I played Donkey Kong Country a few times as a kid, but I never cared for it. The game was too hard for me then, and the art style didn’t appeal to me. (The bee enemies really scared me for some reason.) Revisiting it now, it still wouldn’t rank among my favorite platformers, but I have a lot more respect for it.
Before Donkey Kong Country, the DK franchise was effectively dead. Rareware effectively rebuilt the series from the ground up, changing the gameplay completely, adding what at the time were cutting edge graphics, and injecting some 90s attitude into the aging franchise.
From the opening cutscene, this game screams “This ain’t yo’ daddy’s Donkey Kong.” The original DK is relegated to the role of Cranky Kong, with a grown-up Donkey Kong Jr. taking center stage, surrounded by a cast of new characters. DKC is fully of personality, from Cranky’s hilarious insults right down to DK and Diddy’s idle animations.
For the most part, the art has aged really well. The early 3D reminds me a lot of claymation, and the enemies and backgrounds are nice and colorful. Obviously, everything is a bit pixelated, but that’s to be expected. The only model I really had a problem with was DK himself, who just looks like a brown blob a lot of time. Maybe that’s just me, but considering how DK was removed as main character from the sequels, perhaps someone at Rare shared my criticism.
Donkey Kong Country is famous for its tight controls, and while the game is challenging, it’s nowhere near as hard as I remembered. There’s still some trial and error, especially on the later levels, with enemies appearing without giving you time to react, but it never gets to the point where frustration ruined the experience or made me want to quit.
David Wise’s score is rightly lauded as one of the best soundtracks on SNES if not in the entire history of gaming. From upbeat tracks like “Jungle Groove” to the soothing “Aquatic Ambiance”, DKC shows the heights the SNES sound chip is capable of, and it’s worth playing for the music alone.
Another thing Donkey Kong Country is famous for is its hidden areas and bonus stages. I’ve never been the type of gamer that feels the need to find every secret, but if you are, DKC has a ton of replay value (which is good since the main game can be completed in only a couple of hours).
DKC isn’t without its problems though. The slippery controls in ice levels are atrocious. Ice levels are a bane to most gamers at the best of time, and given DKC’s difficulty, I’m sure they resulted in quite a few broken controllers back in the day. “Stop and Go Station” (where you have to hit barrels to stop invincible enemies from moving for a short time) and “Loopy Lights” (where the same mechanic is used to keep the stage lit up) are cool ideas in theory, but the barrels don’t last for a consistent length of time, making them needlessly frustrating.
By far the worst level in the game is “Torchlight Trouble”. This level is entirely dark, apart from a flashlight being held by a parrot (one of several animal companions in the game). The level itself isn’t bad, but every time you turn around, the parrot swings his flashlight, and the screen flashes completely white for a moment. It only took about ten seconds for this to start giving me a headache, though thankfully there are no other levels employing this gimmick.
It’s easy to see why Donkey Kong Country is favorite game for completionists and speedrunners. It’s a game that rewards repeated playthroughs and mastery of the controls. This has never been what I personally look for in a game and I’ll never be a DKC superfan, but I enjoyed my experience a lot more than I expected, and I could see myself revisiting it from time to time in the future.
Final Score: 4/5