Donkey Kong Country Week: The Games

Among the many retro-revivals that the Wii has enjoyed in 2010, Donkey Kong Country Returns (DKCR) is the title that I’m most hyped for, no small feat as NBA Jam Wii also came to tug my nostalgic and basketball-loving heartstrings. I planned all along to begin my Donkey Kong Country retrospective posts today and I seem to be sticking to the plan so far. My original intent was to write a week before DKCR hits stores, as a way of anticipating it, but I got a few details mixed because instead of getting released next week like I initially thought, it’s out today.

With the confession of my failures out, I’m gonna start talking about Donkey Kong Country (DKC).

DKC is one of the few videogame series that I hold close to my heart (or is it many? I have to evaluate this later). Back in 1994, my brother and I didn’t have a SNES, so when we had a videogame fix we would head to a store where we can pay to play a videogame of our choosing for a limited time. In one of these sessions, we were seated next to someone playing DKC. It was an attention grab, and what struck me as a surprise is that Donkey Kong, formerly Mario’s foil, now has his own platformer. All to my design, I got a SNES along with DKC months later, for I was determined to get that game upon first sight. It would become a game I would enjoy over and over again.

Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country and I didn’t get off a good start. I don’t mean to say I hated this game initially; it felt more like the game hated me. I was a seasoned Super Mario Bros veteran by then, so I reckoned, its being platformer also published by Nintendo, that I would breeze through it, deftly avoiding any obstacles with my dexterous Mario-trained hands (I would since then learn that Nintendo only published the DKC series and had nothing to do with their creation, which is handled by Rare). Was I wrong. In as early as the 2nd world (of 7) the game would hand me my ass many times. I even saw the game over screen in that darned mine-cart level. And then in that snow barrel-blast level. And then in that factory level with flaming oil drums. This was a challenging game and it would take my brother and I 3 days of non-stop playing to beat what is essentially a 2-hour game.

This was also a game of marvelous beauty at the time of its release. Its use of pre-rendered 3d gave its detailed characters and lush backgrounds beauty then unparalleled. I remember my dad, a baby-boomer who usually doesn’t care about videogames, would usher house guests to our game room just so everyone can marvel at how far videogame presentation had gone. If its property enticed me to buy it, then so did its visuals. It was a stuff to brag about, to SNES what the original 1st-gen Optimus Prime was to toys. People may laugh about them now, DKC for how dated it looks and Prime for not being very posable, but they were legitimately cool back then.

Anyway, the Donkey Kong in DKC, as it turned out, isn’t the Donkey Kong who kidnapped Pauline for Mario to save. That Donkey Kong became DKC’s Cranky Kong, and the Donkey Kong here is the junior Donkey Kong from the time when Mario incarcerated his dad (It was a phase, he was in college! Mario has since then sworn off gorilla cruelty. Oh wait, there’s Mario vs. Donkey Kong. Forget I said anything to defend that jerk.) In DKC, the Kongs store a huge array of bananas, guarded by Diddy Kong who is so rad he wears a cap. Not rad enough to prevent K Rool’s army of crocodiles from stealing the bananas though. Pride hurt, he joined Donkey Kong, now sporting a tie, in a quest to reclaim their bananas, with nary a cutscene about vengeance because videogames, then, don’t overindulge in pretentious tales about light dark heart darky lightness.

Of all the 3 DKCs, the first one is the most straightforward platformer, to the extent that you can say that it’s a jazzed-up Super Mario Bros. They share the sole objective of reaching the end of the level, along with other gameplay similarities. You hurt enemies by stomping on them (in DKC you can also hurt them by using a roll attack). You collect 100 bananas for 1up. You can access bonus rooms. There are some differences, notably the barrels, which the Kongs can pick up and throw (and occasionally ride on), and some of which act as cannons that can blast the Kongs across different places. Another element unique to DKC is the tag team. Tag team, though, isn’t adroitly executed in this game because having a partner only means you have additional “health” before losing a life. You can play two player co-op, but since only one Kong can be active any given time, the player assigned to the inactive Kong can only be spectator. Each Kong has his quirk, and I will discuss this in an upcoming post. Like Super Mario World, there are animal friends assisting Kong. Think Yoshi, but five of them with individual traits. The animal friends prove to be the game’s strengths because they give a refreshing way of playing platformers, and it didn’t hurt that they made you feel powerful. I will also discuss the animal friends in another upcoming post.

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest

Donkey Kong Country 2 (DKC2) is considered by many as the highest point of the series, and it’s easy to see why: most of DKC’s kinks has been ironed out. Tag team matters now as either Kongs can boost the other to unreachable places, which is vital for finding many bonus areas. The bonus areas have been repurposed as farming grounds not for 1ups as they were in DKC, but for tokens required to unlock a secret bonus world.

Playing DKC2, it’s immediately clear what motif the game is going for. While DKC had a jungle feel, DKC2 opts for a more pirate theme, and is blatant with it. The game encourages treasure collections, which would start an (unfortunate) trend for collect-a-thons. The enemies wear pirate hats, wields cutlasses, and have hooks for a hand. Even the story, what little it has, is pirate-like. Donkey Kong is kidnapped, and it’s up to Diddy and his girlfriend Dixie to get him back along with, yet again, their stolen bananas. Just how bad is Diddy at standing watch over Kong’s bananas anyway? Why is he still the hero despite his repeated follies?

DKC2 is leaps and bounds better than DKC in everything: the visuals more inspired, the animal friends less nerfed (compared to a few from DKC), and the music more dramatic. With its collection aspect it also offers more incentive for replays. Fan of the game will be turning every areas inside out looking for bonus areas, or grabbing DK coins as bragging rights. Hey, you can even try to beat Mario in no. 1 spot. (Could this be a precedent for Xbox 360’s achievement points?)

My only beef with DKC2 is that I wish I had a way of playing Donkey Kong instead. Of all the Kongs in DKC, I found him most memorable. Alas, DKC would be the last time in the trilogy he’s playable. He would sit out again in DKC3.

Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble

Diddy Kong also sits out in DKC3, because his folly has now cost him an absence. King K Rool has abandoned his Captain Hook stint to become a… scientist named Dr Baron K Roolenstein? Wow how does that work? I don’t mean to discriminate, but aren’t pirates too roughnecked to be inventors, even if only to devise pillaging robots!

The enemies have again been redesigned, some of them now fitted with mechanical parts. Also, Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong have yet again been kidnapped. Why can’t they look after themselves for once? You think after getting past DKC they would learn a few skills on looking out for themselves. In any case, the duo you use now compose of Dixie Kong and Kiddy Kong, Dixie Kong’s gentle giant of a cousin.

Perhaps it’s becoming clear that I am not putting much effort into writing about DKC3, and for that I’ll give you a good reason. DKC3 is the most forgettable game of the trilogy. When examined as a standalone product, it’s above most platformers of its time, but against DKC and DKC2 it felt uninspiring. DKC is challenging, and while I had less difficulty with DKC2 because of my experience with DKC, I still died a few times there. DKC3 is cakewalk even amongst other platformers, and you have to cheat your way to make it hard, otherwise only the bonus room locations prove to be tough.

What worked against it is how much the feel has changed. Both DKC and DKC2 relied heavily on twitchy reflexes, and DKC3 didn’t, so players were less thrilled in beating DKC3. The laid back tone and the care bear families may have turned people off because no one cared for them. Part of the blame also falls on player fatigue. Approach DKC3 as a platformer and you’ll get a game that’s fundamentally the same as its predecessors, but not as exciting.

I get what the developers tried to do in this game. They added greater focus on exploration and puzzles. They remade the world map to be more dynamic by fitting in fetch quests that would unlock different areas. The player had to analyze in-game clues to find the Lost World and even free banana-birds from every crystal caves to get the true ending. So when it comes to longevity, DKC3 would surpass both games because of its heavy exploration. The player should analyze every region of the maps to get the most out of it.

DKC3 sold the worst among the trilogy and underperformed under stiff competition (including Nintendo 64 titles), leading Rare to abandon their 2d platformer endeavors. SNES would soon be retired, and DKC fans would wait until 2010 to get DKC’s next offering, developed by Retro Studios in hopes to recapture the delight from Kong’s finest hours.

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