Super NES Classic Reviews Game by Game #15: Donkey Kong Country

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Review by Nadia Oxford, .

Join us as we review all the games on the SNES Classic Mini Edition in chronological order!

1994 was an incredible year for SNES games. Now, decades later, we still sing songs of praise for '94 gems like Super Metroid and Final Fantasy III. However, 1994 was also a troubling year for the 16-bit market in general. Developers were nearly done squeezing every drop of power from the SNES and Genesis' plucky little processors, and the PlayStation's siren song was drifting in loud and clear from overseas. The End was Near. Not simply for 16-bit systems, but for cartridge-based games, period.

Nintendo did its best to stay calm; its efforts to seem as hip and cool as the Sega Genesis were finally starting to pay off (even though looking at "Play it Loud" commercials today makes me take a deep breath and press my lips together in a straight line). Sega was ready with the Saturn, but the N64 was still some miles down the road. Nintendo had to keep the SNES' momentum going, and it did so by convincing the masses that next-gen graphics were possible on its system.

And, honestly, Rare's Donkey Kong Country made a good argument for Nintendo's case. While the game's pre-rendered sprites look frayed by today's standards, there was nothing else like it on the SNES – and certainly not on the Sega Genesis, Nintendo gloated. Moreover, "computer rendering" was a hot buzz term thanks to Jurassic Park's much-publicized dinosaur effects (the best of which were executed using puppetry, but that's a kitchen-raptor of a different color), and that did a lot to bolster Donkey Kong Country's hype and subsequent sales.

d00d! It's like Jurassic Park, d00d!

It's trendy to look back at Donkey Kong Country and say "Boy, were we taken for a ride! The graphics were great for the time, but nothing about the game has held up. It's just an average platformer."

I disagree. While Donkey Kong Country 2 improves over its predecessor in wide strides, the first game is a solid 2D action title that's still enjoyable to play through. True, its platforming isn't as complex or interesting as Super Mario World's or Mega Man X's; most of the levels push you from left to right and don't encourage much exploration beyond "find breakable walls for bonus rooms" (and said bonus rooms only offer one-dimensional puzzle games for extra lives and other unimpressive prizes). Still, Donkey Kong Country's gameplay flows well, and its levels boast a surprisingly oppressive atmosphere that was uncommon in platformers at the time.

That's not to suggest Donkey Kong Country is a "dark" or "gritty" game in any form; the main plot deals with Donkey Kong trying to rescue his stolen banana horde. That's not exactly gripping drama. Rather, Donkey Kong Country eschews other platformers' sunny skies and green hills for dripping caverns, dimly-lit treetops, rainstorms, and industrial zones. Snow Barrel Blast, a personal favorite, gradually smothers you in a snowstorm as you progress through the level. You can practically feel the bits of ice and snow sting your eyelids while you play.

Still a safer ride than your average wooden coaster from the '70s.

Veteran Rare composer David Wise still deserves props for Donkey Kong Country's soundtrack, as it lends favorably to the game's memorably oppressive atmosphere. Aquatic Ambiance is remixed to this day, and Wise himself re-visited Fear Factory in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.

Donkey Kong Country also benefits from its "buddy tag" system. Kong's little pal, Diddy, plays differently from the big ape: Whereas Kong's weight makes it easier to dispatch big foes and hurl barrels with devastating strength, Diddy specializes in quick movements and high jumps that are ideal for finding hidden areas. In other words, the extra Kong who tags alongside you is more than a meat-shield engineered to absorb an extra hit. The strategy you employ is dependent on which simian takes point. If you want to play a little more slowly and not worry about well-armored enemies, Donkey Kong is a good choice. If you want to blaze through a level recklessly and find hidden stuff, Diddy Kong satisfies your need for speed.

Are there parts of Donkey Kong Country that demonstrate how pre-rendered graphics and the SNES processor are an unholy coupling that was never meant to be? Oh, sure. The paper-thin backgrounds are cringe-inducing, and it's clear zero resources were spent on the game's incredibly uninspired bosses (kudos to Rare for getting away with "Necky's Nuts," though, to say nothing of the fact you can ride on a frog named "Winky").

I'm disappointed Rare didn't try for more beaver jokes, to be honest.

Frankly, I'd much rather have Donkey Kong Country 2 on the SNES Classic Edition, as it improves on Donkey Kong Country in every way. Its levels are much more interesting, its secret rooms are much more rewarding, its graphics hold up surprisingly well, and even its soundtrack is superior to Wise's excellent series debut. But that's not to suggest Donkey Kong Country is a poor game in any regard. It plays second banana to much of the SNES Classic's line-up, but there's plenty of chest-pounding fun in its levels.

Donkey Kong Country isn't as mind-blowing as it was in '94, but it's still a great platformer. Its unique atmosphere, its buddy-tag system, and its excellent soundtrack all add up to an SNES experience that's not stellar, but it's as solid as a vest made from real gorilla chest.

4 /5

Super NES Classic Reviews Game by Game #15: Donkey Kong Country Nadia Oxford Join us as we review every Super NES Classic game. Next up: Let's monkey around. 2017-08-25T17:55:00-04:00 4 5

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Comments 23

  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #1 Monkey-Tamer 5 months ago
    Best water level music ever.
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  • Avatar for SIGGYZtar #2 SIGGYZtar 5 months ago
    Prettier Battletoads.
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  • Avatar for The-Challenger #3 The-Challenger 5 months ago
    I always stop playing once I get to the Gorilla Glacier portion. Which kind of sucks because I really enjoy Kremkroc Industries, Inc.
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  • Avatar for bring_on_branstons #4 bring_on_branstons 5 months ago
    Great review. I hope I don't get negged for this but I've always been perplexed by the love shown to DKC.

    Even back when I first played it in '94... there was something not quite right with it for me. Sure, it's a good fun game, and I liked it. It's well made, a technical marvel, a solid good game! For the time (and esp for the SNES) fantastic graphics. Great soundtrack (water level!!).

    But it wasn't anywhere as good as MarioWorld or even Marios 1-3... I found the gameplay simplistic and quite obvious even then. It's all so linear and basic. Yes it can be fun and some great levels (barrel blasting is always fun), but it lacks true vision and the levels are terribly linear in design, and the 'bonus' stages are just plain boring.

    Compared to the subtle depths employed in Marioworld with Mario's more sophisticated moveset (cape FTW!) and branching map design, DKC seemed a regressive step from a gameplay POV.
    And then there was Yoshi's Island to come which drops on this from such a great height (best graphics ever which haven't aged - oh the irony - and esp depth in gameplay) that I can only feel that DKC was a bit of an false coming overhyped and dressed up by the games media of the day.

    At the time I really preferred DK '94 on the Gameboy. No flashy lovely graphics. Waaaay more playable. Way more fun.

    Not trying to be too negative here - I do like it, I've never felt it's as good as people make out compared to other platformers of the day. I've played all of the DKC games and my fave SNES one is #3 - by which time Rare had learnt a lot, and in particular I LOVE DKC Returns and Tropical Freeze, both of which I felt finally realised the potential of the originals and unleashed the shackles with way bigger set pieces and vision!Edited 2 times. Last edited August 2017 by bring_on_branstons
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  • Avatar for Thad #5 Thad 5 months ago
    @bring_on_branstons I have a lot of the same gripes about Yoshi's Island as I do about DKC, to be honest: linear level design broken up by secrets that are mostly just collectible geegaws and bonus rooms for 1-ups.

    Yoshi's level hooks are a lot more varied and inspired, though (touch Fuzzy...), and you're dead on about the graphics.
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  • Avatar for bring_on_branstons #6 bring_on_branstons 5 months ago
    @Thad Yeah interesting I think you're spot on in regards to YI mechanics being more interesting within a linear level...

    But I'm surprised you think the level designs in YI are as linear as DKC? Yes the levels in YI don't contain the same number of secrets like MarioWorld (AND I was v v disappointed with the map in YI compared to SMW with it not having any secret paths), BUT imho they have a verticality totally missing from DKC (99% of DKC is along a horizontal path baring a few up and down slopes which can hardly count). Hell even Mario 3 had more height with it's hidden areas in the clouds.

    As you point out, it's the imagination on show by Nintendo in YI which was lacking from Rare - the use of the FX chip to have polygon platforms and traps, that blob of hard goo you had to ground pound to make a different shaped platform to get to a new section, the trippy level where you get hit by those white things, all of the Super Baby Mario bits, the power ups with the helicopter or mole miner... I could go on! The ideas and variety in all of the levels is insane and makes DKC seem v v pedestrian.

    And then there's the bosses. As Nadia says the bosses in DKC are pitiful. The ones in YI are so imaginative - that one on the moon which rotates... the one in the stomach which has the most delicious wobbly graphical edge to it... the epic end battle with Bowser... all amazing.

    I think that's what I'm getting at - it's the simplicity of DKC which irked me then and now. But not splitting hairs - as I said it's v playable and a good game. It's just the unconditional love it seems to get that slightly puzzles me when it's compared to other examples of the genre! ;)Edited August 2017 by bring_on_branstons
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  • Avatar for Thad #7 Thad 5 months ago
    @bring_on_branstons Good point about the vertical sections. I'd meant to praise the boss design, too.

    It probably bears mentioning that I've played YI a lot more recently than DKC; I recently bought a copy on eBay -- I rented it back when it came out, but never bought a copy until now; my recollection was that I enjoyed it but it never quite grabbed me.

    Replaying it today I think I have a better understanding of why that is; it just doesn't have the depth of SMB3 or SMW. That said, SMB2 is probably the better point of comparison -- hell, the Shyguys everywhere are kind of a clue.

    Course, I haven't replayed DKC in 20 years, which itself is probably a pretty good clue as to how much of an impact it made, since I routinely replay games like SMW, LttP, Mega Man X, and Super Metroid.
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  • Avatar for Vaporeon #8 Vaporeon 5 months ago
    I remember calling my dad into the room the moment I first saw the amazing ice crystal graphics in the Slipslide Ride level. Graphics aside, that music... so nostalgic and in my regular "chill work music" queue to this day.
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  • Avatar for BulkSlash #9 BulkSlash 5 months ago
    I'm pretty sure this was my last SNES game before I bailed for the siren call of Ridge Racer on the PS1. I distinctly remember being "ill" on my birthday so I could stay home and play it. I never played DKC2, it seems to get a lot of love but it was a Donkey Kong game without Donkey Kong which never seemed right to me!

    I enjoyed DKC for the most part (and I still listen to the awesome soundtrack) but I was never a fan of the way some secrets were hidden in pits and other insta-death areas. It seemed rather unfair to punish the player for not guessing which pit they'd hidden a barrel that would take you to a bonus room.
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  • Avatar for JohnnyBananas #10 JohnnyBananas 5 months ago
    Nice review Nadia. One of DKC's issues is that it is surrounded chronologically by some of the greatest, most-beloved platformers of all-time. Most games are going to look banal against SMW and YI.

    That said, the controls are a little slippery and it never felt as tight as any Mario game I've played. The movesets were limiting as well and Donkey Kong in particular was kind of clunky and boring - Diddy was way more fun (this probably factors in to DKC2 being superior as Dixie is preferable to Donkey, in my opinion).

    Every once in awhile I'll run-through a bunch of SNES platformers and it usually goes SMW, Mario All-Stars, YI, DKC2 and then if I'm not completely burned out DKC. A good game in an era of great ones.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #11 SargeSmash 5 months ago
    A perhaps unpopular opinion, but I enjoy DKC more than its sequel. I actually like the straightforwardness of it all, the sort of rhythm you can fall into when you're in the zone. The sequel is better on paper, sure, but DKC is the one I prefer to revisit.
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  • Avatar for Sixtenfifty #12 Sixtenfifty 5 months ago
    I was a kid at the time, and I remember the graphics blowing my mind. And the visuals on many SNES games still do, but this title now looks very bland to me - as it does to most players, I'm sure. But it's by no means not a great game still, even though Diddy Kong's Quest is by far the best entry in the series.
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  • Avatar for StrwbrryJams #13 StrwbrryJams 5 months ago
    I'm imagining the rewind function will make this a lot more bearable.
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  • Avatar for TernBird #14 TernBird 5 months ago
    Ah, a vest made from real gorilla chest?
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #15 LBD_Nytetrayn 5 months ago
    I'll always love this game. There's just a certain coziness, a sort of comfort I find in it. The gameplay isn't extravagant, but it didn't really need to be. I think it kept things simple -- simpler than they'd get later -- and just did what it wanted to do well.

    I think it's very much similar in some ways to what Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog were to their series, establishing a solid, pleasing foundation, cast, and world (or part of Mario's world, I guess) upon which the following games would build.

    Plus, I enjoyed playing as Donkey Kong -- something the rest of the trilogy wouldn't allow.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #16 Roto13 5 months ago
    I always thought Donkey Kong Country was a really ugly game. After Donkey Kong Country came out, suddenly beautifully-drawn pixel art wasn't good enough any more. Everything needed to be ugly and pre-rendered. People even complained about Yoshi's Island's beautiful art style because it didn't look like a gross smear.

    I want to look at the alternate universe where pre-rendered graphics never took off and Super Mario RPG is a gorgeous Squaresoft SNES game that came out at the very end of the SNES's life.
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  • Avatar for BulkSlash #17 BulkSlash 5 months ago
    @Roto13 Even Sonic wasn't immune to the prerendered trend, the title screen of Sonic 3 is hideous with its grainy and overly shiny CG Sonic!
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  • Avatar for duncanbarrett-yahoo- #18 duncanbarrett-yahoo- 5 months ago
    This game looks particularly bad on modern TVs - I don't think it's fair to say the graphics have aged badly, this pre-rendered style just isn't designed to be displayed on HDTVs. Still looks beautiful on a CRT.
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  • Avatar for yuberus #19 yuberus 5 months ago
    @SargeSmash totally petty, but I never cared about the sequels because you couldn't play as Donkey Kong. Why even call them donkey kong country if he isn't there?
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  • Avatar for Fallout2 #20 Fallout2 5 months ago
    DKC 3 may have been released too late to make much of a splash, but it's one of the better platformers I've played. Of course everyone (me included) was too busy playing Super Mario 64 by then.
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #21 LBD_Nytetrayn 5 months ago
    @Roto13 This be the same world where the next generation didn't try to eschew 2D gaming as much as they could get away with in the interest of promoting 3D gaming? Because I'd like to see that world.

    I love DKC and think it looked great for its time (per the above comment about viewing it on CRTVs), but like digitized graphics, I don't think every game needed to have that style, even if it served some well.
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  • Avatar for mganai #22 mganai 5 months ago
    @bring_on_branstons Even SMB3? C'mon, I'd argue SMB3 was way better as well. Then again I prefer it to World too. It may not have had levels as big, but it actually had challenging platforming, not to mention a wider sense of variety in terms of levels and powerups.

    DK '94 was always the better Donkey Kong revival.
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  • Avatar for stephenpollard09 #23 stephenpollard09 4 months ago
    Donkey Kong Country and Diddy's Kong Quest were—and still are—two of my favorite video games. DKC3 was a huge dip in quality, and no, the games aren't perfect, but damn it if I didn't love them. I didn't keep up with the weird direction the series went when GCN released, but I also thoroughly enjoyed Donkey Kong 64 and loved DKC Returns. Tropical Freeze was more like DKC3: good fun, but not comparable to the other titles in the series.
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