GameSpite Journal 10 | Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country | Dev.: Rare | Pub: Nintendo | Genre: Platformer | Release: Nov. 1994

Donkey Kong Country is neither as awesome nor as lousy as the fractious Internet would suggest. Rare’s Super NES blockbuster is a flashpoint whose reputation and circumstances of origin overshadow the game itself. A marvel of production design and middleware can-do, it sold millions of copies and helped shore up the Super NES’s bulwarks against the encroaching threat of CD-based consoles and polygon-pushing powerhouses like the PlayStation. As such, its popularity eclipsed that of the genuinely innovative Yoshi’s Island, which has led to tremendous resentment among certain quarters. Many people regard Country as a masterpiece, while others see it as the vanguard of all that would go wrong with gaming over the coming years.

Beneath its contentious history, Country is ultimately just a platformer: Hardly terrible, but never especially imaginative, either. On the other hand, it’s miles better than the dreck other publishers were serving up on 16-bit consoles. At every turn, Country is undeniably competent, which is more than you can say for the likes of Sonic-come-latelies like '''Bubsy and Aero the Acro-Bat. Despite falling back on more than a few platformer clichés -- auto-scrolling mine carts, ice levels, etc. -- each of Country’s stage features sensible layouts and challenging enemy placement that never feels cheap.

At times (especially in the underwater levels), its overall feel is highly reminiscent of Rare’s NES technical showcase, Battletoads; unlike that older game, though, Country demonstrates a more refined sensibility. It’s never unfair, and it definitely never uses the limitations of its control mechanics against the player the way Battletoads did. Country eschews rote memorization in favor of intuitive layouts and shows that Rare had finally broken free of their early ’80s 8-bit PC design roots. The “gotcha” nature of their older games is supplanted in Country by a more organic, inventive style of conflict.

The big deal about Donkey Kong Country, of course, was its graphics. Ironically, the “almost next-gen” visuals didn’t really push the Super NES hardware in any real way; Rare’s wizardry was all done on the production side, using massive render farms and advanced computer tools to convert high-end CG visuals into a Super NES-friendly format. Still, it’s a triumph in its own way: Country’s art style may not appeal to everyone, with its plastic sheen and googly eyes, but even so it proves the power of effective visual design. By adopting a patina of 3D visuals, Country managed to create a fairly convincing argument that the Super NES was capable of going toe-to-toe with new machines like the PlayStation. Of course, it was all a sham, but between its glossy, rendered sprites and the unsophisticated nature of most game buyers circa 1994, it did its job quite well.

If Country has a true fault, it’s the role it played in birthing the concept of collectathons. Seeking and collecting tokens had been a part of video games since Pac-Man, or maybe even before that, but until Country arrived those objects were merely a means to an end: A score, upgraded powers, an extra life. Here, though, all those pick-ups were an end in themselves, and players were graded on their ability to collect all 100% (actually more than 100%, because ours goes to 11) of the game’s coin replacement, bananas. Collectathons arguably reached their zenith (or nadir, if you prefer) with Donkey Kong 64, but the mentality has been quick-set into the medium’s design mentality, marring otherwise brilliant works like Crackdown and even some of the Castlevania games.

Still, warts and all, you have to respect what Rare accomplished with Country: A compelling, convincing mix of illusion and substance. Its sequel would greatly improve its design, but the original was the chapter with the greatest impact.

By Jeremy Parish? | Nov. 24, 2011 | Previous: Final Fantasy III | Next: Umihara Kawase