Donkey Kong Country 2 was released in November of 1995. Much like its predecessor, it was a critical and commercial success. It became the sixth bestselling game on its platform, the Super NES. In fact, it was the single bestselling game on that console to not be packaged with the system. Meanwhile, developers at Rare had another success on their hands in the form of Donkey Kong Land, a Game Boy counterpart to the original Donkey Kong Country. As Donkey Kong Land sold over three-million copies, a sequel was inevitable. The game was finished and subsequently launched in North America in September of 1996 before seeing a broader release in Japan and Europe the following November. With Donkey Kong Country 2 being a massive improvement over its direct predecessor, how does its Game Boy counterpart fare?
Analyzing the Experience
As one would expect, the gameplay of Donkey Kong Land 2 is highly similar to that of Donkey Kong Country 2. You control Diddy and Dixie on their journey through Crocodile Isle. Diddy is capable of cartwheeling into enemies or jumping on their heads. As some enemies are vulnerable to one attack, but not the other, knowing which attack to use on what is key to survival – especially when considering Diddy’s relative fragility compared to other video-game protagonists. Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Dixie, while not quite as agile, is capable of descending slowly by spinning her hair in a manner similar to that of a helicopter.
Despite these similarities, Donkey Kong Land 2 manages to offer one highly appreciated improvement over its direct predecessor in the form of its controls. The controls of Donkey Kong Land were decidedly imprecise, seemingly failing to register certain button inputs – particularly when it came to running. The physics engine didn’t help matters, either. Whenever DK or Diddy jumped, it always felt as though they were moving against a strong headwind. This required jumps to be performed at the very edge of platforms, which was usually a risky proposition. That is no longer the case with Donkey Kong Land 2. Button inputs are far more responsive, making it easier to land on your targets for any given jump. On top of that, the physics engine is far less obstructive, allowing Diddy and Dixie to travel through the air more or less unimpeded.
I also find myself giving credit to Rare for improving the graphics. Part of what made Donkey Kong Land such a daunting experience was its presentation. It’s as though the Rare team attempted to emulate the rich presentation the SNES offered Donkey Kong Country on the monochromatic Game Boy. The extreme limitations of the latter console consequently ensured an ugly presentation where your characters and enemies barely stood out from the background.
Donkey Kong Land 2 addresses this problem through one simple fix: by significantly scaling down the presentation. While this does mean the backgrounds are decidedly less lively than those of Donkey Kong Land, this was a necessary step in the right direction considering the Game Boy’s lack of color. Thanks to the simple backgrounds, it is now much easier to distinguish the sprites, ensuring you can see your characters at all times and enemies are less able to ambush them.
However, even if the controls are better and the presentation stripped down, I feel it’s worth remembering that Donkey Kong Land did possess at least one redeeming quality in spite of its numerous flaws. Although it used Donkey Kong Country as a base, the creators clearly wanted to treat fans the SNES smash hit to a brand-new experience. That game had DK and Diddy travel across a large pirate ship, a flooded city, inexplicably solid cloud formations, and a big city – all environments never used in Donkey Kong Country. It even went as far as introducing unique enemies in form of flying pigs just to ensure that freshness extended to the enemy lineup.
So, why do I choose to mention this upfront as opposed to starting off with the premise of the game I’m reviewing as usual? It’s because while Donkey Kong Land successfully carved out an identity distinct from that of its inspiration, Donkey Kong Land 2 doesn’t even try. How long does it take to determine this? The answer stares the player in the face as soon as they begin a new game.
Yes, this screencap implies exactly what you think it would – the level and world names are almost identical to those in Donkey Kong Country 2. Even the premise is exactly the same: Kaptain K. Rool has kidnapped DK, and it’s up to Diddy and Dixie to rescue him.
It is as a direct result of this particular flaw that the game suffers a fatal blow from which it can never recover. The identical level names imply exactly what you would think – whereas Donkey Kong Land came up with several inventive gimmicks never before seen in Donkey Kong Country, Donkey Kong Land 2 settles for lifting ideas from Donkey Kong Country 2. These ideas are with few, if any, alterations, so if you have played Donkey Kong Country 2, you will know exactly what to expect out of Donkey Kong Land 2. If there are alterations, they are purely in service to the inferior Game Boy hardware. In other words, the gimmicks will show up in levels that aren’t nearly as fleshed out and utterly lacking the SNES original’s epic quality. And that’s assuming the gimmicks could actually be used; if technical limitations make their implementation impossible, you can expect a completely generic stage devoid of any character in their stead. Donkey Kong Country 2 stands to this day as one of the greatest games ever made, so for a less powerful console to emulate it was, from the beginning, an impossible task.
In fact, Donkey Kong Land 2 follows the lead of Donkey Kong Country 2 so well, it picks up that game’s only real flaw. Donkey Kong Country 2 may indeed be a classic, but it is a little annoying how the game expects you to save. When entering a new world, you must complete as many as three stages before you’re even given the privilege. If you do, you will then find out that saving is, for the most part, not a free service. Once you have saved once in a new world, you are expected to pay Wrinkly Kong, the proprietor of the save point, two coins for the service. While this admittedly isn’t too steep of a price, it is rather annoying given that your standard coins are not saved.
The same conditions are applied to Donkey Kong Land 2 as well. The first time you save in a world is free, but subsequent visits will cost two coins. Meanwhile, Funky Kong, whose services are required to exit a world, has the opposite stipulation. He requires two coins upfront in a new world before offering the same services for free every time thereafter. The currency system is something that didn’t really work in the original game by virtue of the only truly important things to spend coins on being Wrinkly’s save service and renting Funky’s aircraft. This evidently wasn’t lost on the developers, as those are the only services available in Donkey Kong Land 2. It’s a bit of a mixed blessing because on one hand, with fewer things to spend coins on, it’s easier to amass enough coins to save. On the other hand, it also renders coins largely worthless, and not worth going out of your way to obtain in the alternate routes of certain stages.
More importantly, it’s irritating that you have to complete as many as three stages before you’re allowed to save in a new world. While I do think the process is more straightforward than having to collect the KONG letters in a given stage, it is still rather untenable. It’s immensely frustrating to be on your third stage after having found multiple bonus areas only to lose your last life, thus invalidating all of your progress.
This lack of effort even extends to the soundtrack. What I found truly impressive about the soundtrack of Donkey Kong Land was that the composers didn’t even bother trying to replicate the ambience of Donkey Kong Country. Indeed, at least half of the soundtrack was completely original owing to the entirely new environments that game offered. Better yet, when it came time to use the SNES tracks, the composers took advantage of the Game Boy’s sound system to recontextualize them. They did such a great job that at least one track sounded better than its SNES counterpart. The obvious outlier to this was “Aquatic Ambience”, which simply couldn’t have been done justice on the Game Boy – and even that didn’t end up being a bad rendition at all.
The reason this bears mentioning is because like the gameplay itself, Donkey Kong Land 2 is absolutely guilty of taking tracks from Donkey Kong Country 2 and making them less good. In fact, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that if you like the music of Donkey Kong Country 2, you shouldn’t play Donkey Kong Land 2 with the sound on. If you do, you run the risk of making yourself sick of one of gaming’s greatest soundtracks – or at least for a little while. Even if you can get over the obvious downgrade in quality, you likely won’t suffer the fact that many tracks have been cut out entirely as easily. And unlike Donkey Kong Land, which would offer entirely new tracks in their stead, Donkey Kong Land 2 has them pull double duty.
For example, “Lockjaw’s Saga”, which is usually heard in stages taking place in a ship’s cargo hold, is used in Donkey Kong Land 2 for rigging and deck areas as well. If it weren’t for the fact that game’s introductory stage, “Pirate Panic”, inexplicably uses a rendition of “Snakey Chantey” as its theme, all of the levels within the first world would have been set to the same music. Even when you’re finished with the final rigging stage, you’ll still run into these repetitive tracks – often in areas that do not fit them at all.
Even if you can get past the game’s distinct lack of originality, it still inherits one major problem from its predecessor: its screen size. While it is impressive seeing the Game Boy render such elaborate sprites, they were clearly meant for a widescreen experience. On the Game Boy, the sprites take up far too much space. While the game doesn’t require your character to be more than halfway across the screen before it begins scrolling horizontally, you still barely have any time to react to enemies given the large size of the sprites.
In addition, the compressed screen makes it nigh impossible to platform properly in certain stages. Just like its predecessor, Donkey Kong Land 2 runs into the problem of not providing its players with enough information when it comes to leaping across certain expanses. This leads to countless instances of either overshooting the mark or running right into an enemy immune to certain attacks, but the problem is at its worst in two types of stages in particular.
The first would be any kind of stage in which the Kongs must navigate a series of barrel cannons. While “Bramble Blast” may be one of the original game’s most memorable stages, it becomes an absolute nightmare to navigate in Donkey Kong Land 2. To compensate for the small screen size, the developers placed bananas in order to guide players. As this particular set of barrel cannons form a maze, the proposition only works if you go the right way every time. After all, bananas can only be collected once, so if you double back for any reason, you will be firing blindly from that point onward. If you misfire, chances are you will send the Kongs careening into the brambles instead.
And then there are the stages set on rollercoasters. Donkey Kong Land notably eschewed these kinds of stages entirely, and while that may be disappointing for fans of “Mine Cart Carnage”, this game unintentionally argues their absence was for the best. Remember what I said about being unable to run for significant lengths of time before running into enemies? You could theoretically walk in those stages unless you had to jump a significant expanse, so the patient will suffer fewer setbacks. Now, imagine if, between walking and running, you had no choice in the matter, and you have the experience of the rollercoaster stages in Donkey Kong Land 2 in a nutshell. What were some of the most exciting and memorable stages in Donkey Kong Country 2 are became some of the worst in Donkey Kong Land 2 – all because of the small screen size.
Along those lines, while I do give Rare credit for not making horizontal scrolling unnecessarily difficult, the same cannot be said of vertical travel. To begin with, Donkey Kong Land 2 has the exact same problem as its predecessor in how if your characters fall a significant length, the screen will not keep up. If they fall too far out of frame, the game will act as though they fell down a bottomless pit and penalize the player accordingly. You would think that this issue doesn’t come up often, but because the Kongs are, by default, fairly close to the bottom of the screen, even slight drops can trigger the death flag.
This issue also manifests in any stage that allows complete freedom of movement – whether it is set underwater or necessitates the use of Squawks the Parrot. This is because you do indeed have to be more than halfway across the screen before it begins scrolling vertically. Once again, this makes it incredibly easy to collide into enemies just finding your way around – and in a game that encourages exploration by way of its bonus stages, such an aspect is extremely detrimental.
Although Squawks is difficult to use thanks to these aspects, if it’s any animal buddy that suffered the most in this game, it’s Squitter the Spider. In his original SNES appearance, he was arguably the greatest animal buddy due to his sheer platforming utility. Here, you will dread having to use him. This is because in order to create web platforms, you must press the “SELECT” button as the web is travelling. Having to press the “SELECT” button to create platforms is awkward enough as it is, but it gets worse.
To begin with, there is no alternate fire button for the webs, meaning you create platforms out of standard ones. In Donkey Kong Country 2, the webs meant to create platforms were fired at a slower rate, allowing the player to easily guide them. This courtesy does not exist in Donkey Kong Land 2, for all of the webs are fired at the same, fast rate of the ones intended to be used against enemies. Thanks once again to the small screen size, you have to be quick on the draw to stop the web before it disappears. You also have to be quick to jump onto the next web platform, for once it is made, the one Squitter is standing on begins to dissipate. Because it only takes a few seconds for a web to dissipate, you better hope he can reach it. If he can’t, you’re out of luck. There are quite a few stages in which you need to quickly create web platforms, and between the awkward button presses and fickle stability, it’s only barely possible.
Ultimately, the soundtrack to this game can be seen as a metaphor for the experience it provides. This is because Donkey Kong Land 2 has a knack for taking its inspiration’s best qualities and turning them into bouts of pure frustration. While it does provide an incentive for players to find the bonus stages by featuring its own Lost World, the sheer difficulty involved in exploring these stages ensures it is not worth the effort.
Drawing a Conclusion
Donkey Kong Land 2 is a somewhat bizarre game to parse. This is because if you’re examining the mechanics in a vacuum, it is a slight improvement over Donkey Kong Land. It has much tighter controls and the simpler presentation ensures both the player characters and the enemies are far less likely to blend into the background. The problem is that it tries to be an improvement over Donkey Kong Land by providing players with a watered-down, distinctly inferior version of its 16-bit counterpart – the one thing its predecessor explicitly avoided doing. Then again, Donkey Kong Country 2 is such a vast improvement over its own predecessor that one could argue Rare couldn’t help but end up with a better product by using it as a base. This is why parsing Donkey Kong Land 2 is a bizarre experience. In most situations, you have to favor the creator who took some kind of artistic risk over those content to go through the motions, yet in this instance, going through the motions resulted in a technically superior product.
This does mean that unlike Donkey Kong Land, the sole advantage Donkey Kong Land 2 had over its 16-bit counterpart was its portability. It didn’t really matter that the game was a watered-down version of Donkey Kong Country 2 because being able to take something even one-third as good on the road allowed Donkey Kong Land 2 to justify its own existence – in 1996, at least. And this is where the game’s derivative nature stops being a feature and starts being a bug. Even if the controls aren’t great, Donkey Kong Land still offers unique challenges fans of the series may consider worth experiencing for themselves. Donkey Kong Land 2 doesn’t; it lifts gimmicks from Donkey Kong Country 2 wholesale, and once it became possible to play both games on some kind of handheld platform, its sole advantage dissipated immediately.
As such, even if it is a technically superior game to Donkey Kong Land, I actually find Donkey Kong Land 2 to be a more difficult sell. There just simply isn’t a definable reason why you should play a watered-down, less exciting version of a timeless masterpiece when the real thing is just as easy to obtain. Whereas I can see Donkey Kong fans getting something out of Donkey Kong Land, I cannot realistically envision them, even after playing Donkey Kong Country 2 hundreds of times, ever finding Donkey Kong Land 2 worthwhile. It’s not the worst game you could play, but its good qualities are the result of tracing – or whatever its programming equivalent happens to be, thus ensuring it had nothing in the way of long-term appeal.
Final Score: 3/10