Retro Review: Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country is a game that has gone from being overrated to underrated over the course of the last few decades. A phenomenon at launch due to its then-next-gen-looking graphics, it turns out Donkey Kong Country is actually just a middle-of-the-road platformer with a few nice features that help it stand out. It’s not a terrible game, but it’s not a great one, either.

DKC’s pre-rendered graphical style renders it different than many SNES platformers in more than just appearance. Many games on the system used tiled graphics, resulting in something approximating a grid on the field of play. Not so with Donkey Kong Country, which features oddly-shaped sprites and plenty of hills and curves on its platforming surfaces. This generally works pretty well, though the hitboxes of your characters and the enemies can behave somewhat unpredictably at times.

As a platformer, DKC’s stand-out feature is its two protagonists. Donkey Kong is the powerhouse, able to defeat enemies his smaller partner can’t and perform a ground slap attack, while Diddy Kong is quick and nimble. The controls for each are the same, and they don’t differ in basic speed or jump height like many such duos. Instead, its the difference in their animations that sets them apart. Donkey Kong stands taller and holds barrels above his head, allowing him to throw them further but making it impossible for him to test walls for secret passages. Diddy holds barrels in front of him, making him ideal for exploration and finding secrets, but less proficient at attack. It’s a subtle but important dichotomy.

Donkey Kong Country doesn’t rely on powerups like the Mario series, instead presenting straightforward levels to run and jump through. You will occasionally find an animal buddy to ride, but you’re mostly doing the same basic moves from beginning to end. To mix it up, the game features a variety of gimmick levels: mine cart stages, stages with limited lighting, and a whole lot of barrels to shoot yourself out of. These gimmicks are generally fun while they last, with the possible exception of underwater stages.

“Fun while it lasts” is the essence of Donkey Kong Country. It’s not a long game, nor would being longer make it better. You can finish in a few hours, though it will take longer if you want to track down every secret. The game keeps tabs on which levels you’ve found all the secrets in, and assigns a completion percentage based on your overall progress. It’s a precursor to the collect-a-thons that Rare would popularize on the N64, but there’s far less nonsense to worry about here.

The problem with Donkey Kong Country is that it is competent throughout, but never superlative. The bosses are uninspired, the best stages don’t last long enough, and there’s very little in the game that will make you say “wow.” This is particularly true now that its once-amazing graphics are old hat (though still pretty nice by SNES standards). But there is some solid platforming to be found here, and finding cleverly-hidden secrets is always fun. (Finding the totally obtuse secrets is less so.)

Review Score: B−

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