In the year 1994, the Twycross, England-based developer Rare put the finishing touches on Donkey Kong Country. Their game saw its release that autumn, and it quickly became one of the SNES’s bestselling titles. While the company had success developing games for the NES, Donkey Kong County was what put them on the map for many an enthusiast thanks in part to their close collaboration with Nintendo and the eye-catching presentation courtesy of the then-state-of-the-art Silicon Graphics workstations they employed.
However, as Rare co-founders Tim and Chris Stamper helmed the development of Donkey Kong Country, a second team formed to create another game starring the title ape. Nintendo’s Game Boy was released in 1989 and had become the single most successful handheld console to date. Realizing the potential of the handheld device, this second team sought to create a game for that platform. Created with the same Silicon Graphics workstations and Advanced Computer Modeling technique they utilized to develop Donkey Kong Country, this game was completed in the summer of 1995.
Named Donkey Kong Land, the game received fairly positive reviews with many critics praising its graphical presentation. It was eventually awarded the title of “Best Game Boy Game of 1995” by both Electronic Gaming Monthly and GamePro. Having moved more than three-million units, Donkey Kong Land ensured that Rare had a bestselling game in both the home console and handheld markets. With a high standard to live up to, how does Donkey Kong Land compare to its 16-bit counterpart?
Analyzing the Experience
Donkey Kong (DK) and his nephew Diddy have successfully recovered their banana hoard from the evil Kremlings led by King K. Rool. As they reflect upon their adventure, DK’s grandfather, Cranky Kong, jealously complains about the success of Donkey Kong Country. As the original Donkey Kong, he was prominent in the arcade era when developers didn’t need fancy graphics to make a point. Indeed, he goes as far as claiming that Donkey Kong Country only did so well because of the SNES’s high-tech graphics and sound. DK and Diddy are quick to point out that their game’s success was purely on the merits of its fun gameplay with the graphic and sounds being mere bonuses.
Unconvinced, Cranky taunts DK and Diddy, betting them that they couldn’t possibly replicate the success of Donkey Kong Country on a monochrome handheld. Not wanting to back down from this challenge, DK and Diddy accept. To this end, Cranky intends to call King K. Rool and his Kremlings to steal the banana hoard and scatter them across Donkey Kong Island. Determined to win this wager, DK and Diddy set out to defeat K. Rool once more.
Returnees from Donkey Kong Country will realize within seconds that its Game Boy counterpart plays identically. It is a platforming game with a mostly linear level progression. From the onset, you only have control of DK, who, under normal circumstances, is capable of dispatching enemies in two ways: by rolling into them or, taking cues from his grandfather’s nemesis, jumping on their heads. Certain enemies cannot be rolled into, so knowing which attack to use for a given situation is vital. If all else fails, you can have DK resort to the classic standby of throwing barrels at his enemies.
You want to make as few mistakes as possible because, just like in Donkey Kong Country, DK isn’t especially survivable. Indeed, one successful blow is enough to put him out of commission. This seemingly daunting limitation can be overcome by finding a DK Barrel. Once broken, it releases Diddy. Owing to the limitations of the Game Boy, he is not depicted following DK in gameplay. Nonetheless, he acts as an extra hit point of sorts when in control of DK, and can be switched to by pressing the “SELECT” button. The characters have the same characteristics they had in Donkey Kong Country with DK being stronger, but slower whereas Diddy is weaker, yet more agile.
The hearts on the bottom of the screen can be a little misleading, for they do not represent health as they would in most games. Instead, and in a manner very similar to Battletoads, one of Rare’s NES hallmarks, hearts represent the number of lives the player has. They can be obtained through the traditional means of collecting one-hundred bananas or balloons that have DK’s face imprinted on them.
As you make your way through the first stage, you may find a coin bearing the faces of DK and Diddy. These coins can be used in a gambling minigame of sorts wherein you have DK or Diddy step on a button with a rotating barrel overhead. Once the button is pressed, it will release one of the collected coins in the direction it is facing. If DK or Diddy grab the coin, the player will be rewarded an extra life.
This minigame is accessed through means similar to the bonus rooms in Donkey Kong Country. Careful examination of the stage will reveal barrel cannons that automatically lead to these areas, although they can also be found by destroying certain walls. Some of these bonus areas lead to the gambling minigame, but most of them simply offer the chance to gain bananas or extra lives in a more direct manner. There are as many as two bonus areas in a given stage, and if you find them all, an exclamation mark appears next to its icon on the world map.
After you complete the first stage, you may discover that, despite its obvious presentational downgrade, Donkey Kong Land has one distinct advantage over its graphically superior counterpart. This will be observed if you collect all four of the letters that spell “KONG” throughout the stage. Rather than getting an extra life as a result, completing the word will take you to the save menu. Yes, this means you no longer have to worry about completing several stages in succession just for the privilege of saving.
While the word is, by design, harder to assemble in later stages, there are no limits as to how many times you can do so. You can very easily march back to the first stage and save there as often as you would like should you so choose. The reason it’s so easy is because every stage you have unlocked is always accessible unlike Donkey Kong Country wherein you had to enlist Funky Kong’s help in order to revisit earlier worlds.
Despite this significant benefit, one going into Donkey Kong Land can get the impression that it is an downsized version of Donkey Kong Country. However, this is not quite the case. In fact, before you have even finished the first world, it becomes apparent that Rare did what they could to ensure Donkey Kong Land had its own distinct identity.
The game is divided into four worlds: Gangplank Galleon Ahoy!, Kremlantis, Monkey Mountains and Chimpanzee Clouds, and Big Ape City. While Gangplank Galleon Ahoy! begins with its share of jungle levels not unlike those of Donkey Kong Country, it also, as its name suggests, forces DK and Diddy to traverse King K. Rool’s personal vessel. These stages use a backdrop that was not used outside of the final boss arena in Donkey Kong Country, and they come with their own unique set of challenges such as climbing the ships masts while avoiding snakes slithering down. Meanwhile, Kremlantis has the Kongs swim through underwater ruins, Monkey Mountains and Chimpanzee Clouds involve precarious platforming in the skies, and Big Ape City allows DK to revisit his series’ roots by having him traverse skyscrapers and construction sites. These touches go a long way in ensuring that the designers weren’t simply culling from Donkey Kong Country for all of the stage designs
Indeed, one truly impressive aspect of this game is its willingness to implement gimmicks not seen in Donkey Kong Country. For example, there are certain stages in Kremlantis set in temples that involve bouncing off of whirlwinds. It requires a bit of skill to get exactly right because the whirlwind damages your character if they touch its sides. What I found to be the most creative stage, however, occurs in Big Ape City. One of the stages hands out the KONG letters suspiciously fast. You then have your character stand on a machine, which causes the letters to form a bridge. This is a process you must repeat until the stage is complete. What I like about the gimmick is how it plays around with the conventions of Rare’s level design, leading you to believe the stage is short when, in reality, you can’t use normal metrics to judge its length this time around.
For that matter, the boss fights, while simplistic, are quite a bit more challenging than those from Donkey Kong Country. Boss fights in that game were against larger versions of standard enemies and typically dispatched by jumping on their heads enough times. Not helping matters was how two of them were recolors of previous bosses, and therefore did not require substantially different tactics to defeat.
Donkey Kong Land takes a more economical approach to its boss encounters by pitting DK and Diddy against enemies around the same size as themselves. This can be observed in the first boss battle wherein DK and Diddy must fend off a horde of flying manta rays. Each one is faster than the one that came before, so the encounter requires the player to have quick reflexes. The second boss fight is set underwater against a clam shooting pearls at the Kongs. The battle is won by having the boss shoot a pearl at a second clam adorning one of the four corners of the arena. If the pearl hits the clam, it will rebound the pearl at the boss. Because the boss always shoots a pearl in the direction of the Kongs, the trick is to swim out of the way right after it is launched, but before it makes contact. Considering the comparative simplicity of the boss fights in Donkey Kong Country, adding a puzzle element to one in Donkey Kong Land was admirable.
Finally, if it’s one facet of this game I find especially fantastic, it would be the music. What I like about the soundtrack to Donkey Kong Land is that composers David Wise and Graeme Norgate don’t bother trying to replicate the ambiance of Donkey Kong Country. Instead, they recontextualize the tracks in ways to better fit the Game Boy. Notably, the temple theme sounds far more upbeat than its ambient, SNES counterpart, and actually manages to outshine it in terms of catchiness. The other renditions of the SNES soundtrack are also great, almost giving us a glimpse into what they would have sounded like had Donkey Kong Country debuted in the third console generation. Then, of course, the original tracks are excellent in their own right, capturing the mood of the backdrops perfectly.
That being said, while there are a lot of good things to say about Donkey Kong Land, it is heavily flawed in quite a number of ways. Claiming that Donkey Kong Land is a watered-down version of Donkey Kong Country is a little too dismissive, but it’s not completely unfair either. The self-referential narrative may have insisted the gameplay was what made Donkey Kong Country a bestseller, but the fact is that the graphics did contribute to its quality. Although style should not triumph over substance, the often-chanted mantra of “graphics don’t make the game” is a slightly flawed one in how it downplays the objectively real role presentation plays in interactive experience – as Donkey Kong Land demonstrates all too well.
As you’re playing this game, don’t be surprised if, when running, you run into an enemy or obstacle that seemingly comes out of nowhere. It’s not necessarily because you’re being reckless, either. It has far more to do with the fact that, for want of color, the graphics make it very easy for enemies to blend into the background. While I do give the design team credit for wanting to translate the then-impressive presentation of Donkey Kong Country into a portable, monochromatic, 8-bit format, such an undertaking proved too ambitious for their work’s own good.
However, even if the design team forewent their prized workstations in favor of a simpler, yet clearer presentation, there is no getting around that the small field of view actively works against the player at every possible juncture. Character sprites are rather large compared to the overall size of the screen, which means you generally shouldn’t run for long if you want to avoid catapulting right into an offscreen enemy. On top of that, the cramped screen ensures platforming is a nightmare should your target happen to be on a lower platform. Indeed, the sheer number of blind jumps you must make in this game is staggering – especially without some consistent way of slowing down your characters’ midair descent.
Then again, a larger field of view would only partially make up for this game’s true fatal flaw: the controls. It’s very difficult to describe if you haven’t played it before, but the physics engine is truly bizarre. Bouncing off of enemies seems to send DK and Diddy flying upwards at a significantly higher speed than they do when falling normally. This makes bouncing off of multiple enemies in succession or generally clearing gaps especially daunting – especially when you can’t even see the platforms you’re supposed to land on half the time.
Speaking more generally, the controls just have a distinct lack of polish to them. Running and jumping was very simple in Donkey Kong Country, but in Donkey Kong Land, it’s a nightmare. Possibly owing to the inferior Game Boy hardware, button inputs appear to have a slight delay to them. Because of the very specific manner in which the run button must be pressed, only working consistently if your character is on the ground, even jumping across standard gaps can be a shot in the dark.
A microcosm of these issues can be observed in one particular stage in Monkey Mountains and Chimpanzee Clouds. The stage involves directing a platform by jumping on it repeatedly – the trick being that every jump or collision with a wall turning its direction counterclockwise. This has to be done while defeating certain enemies and avoiding others. Just avoiding the bees, which cannot be harmed without chucking barrels at them, is bad in of itself, but bouncing off of vulnerable enemies makes it very easy to lose track of the platform. Worse, if DK or Diddy descend too quickly, the game will assume they have fallen into a bottomless pit and deduct one life accordingly.
The rest of the game isn’t as blatantly bad, but while I do give credit to the team for coming up with completely new gimmicks, many stages lack them entirely. As a result, they simply fall back on “reach the end” for their overall design, requiring players to use the equally simple technique, “go right”, to complete them. Although Donkey Kong Country had its own share of generic stages, there was a desire to give every single one a distinct identity. Despite its few flashes of brilliance, I don’t get that sense with Donkey Kong Land, although it can certainly be attributed to the more restrictive hardware of the Game Boy than a lack of ambition.
Drawing a Conclusion
Donkey Kong Land may have been an admirable effort for its time, but it is ultimately to Donkey Kong Country what Super Mario Land was to Super Mario Bros. That is to say, it is a diluted version of a beloved classic with the most significant advantage over its technically superior counterpart being the novelty of portability. While that may have been fine in 1995, this advantage would erode away in the following years, forcing Donkey Kong Land to compete with Donkey Kong Country on an even playing field. While Donkey Kong Country isn’t the masterwork Rare fans claim it to be, it is far and away the superior product with tighter controls and a presentation that ensures the player always knows what is going on.
Now, that isn’t to say Donkey Kong Land is a bad game. If you’re looking for a simple platforming game and have played Donkey Kong Country countless times, Donkey Kong Land may be worth looking into. While execution issues abound in the experience, Donkey Kong Land does have its own unique challenges to offer, and Rare avoiding the temptation to completely copy from the template Donkey Kong Country carved goes a long way in allowing their work to stand out on its own. Even so, while “graphics don’t make the game” is a commonly chanted mantra among the medium’s oldest enthusiasts, Donkey Kong Land demonstrates, among other things, that a good presentation or lack thereof can indeed contribute to an experience’s overall quality – more than they realize.
Final Score: 4/10