Kong-a-thon: Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong IconReleased in 1994, the original Donkey Kong Country is an example of a game that’s very much a product of its time. Rare’s technical tricks gave it graphics unlike anything seen on a 16-bit system up to that point, and helped the game fly off store shelves that holiday season. It also rebooted Nintendo’s aging Donkey Kong franchise for a new generation, and established Rare as one of Nintendo’s premier second-party partners.

I first heard about it in Nintendo Power magazine, but the screenshots, featuring the sterile pre-rendered characters and backgrounds, didn’t excite me too much. It wasn’t until I saw it in motion that I really understood what the big deal was. Being before the internet was mainstream and capable of streaming video, the only way to see a game in motion was either on a TV commercial or an in-store display. Nintendo went the extra mile of sending out promotional VHS tapes about the game, but for some reason, I never got a copy. (Strange, considering I got promo tapes for several other games over the years.)

Box art - Donkey Kong Country

And while I was impressed with the graphics, they didn’t quite cover up the fact that the gameplay was very pedestrian. It was essentially a by-the-numbers Mario-clone, and what let me down the most was that I got to the end of the game in about a day. According to Nintendo Power, there were over 50 bonus levels hidden throughout the game, and I took that to mean full-length stages, so I figured that’s what would give the game longevity. When I realized they only meant those silly little bonus rooms I had occasionally stumbled across, I was even more disappointed. I had little desire to search for those things, as they just weren’t as interesting as the main game.

I didn’t think it was a bad game, though, and I ended up playing it a lot, but it certainly wasn’t the second coming of video games as Nintendo Power had made it out to be. I’ll admit I did get caught up in the hype, but ultimately, I think I came away from it a little lukewarm.

Screenshot - Donkey Kong Country
Screenshot courtesy of vgmuseum.com

Revisiting it now 20 years later, I have to say, I don’t think it’s aged all that well. After two decades of hindsight, the graphics no longer carry the rest of the game, and some of the backgrounds even look a little muddy. Controls feel a little imprecise at times, and the collision detection is extremely wonky. Sometimes the screen scrolling doesn’t want to follow the action. The boss fights are generally lazy, with a couple of them even being repeated. Rare still seemed to be following the same design mentality they used for Battletoads, giving them very simple patterns, but increasing their speed as a cheap way of adding challenge. The whole game just feels rough and unpolished.

However, it does have one redeeming feature that has stood the test of time: the soundtrack. Composed mainly by Dave Wise and Eveline Fischer, it features eclectic, atmospheric, and at times, surprisingly complex pieces of music. It was also one of the first instances that I saw a video game soundtrack for sale. The DK Jamz album was available through Nintendo’s official catalog. I bought the audio cassette version and listened to it a lot on car rides. To this day, I’m still a big Dave Wise fan.

Other than that, the original Donkey Kong Country is not a terrible game, so I hate to sound overly critical. However, from a design standpoint, I feel it doesn’t live up to Nintendo’s standards. Sometimes, developers that are very proficient on a technical level, like Rare, tend to be a little rudimentary in their game design skills. In the case of DKC, it seems less like it was born out of an idea for a game, and more like Rare first came up with the technique of pre-rendered graphics, and then built a game around it. In that sense, DKC feels a little like a tech demo.

Out of all the games, the original Donkey Kong Country is my least favorite. The little annoyances just build up for me. Fortunately, Nintendo’s influence would quickly help hone Rare’s design skill into something much better, so it’s all uphill from here.

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2 thoughts on “Kong-a-thon: Donkey Kong Country

  1. Rare got a reputation as being this stellar developer in the mid-to-late-90s, and while their games were never bad, I never thought of them as amazing. Technically impressive, as you say, but paling in comparison to Nintendo’s amazing game design.

    1. Nester

      Rare and Nintendo complemented each other in way. Rare’s emphasis on the technical side was balanced by Nintendo’s attention to gameplay. Rare probably didn’t realize the influence Nintendo had on them at the time.

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