Monday, March 2, 2015

[REVIEW] Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country
Played on: Wii U (Virtual Console)
Originally available on: SNES
Genre: 2D platformer
Developer: Rare
Publisher: Nintendo 

As impossible as it may have seemed a year ago, the original SNES Donkey Kong Country trilogy was finally released on the Wii U Virtual Console. This should be great news for fans of platforming, as the series is certainly one of the most memorable the genre has ever produced. It all started with this title, which was a very big deal when it was released back in the latter half of the SNES's lifetime, helping that console to establish its ultimate leadership over the Mega Drive (a.k.a. Sega Genesis) in the console wars of the time.

To anyone halfway acquainted with the 16-bit aesthetic, it should be quite obvious how insane the production value to this game is. The pseudo-3D graphics is something that just wasn't a reality back then, being more technically impressive at the time than even the earliest games of the subsequent generation. The soundtrack is not only extremely eclectic and well-written, but also pristinely produced, pushing the limited SNES sound chip to the maximum. Do yourself a favor and play this one with the headphones on.

Do you know what they make in this factory? MULTIPLE DEATHS, that's what.

Of course, I don't think a game can be good by simply relying on how gorgeous it looks and sounds. Thankfully, Donkey Kong Country's gameplay is a very pleasant mixture of tried-and-true platforming tropes and smart, more original ideas. The title character and his nephew Diddy Kong are both playable, and they offer very different skillsets: Donkey is heavier and stronger, able to take out more formidable bad guys, while Diddy is quicker and better at finding bonus rooms (thanks to the way he holds the barrels in front of him, meaning you can simply touch a wall to see whether it has a hidden passage).

It's fair to say that the Donkey Kong Country series kickstarted the collect-a-thon fever that would define platformers in the Nintendo 64 era. In this particular game, things weren't as streamlined as they would become in future titles, though: it isn't immediately obvious, but only hidden bonus rooms will count towards the elusive 101% completion rate, while all other collectibles will simply award you with extra lives (which, truth be told, you'll very likely need). When you find every bonus room in a stage, an exclamation point will show up next to the stage's name on the world map, making it easy to keep track. Unlike subsequent DKC games, getting maximum completion doesn't really reward you with anything other than bragging rights and an asterisk near your save file.

Flying with a gorilla on your back. Surely not Expresso's best day.

The secret bonus rooms are often cleverly placed and pleasant to find, with subtle hints being given to the player as to their whereabouts. A few of them, however, are so obtusely hidden as to be pretty much impossible to locate without outside assistance (first level of the factory world, I'm looking at you). This is very much a relic of a time when people often played games with the help of magazine guides, but it has certainly become annoying over time. Thankfully, the former kind of room is significantly more common here than the latter.

One of the best ideas on the game is the addition of animal buddies. There are a total of four rideable animals that help the Kongs in their adventure: Rambi the Rhino, Expresso the Ostrich, Winky the Frog, and Enguarde the Swordfish (Squawks the Parrot also helps, but he isn't rideable as in later games). They each play very differently and offer different sets of strenghts, which adds a tremendous amount of gameplay variety. This is one element that was criminally overlooked in more recent DKC titles made my Retro Studios, as those include only Rambi as a rideable buddy (and even then he's utilized very sparingly).

Dear Enguarde: Retro might have forgotten you, but I surely haven't.

Donkey Kong Country continues to be quite a memorable game. Its formula would be vastly improved upon on subsequent titles, but this is still the game that started it all, being as such the origins of a lot of the best elements in the series. It has aged very well, too, being as much of a thrill to play as the best platformers of modern gaming. It's a great experience not only for those who want to play a big milestone of gaming history, but also to those who simply love lighthearted (if fiercely challenging) fun.

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