When Donkey Kong Country became a huge, runaway hit for the Super NES (as if it could ever have been a failure), you had to know more was right down the line. Would video game-playing adults like to have a version of Donkey Kong Country to carry around with them as they traveled? Of course they would! The practical problem, though, was that all Nintendo really had as a portable console at the time was the Game Boy, an 8-bit console with two action buttons and a black and white screen. And Donkey Kong Country was not only a 16-bit game, but a rather massive behemoth of one at that. There was no way all those levels and secrets, not to mention the beautifully rendered graphics and classic soundtrack, could all be crammed onto a freaking Game Boy cartridge!
But holy fucking shit if they didn't try.
Meet Donkey Kong Land, Rare's effort to shrink a large, solid platformer with some of the most gorgeous graphics and music of the 16-bit era down to bite size. Now, Donkey Kong Land was never meant to be an 8-bit remake of Donkey Kong Country. It's a successor of sorts, but it does contain a lot of the level and character dynamics of its bigger sibling on the Super NES. Donkey Kong Land isn't a game that will leave non-Super NES people unfulfilled for not owning the 16-bit game that spawned it.
Donkey Kong Land even contains a wink at the success of Donkey Kong Country. Donkey and Diddy Kong are basking in the glow of fame that's coming from the success of DKC, and in the meantime, Cranky is watching and turning green. Not just because it's the color of the Game Boy screen, but envy green. As Cranky Kong is wont to do, he starts insisting that the success of Donkey and Diddy only came from the fancy graphics and sounds in the 16-bit day and age, because kids love shiny things! For Cranky to really consider them good, they need to have success without the fancy graphics and music, on a tough cartridge played on an 8-bit console! I'm relatively sure Donkey and Diddy might have been able to shrug all that criticism off, but Cranky went out and pulled a major no-no: He went and told King K. Rool his thoughts. Then he talked Rool into stealing Donkey's banana horde again, which Rool is of course more than happy to do.
There are four worlds in Donkey Kong Land, each with a number of levels. There are a lot of similar level themes between Donkey Kong Land and its senior brother, and that's especially apparent in the beginning of the game. Jungle and water levels are just about everywhere, and Rare doesn't try to veil their level design inspirations at all. Later you get to journey through temples and caves. Anyone who isn't all that familiar with the original DKC can see the jungle levels were apparently lifted directly from the Super NES - they LOOK almost exactly alike, with the only difference being in the colors.
The levels also feel very similar to the old DKC. This is pretty typical platform-hopping action: You jump around, and level semantics emphasize more terrain-based danger than enemy-based danger. The enemies in Donkey Kong Land are very sporadic. Since the game is a platformer, they're not expected to be very difficult; some are there to throw you an occasional curveball, but for the most part, hit them once - either by rolling into them or bouncing onto their heads - and they're done. They're more nuisance than threat, and most of them are in the game either as token resistance or as a way of adding an element of danger to some of the other obstacles. Also, I'm very pleased to report that the water levels are actually very well done in Donkey Kong Land, and I have yet to run into any chase levels. Unfortunately, there are ice levels, though, and the ice in this game is pretty unforgiving.
Of course, since the levels are so straightforward, that makes it an extra delight when you stumble into one of Donkey Kong Land's vast multitude of secrets. There's so much in this game to visit and discover that you'll be sacrificing lives very willingly a lot, on the chance that a pit contains a barrel cannon which will shoot Donkey or Diddy off into the wild blue yonder ("wild blue yonder" here meaning one of the game's many bonus stages). Of course, you could save yourself the trouble by visiting Gamefaqs or Youtube these days, but setting out to find secrets in platformers through trial and error was one of the reasons gamers who were around for the 16-bit era remember it as the Silver Era of video gaming. To make an omelette, you need to break some eggs, you know?
One of the sacrifices needed to bring the gameplay of Donkey Kong Country down to bite size was getting rid of Donkey and Diddy's tag teaming. Okay, well, not entirely. You can still switch between the two of them on the fly, but only one of them can be displayed on the screen at any time. Fortunately, this doesn't have any real effect on the gameplay. In fact, if anyone was distracted in DKC because both Donkey and Diddy were onscreen at the same time, it's an improvement. The other members of the Kong family are also missing in action, presumable because they would have made the game too large for its own good. Unfortunately, there were a couple of other things that needed to be done to make Donkey Kong Land playable on the Game Boy: One was to increase the size of the sprites relative to the size of the screen. Unfortunately, this also means you're not able to see quite as much of the land directly ahead of you. Donkey Kong Land is packed with those ultra-annoying jumps from old school platformers. You know the ones I'm referring to: The ones where you're at an edge where you can't see anything but dead air to land on, and so you're forced to make a leap into the wild unknown, hoping to god there just happens to be a ledge to land on right under the spot you're aiming for.
The game save system in Donkey Kong Country gets an F sharp. Yeah, it works just fine, and it leaves you right at the level you just finished when you turned the game off. But to activate it, you need to go into the level and collect the letters K, O, N, and G for a shot to save your game! I really have to call bullshit on this one. I understand that Rare was working with an 8-bit console, so I won't gripe about the save feature not being a save-anywhere. But if this game was apparently able to offer the player a save between every complete level, then why the hell didn't Rare just do that in the first place? Why torment the gamer like this? I'm one of those gamers who always chides developers for half-assed save systems on portable games because I'm an adult with things to do, and I can't afford to wait for the next save point to pop up. If I have to shut a portable game off, I need to do it NOW. Donkey Kong Land would be fine if it allowed a save option between levels no matter what. Instead, it makes you fight for the right to shut off the game before you're finished, and that's inexcusable.
The graphics in Donkey Kong Land are, relatively speaking, every bit a match for their 16-bit counterparts. Donkey and Diddy move with a respectable number of animation frames without any slowdown. The sprites are probably as detailed as they could be on the Game Boy, and the backgrounds are fit for a 16-bit cartridge. My lone complaint? The character designs. Anyone familiar with Rare's work knew this one was coming. Rare was never the great king of design originality, and with Donkey Kong Land being an 8-bit game, the artists had a built-in excuse to not even try to challenge themselves. There's little variety in enemies, the bosses are some of the poorest excuses for characters ever in video games - they basically have no design at all.
The music in this game just fucking rocks, okay? This is far above and beyond the call of duty for a Game Boy game. Some of the songs in Donkey Kong Land rank among the best you could ever hear on a portable console, several of them could pass for 16-bit as well, and there isn't a weak one in the bunch. There's a fantastic 8-bit redux of the famous "Aquatic Ambience" song from Donkey Kong Country. Actual sounds are a lot weaker, and are little more than an array of pops.
The gameplay is outstanding. There's no slowdown, and everything is easily done with the Game Boy's two action buttons. Switching characters can be done with the Select button. Donkey and Diddy don't have any real differences in handling. The only real difference is that Donkey's ground attack is a roll, while Diddy's is a cartwheel, but even that doesn't mean anything. Unfortunately, the attack button doubles as the momentum button you need to make long jumps, so if you need momentum and have a rather short space with which to pick it up, you have to waste your some of your short ledge space by attacking before you can begin the run, and that will sometimes be enough to do you in.
Donkey Kong Land is one of the finest games available for one of the world's greatest portable consoles. I play it on my Game Boy Advance, where it works just as well. This was the Game Boy Game of the Year in a lot of publications back in 1995, when it came out. Donkey Kong Land has aged very gracefully, and is today a regular staple on lists of the top Game Boy games. Of course, it's no match for its 16-bit sibling, which is now also available in its full form on the Game Boy Advance, but if that's not around, Donkey Kong Land will be more than enough to hold over until you can find a copy.