Super NES Retro Review: Donkey Kong Country

Super NES Retro Review: Donkey Kong Country

Join us as we review every Super NES Classic game. Next up: Let's monkey around.

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

Sometimes we include links to online retail stores. If you click on one and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. See our terms & conditions.

Nadia Oxford

Staff Writer

Nadia has been writing about games for so long, only the wind and the rain (or the digital facsimiles thereof) remember her true name. She's written for Nerve, About.com, Gamepro, IGN, 1UP, PlayStation Official Magazine, and other sites and magazines that sling words about video games. She co-hosts the Axe of the Blood God podcast, where she mostly screams about Dragon Quest.

Read this next

In Defense of Cal Kestis, Jedi: Fallen Order's Dorkiest Padawan

There's more to Fallen Order's red-headed Jedi than meets the eye.

We Tested Google Stadia at Dunkin Donuts, Safeway, and Panda Express, And We Were Surprised by the Results

Trying out Google Stadia in the real world is an interesting experience.

Halo: Reach's PC Version Sports an Enhanced Mode That Goes Beyond Performance

Digital Foundry got a look at Reach for PC and liked what they saw.

Pokemon Sword and Shield's New "Bleached Form" Corsola Is an Oddly Relaxed Nod to Climate Change

The Pokemon world seems to have different environmental problems than our own.

The Biggest Game Awards 2019 Snubs and Surprises: Disco Elysium and Outer Wilds Miss Out

Some indie darlings are up for smaller awards, but not the major one.

8 of the Best New Pokemon in Sword and Shield, From Polteageist to Grapploct

Eight of our favorite new monsters from Pokemon Gen 8.

More Reviews

Pokemon Sword and Shield Review: The Promising Dawn of a New Generation

After all the controversy, it turns out that Pokemon Sword and Shield is actually pretty darn good.

Google Stadia Review: A Muddled Stream of Consciousness

Google's vision of our gaming future is still in the future.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order Review: A New Hope

Respawn bursts on the scene with one of the best Star Wars games in ages, but there's a dark side.

More on SNES

Bart Simpson and Godzilla Were Almost in NBA Jam

Or at least, toy-like facsimiles.

A Thank You From USgamer For Extra Life 2019

We beat our goal, and it's thanks to all of you.

Starting Screen | Three Classic Letters That Show How Much Easier It Is to Be a Video Game Fan in 2019

The gaming community knew nothing in the '90s, and frankly, neither did a lot of publishers.

The Blood God Recommends: Dragon Quest 3 for the Switch

A 30-year-old RPG that's aged to near-perfection.

Zelda A Link to the Past: How to Get the Book of Mudora

You’ll need the Book of Mudora to get into the Desert Palace. Here’s where to find it.

Street Fighter 2's Creator on Why Blocking Was Once a Controversial Issue

A creator and a pro sit down to talk blocking in fighting games.

More Platformer Games

Rare Announces Everwild, Its Mysterious New IP

We got a glimpse of what Rare's next project is.

Shovel Knight's Final Expansions Are Coming Next Month

They'll mark the end of Treasure Trove, but not for our brave blue Knight.

The Artist Who Led Movie Sonic's Redesign Has a Long History With the Hedgehog

Tyson Hesse is no stranger to these blue quills and red kicks.

Mega Man 11 is One of the Most Successful Games in Series History

The Blue Bomber did quite well in his latest fight for everlasting peace.