When it was released in 1994, Donkey Kong Country was a revelation. The game’s visuals pushed the Super Nintendo to its limits, with the pre-rendered character models giving this sidescrolling platformer a 3D look just as polygonal consoles were beginning to emerge. The impressive graphics helped Donkey Kong Country become a massive success, which in turn lead to an extension of the SNES’ lifespan and, ultimately, the console’s “victory” over the Sega Genesis. In later years, some have criticized Donkey Kong Country for being little more than a parlor trick, winning gamers over with fancy graphics over deep gameplay. These detractors might simply be viewing things from a glass half empty, however, as playing Donkey Kong Country today is still a whole lot of fun.
Admittedly, Donkey Kong Country was never the most original game out there, as it more or less took the platforming standards of Super Mario World and made its own platforming world out of them. Coins are replaced with bananas, balloons in the shape of DK’s face take the role of 1-up mushrooms, finding the K-O-N-G letters on each stage grants DK an additional extra life, not unlike the dragon coins of Mario World, and the concepts of Yoshi and power-ups are fused together in the form of DK’s “Animal Buddies.”
That’s not to say that DKC doesn’t have tricks of its own, however. Donkey Kong is paired up with Diddy, who made his very first appearance in this game. DK is obviously the muscle, and can take out larger enemies that Diddy can’t, and can even slam the ground to find hidden items. Meanwhile, players can take control of Diddy for farther jumps and greater speed. When playing in single player, the two characters work as a tag team, and can be switched at any time at the press of a button. Having both characters also makes the player stronger, since both Kongs must be eliminated in order to lose a life.
The two character concept is extended to multiplayer, where two players can competitively take turns as both Kongs to see who can complete the most levels the fastest, or cooperatively with two players taking control of one of the Kongs.
Another element introduced in DKC are barrels, which are used to add many fun twists to the gameplay. Barrels can be thrown at enemies, used as shields, break open entrances to bonus rooms, and some can even be ridden on as they roll across the ground.
DK barrels will revive a fallen Kong, while TNT barrels can take out particularly troublesome obstacles. Even the checkpoints are barrels. Though perhaps the barrels with the most staying power in the series are the rocket barrels, which DK and Diddy use to launch themselves in all directions, and are utilized in many clever instances of level design.
The aforementioned Animal Buddies also add some variety to the gameplay: Rambi the rhino can smash through walls and take out enemies with ease. Enguarde the swordfish allows for faster swimming and can take out underwater enemies with his nose. Winky the frog can jump to great heights and jump on foes that even DK can’t take out. Expresso the ostrich can rush through levels at great speed, has short bursts of flight, and can walk right over small enemies. Meanwhile, Squawks the parrot, the only unridable Animal Buddy, shines a light for the player in an otherwise dark cave level.
Along with these features, many of the levels themselves introduce their own one-off gimmicks to change up the gameplay. The water levels (arguably the best in the genre at the time) make DK and Diddy defenseless without Enguarde, which makes obstacles and enemies all the more dangerous. One factory stage has the lights repeatedly failing, leaving the player to look carefully where they need to jump next while they have the chance so they don’t fall into the abyss when the lights go out. DKC also popularized roller coaster-like levels in platformers with its mine cart stages, which have since become so synonymous with the series that Donkey Kong Country Returns featured an entire world built around them.
The challenges that Rare (then Rareware) put into the levels were really unique for the time, and many platformers since have adopted DKC’s bag of tricks to their benefit. It is true that Donkey Kong Country is a far more linear experience than Mario World, with every level leading to the next. It lacks the branching paths, alternate exits, or secret levels that Mario World boasted (though the sequels would add these elements to the series). But extra depth is added to the experience through the bonus stages, as finding every last one of them is required to achieve one-hundred (and one) percent completion. You can get through the game with some challenge as it is, but finding every last bonus room proves to be a truly hefty undertaking.
An area in which the creativity doesn’t shine lies in the game’s boss fights. Aside from the stellar final battle with King K. Rool, the boss fights in Donkey Kong Country lack the complexity of later entries in the series. Most of the bosses are just giant versions of regular enemies. Unlike the later Yoshi’s Island, which employed a similar technique, the bosses don’t expand on gameplay concepts introduced by their common, diminutive counterparts, but really are just big versions of common enemies. What’s worse is that DKC even recycles the first two bosses for later encounters, with very little differences added to them. And perhaps the most eye-rolling boss in the DKC series is found here in the form of the aptly-named “Boss Dum Drum,” who is little more than a cylinder who drops regular enemies on the battlefield.
Aside from those disappointing boss fights, the original DKC remains an incredibly fun platformer. But if there are two aspects of it that stand out more than the rest, it’s the game’s audiovisual achievements, and its reinvention of the Donkey Kong series itself.
I’ve already mentioned how the graphics lifted the SNES to new visual heights, and while they may not hold up as state-of-the-art by today’s standards, they still give the game a look that’s all its own. It may not look as timeless as Mario World, but the uniqueness of DKC’s visuals have made them hold up better than you’d think. Special effects such as rain, snow and lighting were ahead of their time, and still give the game some visual flair. And the animations are among the most complex in the SNES library.
As good as those visuals were and still are, it’s the music that truly shines. Composed primarily by David Wise, as well as Eveline Fischer and Robin Beanland, the music of Donkey Kong Country gives a sense of style, personality and atmosphere that was unmatched at the time, and it remains one of the all-time great video game soundtracks. Combined with the game’s visuals and sound effects, the music of DKC gave the game a strong sense of atmosphere that you don’t normally associate with platformers, and one that helped establish this reinvention of the series.
This reinvention – which turned Donkey Kong from an arcade villain who hadn’t been relevant in years into one of Nintendo’s premiere heroes – was so impactful that this is the standard for the series that we still see today. It’s the DK with a red necktie who originated here that appears in Smash Bros. and Mario Kart, and continues to star in his own games. Diddy Kong is now a permanent fixture as DK’s sidekick, and the original Donkey Kong who was Mario’s rival in the arcade classics grew old and became Cranky Kong, aspects that Nintendo still acknowledges.
Donkey Kong Country also established the extended Kong family, which would prove both a good and bad thing through the years. Here, the Kongs included not only DK, Diddy and Cranky, but also Donkey Kong’s girlfriend Candy Kong and general cool dude Funky Kong. Cranky, Candy and Funky all set up shop in each world in the game: Cranky gives minimal helpful advice amid maximum berating and fourth wall-breaking (his words would become a lot more helpful in the sequel). Candy is in charge of the save points. And Funky can provide you with flights to any previously visited locations.
Donkey Kong Country may have its naysayers these days, but that’s really a shame. The game was a big deal in its day thanks to its technical power. But play it today and the experience is more than just graphics. It may be a bit rough and simple when compared to its sequels, but you’ll still find few platformers that are as fun and feel as unique as Donkey Kong Country.