Cranky’s cantankerous contempt for newer games that value style over substance.
Funky Kong is so 90’s, it’s kind of embarrassing. It’s as if Rare thought their new, hip Donkey Kong didn’t have enough cowabunga, so they added one with a do-rag. He surfs, he wears sunglasses; that makes him cool, right? Funky does have some awesome music though.
And then there’s Candy Kong, the ape you visit to save your game. Frankly, she’s pretty creepy. Who thought this character was a good idea? It’s not like Donkey Kong needed a love interest in this game; his banana horde is his damsel-in-distress. And Candy doesn’t do much for the narrative, she’s just background decoration for the save points. So why include an overtly sexualized female ape at all? It’s a bizarre inclusion that’s frankly a little disturbing. (By the way, don't do a Google image search for "Candy Kong" if you ever want to sleep again.)
The enemies in DKC—mostly crocodile pirates, but also vultures, beavers, snakes, wasps, and armadillos—have plenty of personality. Oddly, the Kremlins seem like perfectly fitting antagonists to our hero apes. Area boss battles aren’t really anything special, mostly just giant-sized versions of some regular enemies. But to their credit, these bosses are also fairly frustration-free. Luckily, the final boss, King K. Rool is just plain awesome. Even the music that accompanies the showdown on his pirate ship, Gangplank Galleon, is epic.
Apparently Rare looked at the addition of Yoshi in Super Mario World and decided to up the animal-riding ante. In DKC the Kongs get support from a whole range of memorable animal buddies: Rambi the Rhino, Winky the Frog, Enguarde the Swordfish, Expresso the Ostrich, and Squawks the Parrot. Sure, Squawks was just a glorified flashlight stand and Winky was only mildly useful jumping all over the place. But I still loved every opportunity to team up with these guys. Enguarde, in particular, turns the careful navigation a water level into a gratifying aquatic beatdown. (Take that, you jellyfish bastard!) And Rambi…I’ll miss you most of all, Rhino.
Donkey Kong Country was a revolutionary game 20 years ago, but is it actually worth playing today? Of all game titles, this one might be the hardest for me to look past the nostalgia, to see the game objectively without rose-colored glasses. But as far as my biased opinion can tell, DKC holds up very well. It is a true classic, a platformer to rival even Super Mario’s best. (Speaking of which, in Japan this game is called “Super Donkey Kong”.) The visuals might look dated, but the gameplay here is just as fun now as it was when I was 11 years old, back when fourth grade me was just trying to shut out the rest of the world for a few precious moments of vine swinging, barrel blasting, banana collecting escapism.
For the purposes of this review, Luke played through Donkey Kong Country on the Wii Virtual Console.