Bowser fights Mario. It's a long-established fact of life in video games. There's an entire new generation of kids being raised now for whom it's such a law of the universe, it's absurd to look at it in any other light. They don't understand or appreciate that Mario's first-ever foe was a big ape by the name of Donkey Kong, mostly because Donkey Kong is now so firmly entrenched in the Nintendo canon as a good guy.
Huh? It's not unusual for video game heroes to become villains, but it's not seen nearly as often in reverse. If a villain does an about-face, he usually becomes an anti-hero. Donkey Kong, however, took the full trip over video gaming's moral event horizon, turning from the very direct villain into the very direct hero. I'm not sure anyone outside the Nintendo offices knows exactly why this happened - besides the given financial reasons, anyway - but after his stint as Mario's original antagonist, Donkey Kong dropped off the face of the Earth (or perhaps the Mushroom Kingdom) for a decade. During the time off, he was supplanted as Mario's nemesis by quite a few villains: Wart, Wario, and of course, the mighty Bowser, King of the Koopa, kidnapper of Princesses, and all-time great video game villain.
Donkey Kong was remembered as one of the great relics of the video game past by the time a remake of the original was released on the Game Boy in 1994. That game earned some acclaim, then was written off again, but this time, Donkey Kong wasn't about to let himself be forgotten again. Later that year, he resurfaced again, but there was something a lot different. This time, he wasn't being pulled along for the ride by his longtime arch rival. He had a new rival to fight it out with - and this time, it wasn't as the villain, but as the hero.
In Donkey Kong Country, we meet the entire Kong clan: The main character is Donkey. He's bringing along his best friend Diddy (not the rapper…. Okay, you know what? I'm not even going to try to joke about this anymore. What's his name changed his hip hop identity so often, it's almost like he's trying to pre-empt himself out of irrelevance), as well as family members Candy, Funky, and Cranky. Why all the firepower? There's another reptile in town. He's a Bowser wannabe called King K. Rool, and since Kong Island doesn't have a Princess to kidnap, he does what's actually the much more sensible thing by going after the Kong family food stash. Well, considering the past between him and Mario, obviously Donkey Kong isn't going to ask Mario to track down his pantry. Besides, Mario is a portly plumber anyway - even if he succeeded, he would probably eat the entire banana pile himself. Donkey Kong, on the other hand, is a fucking gorilla - 800 pounds of hardy, powerful muscle ready to beat down anything in its path! With a lot to prove - he lost to a PLUMBER, for fuck sake! - it's clobberin' time as Donkey and Diddy follow the banana peel trail to Rool's headquarters!
In 2003, there was a re-release of Donkey Kong Country for the Game Boy Advance, which is now one of the most demanded games for the pocket console. It mirrors the Super NES version in all the ways that matter, although you can save anywhere on the overhead map now, and Candy Kong is running a dance studio in which you can win nice prizes. The levels are all the same, and the gameplay is also the same. For the game, you'll be controlling either Donkey or Diddy, and whoever you're not controlling will be there as a tag-team mate, at least most of the time. You can switch back and forth between the two on the fly, but you would have to be nuts to try to get through the game with Diddy as the lead. He has his uses, but Donkey Kong overwhelms him. Donkey's thrown barrels go further, and he has the power to totally crush enemies that Diddy just bounces off.
Donkey Kong Country is your standard platform game. While it received mounds of critical acclaim when it was first released, it's actually considered somewhat overrated today. Not bad, mind you. Not even close. Just overrated. This is more because of the game's execution than because of its design. The levels tend to frequently waver between workmanlike and extraordinary. The level we tend to frequently see featured for Donkey Kong Country is the very first one, with the rhino and the secret tunnel, and that's a travesty to the game because there's so much more about it that's worth showing off. There are other levels that feature mine cart racing, turning lights on and off, and outrunning giant millstones.
Unfortunately, when the level design goes wrong, it REALLY goes wrong. The throwback dynamic isn't in play in Donkey Kong Country, but Diddy Kong tends to be tossed backward a little bit if he attacks an enemy he's not big enough to take out. There's a level later on in the game which involves jumping across long series of slow-moving platforms. These platforms sometimes have enemies on them, and they're not wide enough for Donkey and Diddy to co-exist on them. So you're forced to jump on the bad guys before landing on the platforms. Some of the bad guys are too strong even for Donkey, so he has to throw pre-placed barrels at them to make the platforms safe. It's a brutal level no matter what you do, but it's damn near impossible if you're stuck using Diddy. Using Diddy means not being able to take out one inconveniently-placed bad guy by jumping, which will throw him into the pit. It also means added inconvenience in throwing barrels, because Diddy has to jump to get any distance with them.
That sums up a lot of the problems that Donkey Kong Country actually has. This game is unique in that it seems to be embodying a lot of the old cliches about 16-bit platformers while parodying them and averting them at the same time. Cranky Kong is even in the game as an advice character, but what he really excels at is talking about what video games were like back in his day. It's a beautifully done game for everything it is, but it won't be mistaken for anything truly original. This is a game that plays it safe and wants to give everyone a good, long, worthwhile video gaming experience. It definitely succeeds at doing just that, but it succeeds without taking chances or challenging the perceptions of a well-weathered gamer.
Where Donkey Kong Country did prove to be ahead of its time was in its exploration rewards. Exploratory rewards weren't a new thing at the original release of Donkey Kong Country - they're another thing that can easily be traced back to the earliest days of Mario. It's just that before the release of this sucker, no one had ever seen so freaking many of them in the same place! Before Donkey Kong Country, secret rewards and Easter Eggs were difficult to find. You had to really experiment with the game and go out of your way to find just one which may or may not have even existed in the first place. Donkey Kong Country turned that idea right onto its head, and made it so that it would be very difficult to stumble through a lot of levels WITHOUT uncovering something you weren't supposed to know about. Therefore, the exploration in Donkey Kong Country was never about uncovering the level's secret. It was about uncovering as many of them as you could find, and then boldly experimenting even more just to see if you managed to get them all. This game is probably the greatest forerunner to today's 3D platform games, where the challenge doesn't matter as much as the completion rate, so you can unlock more levels and make it deeper into the game. Donkey Kong later took that idea to an extreme, in Donkey Kong 64.
I shouldn't even have to explain the graphics. We all know how good they look. Hell, the new graphics rendering technique was used as a selling point in the original version on the Super NES, and it still looks great on the Game Boy Advance. This game is bright, beautifully detailed, and, and…. Well, I can't be blinded by the way the graphics look anymore. The animation is among the laziest I've ever seen, because the characters don't have much of anything to do other than walk or, if they're feeling frisky, bounce. And yeah, this is a game from Rare, which means you shouldn't expect any variety or imagination in the character designs.
The soundtrack is among the all-time classics of the Silver Era, and everything has been replicated in full strength to the Game Boy Advance. The catching, thumping jungle drums are all in here, and the gorgeous "Aquatic Ambience" is as stunning as ever. The final boss music is also one of the great tracks in video game history. There are screams for when the characters fall into a pit, which are completely unnecessary, not to mention annoying. If you flip a light switch, it makes a satisfying click, and if a shark gets you in an underwater level, there's a funny chomp. Overall, the music and sounds are both excellent.
Donkey Kong Country could have lived very easily without the roll move, which shares its space with the speed-up button and therefore is risky to use in small spaces. The ability to switch characters is nice, so you can switch to Donkey after spending too long as Diddy trying to find him. Jump, well, jumps. The controls work excellently, which is good because of the amount of clout for mistakes the game likes to offer. If you're stuck in a level where you have to use barrel cannons in order to get across a large gap, you're going to waste a few lives because the barrel's aim changed while you were pushing the button, and there's so little room for error that you'll be sent flying into the pit.
Donkey Kong Country was considered one of the greatest games ever when it was first released. Now it's considered overrated. It never really distanced itself from the pack. It still holds up well because it's a fulfilling game which provides the works inasmuch as doing its duty as a platform game. Don't expect a revolutionary 2D game, though. A lot of people loved and remember Donkey Kong Country, and justifiably so. But in the long-term race called history, this game is currently getting absolutely trounced by Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, which was released not long after Donkey Kong Country to very little hype, but which is now held up as a shining example of true platforming greatness during the 16-bit Era.
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About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial. Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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