Thursday, July 18, 2013

Donkey Kong Country (SNES) Review

After recently completing Donkey Kong Country Returns for the Nintendo Wii, I decided to revisit the classic that started it all on the Super Nintendo: Donkey Kong Country. This game blew people's minds with its unique pre-rendered graphical design back in the day and to this day it is a beloved Nintendo classic. A lot of people have a big nostalgic connection to this game, but I'm not really one of them. I never owned a Super Nintendo as a kid and thus missed out on all of its fantastic games. I do remember either watching someone else play or playing DKC myself way back when, but I can't recall where this event took place. I remember wanting the game myself, as well as Super Mario World, but for whatever reason a Super Nintendo was never in the cards for me back then. What I did have was my Game Boy and therefore most of my nostalgic childhood Nintendo memories come not from all those SNES classics, but from their Game Boy counterparts. I didn't play Super Mario World, I played Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins. I didn't play The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, I played The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX. And likewise, I didn't play Donkey Kong Country, I played its Game Boy counterpart, Donkey Kong Land. Partly because of my nostalgic connection to DKL, and also for maybe, possibly somewhere briefly experiencing DKC, I do have some sort of nostalgia for Donkey Kong Country.

For whatever reason, Kremkroc Industries Inc. is a world that I remember from my childhood
But really, the DKC trilogy doesn't make me pine for the days of my young childhood, but instead for my college days (damn, I'm getting old), where during my junior year I played all three of the DKC games in full for the first time via the Wii's Virtual Console. I initially didn't have much interest in playing these games, but I had a certain roommate who wouldn't shut up until I downloaded his beloved DKC because he wanted to experience one of his childhood favorites again. After getting the first DKC, I wasn't going to play the sequels, but then the same roommate insisted that while DKC is great, DKC2 is really great and that that one is his true favorite. So I ended up getting DKC2 after finishing and enjoying the first one and eventually got DKC3 to complete the deal. I'm glad my roommate wanted to play these games so bad, because they are all definitely classics and anyone who loves a good old-school platformer should try them out at some point.

Also, he was right about DKC2. I like all the games but DKC2 stands out among them all. It's just a damn fine video game.

But enough about all that. We're here to talk about the first Donkey Kong Country. The original DKC is never a game I've really considered "amazing" or one of my personal favorites. I've always found it to be a fun game, but perhaps a bit overrated by all those people nostalgic for the simpler days of their youth. While I still generally hold to these feelings, I don't deny the game's appeal and can certainly understand why it is so beloved by so many.

While a traditional platformer from a time when the genre was still very prevalent, Donkey Kong Country deserves credit for making a good effort to stand out from games like Nintendo's own already massively popular Mario series. The first and most obvious way it accomplishes this is with its bold, ambitious visual design. DKC was one of the first video games to use pre-rendered graphics, featuring very "realistic" and naturalistic environments compared to the brightly-colored, whimsical fantasy lands that Mario hopped and bopped through. The characters in the game, from the main monkeys Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong to every enemy, like the reptilian Kremling army, snakes, sharks, and those goofy beavers that I've always adored for some reason, are also animated in a more three-dimensional, life-like way than anyone had ever seen before.

A typical scene in DKC

These visuals, while not having aged as well as some other SNES titles (which I'll get into later), still retain much of their charm today and contribute to DKC's unique, ambient, organic atmosphere. Jungle environments buzz with life as butterflies land on flora in the background and crickets and other insects can be heard buzzing all around the Kongs. Taking the atmosphere a step further and doing something that was unheard of in say, a Mario game at the time, DKC actually featured time of day and weather transitions. At the end of the first level, day transitions into night and the next level features a torrential rainstorm that eventually clears up at the end of the stage. Another level starts out in the late afternoon, but slowly dims to a tranquil sunset backdrop. One level even features a snowstorm that progressively gets worse and worse until the player's view is obscured by a ferocious blizzard.

The atmosphere is very strong throughout the game and is one of the reasons that I think the game has so much appeal even today. As I said, DKC goes a different route than Mario and features more realistic environments such as the aforementioned lush jungles, in addition to dank caves, thick forests, snowcapped mountains, underwater reefs, and gritty factories. These environments stand out not only because of the unique visual design, but also because of the game's timeless soundtrack.

The opening level's theme, DK Island Swing, perfectly sets up the jungle setting and also the rhythm of the overall game as a slow beat starts picking up more and more overtime. By the time the player is halfway through the stage and riding Rambi the rhino through rows of enemies, a tone is immediately set that draws the player in. The song mellows out later on and sets a distinct mood for longer stages that feature it. Cave Dweller Concert features ambient, echoing tones and drips and taps that successfully transport the player into a vast, sprawling cave.

And then of course there's the unforgettable Aquatic Ambience. The water levels in DKC manage to be some of the most memorable in the game as their simple blue and brown visual design combined with this soothing, beautiful theme create an environment that slows the player down and invites them to take their time, instead of bouncing and rolling at a fast clip like in the traditional platforming levels. Bonus Room Blitz sets a completely different tone with its upbeat, purely joyous tune. It really captures the excitement of finding one of the game's many, many hidden bonuses, which are always a treat when discovered. My personal favorite track in the game though is Fear Factory, which turns the otherwise bland-feeling factory environments into a rockin' good time.

The water levels have a great atmosphere

While the soundtrack is truly timeless and is still fantastic to this day (as is the sound design overall: every barrel broken, banana collected, and Kremling conked has a distinct and satisfying accompanying sound effect), the visuals haven't aged quite so gracefully. The characters' animations still hold up well and every Kong (especially Cranky and his hilarious and corny fourth-wall breaking comments) and critter in the game has a lot of personality (I love when Diddy gets upset and stomps on his hat and conversely when Donkey Kong gives the player a double thumbs ups and congratulatory handshake). Some levels like the jungle levels and water levels also look pretty nice. But a lot of the backgrounds (as well the overworld maps) in the game look muddy and incomprehensible if you take the time to really look at them. Also, while the game does have a realistic, organic feel to it, and DK Island really comes together and feels like an authentic, consistent world, a lot of the environments feel and look a little bland. Personally, I feel that the mine and cave environments are used way too much. While the standard cave levels have a nice atmosphere, there's still a bit too many of them and a lot of the mine levels are just boring, dark brown palettes and never really do much to engage the player visually. The overall color scheme of the game has a lot of browns, dark greens, and grays in it and after a while it can feel, well, a bit dull. The pre-rendered nature of the environments also give them a static feel that adds to this blandness, as many backgrounds just feel like lifeless paintings rather than a living world.

The backgrounds are a bit muddy, as seen here in this forest stage

I think the most boring levels visually are the temple stages, which are almost entirely comprised of a single, dull tan color. These temple levels just feel totally uninspired artistically and I usually love ancient ruins and temples in video games (and in general; I mean, who doesn't?). Also, as I mentioned earlier the factory environments are also bland-feeling visually and are mostly just one endless gray color. These environments are detailed and feature nice touches like chains and machinery in the foreground, and they do create a nice counterpart to the natural environments, but they just lack...something. This sort of visual and artistic vibrancy that DKC often lacks is something that I think Donkey Kong Country Returns excels in. That game took classic themes like the factories and ancient temples and gave new life to them, making them come alive with a varied color palette and all sorts of nice details and artistic touches.

A factory level from DKC
DKCR breathes new life into the factory environments (this screen is from the 3DS version, which looks nearly identical to the Wii version as far as I can tell)

With this in mind, perhaps it's a little unfair of me to criticize DKC's visuals so much after just having played the modern and artistically brilliant DKCR. After all, DKC's visuals were obviously a lot more impressive when it first came out and it was one of the pioneers of the pre-rendered style, so I suppose I can cut it some slack. Comparing the three DKC games in the original trilogy, one can see that Rare's visual flair improved with each title: DKC2 livened up the color palette much more and DKC3 perhaps made things a little too colorful and whimsical. While I think the color and more detailed environments of DKC2 give the game a bit more life, there is still something to be said of the more natural (and less fantastical) environments of the first game. These jungles, snows, caves and mines have a realistic atmospheric feeling that was partly lost in the later games in the series (not that these games don't have great atmospheres of their own, which they do, just in different ways), so there's something to be said about the "real"-feeling world full of cartoony characters found in the original. While I think that more traditional sprite-based games like Super Mario World, A Link to the Past, and Super Metroid, as well as some other unique visual designs like the pastel look of Yoshi's Island, have aged better than DKC, the game still looks pretty nice and has its own special charm. In any case, it deserves much credit for being a pioneer and delivering a visual design that was largely unheard of back then. To this day, the SNES DKC titles still have a look that is really all their own.

As a platformer, Donkey Kong Country also set itself apart from games like Mario with its unique style of play. Players tag-team between Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong and both Kongs have their own unique abilities. Donkey Kong is stronger and can destroy certain enemies that Diddy can't by jumping on them. and also has a ground-pound move that can be used to find hidden bananas. Diddy Kong is faster and has a cartwheeling ability that can defy gravity and allow the player to roll over pits and leap across great distances (Donkey also has a roll ability, but it's not as effective as Diddy's). Diddy is the overall smoother and better-controlling character and if he didn't have any strength limitations, there would never really be any need to control Donkey unless you prefer a slower character. The tag-team dynamic is something that makes the DKC games unique and also lends itself to some interesting multiplayer options. I also think this mechanic really creates a nice camaraderie between the Kongs and makes their friendship a central theme. With all this said, I ultimately prefer just one, great controlling character with every ability I need, than two characters that have these abilities split between them. Again, this is another reason I like DKC2, because where Donkey Kong controls very differently from Diddy and feels a bit too slow and lumbering, both Diddy and Dixie Kong in the sequel are fast and control similarly. Dixie even adds her useful hair-twirling hover ability into the mix, which is a cooler ability than the artificial-feeling capability of one character to defeat enemies another can't. This is also why I like the streamlining in DKCR, where a Donkey/Diddy combo is one character who is agile, controls fantastically, and also has a hover ability.

The Kongs are the best of buddies

Even though I feel Diddy is the superior-controlling Kong, the gameplay isn't ever not fun in DKC. The controls are smooth and running through the levels as the Kongs feels great. The fluid and intuitive gameplay in Donkey Kong Country coupled with its unique level designs creates a kind of "flow" that is a trademark of the series. A typical level might have you bouncing off of a Kremling onto a vine, which you then swing from onto another baddie and bounce off of it and three more enemies followed by ducking into a swift roll and so on. Levels are designed with rows of leaping enemies coming at you, bouncy tires, swinging vines, and other gimmicks. The levels are designed like playgrounds where the player is encouraged to bounce and flow from one obstacle to the next. This style of platforming is actually very appropriate for a game about an ape and his chimpanzee pal.

One small downside to the controls is that the roll action and the run button are the same thing so rolling always precedes running with both characters. If Mario taught us anything, it's that a run button is crucial to precision platforming and that's no different here. I'd often press this button and accidentally roll off into a bottomless pit. Some levels have the Kongs treading across narrow platforms, so this aspect becomes especially problematic here. This issue never becomes too offensive, but it does add a slippery feeling to the game's sense of control that is worth noting. With this in mind, I don't think having rolling and running mapped to different buttons would have felt right, especially since using both actions in tandem is often important, so I understand why the controls operate in the way that they do.

Another gameplay feature that makes DKC stand out and something that the series is well-known for is the cast of "animal buddies" that the Kongs can ride in the game. There's Rambi the rhino, who lets the player dash through enemies and crash through walls to find secrets. Then there's Enguarde the swordfish, who is a blessing in the underwater levels where the player can charge into and defeat otherwise impenetrable enemies with the buddy. All of the animal buddies are useful and are fun to use, with the exception of Winky the frog, who is awkward to control because his hopping often screws up a player's timing with jumps. I'd often run off of a cliff when I wanted to jump with him, so poor Winky is probably best avoided.

Buddy time with Rambi

Donkey Kong Country is structured pretty well, if a little cut-and-dry. The game features a level-selection map similar to what players were used to at the time with the Mario series, except where Super Mario World contained a vast land full of secret paths and countless hidden levels, DKC has no secret levels or alternate paths and simply features a linear level-to-level structure. The game makes up for this straightforwardness though (not that being straightforward is always necessarily bad...I just personally really love Super Mario World's secret-filled overworld structure) with the plentiful amount of secret bonus areas and shortcuts found in each level. Many of these can be found by carefully exploring each level, but some of them are super cryptic (there's a bonus area hidden inside another bonus area; I mean, come on!). Discovering all of these little tricks and secrets is a big part of the game's charm and went on to become a staple of the series.

I mentioned earlier that the cave and mine-themed levels seem to outnumber every other kind of level and nothing demonstrates this more than with the game's final world. Each of the game's worlds introduce some new kind of level theme: the first world introduces the jungle theme, cave theme, and underwater theme; the second world gives us the mine theme and the temple theme; the third world introduces a forest theme and so on. The final world, however, is a cave-centered world (after already having a mine-centered world) that introduces nothing new in terms of level themes. This final world feels lazy, seems like padding, and comes across as very anti-climactic. The factory world preceding it feels more like the final world because it's called Kremkroc Industries Inc. and feels like the industrial base of the villainous Kremlings.

The Kongs spend a lot of time in mines

While we're on the topic of laziness, the bosses in the game are incredibly pathetic. Most of them are just giant versions of standard enemies and are terribly simple to defeat. On this second playthrough of the game, I beat every single boss on my first try with barely any effort (I can see how the giant bee might give some people some trouble though). Not only are the bosses just big versions of normal enemies, but two of them are also recycled with little different about the fight, doubling the amount of laziness. When the most interesting boss in the game is a sentient oil drum that dumps normal enemies on you (essentially one of those enemy gauntlet fights), we have a problem. Boss fights aren't that important to me in a platformer, so none of this brings the game down too much for me, but come on. The one exception to all this is the final boss, which is a good challenge and also has this unforgettable theme to back it up.

Even the Kongs look bored by this big, goofy beaver boss

On a more positive note, one element of the game that I really love is how it cleverly incorporates elements from the original arcade Donkey Kong and makes them fit into a platformer setting. The most obvious of these elements is the game's focus on barrels. The Kongs get trapped in a barrel when they are hit by an enemy, there are check-point barrels, save barrels, and even an enemy that is a bad Kong that throws barrels, which the player has to jump over, just like in the arcade classic. Throughout the game, the Kongs are also constantly picking up barrels to throw at enemies and break open secret passages. The factory stages also feel like a throwback to the classic industrial setting. The oil barrel from the first stage in Donkey Kong also appears as a flame-spewing level hazard. There's also a stage that has moving elevator platforms like in the original's second stage.

While on the topic of the game's levels, most of them introduce some kind of unique gimmick and are usually well-designed enough to remain engaging, but I do feel that more could have been done in some areas. Some gimmicks are fun and interesting such as the now famous blasting barrels (the Snow Barrel Blast level from world 4 can die in a fire though; at least there's a short-cut in it that can be utilized if you don't want to torture yourself) and of course the equally iconic mine-cart stages. But some other gimmicks just come off as annoying such as a dark cave level that has Squawks the parrot carrying a light that blinds the player every time they turn, all because Rare probably wanted to further prove their game's technical might. Some other levels just don't do enough interesting or different to really prove their worth, such as a mine level that is filled with enemy-spawning barrels and little else.

The gameplay is fluid and engaging enough to keep the game enjoyable; I just found some of the levels to be a little...blah due to overused themes and some less than fascinating gimmicks.

It's no secret that Donkey Kong Country was a huge success in taking an aging, almost forgotten character and breathing new life into him while giving him his own world, cast of characters, and unique platforming adventure. The game resonated with tons of people and to this day is easily one of the most iconic platformers ever made. DKC does a lot of things that really make it stand out for its time and for all time. Despite the game not having the same sort of quality and staying power that I feel SNES classics like Super Mario World, A Link to the Past, and Super Metroid have, it is still a really enjoyable platformer with a feeling and dynamic all its own. Its music and unique visual design create an atmosphere that brings Donkey Kong's world to life in a special way and its smooth gameplay and secret-filled level designs ensure that the game is engaging from start to finish. I don't think Donkey Kong Country is a platforming masterpiece, and I don't think the series reached true greatness until its sequel, but DKC is still a solid experience that everyone who enjoys video games should probably try at least once.

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