Sometimes, I have simply no idea on how to make an introduction to a review. This SNES title contains such a sizeable history behind its creation and is one I have many fond memories of playing, that it becomes hard to summarise it all within a single paragraph. With this in mind, you probably already can tell that this is an important game for me personally. Despite this, I will do my best to provide an honest and thorough look at this interesting beast of a project.
Timing and tension
King K. Rool and his crew of Kremlings have stolen the Kongs’ pile of bananas, and Donkey Kong sets out with his nephew, Diddy Kong, to stop them! Despite that this is all the story you are going to get, there are certainly some nice personalities included, like Cranky Kong who scolds how spoiled you are with all these graphics, the flirty Candy Kong, and Funky Kong filling the role as the stereotypical surfing dude. Although, the plot is only there to get you started and I am all for that!
In this linear platformer, you travel to each location where you take on stages one at a time until you fight a boss and continue on to the next area. You will be controlling either Donkey or Diddy, with them both being able to jump, roll to attack, and combine them for a long jump. This last move is incredible for taking on difficult segments and is not hard to master. Although, the duo also differ in some minor aspects. While they both can run, Diddy is the fastest with better air control. As for Donkey Kong, he can take out specific enemies with ease that his nephew cannot and slap the ground for finding secrets. It should be noted though that due to Diddy’s better platforming capabilities, he will be the one most used of the two.
However, you do not get to choose who to control before a level, but rather have both alongside that you can switch between with the push of a button. If you take damage as either, that Kong will run off the screen and leave you alone with your backup. Should he get hit too, you will lose a life. Luckily, collectables are there to help you through this adventure. Gathering 100 bananas, discovering hidden balloons or finding the letters K, O, N, and G in a stage will each give you an extra life. Furthermore, there are tons of hidden rooms, golden statues of animals that will take you to a bonus area if you find three of the same kind, and much more to make sure your curiosity is rewarded.
Exploration is thus an important aspect of these stages and can even lead to finding barrels to throw that will roll on the ground. A lovely detail is how each of the heroes will pick them up, with Diddy holding the barrel in front of him while Donkey will keep it above his head, offering varied areas of protection. These come in different types, ranging between normal sorts that simply attack anyone they come into contact with, TNTs that cause explosions, those marked with DK that let you reunite with your partner, and the ones made out of steel that will continue to roll until they fall off a cliff. You can actually ride the last one by jumping on them, which is a neat trick. The only kind that cannot be picked up are those used as checkpoints, and being underwater makes you lose this ability entirely.
I have just talked a lot in depth about what might be uncomplicated mechanics, but that is because all of these factors are taken into account for each stage, since this game is fierce and challenging. Each level is short and has structures that are easy to understand, yet every level provides something to make them stand out from one another and test your skills to your limit. You will have to dodge countless enemies while simultaneously using them as platforms, ride minecarts that require tight jumping reflexes, carefully swim through obstacles underwater, and climb and hop between ropes that automatically pull you up or down.
All of these stages are creative and offer something different for you to do despite a limited moveset. This is all thanks to how Donkey Kong Country focuses on timing as its main concept. Blasting out of barrels, knowing opponents’ patterns, seeing hazards’ rhythms, and even leaping between vines, all are about careful planning and quick reactions. This project also holds no punches either, with bottomless pits and fiends being a constant threat, leading to the extra lives mattering. However, none feel unfairly placed or annoying, making this a difficult title for all the right reasons. Not to mention, the foes are quite diverse, such as the slithering snakes, the buff Klumps, the flying buzzes and more, forcing you to be attentive and aggressive.
You do get some leniency with the animals to ride on, like the charging rhino, the stabbing swordfish, the hopping frog with a gut of iron, and the ostrich that lets you glide. The parrot is the only one you cannot ride as he just illuminates the dark caves, but everyone is useful and fun to have along for the levels they can be found in. While they can be lost upon one hit, you are able to gain them back if you are fast enough and jump on them again, which is a great touch! Outside of the normal stages, you can also find Cranky for giving you tips on the levels around, Candy for saving the game, and Funky for travelling between locations. This setup adds to the tension when you cannot save at any time or go to a safe place for racking up lives, making every move count.
All of the varied level layouts, enemy placements, mechanics, and challenges in the entire journey are magnificent. In fact, the only parts that I am not on board with are the boss fights, as they are straightforward by requiring jumping on their heads or throwing barrels at them in order to be defeated. Their patterns are nothing to write home about either, and their odd hit detections with you having merely a few hits to take before losing a life do make them at times annoying. Even two early bosses are reused for some weird reason and their extra moves do little to destroy the feeling of deja vu.
Besides this minor issue, I am amazed by how well Donkey Kong Country has held up. It has tons of fantastic stages, diverse takes within its setup, simple and effective concepts, and everything comes together to provide a wonderful experience with a beautiful difficulty curve that is never cheap. It might seem short, but due to how your lives can easily be lost, the save feature will be your saving grace all the way until the final fight.
Gameplay Score: 9/10
The team at Rare used a method called Advanced Computer Modelling for rendering SGI models into the game, which was no easy task to do on the 16-bit hardware. Incredibly enough, it still made for a gorgeous looking project on a technical level with smooth animations and impressive scenery that could almost be mistaken for hand-drawn 3D backgrounds. Donkey Kong and his crew feature plenty of movements and updated designs, giving them visual personalities that are mesmerising to witness, with the vicious creatures being just as remarkable.
Luckily, this outstanding achievement did not compensate for creativity. Entertaining takes on crocodile fiends, buzzsaw bees, and more, add to give this island an ecosystem that is believable and diverse. You will be travelling through thick jungles, swinging past treehouses, climbing on snowy mountains, and exploring foggy caves just to name a few, providing a variety of locations to witness. There are even some lovely subtleties for making one area distinct from another, like the treetops section where the day turns into night or the factory part that struggles with lighting.
I also admire how much parallax scrolling is going on, with even the foreground having visual flavours that never obscure your view, making this world feel vast and magical! Everything fits within this island’s structure and what you see on the map screens convey clearly what you will be visiting on your journey. It is truly praiseworthy how the imagination is flourishing within a consistent tone, while still being a technical marvel.
David Wise, Eveline Fischer, and Robin Beanland composed the music and it shows how much they understood the hardware’s capabilities. It is an impressive soundtrack that has parts with an uplifting el-guitar for its main theme, ambient and calming panflute echoing underwater, jazzy piano while exploring the overworld, and fast trumpets within the dangerous caves where you will be riding minecarts. These are only a few examples, but all of the melodies contain varied instruments, rhythms, and notes, giving diverse atmospheres that match the stages perfectly. Even the general audio is superb, be it the harsh explosions, bumps whenever kicking an enemy off levels or the animals’ cute sounds! No criticism here at all.
Presentation Score: 10/10
Treasures worth more than gold!
From the start, you can play this game with a friend in either contest or team mode. The former functions as a general race to see who comes first to the end, while the latter basically alternates between who is in control. Both are nice options, but easy to ignore for the singleplayer one. The real replay value comes actually from the secrets to find, since there are tons in every level to discover! Hidden rooms, barrels, and collectable letters will be hard to acquire, though exclamation marks are put by the stage’s name on the map screen when you have gotten them all to provide some leniency to your treasure hunt. The reward for completing everything is nothing worthwhile, but the journey is certainly an exciting one and adds to the challenge.
Extra Score: 9/10
This is one of the finest platformers ever, and one that still offers a wonderful difficulty curve, simple but important setups, and a presentation that is truly magnificent. Every level is engaging, and with how many secrets there are to uncover, it will hold your interest for a long time. While I would mainly recommend the SNES version, the GBA port is a commendable one with some neat inclusions. It has some visual changes to help the dark screen of the original hardware, and despite that the story and minigames are unnecessary, it is worth considering for newcomers due to being able to save and go wherever you want at any time, with its better boss battles being a great addition. What I am trying to say is; just play it. Except for the downright bad GBC adaptation.