Donkey Kong Country 3 was released in November of 1996. Although it received positive reviews, its sales figures were noticeably less than those of its direct predecessor. This is largely because it had the misfortune of being released in the shadow of Super Mario 64 and the 3D revolution it kickstarted. Regardless, as Rare had much success in the Game Boy market with their Donkey Kong Land series, it only made sense for them to make an equivalent game for the concluding Donkey Kong Country trilogy installment as well. This game, entitled Donkey Kong Land III was released in October of 1997 in both North America and Europe. Japanese enthusiasts would receive a color update for this game in 2000, which utilized the abilities of the then-newest Game Boy model. Donkey Kong Land III was widely praised with some calling it the best game in the Donkey Kong Land trilogy. Was the game the power move its Super NES counterpart managed to be?
Analyzing the Experience
A contest has started, promising big rewards for anyone who can discover the enigmatic Lost World. Donkey Kong (DK) and Diddy have already left to find it. Annoyed at being left behind, Dixie Kong decides to prove herself every bit as capable as them. To this end, she partners up with her toddler cousin Kiddy Kong. However, Baron K. Roolenstein and his Kremling Krew have also taken an interest in the Lost World and will stop at nothing to find it.
Much like its two predecessors, Donkey Kong Land III is, in broad strokes, a scaled-down, monochromatic version of its SNES counterpart. You control Dixie and Kiddy on their journey to discover the Lost World. Dixie is the weaker of the two, and her rolling attack doesn’t cover as much distance as Kiddy’s, but in exchange, she can hover in the air by spinning her hair like a propeller. Meanwhile Kiddy can defeat enemies Dixie cannot, and his rolling attack generally gains more momentum. In exchange, he doesn’t fare as well when it comes to platforming.
Examining the gameplay in isolation to everything else, Donkey Kong Land III retains the most significant improvements Donkey Kong Land 2 brought to the table. It has smooth controls and a simple presentation that doesn’t overwhelm the technical limitations of the Game Boy. This means you will have an easy enough time finding your way around and landing your jumps properly.
Going into Donkey Kong Land III, Rare’s subseries of Game Boy adaptations had a decidedly strange trajectory. Donkey Kong Land, while plagued with imprecise controls and an overly busy presentation, did, at least attempt, to move out from under the shadow of Donkey Kong Country by providing players with unique challenges. Many of the gimmicks were highly creative, if badly implemented, and it went a long way in allowing that game to carve an identity of its own.
Donkey Kong Land 2, on the other hand, completely disregarded this by selling itself as a diluted version of Donkey Kong Country 2, copying gimmicks from its inspiration and implementing them in simplistic, uninteresting stages. If the gimmick couldn’t be reasonably implemented, you would find a completely generic, personality-free stage in its stead. This led to at least one fairly odd disconnect in the Japanese version of the game. One of the stages of Donkey Kong Country 2, “Jungle Jinx”, involved bouncing on fast, out-of-control tires, which were removed in Donkey Kong Land 2 due to technical limitations. The Japanese version renamed the stage, “Tire Jungle”, making it strange when Donkey Kong Land 2 retained it despite their conspicuous absence.
On the back of these precedents, is Donkey Kong Land III better at escaping the shadow cast by Donkey Kong Country 3? Yes and no. What made Donkey Kong Land 2 so disappointing was that, if you had played Donkey Kong Country 2, you knew you were in for an unoriginal experience the exact moment you started a new game and saw the words “Gangplank Galleon” adorn the bottom of the screen. A cursory examination of Donkey Kong Land III reveals it doesn’t have this problem.
However, while Donkey Kong Land III doesn’t go as far as copying stage and world names from Donkey Kong Country 3, it is every bit as guilty as Donkey Kong Land 2 of offering an experience devoid of originality. Rather than copying world layouts exactly as they were in Donkey Kong Country 3, Donkey Kong Land III settles for haphazardly implementing gimmicks from the original’s level types. For example, any stage set in a forest in Donkey Kong Land III will likely have monkeys called Minkeys throwing acorns at the Kongs along with spiders bearing a plank of wood on their backs to act as platforms. These were gimmicks that showed up in two separate stages in Donkey Kong Country 3: “Barrel Shield Bust-Up” and “Springin’ Spiders”.
The problem with what Donkey Kong Land III does is that its own stages don’t explore these gimmicks nearly as much as Donkey Kong Country 3 did. “Barrel Shield Bust-Up” revolved around timing how the Kongs climbed the ropes in order to dodge the Minkeys’ acorns, often using an autonomous barrel half as a shield, hence the name. The manner in which this stage introduced its central gimmick was indicative of the developers’ masterful design philosophy. Solely through visual context, the developers told players what to expect from the stage before asking them to master the unique mechanics with increasingly complex permutations. In other words, the stages, much like the experience as a whole, followed a natural difficulty curve.
While Donkey Kong Land III does, admittedly, follow a natural difficulty curve, it is only in the sense that the later stages are more difficult than the earlier ones. This does not apply to the design of the stages themselves. The stage settings in Donkey Kong Land III will haphazardly implement whichever gimmicks were present in their SNES counterparts before dropping them just as quickly. The result is that while Donkey Kong Land III may have new stage and world names, you would be hard-pressed to remember a single one. This is especially inexcusable when considering how the SNES games stopped at nothing to give every stage its own identity.
It especially doesn’t help that this lack of cohesion extends to the worlds themselves. The worlds of Donkey Kong Country 3 followed very comprehensive themes. Lake Orangatanga had lakeside and mill stages whereas the Kremwood Forest boasted levels set in treetops and riverbanks. Most of these worlds would also have one outlying theme to either explore one more gimmick from a previous setting or foreshadow a later challenge. Other than that, these worlds all had settings you would expect from such locales.
In Donkey Kong Land III, the only world that follows this pattern is the very first one – Cape Codswallop. Like Lake Orangatanga, it is a lakeside world with boardwalk and mill stages. It also distinguishes itself from its SNES inspiration by featuring underwater stages. In fact, the game manages to throw something of a curveball by having its first boss be fought underwater. From that point onward, however, the worlds can only be described as grab bags, for they are composed of random, disparate themes. To wit, the fourth world, Great Ape Lakes, only has two of its six stages feature bodies of water in some capacity. Very rarely will you ever see the same themes used twice in a world after Cape Codswallop, which is disappointing because the lack of cohesion makes the rest of the experience bland and forgettable – especially after factoring in the similar lack of thought that went into the level design.
To make matters worse, Donkey Kong Land III marks a relapse into bad habits as well. Donkey Kong Country 3 notably broke series tradition by allowing players to save the game whenever they wished. Donkey Kong Land III reinstates the idea of forcing players to complete a certain number of stages in a world before being granted the privilege of saving.
In fact, between all of the Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong Land games, the problem is arguably at its worst in this particular installment. This is because there are no fewer than three worlds in which you must complete four stages before you can access Wrinkly’s save point. While it doesn’t sound as bad as the situation with Kongo Jungle or Gorilla Glacier in the original Donkey Kong Country, it should be noted that two of these three worlds are in the final third of the game. While Donkey Kong Country at least saved its long stretches between save points for the opening worlds, Donkey Kong Land III asks players to complete multiple difficult stages in succession. The only mercy granted is that saving is now a free service, but it’s still frustrating to make significant progress only to lose your last life just before reaching the checkpoint.
It wouldn’t be so bad if it was easy to leave a world, but this too is rendered unnecessarily difficult. Alongside Wrinkly’s save points are Sheepy Shops, which are run by the Brothers Bear. The proprietor of these shops fulfills many of the same roles the Kong family did in previous installments. He offers advice for two coins and allows Dixie and Kiddy to teleport to a different world for five. Increasing the fare for using the teleporter is bad in of itself, but unlike Funky’s rental service in Donkey Kong Land 2, you must pay for the service every single time. Also, in contrast to Donkey Kong Country 3, the game does not save how many Bear Coins you have collected, meaning you are likely stuck in a world until you beat its boss. It is therefore best to make sure you have all of the Bonus and DK Coins before leaving a world.
The Sheepy Shop also allows Dixie and Kiddy to play a memory game should they collect enough Bonus Coins. If you win, you are given multiple rewards, including a DK Coin and a stopwatch. Stopwatches are required alongside Bonus and DK Coins in order to access both the Lost World and the final battle against Baron K. Roolenstein. After winning the final battle, Baron K. Roolenstein will give Dixie and Kiddy his stopwatches, which, in turn, unlocks a time trial mode. You are made to go through one stage of each type, under a strict time limit. If you beat six of the times, you will achieve a perfect score. While it is fascinating to see Rare implement a speedrunning challenge in an era of gaming when such a practice was in its infancy, it still means having to slog through twelve boring stages a second time for no real benefit.
Even ignoring its unique problems, Donkey Kong Land III still largely fails to address any of the issues plaguing the series thus far. While the controls are still better than those of Donkey Kong Land, and the problem it and its sequel had wherein falling out of frame counted as tumbling into a bottomless pit has finally been addressed, Donkey Kong Land III is still hampered by its small screen size and bad vertical scrolling. On top of that, the animal buddies are just as awkwardly implemented as ever with Squitter’s webs being nigh-impossible to utilize and Enguarde’s bill actually less effective than it was in Donkey Kong Land 2. It’s just not a game that is well-optimized for having such fragile protagonists, and with such disparate elements coming into play all the time, the experience is rendered a tedious, trial-and-error affair.
Drawing a Conclusion
Donkey Kong Land III was released in an interesting time for the Game Boy platform. When Donkey Kong Land was released in 1995, the Game Boy settled for offering watered-down versions of what you could find on consoles. At the time, this didn’t really matter because the idea of being able to play something even half as good outside of your house or the arcades was a treat in of itself. The alternative was to play no game at all. This ensured a significant portion of the Game Boy library had little in the way of long-term appeal. After all, with technology advancing swiftly in the coming decades, being able to run the cutting-edge achievements of yesteryear on portable devices was incredibly simple. Therefore, it simply didn’t make sense to settle for distinctly less good versions of games when the genuine articles are just as easy to obtain.
The reason I choose to mention this now is because by 1997, the Game Boy had become much more relevant. While the Pokémon franchise, which had debuted domestically the previous year, is credited for having revitalized interest in both the aging Game Boy and portable gaming in general, the platform also, in a roundabout way, owed some of its newfound relevance to Super Mario 64. This is because the debut of Super Mario 64 effectively killed off any interest developers had in making new 2D games for home console platforms. Although it didn’t go as far as retroactively nullifying the accomplishments of big-name franchises such as Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog, 2D was widely considered obsolete in the late 1990s, and it would remain so until the medium’s earliest adopters came of age and began heavily influencing critical discourse.
This unspoken rule did not, however, apply to handheld consoles. As the handheld consoles that existed when Super Mario 64 debuted obviously couldn’t come close to replicating the kind of experience it and other 3D games provided, they began to fill a niche console developers had abandoned. From that point onward, the Game Boy and its successors primarily specialized in providing quality 2D experiences when console developers weren’t. This allowed the games to exist on their own terms, and not in the shadow of a corresponding console title.
With that bit of context, Donkey Kong Land III, much like its SNES counterpart, retrospectively feels like the end of an era – albeit for entirely different reasons. Even if its sales figures suffered as a result of Super Mario 64, Donkey Kong Country 3 marked one of the last times a 2D console game would enjoy mainstream critical and commercial success before 3D became the definitive rubric for AAA development. Conversely, Donkey Kong Land III would be one of the last games to present itself as a diluted, yet portable version of a console experience before said handheld platforms finally managed to take full advantage of their format and truly come into their own.
While Donkey Kong Land III can claim a bit more originality than its direct predecessor, it’s still guilty of making the same, exact mistake by refusing to stray too far from the Donkey Kong Country 3 outline. It may not lift gimmicks and level names wholesale the way Donkey Kong Land 2 did, but it still provides an unoriginal experience with boring levels and a soundtrack consisting of tinny, annoying renditions of Eveline Fischer’s superb SNES score. As such, while Donkey Kong Land III has held up better than its direct predecessor, it’s still a difficult sell on the grounds that Donkey Kong Country 3 is superior in every way and just as easy to obtain in some kind of portable format. Donkey Kong Land III may be considered the best game in the trilogy, but without an identity to call its own, it never stood a chance of remaining good in the long term.
Final Score: 4/10