Released in 1994, DKC was a significant title in the history of the SNES. Faced with stiff competition from Sega’s Megadrive and the ever reliable Amiga, and with Sony’s Playstation just around the corner, Nintendo’s 16-bit console was in danger of being overlooked by gamers.
But when Rare announced themselves onto the gaming scene with this inventive platformer, the SNES started to gain traction. Its incredible graphics, showing off hitherto untapped power in the console, wowed audiences of the day, backed up by a solid platform romp.
Its’ success spawned two sequels on the SNES, plus a third on the N64, as well as a conversion of the original to the Game Boy Colour and Game Boy Advance. The franchise was successfully resurrected in 2010 with Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii.
As an Amiga owner, I never had the pleasure of playing this in my youth and so I come to this with a fresh set of eyes. Can DKC pack the same punch today as it did 21 (yikes!) years ago?
The tone is set as soon as the game loads. The old Donkey Kong construction platform comes into view as Kong himself, looking old and weathered with his long white beard and balancing on a cane, listens to his gramophone before the new kid on the block explodes onto the scene in glorious technicolour.
Graphics may have moved on, what with photo-realism, motion capture and lots of other technical wizardry I don’t really understand. But there is a certain charm to the 16-bit era, which routinely saw bright, colourful, fast moving, chunky sprites that whisk you back to that period whenever you see them.
Whilst the ‘wow factor’ may have dissipated, DKC remains a visually impressive title. Everything is imbued with a deep, rich colour palette whilst the 3D rendering creates an almost grainy element which reigns in the cartoony look somewhat. It reminds me in some ways of Crash Bandicoot, despite the obvious differences in gameplay styles. Environments are mixed up nicely, your banana hunt taking you across the jungles, through mines and up a snowy glacier amongst other locales.
The characters are well detailed too, Kong looking suitably grumpy and intimidating, Diddy capturing that Scrappy Doo vibe, although altogether less irritating.
With graphical power having moved so dramatically, any retrogaming title needs to be able to impress from a gameplay perspective if it is to hold muster today and DKC doesn’t disappoint.
There is nothing revolutionary about the structure of the game. It apes (arf!) any number of other platformers, with its 40 levels split into different ‘worlds’ that are protected by a boss character that must be dispatched as Donkey and Diddy Kong set out to rescue their stash of stolen bananas. Enemies can be jumped on, platforms must be climbed and chasms must be negotiated. So far so standard.
But there are numerous touches that help to separate this from the crowd. You start the game as Kong but quickly find Diddy stashed away in a barrel. From this point, you can choose which character to use by tagging in and out. Each controls differently and benefits from individual traits; Kong has a more powerful attack whilst Diddy is more agile and can jump higher. You will form a preference but the best results see a combination of the two, dependent on the circumstances. The second character acts like a second life too; if one gets bashed, the other takes over automatically, the fallen simian retrievable from strategically placed barrels. Lose both and you lose a life.
Whichever character you opt for, movement is fast and responsive. Level design is strong too. This is not perhaps the technical masterclass you might see from, say, a Mario game, the simple graphics of that franchise belying the fiendish puzzle element of the game. This is more straightforward in a sense. But there are numerous clever moments, requiring you to negotiate cannon firing barrels, linked in a sequence to get you through the level for instance, or hit switches to light your way or risk stumbling around in the dark and falling to an untimely demise. There is good variety too, from the expected jungle based antics, through underground mines, icy glaciers and even some underwater sections. Plus there are various creatures that can be found lurking in boxes to be ridden around the screen, bashing enemies out of the way or opening secret entrances to bonus rooms.
Pacing of levels feels just about right; long enough to feel satisfying but never so long that they outstay their welcome. The difficulty curve is well judged, the first few levels easing you in to the action, buts it’s not long before the pace really picks up as you find yourself trying to judge when to release from a barrel moving up and down whilst also spinning, timing your jump so as to avoid a hovering bee. Make no mistake, this is a tricky trickster that will take you on a drive to rage city. More than once I found my life count slowly trickling down to zero as I tried (and failed) to negotiate a particularly tricky sequence. There are save points, however these are spaced some distance apart, giving a real sense of achievement when you reach one. To ease the pain, make use of Funky Kong’s planes when you find them and fly to an earlier save point to double up their utilisation.
When things do start to get more difficult there are some incredibly frustrating moments. The mine cart sequences for instance are a nice change of pace but fall back on the ‘twitch’ style of gameplay, with obstacles coming at you with barely any notice. You will almost inevitably lose a life and so the level becomes less a challenge than a memory test as you get a bit further each time until the whole sequence is mentally mapped out. Similarly another level in the underground section sees you having to touch a set of barrel based switches that turn off the enemies strewn throughout the level, allowing you safe passage, whilst later levels see you needing to grab fuel barrels to keep your platform moving whilst simultaneously leaping across fall-away platforms. They are clever and inventive but again rely more on ‘trial-error-memorise’ than true skill and reaction speed. And let’s not even talk about my personal pet peeve of platform games, slippy ruddy slidey ice worlds. Urgh. But these moments are the exception and far outweighed by clever, inventive touches.
Beyond the main game, the usual genre tropes are present and correct; bananas can be collected and mini-games played that reward extra lives, whilst hidden areas abound. The animated map screen is nice too, charting your progress through the game and if the going gets tough, you can jump (well, fly actually) back to completed levels, giving you the chance to run through the easier ones to boost your banana / life count.
And when the single player mode is finally exhausted, further value comes in the form of two multiplayer modes, with a choice of either co-op or competitive games.
In game effects are terrific, from the spot on monkey squeals to the cannon fire to the ‘boing’ noise when you jump on tyres or enemies.
But the real star is the music that plays throughout. Each section has its own flavour but the map music in particular is a fab little ditty that sticks in the mind and you will be whistling it happily to yourself long after the game has finished.
It is satisfying to revisit a game renowned on release for graphical fidelity and find that, once stripped away, what lies underneath remains a quality platform romp.
It is far from perfect. I started out loving the game but the further I went, the less I enjoyed it. Once completed, I could appreciate the challenge of the level being presented but whilst playing, they often become a slog to get through. That said, I was determined to see it through to the end, although whether that is down to compelling gameplay or sheer stubbornness on my part is up for debate.
It’s a tough challenge and no mistake. Even when do finish, there are myriad bonuses to go back and hunt down, adding replay value. Whilst there are moments of knuckle gnashing frustration, these are outweighed by consistently inventive design. Add on top the terrific sound and bags of character and it all adds up to make this one jungle you won’t mind getting lost in.