Christmas 1996 was one of the greatest times of my young life. Not just because I got my first pool table, but because that was the year I got my own Super Nintendo Entertainment System starting my formal video game playing years. My new SNES came with a game that that completely revolutionized 16-bit gaming; Donkey Kong Country produced by RARE.
DK: Country changed a lot of the rules that 16-bit games had been stuck with for years. Until then games were made using 2D sprites, giving games a flat look to them. DKC was one of the first games make 2D sprites with 3D effect allowing for some truly stunning graphics. They also made full and liberal use of the color palate allowing for some of the most gorgeous backgrounds, set pieces and character designs ever seen in a 16-bit game. There is no other way to put it; this game is literally graphics porn for the eyeballs.
They also did new things with the audio. Most games at that point had BGM made generally of 10-30 second sound bites played on a loop until it reached insanity inducing levels (IE: the Super Mario World theme, I still have nightmares). DK: Country featured actual full length audio tracks that changed and evolved as the player progressed through the levels as well as unique tracks for each level and zone, resulting in amazing atmosphere. Both the graphics and the Sound track have managed to hold up over the years and it’s still a gorgeous game.
Now that we got the technical stuff out of the way, once you look beyond the pretty wrapping you find that Donkey Kong Country is a standard platformer which Nintendo was famous for at that time. However it wasn’t just a simple regular platformer, Rare managed change even that.
Rare took an old Arcade Nintendo classic; Donkey Kong, which originally stared Mario trying to rescue the princess from a giant ape who threw barrels down at him, and put a new spin on it. This time around you play Donkey Kong’s son, who is all grown up and living on his own private Island with the rest of the Kong Family. Not all is well on Kong Island as the evil Kreminlings, a race of crocodile like baddies, manage to steal Donkey’s coveted Banana Horde. Donkey Kong and his buddy Diddy Kong have to team up and hunt down King K Rool to get those bananas back.
The team up is one of the first fun little additions. Both Diddy and Donkey play slightly differently, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, allowing for some fun duel play style. The duo also serves as the game’s “hit/health system”, losing both characters serves as the loss of one life, while finding your missing partner when alone works as regaining “health”.
It wouldn’t be a Donkey Kong game without barrels, and those quirky containers of primate fun are back in a number of fun and interesting ways to both help and hinder the Kongs. These manifest in a number of different tools aside from just throwing at enemies. The Buddy Barrel helps you to regain one of your lost Kongs when broken open. The steel kegs are unbreakable and make for a fun ride. There are also the Blast barrels, barrels in which the Kongs can hop, that can blast them to other barrels or areas. Blast barrels however are NOT your friends, with insane timing, obstacles and occasional visibility problem, these fiddly little bastards make up some of my least favorite levels.
If those were not evil enough, you face a colorful cabal of enemies ranging from innocuous fish to giant beavers. Some baddies are even immune to the attacks of one or more of the Kongs. Thankfully you have help in the form of your animal friends which can be found through the game with a host of skills from a friendly Rhino that crashes through anything to an annoying parrot with a seizure inducing flashlight.
The levels and worlds are widely varied and each offer their own unique puzzles and challenges. From swinging through the jungles to blasting across the frozen tundra, each level is stunning. My favorites are the Indian Jones like mine cart levels of fast paced fun. If that wasn’t enough each level is packed with hidden secrets and bonus levels. I remember as a kid buying the Secret levels guide book for Donkey Kong.
One of the last things I need to address about this game that really holds it up as a still fun to play game; is that old cartridge games had very few glitches/bugs. I know that modern games are far more complex than the old 16-bit games, but back then developers didn’t rush their games out and put more time into quality and working with what they had. RARE really pushed the envelope with this title. There are only two “glitches” I know of in the game and they aren’t game breakers, in fact one is a huge advantage and the other is kinda funny.
After all this time Donkey Kong Country is still as fun and beautiful as it was on that Christmas morning. I would suggest playing it on the old SNES if you have one, if not you can find a great emulator and rom online and enjoy hours of fun with this revolutionary title, especially since they now make USB SNES controllers for your computer.