Fashionably Late: Donkey Kong Country

DKC 1Video games, as a medium, have undergone a kind of paradoxical evolution over the years. Back in the 80s and 90s, when games tended to be more cute and simplistic in appearance, they also tended to be sadistically hard, almost like they were developed with the intent of drawing children in, lulling them into a false sense of security, then crushing them with brutal difficulty for the amusement of developers. It was as though your average game studio during the salad days of the Super Nintendo and Genesis was staffed exclusively by villains escaped from a Roald Dahl novel.

Now, almost the exact opposite is true; games with complex, serious, grim and violent tones dominate the market, but most them are almost insultingly easy by comparison to the titles of yesteryear. It’s a noticeable contrast for someone who cut his teeth on those older titles; I can beat most modern games in a week or two of free time, but my childhood memories are full of brutally hard games that would keep me occupied for a year or more as I applied myself to the Sysyphean task of trying trying to complete them, only to be crushed, go back to the beginning and start all over again.

One game in particular that sticks in my mind, both because it was so hard I never finished it as a child and because I still loved it, was Donkey Kong Country. Recently, I threw myself back into this monkey fracas, and avenged my nine-year-old self’s honor by finally beating it.

I've seen this screen way more often than I care to admit.

I’ve seen this screen way more often than I care to admit.

Back during the height of competition between Nintendo and Sega, the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis were neck-and-neck in their struggle to dominate the console market. Sega had gained a lot of ground due to its attempts to wow kids with the “cool factor” of its titles in comparison to Nintendo’s more family-friendly image, and their 90s-tastic ultra-rad Sonic the Hedgehog franchise in particular had won them a lot of supporters. Nintendo decided that they needed a new platformer series to compete.

Enter Rare, a small British development house that had made a name for themselves developing titles like Wizards and Warriors, Battletoads and R.C. Pro Am for the NES (they also developed a number of terrible licensed games for third party publishers at that time, but we don’t talk about them).

Rare, in a rather brilliant reinvestment strategy, had taken the massive profits they’d made on the NES and purchased some then-cutting-edge Silicon Graphics workstations, the same computers used to design the ground-breaking digital effects used in Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. They were experimenting with using these computers to make pre-rendered graphics that they could compress and use in place of sprite art to make video games with.

"Yeah, that's cool and all, but I've got a better idea: Monkeys."

“Yeah, that’s cool and all, but I’ve got a better idea: Monkeys.”

Nintendo took notice of Rare’s work in the field and bought a 49% stake in the company. They offered them a number of Nintendo properties to make a game using this new CGI technology, and Rare opted for Donkey Kong. And thus Donkey Kong Country was born; a game with enough “rad” factor to compete with Sonic, eye-catching graphics, amazing level design and a marketing campaign most Presidential candidates would envy. It took the market by storm, became the second-best selling game on the SNES (second only to Super Mario World, which was an early pack-in title), and helped ensure the system’s dominance over the Genesis.

DKC is a pretty radical re-envisioning of the Donkey Kong franchise; the original DK games were arcade-style platformers, in which the player fought (or in tried to rescue, in Donkey Kong Jr.) the titular ape on single-screen levels. Donkey Kong Country, by contrast, casts players in the role of Donkey Kong, traversing a series of lengthy platformer levels, spread across a Super Mario-esque world map. It’s a very different game, to say the least; probably the biggest change to a Nintendo IP until 2012’s Kid Icarus Uprising.

The story, like most games of the time, is pretty basic. A horde of crocodile-like Kremlings, led by their overlord, King K. Rool, invade Donkey Kong Island and steal Donkey Kong’s treasure stash of bananas. Donkey Kong, along with his nephew, a spider monkey named Diddy Kong, (the Kong “family” is apparently more of a clan where membership can be earned, rather than a blood-relation-only outfit) set out on an adventure to recover their bananas and kick the Kremlings out.

DK, moments before he realized that all his bananas had rotted in the time it took to find them again.

DK, moments before he realized that all his bananas had rotted in the time it took to find them again.

The bulk of the gameplay should be familiar to anybody who’s played a 2D platformer before; the player takes control of Donkey or Diddy and maneuvers them through the level, jumping over pits and other obstacles, defeating enemies, and making their way to the exit. However, there are a few key differences that set DKC apart from the competition.

First, the game lacks “power-ups” in the conventional sense of the word. Whereas Mario and Sonic games have always been driven by the acquisition of items that give the player a temporary edge, most of Donkey and Diddy’s abilities are innate.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of items to get and use; there are extra life balloons that give the player 1, 2, or 3 extra lives, depending on the color, there are four golden letters that spell out KONG in every level that, when collected, will give the player a 1-up, and golden animal tokens that allow access to bonus levels. There are also barrels that can be picked up and thrown at enemies and one-off gimmick items that will appear in a handful of levels, like tires that can be used like springboards, or drums of fuel for a moving platform.

In DKC, tires are apparently  made of Flubber.

In DKC, tires are apparently made of Flubber.

The way Donkey and Diddy themselves are handled in terms of gameplay is also a bit different. Rather than making you choose a character and stick with them the way most platformers with multiple playable characters did at the time, Donkey and Diddy travel through the game as a pair. The player can switch between which Kong they’re controlling manually, or if they take a hit from an enemy or obstacle, the Kong that took the blow will run off (they can be recovered later by finding and breaking a DK Barrel) and the game will pause briefly while the player is given control of the other character. As such, the second character acts like an in-level “extra life” rather than an invincible sidekick like Tails was in Sonic 2 and 3.

Donkey and Diddy each have strengths and weaknesses, making them best suited for different situations. Donkey is the larger, slower and stronger of the pair. In addition to jumping on enemies to defeat them, Mario style, Donkey can do a “barrel roll” on the ground that can take out several enemies before the animation ends. His greater heft allows him to defeat the game’s tougher enemies without the aid of barrels, and he can pound the ground to reveal hidden objects in certain places. He also lifts barrels over his head when he picks them up, and throws them in an arc before they hit the ground and start rolling.

Diddy is smaller, more agile, runs faster and jumps higher. He has a cartwheel which functions a lot like Donkey’s barrel roll, but Diddy is too light to take out some of the game’s stronger enemies with his cartwheel or with a jumping attack. He’s best suited for the game’s tough platforming sections, and he has much easier time with these than Donkey does. Diddy can throw barrels, too, but because he’s weaker he holds them in front of his chest, rather than over his head, and tosses them directly in front of him. This can actually allow Diddy to use barrels like a shield, which is useful against certain enemies and bosses.

Also, never underestimate the power of a baseball cap.

Also, never underestimate the power of a baseball cap.

The way the characters are differentiated makes it important to try and keep both Kongs together, and hinders the player for failing to do so. That’s not to say there are sections where it’s impossible to proceed if you don’t have one particular Kong, but some of them are much more difficult without both. It’s a very old-school risk/reward system, and one that works well.

Donkey and Diddy have their work cut out for them, too. In addition to avoiding pitfalls, launching through barrel cannon obstacle courses and navigating underwater mazes, they have a slew of baddies between them and their prize.

The Kremlings are humanoid crocodiles that come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from spindly leaping crocs to hulking brutes or invincible rock-like beasts. Additionally, Donkey and Diddy have to contend with a whole host of hostile wildlife, including sharks and piranha, nut-throwing vultures, gigantic wasps and some very angry beavers.

Even angrier than these guys.

Even angrier than these guys.

Additionally, each world culminates in a boss battle, usually against a super-sized version of one of the above-named critters, and finally in a battle against the lord of the Kremlings, King K. Rool himself. This last fight is one of the more challenging ones I’ve come across in a video game, and it’s the one that kept me from finishing Donkey Kong Country until now. If you give this game a shot, you’re going to burn through a lot of lives getting K. Rool’s pattern down.

Luckily for Donkey and Diddy, not everything on the island is out to kill them. They have some help from other members of the Kong family. Candy Kong, a female gorilla, runs the game’s save points; (one per world) Funky Kong, a surfer dude gorilla, runs an airline service that can fly you to any world you’ve been to previously; and Cranky Kong, an old gorilla who is both Donkey’s grandfather and the original Donkey Kong (guess it’s a title?) dispenses helpful hints and verbal abuse from the comfort of his rocking chair.

Help also comes in the form of animal buddies whom the Kongs can ride (similar to Mario’s Yoshi) and who have special abilities to help them make it through the game’s challenges: Rambi, a rhino, can ram enemies with his horn and can knock down some walls to find hidden rooms; Expresso the ostrich runs quickly and can flap his wings to glide, extending the length of his jumps; Winky the poison-dart frog can jump high and can safely kill any enemy with a jump, even the wasp-like Zingers; and Enguarde the swordfish can swim quickly, and his charge attack is the only way to defeat underwater foes.The animal buddies are infrequently found throughout the game (except for Enguarde, who almost always appears in the underwater levels), but they make for an interesting change to the level dynamic when they do make an appearance.

The level design, as I mentioned before, is one of DKC’s strongest points. Between clever arrangement of platforming elements and environmental items, introducing new enemies and scattering hidden rooms and mini-games throughout, DKC’s levels rarely feel alike. Really, the only levels that tend to feel very same-y are the underwater ones, (there’s only so much you can do with the concept of monkeys swimming, I guess) but they’re few and far in between, so they don’t really grate too much.

The aforementioned secret rooms are also a fairly big part of the gameplay; throughout the levels, there are secret exits and mini-games (usually offering extra lives as a reward) that can be found, usually through some fairly obscure means like smashing a wall with a barrel, or climbing to the top of a tree and jumping into a barrel cannon that’s just out of view.

Some of them have power-ups AND shameless self-promotion!

Some of them have power-ups AND shameless self-promotion!

One level, Stop and Go Station, actually has a shortcut where, if you walk back through the level’s entrance, it’ll warp you right to the exit. These hidden paths were a big focus in advertising the game, and at the end of the game, Cranky grades you on how many of them you found. Of course, the game isn’t very transparent in tallying which secret rooms you’ve been to, so it’s not the sort of thing that lends itself to extending the game’s life or adding replayability. It feels more like a novelty than a real challenge.

The other heavily advertised draw of the time was the game’s visuals, and those hold up remarkably well. The amount of detail put into the character models and their animations gives them a ton of personality, and the game is still a wonder to behold, even though the fairly low number of frames of animation and pixelation do date it some.

Honestly, I still prefer this pre-rendered look to the real-time polygonal look that dominates modern 2D platformers, and it makes me sad that, despite the success of DKC and its sequels, this style of animation never really caught on outside of a few other games like Oddworld: Abe’s Oddyssey and Sega’s own attempt to cash in on it, Vectorman.

Remember this guy? Yeah, neither does anyone else.

Remember this guy? Yeah, neither does anyone else.

The music is equally spectacular, synth tunes ranging in style from jazz to orchestral to rock and ambient, Ecco the Dolphin-esque new age tracks. DKC was one of the first games I’m aware of to have a soundtrack album released for it (titled, in true 90s fashion, DK Jamz) and it’s not hard to see why. The score is one of the most well-loved of its era, and it’s a great example of how chip tunes can still make for great music.

Well, this stopover on Donkey Kong Island has been fun, but it’s time to head back to civilization for a more urban adventure. A trip to Amami City sounds about right…