Here’s a fact about my gaming history I’m a bit embarrassed about. For a long time, I did not “get” Donkey Kong Country.
I’m not saying I hated it. I thought it was OK. Donkey Kong Country seemed like a neat, if traditional, 2D platformer. I thought its prerendered characters looked neat. But I didn’t fall in love with the game the way so many others did.
And I do mean a lot of others. The original Donkey Kong Country is the Super Nintendo’s third best-selling game after Super Mario World and Super Mario All-Stars. That means DKC sold more than hits and classics like The Legend of Zelda: The Link to the Past, Super Mario Kart, and Final Fantasy VI. Even its two SNES sequels are both in the top 10. The last of them, Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble, managed to sell over 3 million copies even though it came out a couple of months after the Nintendo 64!
So why do people love these games so much, and what wasn’t I understanding? At its heart, Donkey Kong Country is simple. You play as one of two characters — Donkey and Diddy Kong — as you jump and roll your way through stages, avoiding pits and enemies. You have some powerups in the form of animal friends and occasional stage gimmicks like mine carts, but it isn’t super innovative.
It’s also hard. Those mine cart levels can take a lot of patience and trained reflexes to get through. Simple mistakes can cause deaths that can take away a good chunk of your progress. As a kid, Donkey Kong Country frustrated me more than it entertained me. If I was going to play a 2D platformer, I’d rather just stick with something more familiar like Mario and Sonic.
This trepidation for the series continued for some time. When I reviewed Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for the Wii U in 2014, I thought it was OK. A lot of my colleagues loved it. This includes VentureBeat’s Jeremy Horwitz, who this week gave the game’s Switch version high marks.
What wasn’t I getting? I wasn’t sure, but within the last year, I did finally find an appreciation for this series. It came from two things.
First off, I love watching speedruns. And as it turns out, Donkey Kong Country speedruns are great to watch. But looking at others obliterate these games in record times, I saw how entertaining DKC was at a fast pace. When I play it, I get too hung up on searching for every banana and secret minigame. That slows the game down. After watching speedruns, I decided to take a faster path through levels.
It was much more fun. Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong’s rolling attacks and stage mechanics like explosive barrels make it easy to blast through levels at a satisfying pace. Speedruns would also show me secrets that helped me beat levels faster. These weren’t difficult tricks or glitches that gave me an unfair advantage. These were things like hidden barrels that helped me skip huge chunks of stages. Sure, you can argue why would I want to skip part of a game I’m enjoying, but it’s satisfying to use these secrets.
The soundtracks also gave me a new appreciation for the series. As a kid, I didn’t pay too much attention to DKC’s music. But now I keep hearing its tunes used in remixes and orchestral arrangements, and I understand just how catchy and rich these scores are. I don’t think any other game has captured the idea of the “underwater level” better with a single song.
I’m glad to say I’m no longer a Donkey Kong Country hater. I’ve even recently tracked down a cartridge of Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong’s Quest for my original Super Nintendo. It’s never too late to appreciate the classics, even if you once disregarded them.
The RetroBeat is a weekly column that looks at gaming’s past, diving into classics, new retro titles, or looking at how old favorites — and their design techniques — inspire today’s market and experiences. If you have any retro-themed projects or scoops you’d like to send my way, please contact me.