Retro Sunday: Donkey Kong Country // VC
December 13, 2009
It was coming up to 15 years ago, on Christmas Day 1994, that a giddy 12-year-old me excitedly unwrapped Donkey Kong Country from underneath the Christmas tree. Not only did I play it all day, I also lugged my SNES, connection leads and the game round to my Nan’s for the evening, where my family traditionally gathers for Christmas Night. There, I set up on the tiny portable TV in my Nan’s bedroom and showed it to my incredulous younger cousin; particularly, as I remember, the first mine cart level ‘Mine Cart Carnage’. It was the start of a love affair with Donkey Kong that ensured I would snaffle up subsequent releases from Rare; the rest of this series, of which there were three in total, and Donkey Kong 64 on the N64.
Revisiting it so many years later, by virtue of an 800-point (£7.00) download from the Wii’s Virtual Console, it’s amazing just how many of the enemy positions and bonus barrel locations were ingrained in my memory. I found myself making blind leaps of faith into deadly chasms, knowing with 100% certainty that I would land in the bonus barrel and be shot up out of the screen for a chance to grab extra bananas and lives.
There isn’t too much to remember regarding the plot of the game, however. The evil Kremlings, led by head honcho King K. Rool, have invaded Donkey Kong Island and made off with Donkey Kong’s banana hoard. Our hero, aided by cousin Diddy Kong (an original creation by the developer) set out to get it back. The game then plays out across a world map of 6 themed areas, each of which contains it’ own levels. These are mostly titled with amusing alliterative monikers, such as ‘Coral Capers’ and (my favourite) ‘Manic Mincers’, or rhyming ones such as ‘Vulture Culture’. Gameplay is initially fairly simple, with the collection of bananas, extra life balloons and spelling out K-O-N-G with little golden pickups across each level, being the name of the game. Most enemies are defeated by jumping on their heads (sound familiar?), or using Donkey’s barrel roll or Diddy’s cart-wheel to knock them down. Some enemies can only be defeated using barrels or oil kegs, a respectful nod to Donkey Kong’s original arcade debut as the barrel-hurling, Pauline-kidnapping villain.
Other levels add in some excellent variety however, often altering the way platforms need to be negotiated. I’ve already touched on the mine cart levels, where the terrain is navigated by manoeuvering your iron vehicle on the broken rails by performing perfect jumps. ‘Stop & Go Station’ is furnished with invulnerable stone Kremlings, called Rockkrocs, which race up and down every surface. They can only be shut off by jumping into the Stop barrels, and it is only a matter of time before they switch back to Go, and the Rockkrocs are on the rampage again. ‘Tanked Up Trouble’ sees you riding a platform with five fuel cells on board which gradually tick down, threatening to send you plummeting to your death, and facilitating the need to collect fuel barrels to fill it up and keep it moving. And ‘Loopy Lights’ needs to be constantly lit by jumping into barrels to successfully navigate; if you are too slow, only blind leaps of faith will lead you to the next platform hovering in space.
Perhaps the most memorable, and most frustrating levels, are those that require you to blast your way through using a series of rotating barrels. In a level that proved to be an absolute nemesis for me, ‘Snow Barrel Blast’, which ate over 20 of my preciously-hoarded lives, these barrels not only rotate, they also move up and down, and evil bees called Zingers rotate around the next barrel. The air turned blue during that one, I can assure you.
Dotted around some of these levels are animal friends that can help you, and also provide fine examples of the loving details the developer crafted into the game. Rambi the rhino shakes the screen when he lands after a jump, Expresso the fast-moving ostrich is furnished with a pair of running trainers and Winky the frog has a bulging orange throat. Their excellent animation is reflected in the main characters too – leave Donkey Kong idle for a few moments and he’ll start banging his chest like a real gorilla. Marry this up with the pre-rendered 3D character models, fun sound effects and an astonishingly good musical soundtrack, and you have production values that still bear up remarkably well after all these years. As a retro platforming experience, there are no barriers to entry here; whilst some vintage games can prove too archaic when revisited after such a long time, Donkey Kong Country still feels timeless.
If there are any minor gripes, I suppose they can levelled at the length of the game. Much like the last Retro Sunday reviewed game, Gunstar Heroes, I completed Donkey Kong in 2 hours and 24 minutes, with a completion rate of 58%. Going back and finding every bonus barrel to get the 100% was probably something I would have done when I was 12 years old and unlikely to get a new game for months; but in today’s age, when there are a dozen unstarted titles in my collection and no Trophy incentive to chase after, I’m unlikely to bother. Still, for an afternoon of pure platforming perfection, where rose-tinted spectacles are refreshingly justified, Donkey Kong Country is a perfect fit. I’d be very surprised if I wasn’t tempted to pick up the sequels in the series in the coming weeks.