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Donkey Kong Country (SNES) artwork

Donkey Kong Country (SNES) review

"In 1994, Nintendo was in a bit of a pickle. The SNES was starting to be outmatched. 3DO, Jaguar, and now this newfangled "Sega 32X", with the Saturn and PlayStation due next year! And the N64 was still a ways off! How could Nintendo possibly compete with these flurry of formidable 32-bit consoles? (Actually, four of those five "competitors" barely managed to let a fart out before their hasty death, but hey, hindsight is 20/20.) Well, Nintendo struck a deal with Silicon Graphics (the premier CGI ..."

In 1994, Nintendo was in a bit of a pickle. The SNES was starting to be outmatched. 3DO, Jaguar, and now this newfangled "Sega 32X", with the Saturn and PlayStation due next year! And the N64 was still a ways off! How could Nintendo possibly compete with these flurry of formidable 32-bit consoles? (Actually, four of those five "competitors" barely managed to let a fart out before their hasty death, but hey, hindsight is 20/20.) Well, Nintendo struck a deal with Silicon Graphics (the premier CGI developer at the time) and gave Rare--a relatively small developer best-known for absurdly hard NES beat-'em-up Battletoads--several multi-million dollar SGI workstations to develop an SNES platformer with graphics like nothing anyone had seen before. That game would mark the revival of the character that gave Nintendo a foothold in the industry to begin with: Donkey Kong. The big, stupid ape hadn't appeared since 1984's Donkey Kong 3, and had slowly faded from the public's memory since then. Donkey Kong Country would change all that; it ended up selling over 8 million copies, making it the second most successful SNES game of all time (behind Super Mario World.)

The key to Donkey Kong Country's success isn't exactly a big secret; would anyone have even given this game a second look if it didn't have fancy 3D sprites to stand out from the crowd? Make no mistake: Donkey Kong Country looks good. That is, the backgrounds do. The environments you travel through look simply gorgeous: it's difficult not to be impressed by the glittering crystals of the ice cave in the snow world, or the blizzard effect in the level immediately before it. Whether it be jungle, cave, factory, or pirate ship, every area looks fantastic, and it's a noticeable step up from any previous game on the system. It doesn't look quite as good as DKC2 or DKC3, of course (no DKC3 water refraction effects here), but DKC is without a doubt one of the better looking games on the SNES...again, as far as backgrounds are concerned.

The characters themselves are a different story. Every sprite in the game is a prerendered 3D model, and as a result, the two main characters move with remarkable fluidity. The enemies aren't quite as painstakingly animated, but in an age where most baddies' actions were relegated to a mere two frames, this stuff was seriously impressive. So what's the problem?

Well, being 3D models shoehorned into an SNES cartridge, every character in DKC--be it friend or foe--sports an awkward plastic-ish look. The animations are top-notch, yes, but when the character you control appears to be made of wax, a sour taste is left in one's mouth. It doesn't help that Donkey Kong Country features some of the worst character design ever seen in a video game: just try to look at Candy Kong without cringing. I dare you. Hell, forget even that: the nauseating faux-"cool" attitude of Funky Kong will make it a serious challenge for anyone to suppress vomit. It wouldn't be hard to fill up a whole review just describing how lame the cast is. Whoever drew the concept art for DKC needs to be fired (and after looking at the even worse designs in the next two games, they evidently weren't.) Moving on.

Perhaps moreso than the pretty vistas you travel through, the highlight of Donkey Kong Country is its soundtrack. From the moment you hear the slowly-building bongo drums in the first level, it's obvious that DKC's music is something special. Almost all of the tracks in the game have thirty seconds or more of ambient sound before the main melody even begins, lending a very atmospheric aura to the whole game. It's tough to find anything to complain about here: every song in DKC lends the game a terrific mood not often found in a platformer, and this unusually cool atmosphere is ultimately what saves it.

Donkey Kong Country isn't about the gameplay. No, really, it isn't. Yes, it's a platformer, but its innovation and smart level design (or lack thereof) feel like an afterthought when compared to all of the work obviously put into the game's presentation. Nothing here exudes ingenuity: being able to switch between two different characters is hardly revolutionary. Ditto for the animal buddies which you can hop onto every now and then; they add almost nothing to the game and ultimately serve as just another way to clobber your enemies.

Donkey Kong Country has four types of levels: the first, and most prevalent, tears a few pages straight out of the book of Super Mario Bros. DK and Diddy (DK's "hip" monkey pal) bop on their enemies' heads to beat them. They can collect 100 bananas for an extra life. They can hop into barrels to launch themselves to uninteresting bonus areas, in almost identical fashion to Mario's warp pipes.

Most of Donkey Kong Country's levels revolve around some sort of "gimmick": usually, it's in the form of a particular design element that is unique to that level. That entire level will revolve around that element, and you'll navigate past it over and over again, each time with gradually increasing difficulty. For example, one level features giant millstones that chase after you. As you outrun each millstone, they become slowly faster, and the paths they follow become more and more littered with enemies and obstacles each time. Aside from two entertaining thoroughly entertaining stages situated entirely upon careening mine carts, this approach to level design gets old fast, wearing thin well before the game's end.

Nonetheless, the Super Mario Bros.-esque levels are definitely the strongest parts of Donkey Kong Country. It's when the game begins to diverge from its progenitor that it falls flat on its face. The swimming levels are done in a considerably different style from in the Mario games; that is, they're ten times as annoying. As you have no way to defend yourself underwater, barring an encounter with cheery swordfish Enguarde, DKC's water stages inevitably degenerate into irritating gauntlets of "avoid the big bad octopus/clam/shark/spiky black gear thing which you have a split second to avoid as they charge onto the screen", compounded by some rather awkward swimming controls and the same repetitive level design as the rest of the game. At least they have good music.

Still worse offenders are DKC's barrel-shooting levels, which number about a half dozen throughout the game. Basically, you'll hop into a barrel, it'll automatically rotate and you have to press the jump button when it's aligned with the next barrel properly. If you miss, you fall into a bottomless pit and die. If you do it right, you'll be shot into the next barrel, and it'll start rotating...the process repeats over and over again, incrementally more difficult each time. These levels are not fun. Nor do they feature any true challenge. It's just a shallow trial-and-error minigame stretched out over the course of an entire stage to stretch the game out a bit more. They really just feel like the development team ran out of time and still had six more levels to fill up. Even more baffling is that barrel shooting still plays prominently in both of the sequels.

By the time you reach the game's anticlimactic boss battles, which comprise the fourth and final level archetype in DKC, you're not expecting anything spectacular...but that doesn't excuse just how lame they are. The first boss, for instance, is a giant version of the ubiquitous beaver enemy seen throughout the game. The big beaver will slowly baby-hop around the arena, leaving you wide open to jump on its head five times and kill it. There's nothing else going on in this fight. No projectiles, no other enemies...just a big, slow beaver baby-hopping around the arena. Later on, you'll fight a palette-swapped version of the giant beaver, only it takes bigger baby-hops this time. The others aren't much better; even the duel against King K. Rool (the villainous leader of the vile reptilian Kremlings) is laughably simplistic.

Donkey Kong Country is a rushed, half-baked game. Throughout the whole 39-odd levels you travel through, there's scarcely an inspired moment to be found. This is a platformer that relies not on platforming, but on atmosphere and music to make itself enjoyable. To an extent, this approach works: Donkey Kong Country amazingly manages to overcome some its shortcomings to an extent simply due to the quality of its presentation. However, it doesn't take long to realize that DKC could have been so much more. Most of the potential here was eventually realized in Donkey Kong Country 2, so Donkey Kong Country is pretty much obsolete as is. Just skip DKC and go straight to the second installment.

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Community review by phediuk (April 22, 2006)

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