Saturday, July 20, 2013

Donkey Kong Land (Game Boy) Review

Donkey Kong Land is a video game from my childhood. That "banana yellow" cartridge is very nostalgic for me and I remember quite fondly playing the game on a borrowed copy from a neighborhood friend. I didn't actually own the game (and had almost forgotten about it over time) until a few weeks ago when I ebayed it and decided to relive my personal most-nostalgic Donkey Kong experience. The result has been a game that doesn't quite live up to my nostalgic memories, but is still a fun romp nonetheless.

Donkey Kong Land makes an admirable attempt at emulating the console Donkey Kong Country experience on the limited Game Boy system. The actual in-game story is literally that Cranky Kong doesn't think that the new DK can cut it on an 8-bit system and thus asks King K. Rool to steal the banana hoard again and challenges the Kongs to get it back, but this time on the little Game Boy.

The visuals in the game can either be seen as impressive for Game Boy, as they do a decent job of mimicking the SNES pre-rendered style with realistic backgrounds and "3D-like" characters, or simply ugly, as DKC's unique visual style was just never meant for the Game Boy. The visuals do look quite nice in some areas, but just look blurry or unappealing in others. Games like Super Mario Land 2, that take the Game Boy's limitations into account and work within them without trying to do something that the handheld can't handle, opt for simpler visuals that also look much better. Also, I'm not sure if I just have a wonky cartridge, but Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong occasionally glitch out and get all fuzzy and messed up-looking when playing.

In addition, the view on the GB is much closer to the Kongs than on the SNES and therefore enemies pop up extremely suddenly in front of the player and one can almost never see what's ahead of them or more importantly, what's coming. This drawback extremely hampers the organic, flowing style of platforming that makes the SNES titles so much fun to play; if the player doesn't want to constantly fall into pits or get clobbered by an enemy that they couldn't possibly hope to avoid, than they have to take things slow and inch along most of the time.

A typical scene in DKL

Donkey Kong Land also features versions of many of DKC's classic tunes, but while none of them sound outright bad, with the exception of a particularly nice rendition of the Bonus Room theme from DKC, none of the versions in DKL sound as good as their console counterparts. The game features a few good original songs, but overall the soundtrack doesn't quite measure up. The game does feature at least one stellar track though: by far the most memorable song in the game is the boss fight music (which curiously enough has a more light-hearted remix in Rare's underrated N64 classic, Blast Corps).

DKL's biggest flaw, however, is its core gameplay. The Donkey Kong Country games feature smooth, rhythmic control that makes them a lot of fun to play. While the control is workable in DKL, the physics just feel so wrong and the Kongs simply have little to no momentum and this really hinders the game is several ways. I can't count how many times I'd jump for my life and rapidly fall short of a ledge I had to land on and sink straight into a pit, all due to the piss-poor momentum the Kongs have when running, rolling, and jumping. These deaths did not feel like my fault, but the fault of poor physics, which is a big no-no. As the game went on, I grew more accustomed to the lackluster-feeling gameplay, but it pales in comparison to the SNES titles.

Being on a handheld is no excuse for any of these flaws, as titles like the already-mentioned Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins, The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, and the Kirby series (which, to be fair, started on the Game Boy) are all stellar games that rival their big-brother NES and SNES titles.

Super Mario Land 2: Like the best Game Boy game ever (besides Link's Awakening)

Despite all this, I don't dislike Donkey Kong Land, not by a mile. The fact is, the game comes together as a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It features four brand new worlds and all new levels from its SNES inspiration, Donkey Kong Country, and despite falling short in many areas, it's still a fairly enjoyable platformer. The game features some neat worlds, like an underwater ruins environment, levels in the clouds, and an industrial city world. While a lot of the level designs blend in with each other and feature many repeating elements (hanging on moving vines while avoiding bees is one of the game's go-to challenges), some are really fun and interesting, like a terrifying underwater area where you have to outrun these gigantic, horrifying nautilus creatures (ironically, the swimming levels control much better than the regular levels as they don't have any physics or momentum to deal with). I do have to say though that some of the levels in the game just drag on for way too long. Sometimes, I'd think I was nearly at the end when I'd only reach the halfway checkpoint marker (some levels even have multiple checkpoints).

This level is scarier than it looks

Donkey Kong Land also features the ability to save after every single level, which is a fantastic and surprising addition in an old-school platformer like this (I didn't mention it in my review, but DKC required the use of save points which were often placed way too far into a world and required the overcoming of several levels before reaching them, which can be frustrating if you lose all of your lives before reaching a save point). The only catch to this consistent save feature is that you must find all four KONG letters in each stage. This is actually never too challenging though, so much so that I didn't even realize that collecting the letters was what was allowing me to save until I was about three quarters of the way through the game; I was getting all the letters in each level with little effort before this. DKL also features plenty of secret bonus areas just like in the console games, except most of them are much easier to find than any of the SNES titles.

Ok, so perhaps my nostalgia for the title is getting in the way of my criticism a bit, but despite its flaws, Donkey Kong Land is still a charming and fun game. I still enjoyed playing it through. It's far from the Game Boy's best platformer and it doesn't feel nearly as good to play as its console brethren, but it is a fair effort of bringing the Donkey Kong Country experience to a handheld and worthy of any Game Boy owner's time.

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