Donkey Kong set the world on fire with the 1981 arcade wonder, Donkey Kong, and his name would never be forgotten! Donkey Kong started out as a Popeye title. They eventually swapped out Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto with the nonsuper Mario, Pauline, and titular Donkey Kong. Eventually, British studio Rare would be employed to reboot the Donkey Kong franchise. They’d be turning what was a simple high-score title into a 2D Platformer. It was quite the task.
Donkey Kong Country was a technical marvel at the time. The game used state of the art conversion of 3D models to 2D sprites that the SNES could render. It gave the game a far deeper ground in realism than anything else of the era. It also gives it a unique look that few imitate today. I can understand wishing to separate Mario and DK by extremes, but I don’t like how this looks today. The environments are beautiful, but most of the enemies give off an uncanny valley vibe.
The dastardly King K. Rool, and his kremling army, has stolen all of the bananas from the Kong’s horde! Donkey Kong and Diddy must set out on an adventure to krush the kremlings! You’ll be helped on your adventure by Cranky Kong, Funky Kong, and Candy Kong, but they won’t do any fighting themselves. Donkey Kong was most formed here than in any other appearance.
Donkey Kong Country is the ape’s most formative game. His personality is well established by his idle animations and general movement. There are tons of “quiet” moments with him that don’t intrude gameplay but prove exactly what type of character he is. He can kill enemies by jumping on them, rolling into them, or throwing barrels at them. If you come across a DK barrel, you can free Diddy Kong from his entrapment! When you have both Kongs, you can freely switch to either with the select button. The second Kong acts as a second hit point. When one gets hit, they “die.” You can recover your buddy from any DK barrel you find in the level! You’ll also regain your partner if you die or game over. Diddy Kong is smaller and faster than DK. Donkey Kong can kill more types of enemies than Diddy can or kill them easier.
Donkey Kong Country saw its most drastic departure in the form of the animal buddy system. Rambi the rhino, Enguarde the swordfish, Squawks the parrot, Winky the frog, and Expresso the ostrich can be found along your journey! Each animal buddy is level specific and incredibly situational. There’s just something fun about ramming around on them! Most of the time, I enjoyed their presence in levels. Nowhere near the amount of Rambi in future games. Squawks is the big exception. He appears in only one level. His gimmick is lighting up a dark room. When you turn around, the entire screen flashes white. He hurt my eyes real bad, and I can’t stand him here.
Donkey Kong Country features four main types of levels. The most common is the basic platforming level. You can clearly see the groundwork for future greatness, but it falls flat on its face. Platforming in this game feels stiff and wooden. Only worsened when actually using Donkey Kong himself. The only advantage DK has over Diddy is his easier time killing enemies, but his hitbox is so much bigger that it might not even be worth switching. There are tons of moments that feel like you need to be pixel perfect to make the jump. There were tons of deaths or hits that I took, that didn’t feel like they were my fault. To make it all worse, there’s a “gotcha” enemy at the end of almost every level. Most of the game’s levels are pure platforming, and it didn’t feel terrible but it didn’t feel good either. This painful mediocrity carries with most of the game.
You know exactly what I’m going to say next. “Water levels are atrocious.” You’re right, but I have a different angle. There’s nothing wrong with what they attempted here. A sort of half step between Mario and actual swimming. You bob up by pressing the jump button, but if you wish to go down you must wait. You go far too high and spend way too long dropping down. This is only exacerbated by DK’s large hitbox and the inherent swiftness of every underwater enemy. Enguarde is the only thing that kept these levels from being infuriating, and he’s not even in all of them. Luckily, the ones he wasn’t in don’t ask too much from the player.
Minecart levels would go on to become as important to Donkey Kong as barrel tossing. I just have one issue. They absolutely suck here. There’s an adrenaline rush, and wonder, seeing these big dumb apes inside small cars going as fast as Sonic. All humor, and fun, is stripped away by awful enemy placement and terrible hit detection. The screen scrolls way too fast to react to anything oncoming. This wouldn’t be too bad if obstacles were stationary, but everything is flying just as fast at you as you are it! This is especially rough with flying enemies! There is no Diddy Kong speed, or Enguarde, to save this style. I didn’t enjoy a single one of these.
You can find hidden bonus levels in a few different ways! Some you’ll enter by tossing barrels at breakable walls. Sometimes you’ll be required to make a risky jump to a high ledge. My favorite was the barrels that would shoot you straight into a land of extras! The main bonus levels mostly serve to offer you extra bananas, lives, and animal buddy tokens. If you collect three tokens of the same type, you’ll be thrust straight into a stage based entirely around them. There will be no Kongs there. Instead, you’ll be collected stars in hopes to earn more extra lives! You will find one of four letters that spell out “KONG” in each level. They’re neat to collect, but don’t do anything.
At the end of every world, you’ll encounter a boss ready to tear the Kongs apart! You’ll come across six commanding officers followed by a final encounter with King. K Rool himself! Each boss fight takes place in a set arena where the only thing you’ll have to worry about is the boss itself. No boss was truly annoying, or upsetting. I felt they mostly struck the perfect balance of challenging and fair. The first three bosses are incredibly predictable and easy. The fight against Master Necky Sr. is a bit of a mess with DK, but Diddy can swamp him no problem!
Donkey Kong Country absolutely aces the music. David Wise and Eveline Fischer set the mood of each level so perfectly that I have a hard time describing it. Every style from jazzy and eccentric to depressing and ambient is pulled off with such grace that you’ll forget you’re listening to the awful SNES sound chip! If there is anything in any retro game that is absolutely flawless, it is this game’s soundtrack! It’s the thing that singlehandedly kept me going!
I understand where the nostalgia for this game comes from. I know that I’m poking the hornet’s nest, and upsetting a lot of people. At the end of the day, this is about my experiences and opinions. I didn’t like Donkey Kong Country. Aside from DK64, I don’t think it holds up at all to any of its sequels. If this game was offered as part of the Nintendo Switch Online service, I’d recommend you check it out just to see where history was made. This game isn’t “unavailable” today by any means, but it’s not worth seeking out if you aren’t sure you’re going to love it. I hold a lot of respect for the team behind this game, but this one has aged itself into a dud.
The original Super Smash Bros. was all about Nintendo icons! You couldn’t get much closer to a Nintendo icon than DK himself! It’s been a popular phrase for decades that it’s “on like Donkey Kong.” Universal even attempted to sue Nintendo over the name. They thought it infringed on their right to King Kong. I highly recommend you look into that story. Donkey Kong has always been viewed as “Mario adjacent.” This fact is incredibly clear in Smash. DK has always had a lack of content to himself, but that’s changed slowly. Diddy Kong joined the fight, way too late, in Brawl! King K. Rool came krawling into his rightful position in Ultimate. Both announcements set fans absolutely on fire!
Donkey Kong is part of the original 12, and this definitely isn’t in his favor. Unlike new additions, he isn’t modeled to be “Donkey Kong in a fighting form!” He’s modeled to be a gorilla in a fighting game. He’s basic, animalistic, and doesn’t even have his iconic voice! Smash opts for a more realistic voice for DK and it just doesn’t work. Donkey Kong doesn’t throw barrels! That’s the one big thing that everyone knows he does! He shares almost no personality with his origin games. The reveal trailers for King. K Rool and Banjo did a better job expressing who Donkey Kong is supposed to be than the game itself!
Diddy Kong, unfortunately, has a lot in common with Donkey Kong. A lot more of his visual attitude is captures, but he loses it all in his playstyle and voice. Diddy also uses realistic chimp sounds, and again feels more like “a playable monkey” than “Diddy Kong joining the fight!” His moveset entirely focuses on a banana item. It seems fitting for Diddy until you realize that the only other traits you’ll get from him come from his facial expressions.
Everything that the Kongs get wrong, K. Rool gets perfect! As one of the newest additions to the roster, King. K Rool is designed with the updated philosophies the newer characters have. He still uses a more realistic voice, but his voice is more exaggerated and “cartoonish” than the other two. K. Rool features a moveset entirely based around his appearances in other titles. Something the other two are sorely lacking in. King K. Rool is large, in charge, and brutal. He isn’t animalistic and primal like Donkey Kong. He looks dangerous, and painful, but not stupid. King K. Rool is everything I want the other two, and others like them, to be in future entires.
The Donkey Kong series now sees a ton of music, a ton of spirits, and multiple stages. Donkey Kong still doesn’t come close to Mario or Pokemon, but it certainly doesn’t feel as far off as it once did. I still believe no Funky Kong echo was a missed opportunity.