Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Donkey Kong Country: A Retrospective Roundup

As appeeling as ever.

By Patrick "The Law" Morris

            Donkey Kong came from humble beginnings born into a family in which his grandfather was a kidnapper and his father had mysteriously gone missing but in 1994 the ape put on his tie and decided to make a name for himself. And make a name for himself he did as the Donkey Kong Country games became three of the best platformers the Super Nintendo had to offer. On my fifth birthday I got the Donkey Kong Country Super Nintendo bundle and unbeknownst to me my life was about to change forever. As I played through the rage inducing masterpiece for the first time I fell madly in love with video games as a whole and began to experience the uncontrollable urge to play as many of them as I could get my hands on. Donkey Kong Country was my personal catalyst into the world of video games and with the latest entry in the series having just been rereleased on the Nintendo Switch I thought it appropriate to rank all the country games from worst to best and see how this series that spans five games, three dev teams, two development studios and two radically different eras of video games stack up against each other in 2018.

5) Donkey Kong Country Returns.
            In 2010 the Donkey Kong IP had been through dark times with games like the Donkey Konga trilogy on GameCube, Donkey Kong King of Swing on the Game Boy Advance, and the incredibly regrettable Donkey Kong Barrel Blast on the Wii. The simian needed a shot in the arm and after the cancellation of DK Racing (still sour about that to this day) it appeared as though DK and friends would be joining Fox McCloud and Captain Falcon on the island of forgotten Nintendo IP. After resurrecting Metroid and bringing Samus back to prominence with the Metroid prime trilogy developer Retro Studios was looking for a different challenge and as result players everywhere finally got the long sought-after Donkey Kong Country 4. While it may be the lowest game on this list it’s important to consider that DKC Returns is the worst on a list of games that are all 9+/10. 
            DKC Returns brought the series back to prominence by harkening back to everything that made the original DKC trilogy great while at the same time stepping out and making it their own with a new art style and modernizing the side scrolling platformer to perfection. Tight platforming and incredibly responsive controls make movement in a game that is all about movement endlessly fun with the perfect feeling of weightiness. But Retro didn’t stop at just making a great side scrolling 2D platformer that would have crushed all but the best competition during the 16-bit era; they went the extra mile and reimagined the genre to make it more fitting for modern times. Animations in the background give the game a sense of depth and makes it more interesting to look at but when the player is barrel cannoned into the background and expected to continue platforming is when the game really steps out and shows that it isn’t just another platformer. In a time when 2D platformers were making a huge comeback Retro set a new standard and started the groundwork for the best 2D platforming gameplay ever made.

4) Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!
            The third and final installment in the original DKC trilogy of games that launched on the SNES DKC3 refined everything the previous two games had introduced (except for the music) and provided not a revolution but an evolution of the series. With the varsity team at Rare that had made both of the previous DKC games hard at work on their new IP for Nintendo’s new 64 bit console the JV squad was taking over the helm of the series that had propelled the studio into the stratosphere. All things considered what they made was quite impressive for the situation they were in and the monumental task they had been given but where DKC 1 and 2 had blown our doors off DKC 3 left us feeling as though the series had overstayed its welcome on the SNES.
            Taking all the lessons and techniques learned from the first two games and applying them to their work on DKC 3 the team wasn’t left with much room to innovate so what they wound up doing instead was refining an already polished engine and the result was some of the most enjoyable DKC levels to this day. At the outset of the game Diddy Kong’s absence is jarring and a bit uneasy but luckily Dixie’s familiar face is there and if we are all being honest with ourselves she is everyone’s favorite playable character in the series anyway. Changing location seemed like a bit of an odd though understandable choice as we had trekked all across DK island multiple times at that point but monkey’s in Canada didn’t make much sense. Everything in DKC 3 is polished to perfection but the change in setting, addition of Kiddie Kong as the side kick character, and lack of anything new to do makes DKC 3 essentially an expansion pack on DKC 2 but with less attitude. 

3) Donkey Kong Country
            Players were first introduced to Donkey Kong in 1981 and after several games including a game that featured DK Jr. the original Donkey Kong’s son the ape characters of the Mario universe went into hibernation for a while. Hibernation lasted until 1994 when Rare Studios awoke the sleeping beast and released one of the greatest video games ever made. Using Silicon Graphics work station rendering machines Rare was able to leave the sprite art work of previous Nintendo titles behind and they released the most graphically impressive console game to date. Donkey Kong accompanied by his nephew Diddy had been robbed and they were about to set out on a quest to get their banana hoard back.
            Donkey Kong Country broke so many rules in the 2D platformer genre and executed with such incredible fines that Rare made other players in the genre even on more powerful hardware look like fools by comparison. Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island, Crash Bandicoot, all fell to the unbelievable performance and visual fidelity that is Donkey Kong Country. With tight controls, slower more deliberate platforming, unparalleled graphics, great level design, and an art style that had all the edge of Sonic with none of the desperation Donkey Kong Country easily earns the number three spot on this list. 

2) Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
            The follow up to the wildly successful Donkey Kong Country Returns was launched on the Wii U in 2014. That’s right, the Wii U; it’s no wonder the fifth game in the series (excluding the Donkey Kong Land games) was the worst seller in the series. Nintendo was able to sell about as many Wii U’s as I have been able to sell mattresses which means two things: one Nintendo really didn’t sell many Wii U’s and two I was a wildly successful mattress salesman. All kidding aside the Wii U severely underperformed which is a damn shame because it is a really fantastic console full of gems like Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze, Super Mario 3D World, and Hello Kitty Kruisers. 
            Tropical Freeze took everything that made DKC Returns great and turned it up to 11 and at the same time took everything DKC Returns could have done without and threw it in the bin. Gone were the forced motion controls, and the repetitive gameplay that came as a result of only being able to play as Donkey and Diddy, and of course I don’t think any of us weren’t pleased to say goodbye to the tiki villains. Joining Donkey and Diddy this time around two more companions to ride on Donkey Kong’s back: Cranky Kong whose capabilities are incredibly circumstantial and making her triumphant return Dixie Kong who once again uses her hair to glide players through the levels and regains her throne as queen of the jungle. Retro was able to create the same depth of exploration usually only found in 3D platformers and inject it into a 2D side scrolling platformer and created depth and deployability never before achieved in the genre. Tropical Freeze is so rich and full of life. Where DKC Returns felt like it overstayed its welcome and began to feel samey Tropical Freeze offers variety and interesting and hilarious enemies. The gameplay is fantastic, the art is fantastic, the characters are fantastic, the story is fantastic, and Tropical Freeze is home to the single most beautiful level I have ever played in a video game. In any other series a game of the same caliber of Tropical Freeze would easily be in the top spot and it would be if it weren’t for one other game…

1) Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest
            I was gifted this game when I was five years old thought it was called Diddy Kong’s Quest into my early twenties, the pun on the word conquest escaped me for almost two decades. Donkey Kong Country 2 is as close to a perfect game as has ever been made. Every single thing the game seeks to achieve it does so in spades. Radically changing gameplay by using Dixie’s hair to allow the player to cross gaps never before possible. Speeding up the action by having the two player characters be fast and agile rather than one strong and slow. Adding verticality to the level design to introduce new and interesting challenges and forcing players to approach enemies from literally an entirely new direction. Perfecting the boss designs and fights so they are all so incredibly memorable. A musical score that creates atmosphere through subtly and restraint but still knows when to hit hard and fast. And throwing all story tropes out the window by having Donkey Kong himself be ape napped at the outset of the game. Donkey Kong Country 2 did all this and more while enhancing the already nearly perfect art with a consistent pirate motif.
            Without playing the game it can be hard to understand how much of a pure and simple masterpiece Donkey Kong Country 2 is. A perfectly ramped difficulty curve that results in a game that is incredibly difficult while still being approachable, DKC 2 is perfection in a video game. While there aren’t many more ways to say it without simply screaming at everyone reading this to play DKC 2 there are multiple versions of the game and it is of the utmost importance that when you do decide to play it you play the SNES version of the game that can be found on the SNES itself or Wii U or 3DS virtual console. The genius of David Wise and the team at Rare was at their best in 1995 when they released Donkey Kong Country 2, I am confident that there will be a day when Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest will be taught in college classrooms, it is nothing short of art.

            So that’s the rundown of DKC games from worst to best. What do you think of the DKC series as a whole and are there any changes you would make to my list? If you would bump DKC 2 from number 1 please DM me your home address so that I can come to your house and fight you. Make sure to check out our podcast HardReset you can find that to your right or on iTunes or heartrate and follow us all on twitter which is also on your right. Now all of this DKC talk is interesting but in all my research I have failed to find out who Diddy’s dad is…tweet me your theories. 

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