Posted by: zsaberlink | April 10, 2011

Looking back at the Donkey Kong Country series

The Donkey Kong Country (DKC) series had a successful revival recently with the game Donkey Kong Country Returns on Wii. As such, you may be wondering, what’s next for the series? I think the best way to see the way forward is to look back at its rich past. In part 1 of this series, I’ll be focusing on its history. Part 2 will be about where the series might go next. This article will focus on the first two entries of the series, as well as Donkey Kong Country Returns. While I’ve played and beaten DKC3 sometime back, I’ve always had a bias against that game, and I’d rather not let that seep into this retrospective.

Donkey Kong Country Returns, the latest entry in the series

Donkey Kong Country

Back when Donkey Kong Country came out in 1994, the Playstation had recently entered the market. Sony was touting the PS1’s polygonal graphics and Nintendo wanted to prove that the Super Nintendo could also produce beautiful games. By using pre-rendered 3D graphics (graphics that are rendered beforehand and then simply displayed on the console), DKC impressed gamers with its visuals. The game sold over 8 million copies, and its success initiated the start of a franchise.

Donkey Kong Country obviously played a pivotal role for the series, as it laid down the fundamentals of the games. First, there were the gameplay mechanics within the levels. Donkey and Diddy could both jump and roll through their enemies to proceed through the levels. In addition, they swung from vine to vine, shot between barrels, and bounced on tires. This game also introduced 4 animal buddies (Rambi, Expresso, Winky, and Enguarde), who each had different abilities to help you through the levels.

A DKC Mine Cart Level

What most people often remember about this game were its mine cart levels, where players had to jump precisely to get through a treacherous track. Ironically there were only 2 of these levels in the entire game! In addition to the land-based levels, there were some water-based levels. The levels were always entirely underwater, and the Kongs themselves could do nothing but swim to avoid enemies in the water (without Enguarde at least). As such, I personally found these levels fairly boring. Finally, there were bonus rooms. These were usually found by reaching secret areas, like breaking a wall with Rambi, or bouncing on enemies to reach a barrel. Throughout the game, there were a couple of levels that were fairly innovative and didn’t fall under the descriptions above (Stop & Go Station for example), but most fell into one of the previously mentioned buckets.

The game’s nature-based level themes were fairly generic (apart from the Factory) and the bosses were fairly standard (hit X times by jumping on the boss/throwing a barrel at the boss, two bosses were even repeated). Overall, this game was enjoyed since it created a set of fun gameplay mechanics and the tag-team mode, the ability to switch players at any time. However, as with many first games of a series, it simply laid down the fundamentals that series’ veterans have obviously become very familiar with.

Donkey Kong Country 2

When Donkey Kong Country 2 came out a year later, Rare took what made the first game fun and furthered it immensely. Most importantly, DKC2 truly focused on making new and fun gameplay experiences. From the start, Rare threw the Kongs into various unique environments, like a honey-filled Hornet Hive, wind filled caves, ghostly levels, funky lava levels, and much, much more. In addition, the presentation only got better, especially on the music side of things. By placing the Kongs in various ridiculous environments and completely ignoring normal laws of nature, Rare was truly able to unleash their creativity, and make a game that many regard as the best in the series.

Yes, those are monkeys on a rhino on a hot air balloon going over lava here…

First, Rare not only fleshed out a lot of mechanics barely touched on in the first game, they managed to keep each level feeling fresh. Even within levels primarily using the same mechanics, the game would switch the level up in order to make the player focus on a different goal. For example, one mine cart level was really a race against others, but the next mine cart level was an obstacle course while a ghost chased you. Another time the Kongs would be flying around freely with your parrot buddy Squawk shooting zingers (the hornet/bee-like enemies). However, the next time you’re stuck with a purple parrot that can’t shoot zingers and you can only control the speed of your descent downwards. I could go on and on about the various fun concepts used in the game, but I think this is best understood by playing DKC2 itself.

In addition, the game introduced Dixie Kong to the cast, allowing the players to play as Diddy and Dixie. (Donkey Kong had been captured in this game and the goal was to rescue him after all.) Dixie had the ability to slow her fall by twirling her hair like a helicopter among other things. Despite being closer in size than Donkey was to Diddy, Rare made sure that the two Kongs had their differences, and sometimes required that you have a particular Kong for a task. I admit this sometimes ended up being a barrel only usable by one Kong, but it was an incentive to not get hit at all throughout the level. The Kongs also had the ability to throw each other up to higher locations, which led to other types of platforming challenges. I also just enjoyed having two fast and nimble characters as well. Bosses were far more creative and wacky this time, going as far as to make the Kongs fight the ghost of a previous boss at some point.

I commented earlier on how the first DKC’s water levels were often rather plain. Rare seemed to agree with that sentiment since they made nearly all-underwater levels in this game highly interactive in some way or the other. DKC2 played around with rising and falling water levels quite a bit, and even was turning lava into water and back again using a seal buddy’s breath! In addition, they added faster and more dangerous enemies to these levels. Speaking of which, animal buddies were utilized better and far more often in DKC2. Squitter the spider, Rattly the snake, and Squawks the parrot managed to allow players to explore the levels in different ways and find secrets. DKC2 had lots of collectibles that were obtained through bonus stages and hidden locations in the levels. Collecting these diligently gave great rewards, including several extra levels and an alternate ending to the game. DKC2 also made collectibles a lot easier to manage by recording the amounts collected. In the first game, players knew what percentage of the game they had completed. However there wasn’t really any way of truly quantifying it.

DKC2 – Mining Melancholy

Last but definitely not least, DKC2’s presentation was something truly memorable. While the graphics definitely remained superb as those in the first game, it was really the music in this game that made the difference. David Wise and the music staff at Rare really made an outstanding soundtrack for DKC2. The game used its visuals and music in order to create a great atmosphere in each level. The first DKC’s soundtrack generally consisted of more upbeat tunes although it did contain some calm ones. However, DKC2’s music and visuals made you really excited in tense situations like in Haunted Hall, and feel really calm in the gentle atmosphere of Bramble Scramble. It really speaks to a game’s music when I remember its music quite vividly after playing the games over 10 years ago. (I had not replayed the games until recently when I played them again.), I have remembered so much of this series’ music over the years. However, all the music I remember from this series over the years has been from Donkey Kong Country 2. In addition, most of the environments I remember are also from this game, probably because they go beyond the usual “grass, desert, ice, lava, etc.” levels that have permeated platformers since the days of Super Mario Bros. 3. Donkey Kong Country 2 was truly a sequel that really improved on the original in basically every way possible. Given the vast number of improvements, what else could be improved?


Donkey Kong Country Returns

DKC2 was soon after followed by DKC3, but after that Donkey Kong took a break from his traditional 2D adventures, apart from the untraditional DK Jungle Beat. With the resurgence in the popularity of 2D platformers, through games like Mega Man 9/10 and the New Super Mario Bros series on the DS/Wii, Nintendo clearly saw an opportunity for a revival of a 2D platforming franchise. Without Rare around, Metroid Prime developers Retro Studios took up the task. Now that the game has been released, praised by many, and sold over 4 million copies, what exactly did Retro do with the series in Donkey Kong Country Returns?

For starters, Retro somewhat did a reboot of the series’ cast, by stripping it of all its non-essential characters and replacing the set of enemies. However, I feel that Retro made this game almost a spiritual successor/improvement to the first DKC rather than the second. Retro returned to the natural-filled environments of the first DKC game, while adding a new natural environment or two. DKCR also used Donkey and Diddy like the first game. This time Retro focused on making a unique gameplay experience, by using the technological advancements provided by the Wii that were not there on the Super Nintendo.

Donkey Kong Country Returns in Action

In DKCR, Retro zoomed out the amount of space visible around the Kongs. First, this view helped DKCR showcase its interactive polygonal 3D environments. Retro tried to make this game gorgeous while using full polygonal 3D backgrounds, and definitely achieved that throughout its levels, like the shadow based sunset level. Having an interactive environment also allowed Retro to be fairly creative, especially with tidal waves, rocks, and enemies having an effect on the foreground from their background location. The levels turned out to be very dynamic, as Donkey and Diddy could interact with nearly every part of the landscape of each level through their jumps, ground pounds, rolls, and gentle breaths. Interestingly, it seems like stereoscopic 3D (like that of the 3DS) would have meshed well these large interactive environments (waves splashing in your face, etc.), although the zoomed out camera angle may not have worked as well.

Secondly, the zoomed-out camera also helped the two player aspect of the game. Of course one major improvement of this game was the ability to play with two players simultaneously. The larger amount of screen real estate allowed for some separation between the Kongs, although the Kongs couldn’t collide with each other anyways. Retro also streamlined a lot of operations, like saving, which was now done after the player completes any level. There are plenty of recorded collectibles (puzzle pieces and the letters KONG) that lead to some bonuses.

The presentation of this game was quite good. The visuals were quite varied and well-arranged, although HD consoles and their graphics often can make pretty games on Wii not seem as impressive. The sounds from this game were mostly remixes from the first game. I definitely liked a lot of the remixes and new songs in DKCR and thought many of the remixes were actually better than the original songs. I found it funny though that I had forgotten that a lot of this music was in the original DKC.

Overall DKCR was a very good game and well-deserving of its sales. It added enough to be new, without sacrificing any of the qualities that made playing the games fun. Next time I’ll be writing about where the Donkey Kong Country series could go next. In the meantime, I suggest you play the games in this series if you haven’t already, either by buying it on the Wii/Virtual Console, or pulling out your old Super Nintendo if you happen to have one in working condition.


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