It’s no secret that many of us at Nintendo Enthusiast are excited for the upcoming Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. As the first major release of the Wii U in 2014, it seems like Nintendo and Retro are starting it off right, as everything we’ve seen of Tropical Freeze thus far has only made the waiting harder to endure. To make that wait even more difficult, a few of us here have decided to do a brief look back at the main entries of the series, which includes the SNES trilogy, a Rare classic on the N64, and a masterful revival on the Wii.
Donkey Kong Country SNES Trilogy – Ryan Crittenden
In the early 90’s, Rareware staff members, Chris Stamper and Tim Stamper, began experimenting and toying around with a software program called Silicon Graphics. Their first vision was a boxing game before showing their progress to Nintendo of Japan’s then-President Hiroshi Yamauchi, who was so impressed that it led to Nintendo purchasing 49% of Rare, in turn making them a second-party developer. With the newly formed partnership, Nintendo allowed the use of their in-house characters to be borrowed by Rare for development of a new game. Rareware Studious chose Donkey Kong.
With their understanding of both the SNES hardware and their new Silicon Graphics software, Rare was able to make Donkey Kong Country the most advanced SNES game at the time. With 3D rendering and advance sprite movement, Donkey Kong and company were a sight to behold when it made its debut. Even to this day, it’s still impressive as to what they did with the 16-bit console and Nintendo knew that. Subscribers to Nintendo Power were sent a VHS that was hosted by comedian Josh Wolf, giving a tour of Nintendo of America’s headquarters and interviewing play testers, who would discuss some secrets and tricks in the game. The advertisement made sure that people knew it was exclusive to Nintendo’s 16-bit system and not the Sega CD or 32X.
As for the game itself, it sold over eight million copies, making it the second most successful game ever on the SNES. On top of its amazing graphics, the gameplay itself was smooth and simple. Players could take control of either Donkey Kong or his nephew, Diddy Kong, and jump, swing and ride several animal buddies, like Rambi the Rhino or Expresso the Ostrich. There were even two multiplayer modes, one where one player was Donkey Kong and the second player was Diddy Kong; the other mode allowed players to take turns playing bothand see who could beat the game first.
The story of the game was that King K. Rool and his band of Kremlings stole Donkey Kong’s banana hoard and it’s up to the ape and his nephew to get them back. They’ll traverse through the entire island, from the outskirts of the jungle to a forest to the frozen peak and an area poisoned by a factory. Along the way, the two protagonists seek the aid of Cranky Kong, who will deliver some tips and a blow to the head with his cane; Funky Kong, who allows you to travel to prior worlds and has the best personal theme song ever; and Candy Kong, who saves the game.
It garnered great reviews and sales, but it did get its share of criticism, mostly saying how it was generic or focused too much on the graphics. Despite all that, it still has its devoted fanbase and is a blast to play. Whether you like the game or not, it’s almost a universal opinion that the soundtrack — composed by David Wise, Eveline Fischer and Robin Beanland — was superb. Words can’t do the soundtrack justice, but it incorporates environmental sounds of the jungle with an upbeat funky sound that just works.
Of course, with any game that sells that well, a sequel is inevitably going to happen. One year later, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong’s Quest was released and many state that it’s one of the most finely crafted platformers ever made. As with the best sequels in the industry, Rareware took what was great about the first game and expanded upon it in every way possible.
Pulling a Princess Peach, Donkey Kong himself is kidnapped by the antagonistic Kremlings and their leader, Kaptain K. Rool. Where the first game’s batch of Kremlings were based on the jungle motive, Diddy Kong’s Quest used a pirate theme. Enemies have peg legs and eye patches, many worlds contain pirate ships, and Kaptain K. Rool this time around is the equivalent to Blackbeard himself. It is now up to Diddy Kong and his girlfriend, Dixie Kong, to save the day.
Everything about Quest is expanded. The soundtrack is beyond amazing, the levels are more diverse, the graphics have a more cartoonish vibe that allows for more colour and detail, there are more secrets containing Kremcoins and DK Coins. There are more animal buddies, like Squitter the Spider and Rattly the Rattlesnake, more barrel types, and overall change of atmosphere.
It seems to be an unwritten law that all platformers must have a forest world, a fire world, an ice world, etc., but Quest, while featuring a lave world, changes up the settings. The forest world is haunted with ghosts, there is a bee world intertwined with a carnival, and a menacing tower that seems to stretch to the sky and is decorated like the 1930s horror films.
In addition to the gameplay enhancements, there are new members of the Kong family, like Swanky Kong and his quiz show that can reward the player with extra lives. Wrinkly Kong runs Kong Kollege, where the players can save, learn about upcoming enemies, and get hints on where some secrets lie. The new playable character, Dixie, can swing her ponytail like a helicopter to help land some tricky jumps and, since Diddy and Dixie are similar size, either one can get on the other’s shoulders for a boost and be thrown to hard-to-reach items.
Diddy Kong’s Quest can be talked about for hours. The last paragraph doesn’t do the variety and design justice, as it’s a game that needs to be played in order to see what the big deal is. This whole article can be spent describing why it is a masterpiece and it deserves every bit of praise it received over the last nineteen years.
Another year passed and Rareware closed the SNES trilogy with Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble. Most trilogies seem to end off on a bad note and, while many consider Double Trouble to be the weakest entry, it’s still a cut above and worth a playthrough in its own right.
The story this time around is that both Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong were kidnapped while on a fishing trip to the Northern Kremisphere. This time, the task of rescuing them falls to Dixie Kong and her cousin Kiddy Kong, who is similar in style to Donkey Kong. Kiddy can throw Dixie to hard-to-reach spots, but there isn’t much else that is new. The Kremlings make their return, along with a menacing robot name Kaos and the leader, Baron K. Roolenstein, who dresses as Doctor Frankenstein and quotes Scooby Doo.
The problem with Double Trouble is that it didn’t expand the series in the same way that Quest did. While the levels are as well-designed as ever, few levels seem to be truly different when compared to past games. There were some exceptions, such as a few with altering gravity or using the new animal buddy, Ellie the Elephant, to use his trunk as a water gun. Instead of expanding the 2D mechanics, Rareware instead expanded on the overworld. Instead of travelling in a straight line from world to world, players would have to bring materials to Funky Kong’s workshop to upgrade their hovercraft, thus allowing for access to more levels. Some worlds can be done in a different order and there are some secrets to explore, but for the most part, it’s additional fluff that doesn’t truly benefit the action.
For the obsessive compulsives out there, there are just as many secrets to unearth, which will lead to two hidden areas in the game. Banana Birds must be collected by playing something like Simon Says and there is even a Zelda-esque trading sequence with the newly introduced Brother Bear family. While mostly optional, some items are required to advance the main story and unlock the levels.
As stated earlier, it’s not that Double Trouble is a bad game; in fact, it’s great. The levels are top notch, even if they do tread familiar ground; the animal buddies are fun to ride, even though they cut a lot of them and only introduced two new ones; and the bosses are entertaining, albeit a bit too simple. It was a nice way to conclude the trilogy, despite what some may say. It was also the worst-selling game in the series, but it still managed to sell almost four million copies, despite being overshadowed by the recently launched N64.
Donkey Kong 64 – Giancarlo Bellotto
Although it really wasn’t a terribly long wait, it felt like Donkey Kong had been gone for an eternity by 1999. After receiving a Donkey Kong Country each year from 1994-1996, the three-year wait for a new console platformer seemed like decades. With Rare even more prominent than they were in the SNES days and the Nintendo 64 in dire need of a console war changer like the original Donkey Kong Country had been, Donkey Kong 64 had a lot of pressure to be an absolute masterpiece.
While Nintendo went to great lengths to hype the game leading up to its release, the atmosphere wasn’t as exciting and positive as it was for the SNES original. Donkey Kong 64 was not the graphical revolution that Donkey Kong Country was, it was more expensive than other N64 games at the time, and it was blamed for Rare’s highly anticipated Perfect Dark being delayed past the 1999 holiday season. The game was released to decent reviews and strong sales — although it didn’t push the N64 ahead of the original PlayStation, which really wasn’t possible at that point — but there were some significant issues that did not go unnoticed.
Donkey Kong 64 kept the general aesthetic feel of the Donkey Kong Country games, with a myriad of Kongs fighting King K. Rool and his Kremling army through typical platforming level themes on DK Isle. The writing and character design is cheesy but enjoyable, like in the previous games. The gameplay, however, changed quite dramatically.
While the DKC games had an increasing emphasis on collectable items, they were always hidden within linear levels that focused on platforming. Donkey Kong 64 is the epitome of the collect-a-thon, a sub-genre of the 3D platformer that dominated the fifth generation. Scouring levels for collectables and completing mini-games to discover more collectables was the core of DK64, not the platforming of the Donkey Kong games before and after it. The game was more similar to Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie, which did not go unnoticed when the game was released.
While the merits of collect-a-thons are subjective, even people who like the sub-genre tend to agree that Donkey Kong 64 got carried away. The game had hundreds of golden bananas, thousands of smaller bananas that were required for 100% completion, and other sets of collectables in each level. However, there was one thing that really pushed things too far: five playable characters.
Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong were joined by copies of Dixie and Kiddy, as well as the more original Lanky. You could switch between Kongs at multiple areas in every level and almost every collectable could only be attained by a specific Kong. Sometimes, this was because you needed one of their abilities. Normal bananas and a few other collectables could be found with any Kong but would be faded out if you had the wrong one. The color coding at least let you know which Kong you needed, but this meant you had to thoroughly comb over the gigantic levels five times. The fact that these levels were mapless and often confusing in layout just made it worse.
The game wasn’t terrible; some mini-games were enjoyable and creative and you certainly received your money’s worth in content. However, there are some incredibly frustrating and poorly designed mini-games. The controls also have a sluggish feel with that loose collision detection common in Nintendo 64 games. Some of this can be alleviated if you’re willing to settle for just seeing the ending instead of 100%’ing the game, but it’s never a good thing when a game is better if you don’t fully experience it.
Donkey Kong 64 was an awkward period for the series. While the game has fans and isn’t devoid of good qualities, it is often best remembered for exemplifying the weaknesses of a sub-genre. The fact that collect-a-thons became much less common shortly after DK64’s release is telling for how many problems the game had. For all its ambition, it is easily the weakest major console Donkey Kong game in my opinion. Even when not focusing on the differences, there are serious problems that its strengths don’t do quite enough to make up for.
Donkey Kong Returns – JONO
Donkey Kong Country Returns had the codename of “F8″ for a reason. It all began in 2008 — years after Rare had been sold to Microsoft — when Retro Studios had just lost several important members. At that same time, Shigeru Miyamoto was wanting another Donkey Kong game to be created and, due to Retro’s team changes, they were open to another game or franchise. Having already expressed interest in the series in the past, the stars seemed to align just right, and thus, Retro was chosen to be the developers.
Some huge changes to the series were made this time around. With the power of the Wii to work with, they could do more than what was done in the original trilogy. For starters, they made the entire game using 3D polygons and had fully animated backgrounds that even interacted with the player. One of the biggest additions was that of simultaneous cooperative play, a first for the series that allowed both Donkey and Diddy to make their way through the levels at the same time, as opposed to simply coming out of barrels. Because the game had no shortage of difficult levels, they also decided to add several tools to help less experienced players, such as the Super Guide that would play through a level if the player died enough times and Cranky’s shop, where one could buy additional health and balloons.
Another notable difference was in how the game saved. No longer were there save points at different points on the overworld; it automatically saved progress after every level. Something that did not change, however, was the music. Kenji Yamamoto, the composer for the Super Metroid and Metroid Prime games, took the lead, as opposed to David Wise, the series’ original composer. Though there were a few new arrangements, the majority of the score was remixed tracks from the first DKC game and some were merely updated with better sound quality while others were completely redone.
The story took a different turn this time around. Retro wanted to create their own villains instead of using the Kremlings and so, the Tiki tribe was created. They hypnotized the island’s animals and stole DK’s bananas and so DK, joined by Diddy, goes after them. After beating the head of the tribe, Tiki Tong, the Kongs are blasted into the air where they touchdown on the moon. It falls on the island, the Tiki’s base is destroyed, the Kongs get their bananas back — and then some.
The game was, to put it simply, phenomenal. The sheer amount of ingenious ideas packed into every level was mindblowing and the difficulty curve was handled brilliantly, giving a solid challenge to veterans while still being wholly welcoming to new players. It may not have been a shining example of innovation in the genre, but its focused and brilliantly designed levels mixed with its terrifically vibrant, detailed, and animated visuals made it stand out among others in the genre. Secrets were abound, offering no small amount of additional levels to unlock, and extra modes and collectibles to master.
Fans did find a few disappointments, however. Water levels neglected to make an appearance and the only animal buddy to show up was Rambi the Rhino and a smaller role from Squawks. Many were less than enthused with the cut-and-paste bonus rooms as well and the bosses garnered a very mixed reaction.
The critical and commercial reception Returns received was nothing short of excellent, though, gaining solid scores across the board. Sales were enormous as well, selling nearly five million copies after a mere four months on the market. In fact, it did so well that, two years later, a port was announced for the 3DS developed from the ground up by Monster. This, too, sold excellently at nearly 1.5 million. It is no surprise, then, that Retro has decided to give the series one more go on the Wii U.
Looking back one last time on the main series shows off why we love the ape so much. His games withstand the test of time and provide countless hours of masterful gameplay. With Retro Studios once again delivering another Donkey Kong game, it seems his track record won’t be tarnished any time soon.