Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Switch) Review

*This review originally appeared at Miketendo64.com*

When Retro Studios revealed Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze at E3 2013, it was received with a lukewarm reception. People were baffingly disappointed that the studio opted to create a second DKC title (apparently forgetting how good Donkey Kong Country Returns was), and were clamoring for the developer to return to the then-dormant Metroid franchise (apparently forgetting Retro already made three titles in that series). This immediately lead to unfair criticisms towards Tropical Freeze and, coupled with questionable marketing, a delayed launch, and the overall underperformance of the Wii U, Tropical Freeze failed to receive the mass-appreciation it truly deserved. It quickly became a cult classic for many, due to its pitch-perfect gameplay, impeccable level design, and God-tier soundtrack, but it never became the best-seller it should have been. Now, Tropical Freeze has been given a second chance on the Nintendo Switch, in hopes that it can finally find the audience it so rightfully deserves.

Although the core game is mostly unchanged from its release on the Wii U four years ago (save for some touch-ups with the graphics, and some new character animations), DKC: Tropical Freeze is more than worth another go on the Switch, as it remains one of the finest platformers ever made.

Being a follow-up to Donkey Kong Country Returns, Tropical Freeze adopts the basic blueprint of its predecessor. But while Returns was an excellent game in its own right, it often relied on falling back onto nostalgic memories of the original 1994 Donkey Kong Country on SNES. Tropical Freeze – being Retro’s second go at the series – was able to break free from the familiarity of Returns and craft an identity of its own for the series.

The story here is that a gang of vikings called the Snowmads (comprised of arctic animals like walruses and penguins) have invaded Donkey Kong Island. Doing their best Elsa impression, the Snowmads freeze the entire island and make themselves at home, banishing the Kongs in the process. But DK is not one to simply let it go, and he, along with Diddy, Dixie and good ol’ Cranky, set off on an adventure across multiple islands to take back their home from the Snowmads.

“Despite being a side-scroller, Tropical Freeze features dynamic camera angles during certain stages to change up the gameplay in unique ways.”

Of course, any semblance of plot is really just an excuse to get DK off his keister and into those platforming stages. It’s within its gameplay and level design that Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze becomes a work of art.

The level design of Tropical Freeze is among the best you’ll ever find in a platformer (or any genre, for that matter). Every stage introduces new mechanics and gameplay elements, making every last level feel fresh and original. Tropical Freeze almost epitomizes a “you know what would be awesome” mentality…as in, it’s all too easy to imagine the folks at Retro Studios exclaiming “you know what would be awesome?” right before they pitched their ideas.

There are a few shared elements between stages, namely the collectible puzzle pieces and K-O-N-G letters that are hidden within them (the puzzle pieces unlocking extras such as concept art and music, while nabbing every K-O-N-G letter in every stage of a world unlocks that world’s secret temple stage). But there’s not a level in the entire game that falls back on recycling a level concept brought up earlier in the adventure. The level design of Tropical Freeze is an utter delight the whole way through.

“That is one big-ass polar bear.”

This is also true of the game’s boss fights. Though the old tradition of one boss per world means that such encounters are limited at six, each one of them provides a clever challenge that’s full of creativity.

Player’s primarily control Donkey Kong, of course. He still runs, jumps, rolls, pounds the ground, and throws barrels. This time around, he can also pluck certain objects from the ground, as well as pick up certain enemies to throw them at others. Along the way, DK can team up with the other Kongs who, in addition to granting the player two extra hit points, come with their own special abilities.

Diddy Kong, returning from DKCR, comes equipped with a jetpack, allowing DK to hover for a short time. Meanwhile, Cranky Kong makes his long-awaited debut as a playable character, and can use his cane as a pogo stick – Scrooge McDuck style – to not only jump higher, but also to allow DK to jump across surfaces and enemies he otherwise couldn’t (such as thorny brambles or enemies with spiked viking helmets). Dixie Kong, true to form, proves to be the most useful, however. With her helicopter-like hair, Dixie Kong not only gives DK a bit more air, but also increases the height of his jumps. When playing solo, the additional Kongs more or less serve as power-ups, but they are also readily available for a second player to select in the game’s co-op mode.

On the visual front, Tropical Freeze looks better than ever, which is no small feat, considering how great it already looked on the Wii U. The graphics may technically be the same, but it all looks sleeker and smoother than it did before. And perhaps best of all, the load times have been drastically reduced in this Switch release.

Then we have that epic soundtrack. The first two installments of Donkey Kong Country remain highly regarded for their music, though the third entry’s score, while still good, fell considerably short of its predecessors. Meanwhile, Returns’ soundtrack mainly relied on remixes of the first DKC’s soundtrack, which is great and all, but didn’t exactly help in giving the game an identity of its own.

With Tropical Freeze, however, Retro Studios managed to cook up a musical score that ascends to one of the all-time greats in the medium, and more than lives up to the first two installments. It should come as no surprise that the key ingredient to the soundtrack’s roaring success is the return of original series composer David Wise, who made a triumphant return with Tropical Freeze after an extended hiatus from scoring mainstream titles. Much like the first two SNES DKC titles, the score of Tropical Freeze manages to encompass a shocking amount of variety, all while building the atmosphere of the game’s world, and turning the simple story of a bunch of apes fighting walruses into something truly epic and beautiful. As far as gaming soundtracks go, Undertale might be Tropical Freeze’s only real competition for the title of best of the decade.

While Tropical Freeze served as a vast improvement over (the admittedly great) Donkey Kong Country Returns in nearly every regard – from level design to boss fights to music – there were, unfortunately, two aspects in which Tropical Freeze merely followed suit with its predecessor, as opposed to improving it.

The first are the bonus rooms scattered throughout the levels. While these bonus stages are fun in their own right, they are all simple variants of “collect all the bananas.” It’s not a major issue, but considering the variety of bonus stages housed in the DKC games back on the SNES, you kind of wish Retro Studios could have touched up on the repetition of the bonus rooms found in Returns with their second outing. The other blemish is that Rambi the Rhinoceros is once again the only Animal Buddy present in the adventure (unless we count Squawks, who can be purchased at Funky Kong’s shop and alerts players to nearby puzzle pieces). While riding on Rambi and bowling through enemies is fun, he only shows up on a handful of occasions, leaving you wanting more out of him, as well as a return of more Animal Buddies such as Enguarde or my man Squitter (or for Retro Studios to develop some Animal Buddies of their own).

“I wonder if Funky is out looking for inter-planetary visitor dudes. Wow, I just made THAT reference.”

It also has to be said that the only major addition to the Switch release of Tropical Freeze is its new “Funky Mode,” which serves as a beginner-friendly playstyle for those who find the core game too difficult. Essentially, it’s easy mode, with Funky boasting all of the abilities of the other Kongs, as well as having more hit points and unlimited oxygen when swimming. On one hand, I can appreciate the game having an easy mode. Given its often intense difficulty, providing an easier option for beginners might give Tropical Freeze a wider audience. But on the downside, it is kind of a shame that the new playable character has to be confined to it. Having Funky as a unique character with his own abilities in the core game might have been a nice twist on this modern classic, while the easy mode could have potentially given DK the extra benefits and such, thus separating it and the new character.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was not only my favorite game of 2014, but also one I can confidently say was my favorite in the entire Wii U library. It’s a platformer that easily ranks among the best of them, with sheer creativity and gameplay brilliance pouring out of every level. The fact that it was initially met to such a lukewarm reception was a damn shame, and played a part in Tropical Freeze becoming quite possibly the most underrated game in Nintendo’s history.

Now, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze can safely claim to be one of the very best games on the Nintendo Switch. Sure, the lack of variety in bonus stages and Animal Buddies is still a bit of a bummer, and the fact that Funky Mode is the only prominent addition to this second release can feel a little like a missed opportunity. But make no mistake about it, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze should rank among the best games Nintendo has ever made. And hopefully this time, more people will get to realize that.

 

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Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble Review

DKC3

Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble served as a fittingly great end to Rare’s Donkey Kong Country trilogy on the SNES. Though its release in late 1996 meant that it failed to reach the high sales numbers of its two predecessors due to the launch of the Nintendo 64 a few months prior, DKC3 retains the same sense of fun and style as the two preceding games in the series.

Just as DKC2 took DK’s sidekick Diddy and made him the star, DKC3 does the same by putting Dixie Kong in the spotlight. The fact that DK was now far removed from the equation may have impacted the game’s sells all the more, but Dixie Kong is still the most fun Kong to control, not to mention she was one of the earliest Nintendo heroines to get a starring role.

DKC3Dixie is joined on her adventure by Kiddy Kong, an infant gorilla who possesses the size and strength of Donkey Kong himself. Kiddy is admittedly a forgettable character (it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s never shown up in the series since), and his presence leads one to think that maybe Dixie and DK were the original planned duo, but since DK would have taken the spotlight, Rare whipped up a quick replacement instead.

Despite Kiddy Kong not being a particularly memorable addition to the Kong family, his pairing with Dixie gives the game a good mix of the gameplay of DKCs 1 and 2. Dixie can still use her ponytail as a propeller to glide and make her jumps more precise. While Kiddy, having the strength of DK, can take out bigger enemies.

The team-up moves from DKC2 return, with Kiddy being able to throw Dixie to great lengths and find out-of-reach secret areas, while Dixie can throw the hefty Kiddy to bulldoze enemies and break certain walls.

It must be said that many of the situations of DKC3 are more specific to certain Kongs than the previous game, with a number of secrets only able to be found with Dixie’s gliding abilities. Kiddy’s strength comes in handy with finding a few of the game’s secrets, but his unique traits aren’t utilized nearly as often as Dixie’s.

The game basically uses the same platforming gameplay of the past entries, and though the level design never reaches the heights of the second entry, DKC3 was still one of the best platformers of its day. The levels are creative and varied, with new twists and gimmicks added to the stages at an increasingly frequent rate as you progress further in the game.

Animal Buddies also make a return, with Squawks, Squitter and Enguarde making a comeback with all their abilities from the second game. Rambi the rhinoceros has been replaced with Ellie the elephant, who’s cute, but her ability to carry barrels and shoot water with her trunk is never used in a way to make her as fun as the destructive Rambi. A new bird friend named Perry shows up, and simply flies overhead to grab objects the Kongs can’t.

The boss fights have a similar variety to the levels, with each one presenting a different challenge (a few of them require you to combat them as one of the Animal Buddies). Though some boss fights, such as Bleak the snowman, end up being a little underwhelming, they are all at least more than just bigger versions of standard enemies.

While the gameplay retains the same style as the other DKCs, where Donkey Kong Country 3 differentiates itself from its predecessors is its world map.

DKC3Whereas the first two games presented more traditional platformer world maps, DKC3’s map is more flexible, as Dixie and Kiddy travel the “Northern Kremisphere” via boats, hovercrafts and jet skis to various islands, which serve as the game’s worlds. You gradually upgrade your vehicles via Funky Kong, with each new transport being able to take you further than the last. In an interesting piece of nonlinearity, the third and fourth worlds in the game are actually interchangeable (though it’s somewhat disappointing that those are the only worlds that are).

Each world contains five stages and a boss. There are seven standard worlds plus one lost world. Though Funky is only found on the primary world map, Wrinkly Kong is found in every world, as is Swanky Kong. Wrinkly saves your game, while Swanky hosts a ball-throwing mini-game. Strangely, Cranky Kong’s only role in DKC3 is serving as your opponent in Swanky’s mini-games.

New characters include the Brothers Bear, an extensive family of bears who show up in various points in each world. The bears will often have you trading unique items between them, or give you hints about some of the secrets of the game. You can find Bear Coins throughout the levels (which replace DKC2’s Banana Coins), but strangely, only a couple of the bears and Swanky’s mini-games require them. There are also Bonus Coins (replacing Kremkoins), which are won in bonus games and, just like in DKC2, are needed to access the secret levels in the Lost World.

DKC3The DK Coins make a return, but with a twist. This time, instead of simply being hidden within the levels, they are guarded by a Kremling named Koin. Koin uses the DK Coin as a shield, leaving the player to find creative ways to take him down with a steel barrel. It’s a fun twist to the formula, but unfortunately, your prize for getting every last DK Coin almost doesn’t feel worth it. By the time you receive your reward, you’ve almost completed everything in the game, making it feel like it shows up long after it really would have been helpful.

Finally, the last new item of note are the Banana Birds, which are hidden throughout secret caves on the world map.

If you want to simply play through the game and beat the final boss, DKC3 is decently challenging, though the main quest isn’t nearly as difficult as DKC2. However, trying to complete everything kicks up the challenge considerably, and the secret levels are among the hardest in the series.

To achieve full completion of the game, you’ll have to beat every bonus stage (every level has two, save for some of the secret levels, which have up to three), find every DK Coin, find every Banana Bird, complete every task for the bears, beat the game, and beat all the secret levels. In terms of content, it certainly packs a punch.

By its own merits, Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble is an excellent platformer, and I can respect the argument that it’s a “deeper” game than the original DKC. However, DKC3 ultimately falls considerably short of the second installment for a few reasons.

The first of these reasons being the game’s overall atmosphere. It’s true that the graphics are more polished than ever and the game’s scenery is beautiful (some of the best on the SNES), but the world of the Northern Kremisphere feels like a step back from the creativity of Crocodile Isle. Whereas DKC2’s world was a clash of the fantastic and the dreadful, DKC3’s world instead reverts back to the natural settings of the first game. Gone are the pirate ships, beehives and amusement parks of the last game. In their place are water, mountain and tree themed levels. It’s not that the setting is bad. Far from it, actually. But its world lacks the unique tones that the second game exuded.

The character designs have also taken a nosedive in quality. It’s not just Kiddy Kong, but the enemies as well. The original Donkey Kong Country didn’t exactly boast the most creative enemy designs, but they had a charm about them. DKC2 upped the ante with more creative designs and an underlying pirate motif. DKC3 goes back to more of the generic enemy style of the original, but their designs lack the charm, and look more goofy than anything. The Kremlings even have a new leader in a robot named Kaos (though it shouldn’t be a surprise who’s behind the machine), but the robot theme is only reflected in the new mechanical bee enemies, the Kremlings themselves are, well, Kremlings. There’s an inconsistency in the art direction that just feels like a huge step back.

Perhaps DKC3’s greatest sin as a follow-up to Diddy’s Kong Quest, however, is its soundtrack. Now, DKC3’s music is perfectly fine on its own. But considering the sheer heights that the last two games took video game soundtracks, being “perfectly fine” just doesn’t compare. The soundtrack, primarily composed by Eveline Fischer (regular series composer David Wise only contributed a few tracks) is a good mix of music, but it fails to create the atmosphere and moods that the other games in the series did so easily.

DKC3As a whole, Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble is an excellent platformer. The level design is great and varied, the gameplay is challenging and fun, the game still looks great, it sounds good, and finding every last trinket gives it a lot of replay value. Problems arise, however, with its inevitable comparisons to its immediate predecessor. Aside from the robust world map, DKC3 is structured very much like DKC2. But the game as a whole is never quite as good. As great as the levels are, they don’t match up to those of DKC2 in terms of creativity and challenge. The fact that it falls so far below its predecessor aesthetically also dampens the experience.

DKC3 remains a more than worthwhile game in its own right. But the fact that it’s so similar to DKC2, yet inferior to it in so many ways, makes it feel like a hallowed out version of DKC2’s accomplishments. Even the subtitle of “Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble” is less clever than “Diddy’s Kong Quest” (I still don’t exactly know what the “double trouble” is referring to).

With that said, even a hallowed out DKC2 is still more fun than most other games. Though it may not be as fondly remembered as its predecessors, Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble was a great send-off for Rare’s DKC series.

 

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Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest Review

DKC2

When Donkey Kong Country became a massive success in 1994, it was inevitable that it would get a sequel. Little did gamers know that said sequel would arrive the very next year. With such a relatively short development time, DKC2 could have easily been little more than a cheap cash-in. Instead, it ended up being one of the greatest sequels in video game history, and twenty years later, it can still safely make that claim.

The original Donkey Kong Country is a classic in its own right: It had revolutionary visuals, an unforgettable soundtrack, and some of the most fun platforming gameplay of its day. Still, there was room for improvement, with the overall experience being simple and straightforward when compared to something like Super Mario World, not to mention the dull boss fights.

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest not only ironed out DKC’s rough edges, it also improved everything its predecessor accomplished, and added a sense of gameplay depth that makes it one of the few 2D platformers – if not the only 2D platformer – that could better Mario at his own game.

The most immediate difference players will notice between DKC2 and the original is the absence of Donkey Kong. The subtitle of “Diddy’s Kong Quest” is more than just a brilliant pun, as this game took DK’s sidekick and put him into the spotlight. The big ape himself has been kidnapped by K. Rool, with the villainous crocodile now going by the monicker of “Kaptain” to reflect the new pirate motif of his minions.

DKC2 retains the tag team style gameplay of the original, however, as Diddy is now paired up with his girlfriend Dixie Kong. Though Diddy and Dixie are closer in size and appearance than DK and Diddy were, they are actually more distinct gameplay-wise. Diddy retains his faster movement and farther jumps, while Dixie – the most useful Kong to this day – can use her ponytail to glide and make her landings precise.

An addition has been made to the tag team setup, as Diddy and Dixie can now climb on each other’s shoulders for team-up moves, with the currently-controlled Kong able to throw their teammate to defeat enemies or reach places that are otherwise unreachable.

The addition of Dixie and the team-up moves add extra layers of depth to the experience, and makes the gameplay stand tall over its predecessor.

Donkey Kong Country 2Then there are the Animal Buddies, who are more versatile and instrumental this time around: Rambi the rhino returns with a new charge attack, as does Enguarde the swordfish with a similar new move. Squawks the parrot has seen a complete overhaul. No longer confined to holding a light on a single level, Squawks is now big enough to carry Diddy and Dixie in his talons and fly to great heights, and can spit projectiles at enemies. Winky the frog has more or less been replaced by Rattly the rattlesnake, who betters his predecessor’s jumping capabilities. Then there’s Squitter the spider, who can take out enemies from a long distance and create platforms with his webs.

Though the Animal Buddies were fun in Donkey Kong Country, their inclusion feels far more integral in Donkey Kong Country 2, with entire levels being dedicated to their mechanics.

Donkey Kong Country was a success in large part due to its visuals, which were a revelation in their day. It shouldn’t be a surprise that DKC2 upped the ante in this area, with a wider array of colors, more detailed backgrounds and visual effects, and even more fluid character animations. But the technical advancements are merely a bonus, as the art direction proves to be the game’s real visual treat.

Whereas the action of Donkey Kong Country took place on Donkey Kong Island, with locations that were to be expected from a platformer starring simians – such as jungles, forests and snowy mountains – the adventure of Donkey Kong Country 2 takes place on K. Rool’s home turf of Crocodile Isle, which serves as a dark, gloomy, and melancholic contrast to platforming norms.

Donkey Kong Country 2Crocodile Isle will see Diddy and Dixie venture across pirate ships, volcanoes, thorny mazes, giant beehives, and dilapidated amusement parks, to name a few of the game’s locations. Even when it uses familiar themed environments of the platforming genre, it puts new spins on them. When you make it to the game’s forest world, for example, it’s an haunted forest filled with ghosts and skeleton crocodiles. The game’s seven worlds usually have a primary theme, but are not restricted to them, with Rare wisely employing a variety of stages within each world.

It’s in the levels themselves that the creativity shines brightest. There’s a sense of imagination stemming from every level that’s rarely approached in gaming, with every stage presenting new gameplay ideas that still feel fresh and original today. Many levels are built around a unique hook, like controlling your jumps through gusts of wind or racing a series of Kremlings on a roller coaster, that are utilized to their fullest and then gracefully left behind after their level is done. Every stage of Donkey Kong Country 2 is swimming in creative ideas, and the game knows better than to let even one of them overstay their welcome.

Donkey Kong Country 2The boss fights greatly benefit from this new sense of creativity. Where the first game enlarged regular enemies, had DK and Diddy bounce on their heads a few times, and called it a day, DKC2 instead presents a more varied and challenging rogue’s gallery of big bads, with even those that fall under the “big enemy” category bringing a unique challenge to the game.

Though Donkey Kong Country was always a challenging game, it was here that the series became known for its great difficulty. Each world of DKC2 is considerably more challenging than the last, and a host of secret levels are among the toughest obstacle courses in any platformer. But never once does the game feel unfair. The challenges stack up reasonably, and continue to grow as you get more accustomed to them. The difficulty curve is pretty much perfect.

Additional challenge and depth has been added through the game’s collectible items. Though bananas, balloons and the K-O-N-G letters all return to give Diddy and Dixie extra lives, the new items have a greater range of uses.

Banana Coins are a common new item, and are used as currency for the Kong characters who appear on the world map: Cranky Kong gives tips on the levels’ secrets, while his wife Wrinkly Kong saves your progress and gives advice on the game’s basics. Funky Kong can take you to any previously visited locations, and the aptly-named Swanky Kong hosts a quiz show that gives Diddy and Dixie the chance to earn multiple extra lives.

The two big new collectibles in the game, however, are the Kremkoins and Donkey Kong Coins. The Kremkoins are won in the game’s bonus stages (every level has one to three), and are traded to a Kremling turncoat named Klubba for access to the Lost World, where the aforementioned secret levels await. Fifteen Kremkoins are required to visit each level within the Lost World, which makes hunting down and completing the bonus games a much more worthwhile and rewarding endeavor this time around.

Every level in the game also houses a single Donkey Kong Coin, which must be located in order to obtain a full one-hundred (and two) percent completion (as well as earn the right to be called a video game hero by Cranky Kong).

Getting through the game itself is already a great challenge, but if you’re going for full completion, Donkey Kong Country 2 remains one of the toughest games to appear on a Nintendo platform.

Donkey Kong Country was already a platformer with a strong sense of atmosphere, and this is but another category in which the sequel outshines it. I’ve already touched on the visuals and art direction, but what really gives DKC2 its unique soul is its soundtrack.

The music of Donkey Kong Country 2 is composer David Wise’s opus, and combines memorable melodies with ambient sounds that give the game a mood that’s all its own. The music of DKC2 perfectly captures the sense of urgency of this quest to save a fallen hero, while also reflecting the game’s often dreary environments beautifully.

Donkey Kong Country 2The soundtrack works in a wonderful contrast to that of the first game, with the more swanky and energetic score of the original being replaced with more somber and menacing tunes (you need only to listen to the tracks that accompany the world maps of both games to understand the drastic change in tone). In one of the game’s subtle works of brilliance, the most beautiful and soothing tracks usually accompany the most difficult stages, which encourages you to keep trying your hand at them in hopes of triumph, instead of giving up on them in a fit of rage.

Despite how appropriate each track is to their location, this is also a soundtrack that can very much be enjoyed as its own entity. As great as the soundtrack to the original Donkey Kong Country was, the soundtrack to Donkey Kong Country 2 is that much greater.

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest is one of the best and most creative platformers ever made, and a perfect example of what a video game sequel should be. It betters everything its predecessor did right, while also correcting whatever missteps it had. And it does it all with a tone that is entirely its own, combining cartoony characters with a world and soundtrack that’s dark and melancholic.

You won’t find many games that are built so strongly around such contrasts, and none that execute them better, or provide this much fun while doing it.

 

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Donkey Kong Country Review

Donkey Kong Country

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.”

Donkey Kong CountryThat’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.

Donkey Kong CountryAlong 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.

Donkey Kong CountryAn 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 CountryAside from Cranky, the additional Kongs don’t have a whole lot to their personalities, but they opened the doors for better (and some worse) things for the series.

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.

 

8

Super Smash Bros. Really Needs More Donkey Kong Characters

Super Smash Bros.

Super Smash BRos. for Wii U and Nintendo 3DS saw another major update recently, with a lot of additional content including Tournament Mode, the ability to upload videos to YouTube, and DLC stages and costumes for the Mii Fighters.

Unfortunately, one of those Mii Fighter costumes includes King K. Rool, the recurring antagonist from the Donkey Kong series. Why is this unfortunate? Because K. Rool has been one of the most requested characters to join the Super Smash Bros. roster, and him being included as a Mii Fighter costume almost feels like a mere token. He’s included as a Mii costume, so will Sakurai just stop there?

Now, it is possible that if K. Rool (or anyone else) gets enough votes in the Smash Bros. character poll he could potentially still be added. But that really depends on how many new characters the poll will allow. It’s an uncertainty.

I understand it’s difficult to write coding and add a whole new character to the game, so I understand people can’t get every character they want as DLC. My problem though, is that the Donkey Kong series, one of Nintendo’s premiere franchises, is sorely underrepresented in Super Smash Bros. DK shouldn’t have to wait for DLC.

"Not like this... Not like this..."
“Not like this… Not like this…”

Donkey Kong and Diddy are great characters in Super Smash Bros. But considering the series’ importance to Nintendo’s history (it was their first full-fledged franchise, the Mario series itself is a spinoff from it, I could go on), having just two characters when it has more to work with seems unfair to the beloved series. Especially when one considers that Kid Icarus, a series that didn’t even have a new entry for over two decades, has three characters. And don’t get me started on the small army of Fire Emblem characters.

I’m not even saying that the game needs to include the whole Kong family (no one wants Chunky Kong), but Dixie Kong should have already been in Super Smash Bros. some time ago. Not to mention her prehensile hair could give her a unique moveset. King K. Rool would also be a great addition, since he’d not only bring more DK representation, but the series could use some additional villain characters (the current games only have Bowser, Bowser Jr., Ganondorf and King Dedede filling the villain roster), and K. Rool could add to that category nicely. Even Cranky Kong makes more sense than a lot of the characters who actually made it into Smash Bros. (because seriously, Dark Pit)!

Metroid is another series that is sorely underrepresented in Smash Bros., also having only two characters (both of which are two versions of the same character). But I understand that Metroid has a bit less characters to work with. So while Metroid definitely deserves more characters, it isn’t quite as baffling as DK’s underrepresentation. There’s no shortage of material to work with when it comes to Donkey Kong.

Again, there is still some shred of hope for the DK faithful with that character poll. But the big question is, why should Donkey Kong, one of Nintendo’s greatest franchises and one of gaming’s most iconic series, have to rely on the character poll just to get one additional character?

Hopefully, the K. Rool Mii Fighter costume is just an appetizer for something better for the DK crew around the corner, and not just compensation.