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Let’s Go Bananas About Donkey Kong Country: Part One
I am so ready for Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze to come out later this month. Not only does my Wii U need a boost, but Donkey Kong Country has always been one of my favourite series. To get us all hyped up for Tropical Freeze, I’ve decided to look back at what made Donkey Kong Country such an appealing series in the first place.
My interest in the series started before I even got to play the first game. My parents, through means I never figured out, got a copy of Donkey Kong Country: Exposed.
If you’ve never heard of it, it was a 15 minute VHS tape released as part of Nintendo’s marketing campaign for the first game, sent out to Nintendo Power subscribers (we didn’t have the money for a subscription, hence my confusion). Basically, it was like a making-of video. It certainly grabbed my attention as a kid, as Nintendo knew they had a cutting edge game on their hands. Once you saw the game, you know you wanted to play it.
Donkey Kong Country succeeds not only because of its phenomenal graphics and sound (especially for 1994), but because it had simple mechanics anybody could get into. The game controlled well (although there are collision detection issues that pop up now and again), the numerous secrets were incredibly fun to seek out and who doesn’t love the animal buddies?
Even though it was just simple 2D platforming, Donkey Kong Country knew how to work in some new stuff to add to the experience. The use of two characters, Donkey and Diddy Kong, who had slightly different capabilities, became a series tradition and expanded to five characters in Donkey Kong 64, where the various abilities of each character became crucial in unlocking new areas.
A lot of praise has to be given to not only the level design in the game, but with the art design and heavy use of atmosphere in each of its unique worlds. Particularly, the water levels always impressed me, and the song used in those levels, Aquatic Ambiance, has become an iconic track in the series, along with many others. In 2012, we ranked the final boss music in the ten best themes of all time.
Donkey Kong Country also managed to distance itself from other platformers of the day by its varied types of levels. Traversing them was not just simply going left to right on foot – instead, you encountered gimmicks such as barrel cannons, vines, and the infamous mine carts. These added a ton of variety to the levels, and always kept the player doing some new things.
As was typical of games for its time, Donkey Kong Country wasn’t always the easiest game. Plenty of levels punished the player for every mistake, especially the mine cart levels. While it never beat the player down completely, it didn’t pull its punches – except that the boss fights tended to be rather easy.
As I said before, the game is chock full of secrets, often found by throwing barrels into walls and finding hidden areas. You’ll also be looking out for barrels hidden in strange spots or just out of sight that will bring you to these secret areas, often full of bananas or extra lives. Finding them is extremely rewarding and locating them is one of the funnest parts of the entire game.
Fast forward a year, and Nintendo and Rare brought out Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, working off the success of the original game (which became the second highest selling Super NES game of all time). To me, the second game improves upon the first in every possible way.
Unlike Donkey and Diddy, the second game introduces a new character with a wildly different ability in Dixie Kong. As Donkey’s been kidnapped, it’s up to Diddy and Dixie to rescue him.
The second game has a more consistent theme than the first, choosing to dress nearly everything up in a pirate motif, including the enemy Kremlings. In the first game, the final battle with King K. Rool took place on his ship, the Gangplank Galleon – now, this is where the second game starts. K. Rool has embraced his pirate side, and taken on a new persona.
I really liked the idea of starting the new game where the old one ended. Now, let’s talk about what sets Donkey Kong Country 2 apart from the first game.
First off, Dixie is one of the biggest changes. Rather than a bulky character, Dixie moves as well as Diddy can, but also uses her long blonde ponytail like a helicopter to hover through the air. This makes Dixie an incredibly useful character who I often use instead of Diddy – she is useful for finding many of the game’s secrets.
Speaking of secrets, they’re as numerous as the previous game, but they’re more important this time around. Every level hides several bonus areas that will give you Kremkoins, which are necessary for unlocking the levels in the final area and accessing the true final battle. Not only will you be looking for those, you’ll also be on the hunt for DK Coins that add to your completion total.
Another addition to the Kong’s abilities is that they can throw each other to reach certain areas. There are also barrels with either Kong’s face on them, so swapping characters is a necessity, unlike in the first game where Donkey and Diddy only varied in slight ways. This trend keeps up in the third game, which I’ll be talking about shortly.
The animal buddies from the first game mostly return, although instead of an ostrich and a frog, we now have a spider and a rattlesnake. Both of these new buddies are fun to use and their abilities are used in interesting ways, such as the spider’s ability to create platforms out of web to reach higher places.
The second game has my favorite music from the series. Everyone who has played it will not only remember the bramble levels for their difficulty and interesting setting, but for the wonderful song Stickerbrush Symphony. Composer David Wise was certainly filing on all his creative cylinders for this game.
So, after the success of Donkey Kong Country 2, Rare decided to tackle another sequel, which came out in 1996. Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie’s Double Trouble carried on the 2D platforming style of the series while introducing a few new mechanics.
However, before that, it’s worth noting that Dixie’s Double Trouble came to be regarded quite frequently as the worst of the trilogy, a belief that I totally disagree with. I don’t like calling any of the original three games the worst, since they’re all great games in their own right. Rare was a powerhouse of a company at the time, and they rattled off three excellent Donkey Kong Country games in as many years.
Dixie’s Double Trouble is notable in that it introduces an open world element. Rather than proceed from world to world, the game is set in an area known as the Northern Kremisphere, which is mostly covered by water. By renting boats or even by swimming, players can explore the Northern Kremisphere, find secret caves, and have a choice at how to approach the various worlds.
In this game, both Donkey and Diddy have been kidnapped, so Dixie reunites with her cousin, Kiddy, and they’re off to rescue the two Kongs from KAOS, the new robotic leader of the Kremlings. It isn’t exactly new territory as far as plot, but you’re not playing a Donkey Kong Country game for the plot. At least, I hope you’re not.
The game doesn’t tread a lot of new ground outside of the open world concept, but it’s extremely fun and differs from Diddy’s Kong Quest enough to make it worth playing. You’ll still be seeking out bonus levels, this time to collect Bonus Coins, which will unlock the game’s final levels. DK Coins reappear, but now you’ll have to figure out ways to defeat the Kremling named Koin, who guards them in each level.
It’s only natural that Dixie’s Double Trouble introduced collection elements into the series, given where it would then go in Donkey Kong 64. Banana Birds were an essential collectible, needed to unlock the game’s true ending – and a few of them were found through trading quests. Other items could be collected to build new boats that would reach further parts of the Northern Kremisphere.
This game featured some of the more interesting levels in the series, with one taking place almost entirely with reverse controls, while the penultimate level forced players into a volatile rocket in need of a darn good pilot.
Dixie and Kiddy make an interesting team, as Kiddy has abilities similar to Donkey Kong, but in a smaller package. They’re a great pair, as Dixie still uses her helicopter spinning hair to reach difficult places, while Kiddy packs muscle and an interesting ability that allows him to jump on water while rolling. Kiddy can throw Dixie long distances, while she can only chuck him short ones – however, Kiddy’s added girth can break through platforms and reach new areas.
Well, this has gone on long enough for now – we’ve got a whole two more games to look at later. Luckily, they’re going to contrast a lot more than the games from the original trilogy. Hopefully, I’ve helped shine some light on how the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy evolved, yet kept the well designed platforming that made the first game a success.
See you guys soon for a look at Donkey Kong 64 and then we’ll move out of the era of Rare and into Retro Studio’s Donkey Kong Country Returns.