The year was 1994 and it had not been a good one for the Super Nintendo. After bursting out of the gates with blowaway hits like Super Mario World and F-Zero, Nintendo suddenly faced competition from two fronts. The Sega Genesis was still going neck and neck with its 16-bit bretheren with the Sonic franchise leading the way. But there was also a new player jumping into the fray. Sony had arrived on the scene with its new Playstation console, boasting 32-bit graphics the likes of which had never been scene to that point. The Super Nintendo, though, did not waver in the face of these two challengers. There was a special game in the works that would not only leave any previous Super NES title in the dust, but also deliver a stomach punch to any competitors. That game was Donkey Kong Country and players can now relive this ground-breaking title for the Nintendo Wii’s Virtual Console.
Developed by a then-unknown developer house known as Rare, Donkey Kong Country immediately broke barriers by offering flawless 32-bit graphics on a 16-bit console. Whereas Mode 7 was the norm when the Super NES debuted, most games that used that graphics engine were noticeably two-dimensional. Donkey Kong Country, while still a two-dimensional platform, was the first Nintendo title to break away from 2-D sprites. Every character was crisply rendered in full three-dimensional glory. Backgrounds were gorgeous and water environments were beautifully colored and refreshingly vibrant. Since then, video game graphics have evolved considerably, but that doesn’t make Donkey Kong Country’s visuals any less impressive to look at today. It’s easily one of the most graphically enhanced Super NES titles in existence, only surpassed by the series sequels. It’s optical eye candy at its finest.
But graphics are only one portion of what makes a successful game. A game is only as good as its gameplay and fun factor. Donkey Kong Country has plenty of both. While the big ape’s role in history was limited to standing atop a series of girders, this game sees Donkey Kong swinging into rival Mario’s realm of the side-scrolling platformer. His quest? To retrieve his stolen banana stash from the evil King K. Rool and his Kremling army. Players can help Donkey Kong do so by jumping atop enemies to eliminate them or mowing them down using a bowling ball-style rolling attack. Gamers can also maneuver using barrel cannons and tire springs to get around levels. Some levels also contain animal helpers, each with their own special abilities. Rambi the Rhino, for example, can mow through enemies and burst through some walls to find special areas; Winky the Frog can leap to heights unreachable to apes; and Enguarde the Swordfish can take out sea enemies with his pointy nose.
Rare also makes sure to add new elements to the formula to separate Donkey Kong Country from Mario clone status. A tag team system is implemented to add a new dimension to gameplay. Diddy Kong makes his debut here, able to move faster than his bigger simian counterpart and jump slightly higher with the disadvantage being that he’s unable to take out bigger foes. Players can control one monkey at a time with the other following along, but there’s also an option to implement a unique co-op play system with the first player controlling Donkey Kong and the second player controlling Diddy Kong upon being tagged.
Level designs, in some ways, surpass those of the average Mario title. Side scrolling levels are the norm, but Rare mixes things up with some underwater stages and a frantic mine cart level. The mine cart level is, undoubtedly, the most fun stage of the game and players were disappointed that more weren’t included, something Rare would keep in mind for the sequels.
The musical score contains everything a game based in the jungle should have. Each tune fits the level environment perfectly. Bongos are used throughout and jungle beats are ever-present in the outdoor stages. Whimsical calliope music is used for bonus stages. And of course, the main Donkey Kong Country theme would remain a presence in the Nintendo archives for some time. In terms of overall quality, this soundtrack was the weakest of the series, but still represents a good start for the new franchise.
Another pleasant aspect of this title is the cast of characters. In addition to Donkey and Diddy, there are supporting characters that aid in the main quest. Funky Kong has an air barrel service that allows players to revisit old worlds. Candy Kong specializes in save barrels. Then there’s crochety old Cranky Kong (who Nintendo bills as the original Donkey Kong from the old school days), who likes to dish out occasional advice, but mostly throws out a whole bunch of criticism. Cranky is easily the most hilarious characters in the entire series and his barbs are still good for some chuckles in this game.
As readers could probably tell, this title is easily worth the 800 Wii Point cost. Those who have never had the pleasure of playing Donkey Kong Country should head to the Wii Shopping Channel immediately and pick this game up. It’s not only a visually stunning title, but it’s also one of the best platformers on to grace the Super NES. See the game that started it all, revived an aging character, and put developer Rare on the map. Donkey Kong Country is available now on the Wii Shopping Channel.