A Retrospective on Donkey Kong Country for the SNES.
Barrel-blast from the Past
Back when I was a kid, I was fortunate enough to receive Donkey Kong Country (DKC) for the Super Nintendo (SNES) as a gift for Christmas. I can recall nearly playing the game to completion on the very first day. I was completely mesmerized by its shiny new pre-rendered backgrounds, David Wise’s sultry tunes and its short, but challenging stage-design. Having grown up with Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog and various other 2D, sprite-based platformers from the previous generation, DKC felt fresh, new and exciting. Plus, the player could ride ostriches, rhinos, and swordfish and animals are cool.
Over the years, I would occasionally replay DKC whenever I had the opportunity or was in the mood for a nostalgia-trip. I owned my original cart on SNES for years, but like most children from that era, I traded-in a lot of my old games/systems for whatever brand new title/console I couldn’t afford at the time. Since then, I’ve always downloaded the re-released versions on the various Virtual Console (VC) marketplaces. I bought it on the Nintendo Wii before it was de-listed, replayed the game then, and recalled enjoying Rare’s classics as much as I did when I first experienced the game. Eventually, DKC was ported to Nintendo Wii U’s VC and ultimately made its way to Nintendo 3DS in pixel-perfect form. Today, consumers can purchase the SNES Classic Mini (if they so happen to find one) and enjoy Rare’s first foray into the jungle in all of its former glory, for better or worse.
No emulator tricks, save-states or nothin’ of the sort!
Retro gaming, for many, is an opportunity to experience the games of yesterday without all of the classic game baggage. Quality-of-life (QOL) improvements such as save-states, restore-points and other modern-day features have allowed many consumers to experience old-school games without any of the hassles or frustrations. Whether one’s using an emulator and downloading ROMs or legitimately purchasing classic titles from a current generation marketplace, enjoying the games of yore has never been easier.
While save-states/restore-points are great for those who may or may not have the time, skill or even willpower to play the game the way the developers intended, some people, including myself, enjoy emulating the original experience as closely as they can. I chose to replay DKC on the 3DS as if I was on an original SNES; no save-states/restore-points, all “KONG” letters collected on each stage and 101% completion (which meant discovering all of the bonus rooms/barrels, not necessarily completing them…). My conclusion to this self-imposed challenge? I never want to do this ever again for a very long time…
A Barrel Full of Bull
The original DKC was undeniably a defining platformer for its time. The pre-rendered backgrounds were groundbreaking during the SNES era and the soundtrack, composed by David Wise and company, is memorable to this day (In my humble opinion, Aquatic Ambience will forever be known as the theme to General Hospital). Each world was comprised of short, but increasingly challenging stages. There were a handful of background “templates”, so-to-speak, including the jungle, cave, ruin, forest, and snow mountain (among others). New enemy types, stage hazards and gimmicks were introduced as the player progressed, however, some ideas, while perhaps sound on paper, were more frustrating than fun in-practice.
Rare’s classic may be simple by today’s standards, but the controls were tight and responsive, which was (and still is) an important prospect for a platformer. All was not well in the land of Donkey Kong, though. Many enemies and hazards were placed at the edges of the screen which resulted in many unwarranted player mistakes. Furthermore, some enemies tossed barrels at breakneck speeds which were almost impossible to avoid. Nearly every stage was littered with dying-pits, too, which sometimes housed bonus rooms/barrels, leading to many deaths caused by trial and error. Replaying DKC today is still fun, but completing the game at 101% is a nightmare.
If a player is legitimately attempting to finish the original DKC without any sort of emulator assistance, one must find as many extra-life balloons as possible. Unfortunately, Candy Kong’s save-point cabins are typically placed midway throughout each world. As soon as the player defeats a boss, one must be skilled enough to either (a) make it to the next Funky’s Flights in order to travel back to a previous world’s save-point or (b) hope to the monkey gods that one discovers enough extra-lives in order to make it to the next save-point. Another aspect of the game that may be lost on those who opt for restore-points/save-states is the fact that the “KONG” letters found scattered throughout each stage grants the player with an extra-life, if collected.
A big problem here is that a lot of the extra-lives (including some of the KONG letters) are found within bonus rooms/barrels which are located in pits that are slightly out-of-reach. It’s a simple risk/reward system at its core, but due to some of the haphazardly placed bonus rooms and other collectables, most of the time the player finds oneself losing a life just trying to discover these bonus chances. On my current replay, I tried my best to find every bonus room/barrel on my own, but a handful of them eluded me despite how many attempts I made on particular stages. At some point in my life, I recall discovering nearly every secret on my own, however, time and age has not been so kind to my memory. While some stages tease the player by placing the tip of the sprite of a barrel at the bottom of the screen, one particular level had it placed completely off-screen. Horrible design!
No Internet or Forums. Just a Player’s Guide or the Kids at School!
Back in the day, as a kid, the means to discovering game secrets were fairly limited. Unless one was fortunate enough to either be (a) subscribed to Nintendo Power; (b) had access to an official Player’s Guide or (c) happened to be in the same classroom as other kids who owned the game, one was shit-out-of-luck. Perhaps some of these more obtuse/cryptic secrets were a byproduct of an era when publishers/developers were attempting to dissuade consumers from trading-in their “completed” games. Regardless, what’s even more frustrating is the fact that there was a perfectly good in-game “hint system” (in the way of Cranky’s Cabins) that was unfortunately poorly implemented.
Cranky Kong’s cabins were a half-baked idea that could have been actually useful to the player. Cranky Kong’s cabins (much like Candy Kong) are located in each world. Upon entering his cabin, the player is greeted by playful insults. In-between the jokes, Cranky will sometimes hint at secrets on particular stages. What would have been extremely helpful is if Cranky hinted at some of the more difficult to discover hidden rooms/barrels (like the off-screen one mentioned above). Alas, this is not the case and instead Cranky will tell the player about a hoard of bananas in one of the underwater stages, for example, which isn’t very helpful.
Despite Slipping on its own Banana-peel, it’s Still Fun
Between Rare’s classic trilogy and Retro Studio’s Donkey Kong Country Returns/Tropical Freeze for the Wii/Wii U, respectively, this franchise is still one of my all-time favorites. Although I still enjoy my romp through the jungle every few years, my recent playthrough has made me realize that perhaps, for better or worse, I don’t quite remember the original game as well as I thought I did…
If you’re interested in more DKC/Rare insight, head over to YouTube and checkout Digital Foundry’s excellent DKC retrospective!