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Let’s Go Bananas About Donkey Kong Country: Part Two
Welcome to the second part of my look at the main Donkey Kong Country games. Last time, we made our way through the original Super NES trilogy. While the core concept of the trilogy didn’t undergo much change, Rare ended up creating a much different animal in 1999, when they released Donkey Kong 64.
Rare truly hit their creative stride on the Nintendo 64. Not only did they release interesting games like Blast Corpse and Jet Force Gemini, they also released well regarded first person shooters like Goldeneye 007 and Perfect Dark.
To me, Rare’s biggest accomplishments on the Nintendo 64 were their action-platform games, particularly the two Banjo-Kazooie games, as well as Donkey Kong 64. Each of those games put an emphasis on adventuring and discovery, and in collecting tons of stuff to make progress. Donkey Kong 64 takes collecting very seriously.
And just between us, I think it takes it a little too seriously. If there’s one thing you’ll need to get used to in Donkey Kong 64, it’s collecting stuff. Rare knew people liked Banjo-Kazooie, so why not make a Donkey Kong game in the same vein?
This isn’t to say Donkey Kong 64 is a bad game, or that it has little resemblance to the other games. However, it’s hard not to see how Rare took its newly successful formula and applied it to Donkey Kong. We now have a three-dimensional platformer, which opens up a lot of new opportunities – including the emphasis on collectible items. Our own Tim Gruver has written about the differences between 2D and 3D platformers – it’s a good read for seeing how the style differs. Donkey Kong 64 is a great example of how the game’s focus can undergo dramatic change.
Thanks to being one of the few Nintendo 64 games to require the Expansion Pak, Donkey Kong 64 is a big game, with expansive levels that branch off the hub world of Donkey Kong Island. And instead of two characters, Donkey Kong 64 offers up five different playable characters, all vastly different.
Here’s where things get complicated. Each of the five Kongs (Donkey, Diddy, Lanky, Tiny, and Chunky) have different abilities, access to different fruit-based weaponry, and different musical instruments. And what, might you ask, are the purpose of all of these things?
Well, let’s just say that you’ll be using them all over the game to collect things such as bananas. Bananas are no longer optional pick ups like they were in the first trilogy. Nope – now there are 500 bananas in all but one world, and they’re divided five ways by colour. Each colour corresponds to a Kong, and you better be ready to seek them out. Collecting 75 of a certain colour gets you a Banana Medal, which you need for other things.
Those other things, you ask? Oh, you’ll need those to get other things too – the Kongs have deep pockets, and you’ll be filling them up, then dumping them out just to get to a new area of the game.
You’ll have to take my word for it. If I sat down and listed all the collectibles, and how they all link to other collectibles, we’d all be here forever. I’m picturing a gigantic flow chart in my head, paths and chains branching off in all directions for eternity.
Again, Donkey Kong 64 is not a bad game. I like the game as a whole – there are some fun ideas, the areas are well designed, and the Kongs are a fun bunch of characters to control. It’s incredibly hard to justify the wealth of collectibles, though. Rare went completely overboard, taking a fine idea from their Banjo-Kazooie series and cranking it to the absolute maximum.
And it’s a shame, too. As evidenced by the previous part, I really liked the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy. Even as the series evolved, it remained straightforward. Donkey Kong 64 is an ambitious game, and while it has flashes of the kind of wonderful gameplay that kept me wanting more, it didn’t seem like the same kind of game.
Before moving onto the post-Rare era of Donkey Kong Country, I’d like to mention that Donkey Kong 64 had wonderful personality. The story is goofy, with King K. Rool’s attempt to destroy Donkey Kong Island initially foiled by his minions’ stupidity. The game has a lot of charm, even from the very first moments when the DK Rap blasted from your TV speakers.
After Donkey Kong 64, it was only a few years before Microsoft laid down a cool $375 million to make Rare their own. One of the greatest partnerships in gaming was almost dead – thanks to THQ, Rare had a publisher for a handful of handheld games they continued to develop for Nintendo, including remakes of the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy.
A console Donkey Kong game wouldn’t come our way again until 2010, and I think I speak for a lot of people when I say it came from an unexpected source. Retro Studios, the Texas-based studio that developed the Metroid Prime series, tackled the revival of Donkey Kong Country on the Wii.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is a wonderful return to form. Retro clearly had an understanding of what made the original trilogy great – we’re back to straight up two-dimensional platforming, and the original dream team: Donkey and Diddy. Coupled with some new abilities, like Diddy’s jetpack, and the ability to team up in several different ways, they’re not the same Kongs they were back in Donkey Kong Country.
And this isn’t the same game as Donkey Kong Country. It’s cut from a very similar cloth, but Returns manages to carry itself extremely well. The levels are incredibly well designed and often feature very interesting gimmicks to keep them fresh. I remember a level where waves crashed down regularly, and you could only survive by hiding behind large rocks. It was frantic, but fun.
Mine cart levels return with a vengeance. In fact, the whole game manages to bring the difficulty up and beyond the original trilogy. Even with numerous checkpoints, levels in Donkey Kong Country Returns could often turn into ordeals. I didn’t keep track of how many times I died, but it was definitely a high number. Donkey Kong Country Returns is a challenge, with unforgiving segments that reward you for quick reflexes or lucky guesses – often, if you don’t see it coming, you’re going to die.
In the original trilogy, collecting the four Kong letters (K, O, N, and G) in a level would grant you an extra life. Usually, they weren’t too hard to find. Retro decided to update the mechanic, and instead, finding every Kong letter in each level of each world would unlock a special stage. These special stages are sadistic levels that will challenge players of any skill level. Successfully completing every secret level will unlock one final trial, which has to be seen to be believed.
Despite some issues with motion controls (the roll mechanic is activated by shaking your Wii Remote, and it’s not always responsive – hence, death may occur), Donkey Kong Country Returns is a great game, and is probably my favorite Donkey Kong Country game when I factor nostalgia out of the equation. It is modern enough to try a lot of ideas out from level to level, while nailing the elements that make a good platform game. And since I like hard games, it’s hard not to appreciate Retro’s commitment to difficulty.
All of this leads up to the reason I wrote these two glimpses into the past – today, Nintendo is releasing Retro’s newest Donkey Kong effort – Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, on the Wii U. Building off the style of Donkey Kong Country Returns, Tropical Freeze is a game for any Wii U owner to be excited about.
By the time this article is up, I should be on my couch and playing it. I recommend checking out any of the game’s trailers, if you haven’t already. I’m confident that Retro has taken everything which made Donkey Kong Country Returns a must-play game and made it better. And with David Wise back on the musical side of things, Tropical Freeze is not a game I’m cold on, that’s for sure.