What a difference the details make.
Released just one year after the original game in 1995, it would be easy to think of Diddy’s Kong Quest as a quick cash-in to the runaway success of Donkey Kong Country. I was a little lukewarm to it myself when I first saw it in Nintendo Power magazine, as it just looked like more of the same. But one thing convinced me to give the series a second chance: Nintendo Power‘s review noted that it was much more difficult than the first game. (On a side note, it irked me that they listed the difficulty as the game’s sole negative. Since when did a good challenge become a bad thing?)
Was it more of the same? Yeah, but Diddy’s Kong Quest improved upon its predecessor in every way. The basic foundation was there. It was still a Mario-style platformer. There were still bonus rooms to find and tons of MacGuffins to collect. But all of the previous game’s rough edges had been smoothed out, and everything that worked was accentuated. It was like Rare had gotten the flashy graphics out of their system with the first game, and had more time to spend on honing the design and polishing the gameplay.
It was the details that really made the difference. It had better hit detection, better stage gimmicks, better boss fights. Bonus barrels were clearly marked as such, and you could backtrack to re-enter bonus rooms as many times as you like without having to restart the entire stage (a very smart design decision). The bonus rooms, themselves, actually served a purpose this time, rewarding the player with “Kremkoins” that could be used to unlock more full-length (and ultra challenging) stages. And the game, overall, was significantly longer.
That’s not to say the presentation took a back seat. There are some nice new graphic effects, like the dynamic sunbeams shining through the trees in the forest levels. Enemy sprites, particularly for minor foes, are bigger and have more personality. David Wise also returned to score the soundtrack, and he really outdid himself this time with an eclectic mix of complex compositions. It’s still one of his masterworks. The overall atmosphere of the game is darker, but extremely well done and compelling.
Diddy’s Kong Quest easily became one of my favorite SNES games back then, and it was the first time I was ever compelled to “100 percent” (or 102 percent, as the case may be) a game entirely on my own.
If one thing struck me as odd, it was that Donkey Kong, himself, was not one of the main playable characters. Instead, Diddy was shoved into the spotlight with his own new partner, Dixie Kong. Perhaps it’s telling that the actual title screen only reads “Diddy’s Kong-Quest” with no mention of “Donkey Kong Country 2.” I missed playing as DK, but the combination of Diddy and Dixie has a somewhat fairy tale feeling to it, like “two kids on a dark adventure.” Also, I wonder if Rare was just trying to establish their own identity rather than rely on Nintendo’s character for recognition.
I’ll admit, I was a little apprehensive about revisiting the game for the Kong-a-thon. It had been a few years since I last played it, and I thought that it might not hold up after I had played the more recent iterations of the series. But as it turns out, it holds up surprisingly well! It’s a little hard to pin down exactly what’s so dramatically different about it from the first game, but after playing them back to back, it’s clear that Diddy’s Kong Quest is just a huge improvement. It’s Donkey Kong Country done right, and in my opinion, it’s still one of the best platform games of its generation.