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WB Review: Donkey Kong Country

Jon Blunn

Jon Blunn

Jon does like things other than games, including a shameful penchant for the Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie and the Banshees and stuff of that ilk.
He's not bad at photography but terrible at writing in third person.
Jon Blunn

Latest posts by Jon Blunn (see all)

For those hoping for –  yet simultaneously doubting the possibility of Rare ever returning to their previously high form, let me tell you of the game that I 100% guarantee is Rare’s first stage in their return to greatness. Before you get too excited though, I’m referring to their initial comeback of 1994. You know (or quite possibly don’t, come to think of it), the one a lot of people weren’t even aware was a come back.

But first, a little context. Rare, in their previous incarnation as ACG (Ashby Computer Graphics), more commonly known by trade name Ultimate Play the Game, came to prominence releasing critically

Not Quite as Catchy as RARE is it?
Not Quite as Catchy as RARE is it?

acclaimed titles for the 8-bit microcomputer market such as the ZX Spectrum. Their highly original, entertaining and surprisingly deep output (which compared to the countless sub par Manic Miner Clones cluttering the shelves of Boots and WHSmith seemed far ahead of its time) resulted in players and press alike speaking their name with something approaching reverence, maybe even worship. Between 1983 and 1985, it seemed they were capable of doing no wrong. However, 1985 saw the sale of the Ultimate name and back catalogue  to U.S. Gold (now, following subsequent mergers and acquisitions, part of Square Enix) and ACG started trading by the new name of Rare. The games released by U.S. Gold’s version of Ultimate weren’t as well received, and this is why technically the gaming press has been publicly wishing for a return to Rare’s glory days since at least 1987 (Your Sinclair, issue 19, page 32, if you want to check it out for yourself).

Rare themselves, perhaps seeing the pretenders trying to catch up and snapping at their heels with innumerable clones of their seminal works and looking to stay one step ahead by looking to the future, decided to focus on the console market, specifically the Nintendo NES (despite the NES being less popular in Rare’s homeland than the 8 bit micros and its direct competitor, the Master System,  on a global scale it was a financially sound approach and another example of Rare bosses the Stamper Brothers’ characteristic forward thinking ). They released a steady stream of titles, and whilst many of these were competent and entertaining, nothing was ahead of its time or its competitors the way their micro computer games were, and as a result neither were Rare (although amongst their output was now cult classic Battletoads). No feverish anticipation of their next title, heralded by an advert with little more than the game’s title and maybe cover art if you were lucky (an approach completely at odds with the word heavy advertisements of their competitors). No speculation as to what kind of concept they would next revolutionise the market (and inspire countless copy cat titles) with. Sales enough to keep them in business, but not enough to mean that any discussion of the NES was incomplete without mention of their name or the name of one of their releases. However, their output (and perhaps loyalty) attracted the attention of Nintendo, who bought up a stake in the company and essentially made them a first party developer. Nintendo then tasked Rare with reviving the then dormant Donkey Kong franchise. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, this was the first step in Rare’s path to recapturing their status as , but this time on a global scale.

Nintendo put their trust in rare to do well by DK, their first biggest success outside of Japan.
Nintendo put their trust in rare to do well by DK, their first biggest success outside of Japan.

 

By 1994, it had been 11 years since the last release of an original Donkey Kong title, with only occasional cameos in other games keeping the character in the gaming public’s consciousness. Nintendo weren’t taking a major risk by giving one of their more high profile IPs of the time (perhaps learning their lessons from their licencing agreement with Phillips, and the execrable abominations that resulted from this), but still seemingly hedged their bets by preemptively releasing a 100 level updated version of Donkey Kong for the Game Boy, much more in line with the original and also sharing its title but commonly referred to as Donkey Kong 94 (proving that this trend of reboots having the same name as the original is far from a recent trend). But whilst DKC may not have been the official relaunch of the franchise, it certainly held the highest profile, with Nintendo ensuring the Rare had the resources needed to make the title more than just another bog standard mascot based platformer of the ilk that had oversaturated the 16 bit market the same way FPSs are doing today.

The biggest initiative was the use of SGI (Silicon Graphics) workstations to design the games graphics by pre-rendering polygonal models and then outputting sprites generated from these models, with the models being manipulated to produce different animation frames. This was the most heralded aspect at the time, as it allowed for sprites and a fluidity of animation unlike any previously seen on the system (Rotoscoping techniques such as those used in Prince of Persia and Flashback had previously produced lifelike animation, but this technique could only be used for humanoid characters). As the sprites were pre-rendered, the SNES treated them like any other bitmapped sprite because by the time they were inserted into the game, that’s all they were. The only extra processing the console itself needed to carry out was dealing with the increased compression of the data which was required in order to fit the amount of graphical data in the game on the – at the time – unprecedented 32 megabit cartridge. Presently, a developer detailing the hardware and software used to create a game would be met with a resounding yawn, and possibly a request to just shut up and show the trailer, but in 1994 this was exciting. Honestly.

But enough context, what of the game itself? Well, underneath the then glossy but now slightly tarnished exterior, the game is a competent if not outstanding example of the 90’s mascot platformer, complete with the cliches of “collect 100 (yellow) items for an extra life”, “jump on enemies to kill them”, “the ride in a mine cart level” and most unforgivably “the slippy, slidey ice world”.

Protaganist wise, as well as the titular Donkey Kong (who isn’t the Donkey Kong from the original arcade game) there’s also Diddy Kong (who isn’t Donkey Kong Junior). Whilst controlling one character, the other follows along as was 90’s vogue initiated by Sonic 2, and you can switch characters with the select or A button (although sometimes, especially in the ice levels, this isn’t as responsive as it should be).  The two characters do have differing traits (Donkey is not as agile as Diddy and has a bigger hitbox, making him more prone to taking hits, but can dispatch certain bigger enemies by jumping on them where Diddy would merely bounce off). Certain areas are better tackled by one character than the other and this adds an element of strategy, albeit very mild. The two characters also work as a hit point mechanic, with the character you are controlling scampering away to safety when being hit and control switching to the remaining character, unless the other character has already scarpered, in which case a life is lost. Losing the character best suited to the area you are in and having to struggle through with the other really makes you appreciate each characters strengths. Their motivation for risking mild injury (the game seems to make a point that the protaganists don’t die by giving them a little animation following the loss of a life whereby they either rub their injuries or look just look a little confused and concussed, and furthermore the game over screen shows them with plasters and a black eye but obviously very much alive. Possibly another example of Nintendo’s puritanical stance of the time.)? Rather than an altruistic rescue or world saving mission as was the trend of the time, they simply want to retrieve their stolen banana hoard from the instantly forgettable antagonist, King K.Rool. I’m not sure if anyone’s told them that hoarding banana’s ultimately ends up with mush and fruit flies.

There is also a supporting cast of characters created by Rare, including Funky Kong, the already tired in 1994 surfer cliche replete with irritating lingo, Candy Kong, the somewhat disturbing attempt at eye, erm, candy who after this game was thankfully relegated to the bad ideas bin she should never escaped from in the first place (at least until DK64) and finally, and most popular by far, is Cranky Kong (who IS the original Donkey Kong, and just so happens to live in a gorilla based society that arbitrarily changes individuals’ names based on character traits just to confuse outsiders, apparently). These characters don’t have any major impact on the game, and are there more for background colour in none gameplay areas such as save points, and perhaps as an excuse to draw more pretty pictures on the fancy new hardware. The animal helpers on whom you can ride such as Rambi the Rhino do play a more integral role but hardly a vital one, limited to occasional appearances in selected levels where even then they are entirely optional, with Enguard the Swordfish being the only one you’ll ever make a concerted effort to find due to the fact he allows you to attack during the underwater levels. Needless to say, none of these went onto achieve Yoshi like levels of popularity.

Kong Family Tree. People actually have massive internet debates about this.
Kong Family Tree. People actually have massive internet debates about this.

As for the main substance of the game, with 20 years hindsight (and knowledge of how much the immediate sequel improved on the original in every aspect) it is a competent platform game at heart, with several original ideas being used in single levels rather than repeated to the point of wearing out their welcome. One level has invincible, rock like enemies that move at a pace far to quick to allow you to avoid them reliably, and the idea is to touch barrels marked “go” at which point the enemies are rendered dormant for a short time. The frantic rush to get to the next barrel before they become active again is exhilarating, with much satisfaction to be gained from narrowly making it before the enemies become active again. Another level has a platform moving along on a track, and barrels of fuel scattered around the level that need to be collected in order for the platform to continue moving along the track. Unfortunately, for each fresh idea there seems to be a corresponding retread of tired old concepts like the aforementioned “slippy slidey ice world”, which worse still isn’t limited to a single appearance despite having worn out its welcome before the end of its first one. It’s almost as if the design team came up with some original ideas but started running out of time, and so padded the game out with the same old, same old. That’s not to say that the old ideas are executed badly, far from it in fact, and they were certainly the nicest looking executions of these concepts at the time, with some of the weather effects in the snow levels being particularly impressive.  Level design is also very linear and restrictive, with the majority of levels being standard left to right horizontally scrolling affairs with neither need nor opportunity for exploration. Vertical scrolling is limited in the extreme, meaning many levels are “what you see is what you get” type affairs. Perhaps this was a result of memory restrictions leaving capacity for very few non-vital areas, or perhaps Rare didn’t have the resources to both get to grips with the new technology and come up with complex and involved level designs. Strangely, the few levels that do encourage a little exploration are the ones set in enclosed areas such as the underwater caves, with the levels set out in the open oddly being the most restrictive.

Structure wise the game is, if anything, a step backward compared to its contemporaries. A map screen allows you to navigate between levels, but progress is strictly linear, with the completion of one level granting access to the next (with certain levels also opening up paths to save points, areas where Cranky Kong can give you small hints that you really don’t need, and most pointlessly spots that allow you to travel to previously complete maps. Yes, whilst you can travel back to previously completed levels on your current map, you can only travel back to previous completed maps when using a specific entry on the map screen referred to as “Funky’s Flights” that is often only opened up after completing several levels on the current map, and save points are also revealed the same way. This pointlessly restrictive mechanic only further emphasises the linearity, and seems positively archaic compared to the sublimely versatile map of Super Mario World, which was a Super Famicon launch title already four years old by the time DKC came out.

Most dated of all though is the structure for 100% completion (which actually shows as 101%). With the load game screen proudly displaying your completion percentage, it soon becomes obvious that this is based on more than just finishing the levels. However, whilst Rare would soon develop a reputation for including in their platform games a ridiculous number of collectibles needed for the elusive 100%, in DKC the number of collectibles that count towards 100% completion are precisely zero. Instead you simply have to access all of the hidden rooms hidden throughout the game which, as there are no other collectibles, either contain extra lives or something else to collect that will eventually lead to you gaining extra lives. As the game doesn’t save your lives counter as part of your saved game, unless you’re going to play through the game in one sitting (which is not in any way unrealistic, with my recent play through taking me around two and a half hours to see through to the end credits, not including my subsequent postgame search for the outstanding completion percentage) stockpiling lives is pointless. During the postgame especially the search for hidden areas is more to add to the completion total rather than any interest in the actual contents of the area. Unfortunately, searching for these areas is less based on exploration and more on trial and error testing to see if there are any hidden rocket barrels just out of view either above or below the playing area, or trial and error testing to see if any walls can be broken open using weapon barrels. More busy work than fun, really.

What must be applauded is the confidence to completely separate the game from the Mario series despite both characters originating from the same title. Kong’s island home shares no elements whatsoever with the Mushroom Kingdom (other than the usual platform game staples), be that environment, enemies or iconography. The main holdover from the original donkey kong is the use of barrels (one item from the original Donkey Kong not subsequently appropriated by Mario, who was seemingly granted custody of the hammer instead) which now play a multitude of roles including everything from weaponry to mid level checkpoints to methods of transportation. The downside is that in contrast to the iconic range of enemies Mario has battled over the years, DKC’s enemies, known collectively as the Kremlings, are uninspired and unmemorable. Also, the giant bee enemy is used far too often throughout the game, overshadowing every other enemy. The boss characters at the end of each area may look nice (their larger size making pixelisation less apparent), but they’re unmemorable, far too easy to beat and the game really wouldn’t be any worse off without them.

Perhaps one of the biggest ironies is that whilst the much heralded, ground breaking visuals have dated as can be expected the soundtrack, comparatively ignored upon the games release, was also beyond anything that had come before but seems as fresh now as it did then. Sounding unlike anything the SNES had produced before, David Wise’s hugely atmospheric work really adds a seperate layer of charm and is still acclaimed to this day. Despite the huge advances made since, this remains one of the greatest video game soundtracks ever made, and I’d recommend anyone who who hasn’t heard it go look it up straight away (Aquatic Ambience is a particular highlight).

It may seem as if I’ve been harsh on the game, especially after calling it competent if not remarkable. It could certainly seem redundant to refer to a 20 year old game as dated. However, this is all done in context of its sequel which was released the next year. Without going into too much detail, this addressed nearly every issue raised here (the generic and easily forgettable enemies notwithstanding), and meant that even 12 months later the original DKC already seemed out of date. Rare seemed much more confident and creative with the sequel, and the experience gained on DKC must have played a huge part in this.

However, for all its faults, DKC left an immense legacy in its wake. On a smaller scale, it launched the DKC series, which continued with two SNES sequels which far improved on the original, a 3D version on the N64, and after spending the Gamecube era in rhythm action purgatory, returned in 2010 with Retro Studios’ sublime Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii and has since seen iterations on both the 3DS and Wii U. On a grander scale, it was the catalyst for Rare 90’s resurgence, and without this we may never have had such classics as Goldeneye and Banjo Kazooie, and the titles from other developers that they subsequently influenced (Timesplitters to name but one). The revolutionary graphics did not have the influence they maybe would have otherwise due to the fact that sprites were soon to become a dirty work in video game development for a while (amazingly, pisspoor FMV survived a while longer), but this game left its mark in an alternative way no one at the time could have truly anticipated.

And as for the chances of another resurgence at Rare? Well, it may have happened once before but it looks less likely by the day that lightning will strike twice. Rare are now owned by Microsoft, and have been tasked with breathing life into the beleaguered Kinect despite Microsoft themselves apparently euthanising it. More importantly, the Stamper brothers, who led Ultimate/Rare through all their ups and downs, and had a huge input into DKC, are no longer at Rare, or even in the industry. But never say never.

For those hoping for -  yet simultaneously doubting the possibility of Rare ever returning to their previously high form, let me tell you of the game that I 100% guarantee is Rare's first stage in their return to greatness. Before you get too excited though, I'm referring to their initial comeback of…

Review Overview

Score: - 7

7

Highly recommended.

The Good: Solid if unremarkable platform action|Some nice, original at the time ideas|THAT soundtrack The Bad: Linear to a fault|Dull, generic enemy design|Completely overshadowed by its sequel to the point it's hard to appreciate in isolation on its own merits

User Rating: 4.7 ( 1 votes)
7

About Jon Blunn

Jon does like things other than games, including a shameful penchant for the Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie and the Banshees and stuff of that ilk. He's not bad at photography but terrible at writing in third person.

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  • guruFTW

    7? It’s one of the best games on the SNES!

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