After receiving an unlimited budget from Nintendo, the company that revitalized console gaming in North America with the Famicom (the Nintendo Entertainment System/NES abroad), the Twycross, Leicestershire-based developer Rare created several games for them. The company’s first game for Nintendo, Slalom, which was originally released in arcades under the Vs. System, proved a modest hit. From there, they developed various games utilizing famous film licenses such as Beetlejuice and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but it was their original property Battletoads that would cement themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
Then, in 1990, the successor to Nintendo’s Famicom console, the Super Famicom, was released. It would see its international debut the following year as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Rare had been quite prolific throughout the third generation of console gaming, but after the SNES saw its release, they decided to limit their output. To this end, they invested the money they made from their various NES games in Silicon Graphics (SGI) workstations. These devices were notable for their ability to render 3D models in an era when such a thing was unheard of. It proved to be quite the financial risk, as each workstation cost £80,000 apiece. In doing so, Rare became the most technologically advanced developer in the United Kingdom. Rare tested the technology by creating an arcade installment of Battletoads before beginning work on a boxing game they named Brute Force.
Meanwhile, Nintendo was in a heated console war against the Sega Mega Drive (Sega Genesis in North America). Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Mario series, had become a smash hit, and won the Genesis many fans in the process. Some of those fans included Disney animators, who lent their talents to Virgin Games to create an adaptation of Aladdin. It was notably the very first game to ever feature hand-drawn animation. Realizing they needed to think of something quickly to remain relevant, Nintendo, impressed with Rare’s work on Brute Force, bought a 25% stake in the company, which eventually increased to 49%.
Now part of a second-party developer for Nintendo, Rare founders Tim and Chris Stamper were contacted by Nintendo with an interesting proposal. Released in arcades in 1981, Donkey Kong was Nintendo’s breakthrough hit, turning them into one of the industry’s most respected developers. Despite this, it was the then-unnamed Mario, not the title character, who ended up becoming synonymous with the company. This may have been justifiable as Mario was the player character while the game itself had been named after its antagonist. Even so and with the exception of scattered cameo appearances and a Game Boy remake of the arcade original, the title character hadn’t been used at all since Donkey Kong 3, which itself fell into relative obscurity following the infamous North American video game crash of 1983. As journalist Jeremy Parish writing for USGamer pointed out, it was “quite an ignominious twist” for one of the medium’s most recognizable characters.
On the back of this, Nintendo wished to revive Donkey Kong for a modern audience, and the Stamper brothers were to do just that. Development began in August of 1993 with an estimated development budget of $1,000,000 and a team of twelve. The creator of Donkey Kong, Shigeru Miyamoto, did not work on the game directly, but he ended up contributing ideas throughout the development process. This game was to be a side-scrolling platformer, as much of the staff had grown up playing Super Mario Bros. and its sequels. Finally in November of 1994, Rare completed their work. It was called Donkey Kong Country (Super Donkey Kong in Japan), and it set a record upon its release for the most man hours ever invested in a video game’s development at 22 years. The game was highly acclaimed and a commercial success, selling seven-million copies worldwide in four months. As the third-best selling game in the SNES’s library, how does Donkey Kong Country hold up?
Analyzing the Experience
Long after the events of the original Donkey Kong, the title ape, having grown old and retired, moved to Donkey Kong Island, now going by Cranky Kong. The “Donkey Kong” mantle has now been passed down to his grandson, who often goes by DK.
One night, the Kremlings, an army of bipedal alligators, besiege Donkey Kong Island, stealing what is most precious to the Kong family: their banana hoard. Diddy Kong, DK’s nephew, attempts to combat the Kremlings, but is soon captured. Determined to save both Diddy and their banana supply, DK sets out into the jungles of Donkey Kong Island.
Lead designer Gregg Mayles stated that Donkey Kong Country was heavily influenced by Super Mario Bros. 3. The extent of its influence becomes obvious as soon as you start a new game. Rather than throwing the player into the first stage, selecting a new file brings them to a world map instead. As there is only one world, Kongo Jungle, to select from the outset, you must press the “A” button to confirm. This takes the player to the world proper. Once again, there is only one level to select in the form Jungle Hijinx, so you must press the “A” button to confirm.
From here, the game begins in earnest. Despite both titles being of the same genre, the actual gameplay is quite a bit different. Despite his impressive build, DK is slightly less survivable than his grandfather’s rival. Only one successful hit from an enemy or hazard is enough to put him out of commission. There aren’t any Super Mushrooms that grant him an extra hit, and Fire Flowers are simply out of the question. For that matter, there aren’t any ? Blocks to speak of, so it’s not as though he could find either of those power-ups even if he wanted to.
Despite these setbacks, DK has quite a lot of advantages to make up for his biggest weakness. Despite his inability to take a hit without being defeated, DK is more athletic than Mario. While he can defeat most enemies by jumping on their heads, he can somersault into them as well. Somersaults are executed with the “Y” button, and while it can be used to defeat multiple enemies in succession, it is also handy for reaching distant platforms. By somersaulting off a platform, you can press the “B” button to jump in midair.
DK is also capable of hitting the ground when you press down on the directional pad and then the “Y” button. This can be used to defeat enemies, although it’s not especially useful in that regard. It is instead more helpful to use it in order to find hidden items such as bananas, which serve the same exact role coins do in the Mario series – collect one-hundred, and you will get an extra life.
In addition, and staying true to his family’s legacy, DK’s greatest means of defense involves throwing barrels at his enemies. Normally, DK throws barrels forward, but if you hold up on the directional pad, he will pitch them upwards instead. Standard barrels roll along the ground and tear through enemies without risking DK himself, so they are ideal for picking them off from a distance. There are also Vine Barrels, which break upon impact with the ground rather than roll. Lastly, there are steel kegs. They are significantly more durable than wooden barrels, as they bounce off of walls when DK throws them at one. In addition, you can have DK jump onto a rolling steel keg, allowing him to hitch a ride on it.
Although the manual implies that DK must rescue his nephew on his journey, it is, in practice, just a means by which to set up an important game mechanic. Indeed, not too far into the first stage, you will find a barrel labelled “DK”. You will oftentimes hear it before you see it, for it is accompanied by monkey sounds when it appears onscreen. If DK picks up this barrel and breaks it, he will release the trapped Diddy Kong.
As the game’s deuteragonist, Diddy is capable of performing feats similar to that of his uncle. He has the ability to cartwheel into enemies, which accomplishes the same thing as DK’s somersault, and also allows him to perform a midair jump. However, he plays a bit differently than his uncle, being faster and more agile than DK. In addition, he is also better at evading attacks owing to his smaller size. As a tradeoff, he isn’t as strong as DK. This is most notable when you encounter certain Kremlings Diddy has trouble fighting. Klumps are rotund alligators that wear green military helmets, so Diddy can only harm them with a well-timed cartwheel. Later in the game, you will encounter Krushas, which are hardy Kremlings capable of shrugging off Diddy’s attacks completely.
Diddy can defend himself with barrels as well, but he holds it in front of his body as opposed to above his head like DK does. This is important to keep in mind, as any barrel will be expended if they make contact with an enemy when either DK or Diddy is holding one. This aspect can be exploited as well, for if you’re attempting a tricky jump with an enemy looming overhead or blocking your path, the appropriate Kong can hold the barrel as a shield to help them emerge unscathed.
Switching Kongs is accomplished by pressing the “SELECT” button, and it can only be done on the ground. Diddy is not capable of taking a hit either, so while both Kongs offer something unique to the gameplay, they also effectively act as insurance for the player. As long as you have at least one Kong in working condition, you won’t lose a life. It doesn’t matter how often the Kongs get hit either. If they do, the other Kong will be trapped in a DK barrel to be released when you find it. Furthermore, when both Kongs are present, you need not worry about the safety of the one you’re not directly controlling, as he will not take damage if you aren’t.
Diddy also plays a significant role in two-player games. In fact, this game features two different modes for multiplayer: “Two-Player Contest” and “Two-Player Team”. Two-Player Contest is similar to two-player games in Super Mario Bros. wherein the players each take turns attempting to complete the same single-player campaign. The main difference is that a successful or failed attempt will result in control being relinquished to the other player. While this does mean the inactive player won’t ever see their friend clear half the game before they get a turn, it’s still not an especially great idea when the same thing could be accomplished simply by passing the controller back and forth.
The original idea behind the Two-Player Team mode was to provide a basis for simultaneous cooperative gameplay – much like how Sonic the Hedgehog 2 allowed a second player to join in and control the title character’s sidekick, Tails. However, these plans were scrapped due to a combination of time and hardware limitations. Fortunately, the Stamper brothers and their team implemented the next best thing. In this mode, the first player controls DK whereas the second controls Diddy. When one Kong is incapacitated, the other player is allowed to take over – the game courteously pausing until they press a button if this happens. The active player can also pass control of the game over to their friend by pressing the “SELECT” button.
As you make your way through the first stage, you will likely happen upon a create with a rhino’s head painted on it. By breaking it open, you can unseal Rambi the Rhinoceros. Rambi is fast and can destroy almost every enemy he comes across with his horn. If you take damage while riding Rambi, he will panic and begin running off. By having DK or Diddy jump on his back, you can regain control of him.
This mechanic is highly reminiscent of Yoshi in Super Mario World in how Rambi acts as an extra hit point when DK or Diddy is riding him, and can be recovered if they can catch up to him. However, Rambi cannot be brought out of a stage, so once you have completed it, he will disappear. In exchange, Rambi isn’t the only Animal Buddy DK and Diddy can receive help from.
A platforming game wouldn’t be complete without some kind of water stage, and Donkey Kong Country is no exception. Even if there usually isn’t any danger of drowning, water stages tend to be fairly controversial among enthusiasts for suspending the rules of the game in favor of making them navigate tight corners without the ability to fight back. Fortunately, Donkey Kong Country greatly alleviates the frustration associated with these stages by introducing players to Engarde the Swordfish.
You normally have to press the “B” button in order for DK or Diddy to gain height while underwater, but riding Engarde turns it into a matter of simply holding down the appropriate direction on the cross pad. Engarde is effectively Rare’s interpretation of the Frog Suit from Super Mario Bros. 3, although he is significantly more useful. The Frog Suit, while serviceable in underwater stages, was absolutely useless in any other situation. As water stages were fairly rare, “any other situation” constituted roughly 95% of the experience. Conversely, Engarde can only be used underwater, and with his sharpened nose, he can attack any vulnerable enemy. Combined with the fact that he can be recovered if he is scared off by an enemy attack, and it’s clear the team managed to improve upon Nintendo’s idea.
The overarching goal of the game is to recover DK’s banana hoard, and one portion of it is awaiting DK and Diddy at the end of each world. The Kremlings’ leader, King K. Rool isn’t lax enough to simply let the Kongs waltz in and take back the bananas without a fight, though, so he has placed his highest ranking minions in charge of guarding each pile. Unlike the Mario series, these stages are entirely dedicated to their respective boss fights. While Mario’s games didn’t feature involved bosses by the time Donkey Kong Country was released, I find it to be a welcome change, nonetheless. Similarly straightforward though the bosses in this game may be, it is nice simply being able to retry these encounters without having to complete a series of platforming challenges beforehand.
What made Donkey Kong Country such a standout experience in 1994 was that it seemed to implement its own style of platforming obviously inspired by Super Mario Bros., yet distinct in many key areas as well. Super Mario Bros. and its sequels were masterclass works when it came to design, boasting a very simplistic, straightforward gameplay that always found interesting permutations for its few moving parts. Anyone could pick up those games and know exactly what to expect within seconds of starting.
Donkey Kong Country, while still retaining that same, basic idea, employs more gimmicks in its stage design. Jungle Hijinx is a clear parallel to World 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. in how it provides a tutorial for the player using nothing but set pieces. The very next stage, Ropey Rampage, is where the gimmicks become more apparent. As its name would imply, Ropey Rampage employs several ropes in its design, requiring the Kongs to use them in order to navigate large expanses.
Nearing the end of Kongo Jungle is a stage named Barrel Cannon Canyon, wherein the eponymous Barrel Cannons make their lasting impression on the gameplay. Yes, barrels don’t just make for an effective weapon, but also a surprisingly efficient method of transportation. Once a barrel cannon is entered, the Kongs will be launched out of it when the player presses the “A” button. Some cannons rotate when a Kong is inside while others only face one direction. Others move in a set pattern, although you will never see them do both at the same time. Cannons with an explosion symbol imprinted upon them will shoot the Kongs immediately in a predetermined direction. These cannons are always safe to use, never shooting the Kongs in a direction of a hazard or a bottomless pit.
On their quest to recover their hoard, DK and Diddy can get up from other members of the Kong family. They cannot assist them directly in stages, but they do provide valuable services all the same. Visiting DK’s grandfather, Cranky Kong, will have him dispense advice about mechanics that may not be immediately obvious. There is also Funky Kong, who runs his own airport. Funky will gladly let the Kongs make use of his Jumbo Barrel airplane, which allows the player to regain access to the overworld. And then there’s Candy Kong, who provides the single most valuable service between these three characters: running the game’s designated save point. Combined with the fact that worlds cannot be exited immediately upon entering them, and her stations act as a checkpoint after a series of successful expeditions.
Finally, it’s important to know that there are rewards awaiting those especially astute or unusually lucky. If a barrel crashes into a certain wall or the Kongs enter certain automatic cannons, they will be taken to a bonus area. These areas are much like the hidden cache of coins one would find in Super Mario Bros. by travelling down certain pipes. Even if the basic idea is the same, in the context of Donkey Kong Country, it would be a little more accurate to describe these caches as minigames, as the bananas aren’t usually simply handed out to the player. The Kongs must defeat enemies or blast themselves out of cannons in order to obtain all of them. Fortunately, unlike the hidden caches in Super Mario Bros., it isn’t possible to actually die in any of these bonus areas. If the Kongs fall into a bottomless pit or are accosted by an enemy, they are simply returned to the stage with no further penalty.
On the file selection screen, you may notice a percentage affixed to the rest of the data. Finding a secret area raises this percentage with the maximum rather unintuitively being 101%. If you have found all of the secret areas within a stage, an exclamation mark will be added to the stage’s name on the world map when it is selected. Underwater stages have no secret areas to find, so clearing them will automatically add an exclamation mark to their title.
Other than the tangible rewards reaped within these secret areas, there is no real benefit to finding them, but it does induce a kind of engagement rare for platforming games at the time. While this may sound a little disappointing, it did subtly signpost to players what the Stamper brothers had done to modernize the platforming genre. Even after the overwhelming success of the NES, platformers, including the genre-codifying Super Mario Bros. itself, continued to be made using arcade-era sensibilities. Games still featured life systems and time limits even though their intended purpose, to prevent players from hogging the machines, was a far lesser issue in the home setting.
While still retaining the antiquated life system, Donkey Kong Country notably does away with the time limit. This small change has a profound impact on gameplay. Super Mario Bros. and its sequels simply required players to reach the end of the stages, which was typically accomplished by going right. Because there isn’t a time limit hanging over the heads of those playing Donkey Kong Country, they have all the time in the world to actively engage with the lovingly crafted environments. While there isn’t a reward for finding all of the secret areas, they do encourage players to keep their eyes peeled at all times. The result is a platforming game with an unusually high emphasis on the kind of exploration one would expect out of a more open-ended Metroid installment.
Technically, the Mario series itself began encouraging exploration as early as Super Mario Bros. with its Warp Zones – a design choice that would only gain more traction in Super Mario World. However, the stages Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country offer are quite different. Notwithstanding the odd curveball, Super Mario World stayed true to the straightforward design ethos guiding the series up until that point. While there did exist secrets to find, there was, at most, one per stage. Donkey Kong Country, on the other hand, features at least one secret per non-underwater stage – oftentimes more. While none of them are capable of opening up new paths, it does make each stage feel robust in a way the Mario series hadn’t yet accomplished.
That being said, while Donkey Kong Country does, for the most part, provide an interesting spin on the genre, it isn’t without its flaws. The single biggest problem with the game can be observed before you’ve even finished the first world. In order to reach Candy’s Save Point in Kongo Jungle, you must go all five normal stages in that world first. Only right before the first boss are you finally permitted to save. While those five stages are, by design, the easiest in the game, it’s still rather demanding for newcomers to complete them all in a row with only six lives. To be slightly fair, you can get infinite lives in the very first stage by repeatedly reentering DK’s house, but it’s not something every player would catch on to immediately.
To its credit, the game does become slightly better about placing checkpoints in later worlds. The second world, Monkey Mines, requires the player to complete four stages before reaching Candy’s Save Point. Most of the worlds after that only require the player to complete two or three stages by which point Candy’s Save Point becomes available – or Funky’s Flights, which allows the player to access an earlier one.
There is, however, one glaring exception with the fourth world, Gorilla Glacier. This world contains six stages and requires the players to complete five of them to reach both Candy’s Save Point and Funky’s Flights. Expecting a newcomer to complete five stages right off the bat just for the privilege of saving is a bit much, but even without getting infinite lives, it’s not completely untoward given the opening’s comparative simplicity.
This is not true with Gorilla Glacier, which forces players to complete some of the most difficult stages in the game in a row to reach the save point. Just the fact that, being the obligatory ice world, friction is only a suggestion should give you an idea of why this is a tall order. They consist of one where the Kongs are shot out of multiple barrels with the threat of falling into a bottomless pit for each misfire, a slippery icy cavern, navigating a snow field in the middle of a blizzard, an underwater stage wherein they must avoid a fast octopus, and a dark cave system lit only by a parrot carrying a flashlight respectively. There is a weird degree of mercy in that the most difficult of these stages is the first, so if you can complete it, you have a good chance of succeeding in the remaining four, but it cannot be ignored that this world likely ended countless playthroughs back in 1994.
Moreover, although I do give credit to the Stamper brothers for varying up the gameplay with the animal buddies, only two of them, Rambi and Engarde are consistently useful. The other two animal buddies are Winky the Frog and Expresso the Ostrich. Both animals live up to their distinct, real-world characteristics; Winky is capable of jumping much higher than either Kong whereas Expresso is fast and can glide through the air if the player repeatedly taps the jump button.
The problem with using either of them lies entirely in the controls. It is rather difficult to find purchase on platforms while riding Winky, as he awkwardly bounces with each step and has a long character model. You’re supposed to place him on platforms using the Kong as a guide, but this takes a lot of time to get adjusted to. Expresso has a similar problem in that his gliding also makes it difficult to successfully platform with him. He needs enough clearance to stand on the platform when he lands. Because he has a tall character model, this can be hard to gauge – especially midflight. On top of that, he is so fast, it is easy to have him run right into an enemy or hazard. While both do provide an extra hit for the Kongs, one wonders if they’re more a hindrance than a help at times. It’s as though the design team themselves realized how badly they control midway through development because they appear very infrequently compared to Rambi or Engarde.
I also would not be surprised if it turned out the game had a rushed development because it becomes noticeably less good in the final stages. The sixth and final world, Chimp Caverns, while appropriately difficult, settles for reusing backdrops from Monkey Mines. The world immediately preceding Chimp Caverns, Kremcroc Industries Inc., operates with the setup that DK and Diddy are confronting the Kremlings on their home turf. It would have therefore been much more logical for it to serve as King K. Rool’s headquarters – or at least the final world before confronting him. As it stands, the actual final world consists of stages that could easily have fit in the previous five with minimal changes. It even culminates in a fight against a palette swap of a previous boss, thus only reinforcing its derivative nature.
Speaking of which, the boss fights in this game aren’t terribly impressive. With one exception, the boss encounters pit DK and Diddy against giant versions of standard enemies. Only one of these six bosses requires a bit of ingenuity on your part. Specifically, the giant bee – or Zinger, as they’re called in this game – awaiting DK and Diddy at the end of the third world, Vine Valley, requires them to throw barrels at his stinger. It’s a tense fight that involves avoiding his swift flight patterns while forcing players to throw the barrels with pinpoint precision.
Every other boss by comparison simply involves jumping on their heads enough times. Obviously, there is a bit of strategy involved when it comes to avoiding their attacks, but odds are you will be done with most of them before the boss theme completes a single loop. And as for the only other boss that can’t be defeated by jumping on it? It’s a giant oil drum that dispenses normal enemies and explodes when they’re all defeated. To say that idea is a nonstarter would be an understatement. Furthermore, while reusing one boss for Chimp Caverns is disappointing, in truth, it’s the second time a boss is given a palate swap and made slightly more difficult. This means, in total, there are only five unique bosses in the game.
What makes these bosses disappointing is that, when you finally do confront King K. Rool, you’ll realize the team had the potential to do so much more. The final battle against King K. Rool is very challenging, requiring the Kongs to jump on his head nine times. Most of the time, this proposition is untenable, as the crown he wears is a hazard that will cost you a Kong. In spite of his rotund shape, he is incredibly fast and difficult to avoid. He later causes cannonballs to rain down and even attempts to pull a fast one on the player themselves using a fake credits screen to catch them off-guard.
With the sheer amount of creativity that went into this final encounter, I question why the Stamper brothers and their team weren’t able to channel the same energy when crafting any of the previous boss encounters. It does end the game, which had been hit-or-miss up until that point, to end on a high note, but there is something to be said for consistency.
Drawing a Conclusion
Donkey Kong Country is a game that has had a decidedly odd afterlife. It was a tremendous success upon release with critics and fans alike declaring it an instant classic. However, as time went on, many critics soured on the game slightly with many feeling the graphical presentation overrode their sensibilities in a case of style triumphing over substance. In the late 2000s, it wasn’t then terribly uncommon for Donkey Kong Country to appear on lists chronicling the most overrated games of all time. Even Bob Chipman, a devoted fan of Nintendo, strongly implied Donkey Kong Country wouldn’t have been the bestseller it was had it not charmed audiences worldwide with its then-stunning graphics. However, the caustic, New Hollywood-style negativity that defined the first wave of independent gaming critics such as Bob Chipman aged far worse than a majority of what they rallied against, so it was perfectly fine to praise Donkey Kong Country once that trend deservedly came to an end.
Personally, I find myself in the middle of those extremes. Donkey Kong Country really was one of the single best-looking games of its day, and to some extent, I do feel that its aesthetics did help it obtain some of its initial praise. On the other hand, while I don’t think some of the concepts landed as well as the developers hoped, dismissing Donkey Kong Country as a trite, style-over-substance product is unfair. The sheer amount of ambition behind its level design and the desire to give each its own identity ensured that, at least in 1994, Donkey Kong Country had the best of both worlds.
Ultimately, what personally keeps me from declaring Donkey Kong Country one of the greatest of all time or even an essential play is the power of hindsight. At the end of the day, Donkey Kong Country feels like the embryonic form of its successors. The pieces for brilliance are there, but Tim Stamper and the rest of Rare would need just a little more experience under their belts before they could use them to form a masterpiece. Historians are likely to appreciate these forward-looking ideas, but anyone else outside of platforming fans may be left wondering what the big deal was. While it may indeed not seem like a big deal now, Donkey Kong Country did open up a lot of creative avenues for the platformer to travel down in the coming years, which, if nothing else, gives a secure place in the history books.
Final Score: 6/10