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‘Donkey Kong Country:’ The high concept mess that is impossible to hate

There is a long-circulated rumor that when Rare showed their tech demo of “Donkey Kong Country” (DKC) to Nintendo, the Japanese executives were convinced that a hidden supercomputer was running the game behind a curtain. SNES games were not supposed to look that good in 1994, yet Rare’s passion project subverted all expectations with its lush, 3D reincarnation of one of Nintendo’s oldest IPs. Even had the game sucked, it still would have a carved foothold in history as a feat of sheer graphical ingenuity. 

Thankfully, beneath the beautiful pre-rendered sprites is a balls-to-the-wall platforming experience rife with intention and overflowing with monkey action. Inexperienced players may at first be flummoxed by the steep mechanical demands of the gameplay, but lovers of the genre are certain to discover a well of non-stop movement that is constantly immersive even at its most frustrating.

The enduring joy of playing “Donkey Kong Country” is found within the overwhelming rush of momentum and power that the player experiences while tearing through the jungle as a giant gorilla. The developers were careful to foster this sense of momentum as early as possible. In the very first moments of the game proper, Donkey Kong explodes from the door of his treehouse abode before proceeding to absolutely fly across a relatively flat expanse dotted with barrels to smash and crocodiles to throttle.

“Donkey Kong Country” rewards the player for interacting with its various game elements by granting Donkey Kong speed. Properly timed barrel throws can clear entire lines of enemies in that endlessly satisfying koopa-shell fashion, and rolling through or jumping upon an enemy will confer a momentum boost that will usually carry the player into the next enemy or a new platform. Reaching high speeds isn’t debilitating like it is in a classic Sonic game, as Donkey Kong can stop on a dime and adjust his position with ease.

Players will realize fairly early on that speed is not the only name of the game—it is a sense of rhythm and a keen eye that wins the day. Where the first few levels offer a relatively safe sandbox for acclimating to the controls, the difficulty rapidly ascends around level six. Where the player can easily get away with semi-mindlessly holding right in the early levels, “Barrel Cannon Canyon” demands that the player reserve their inputs for the most opportune moments. It is in this level that Donkey Kong’s most iconic mechanic, the blast barrel, is introduced. Pressing the jump button while inside one of these barrels will launch the player in a set direction. A mistimed launch is likely to send the player into a bottomless pit, eating a life and forcing the player back to the start of the level or checkpoint.

“Barrel Cannon Canyon” demonstrates the less glamorous face of Donkey Kong’s SNES adventure: it is ridiculously punishing. When “Donkey Kong Country” gives the player something new to play with, it will immediately push that mechanic to the limit. Once the use of the blast barrel is established, the player is thrown right into a moving blast barrel that pendulates across the screen. Upon completing a few of these challenges, the difficulty is upped once again with moving barrels against moving barrels. Finally, giant spiked bees are thrown into the mix, which is an element that the developers tend to rely on often for escalating difficulty throughout a level. If the player manages to escape the bee-barrel gauntlet, they are finally launched directly into the path of a trio of jumping crocodiles that threaten to end the run mere meters from the exit goal. Should the player fail to complete this nightmare of a tutorial level too many times, their supply of lives will run out and the player will have to navigate all five previous levels again. The first save point does not appear until after level six! 

If this spike in difficulty seems unpleasant, do not fret—the game was designed with its own difficulty in mind. The design emphasis on constant mechanical innovation means that every level feels distinct, and most of them are a joy to replay. Death is its own reward: the player is likely to discover the various secret areas on repeat playthroughs. These hidden caverns confer the opportunity to gather extra lives. For this reason, I encourage emulator-bound players to resist the urge to exploit save states. Donkey Kong Country’s difficulty is paired with an unmatched sense of discovery and reward. It is not a game to be rushed, and you will feel a pang of sadness when the credits roll despite all the little moments of frustration.

The limited screen space offered by the hardware of the time generates another source of confoundment. Such high quality graphics make for a cramped viewing experience, and this means enemies and obstacles appear sometimes mere moments before the player can react to them. To succeed in the later levels, the player must learn to keep a steady eye on the rightward margin of the screen and be ready to jump or dodge at a second’s notice. This moment-to-moment gameplay is exciting in ways that have been lost with the advent of higher aspect ratios but it is also admittedly really annoying.

As a result of these difficulties, you will improve rapidly as you play. “Donkey Kong Country” has that magical ability to force even the most uncoordinated hands into a platforming groove. Levels that at first seem impossible will slowly crumble beneath Donkey Kong’s wrath and the feeling of accomplishment from nailing a rapid-fire sequence of obstacles is unparalleled in all other SNES platformers. All of this dynamic fun is underscored by an amazing ambient soundtrack that soothes and excites. “Donkey Kong Country,” messy as it is, is an insane achievement of design and it should not be overlooked by any gamer, young or old.

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