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Twenty Years On, 'Donkey Kong Country' Is Still as Terrible as It Ever Was

It's one of the most fondly remembered games for the Super Nintendo, but, in all honesty, Donkey Kong Country was a bit shit.

by Ian Dransfield
02 December 2014, 1:53pm

Admit it: the only reason you bought Donkey Kong Country 20 years ago is because the graphics looked amazing.

You probably got hold of the free VHS that was circulating at the time (the one that somebody has conveniently uploaded to YouTube, below), and saw all the rad dudes at the Nintendo "treehouse" being all rad and dude-y, and figured, "Hey, that game must be pretty cool."

Then they showed that wireframe stuff. They showed how the graphics were made; how the Super Nintendo was pushing out the kind of visuals you would have thought, back in the primitive age of 1994, were completely impossible to achieve.

Nintendo promotional VHS: Donkey Kong Country Exposed

Donkey Kong Country's popularity must have been heavily reliant on those visuals, because it's not actually that great a game. At least, certainly nowhere near good enough to be remembered as a classic, like it often is.

Part of the artificial buoyancy of its reputation – aside from the fact that, back then, we were stupid children who were conned into buying something just because it looked amazing – was down to DKC's creator, Rare.

Rare is a British studio that people still, for some inexplicable reason, keep on trying to love, even though it really should have been taken out the back and disposed of a decade ago. It hasn't released a game anyone actually cares about since the days of the N64, unless you count the few who became madly obsessed with coaxing sweet-filled animals into fucking each other in Viva Piñata.

So many studios have risen and fallen in the past 20 years, but Rare's downfall has been deferred and delayed in the minds of the game-playing public for one very big reason: it made GoldenEye 007 (the Bond game on the N64 that you probably lost a decent chunk of your adolescence to).

I'm not veering wildly off topic here. I honestly don't think it's much of a leap to point to Donkey Kong Country as the moment where Rare's real downfall began – as well as, curiously, the inspiration to which Nintendo later returned to rescue the flailing ape-in-a-tie. But more on the latter, later.

See, after Donkey Kong Country, there came something of a running theme for Rare's releases – they became more like tech demos than games of any true essence. Killer Instinct was great looking and fun, but shallow; Blast Corps was an interesting idea, but didn't have much going for it beyond that; Conker's Bad Fur Day had swearing in it.

But it's Donkey Kong Country that I always come back to, because it's the game that set the standard for what was expected of Rare. Its games had to look great, or nobody would pay attention.

Got two hours to kill? Watch this Donkey Kong Country longplay video

The people bought it in droves, so obviously it looked good enough – even if it resorted to the dull tropes of jungle world, ice world, mine-cart world and so on, while throwing very little in the way of variety at you. Would you replay the entire game just to run into Funky Kong a few more times and read his totally tubular dialogue? No. You would not. Such was the lack of substance on show.

In fact, for a time it seemed The God of All Games (and original Donkey Kong creator), Shigeru Miyamoto, wasn't a fan of Donkey Kong Country. He said in an interview with Electronic Games magazine around 1994: "Donkey Kong Country proves that players will put up with mediocre gameplay as long as the art is good."

He later backed away from that statement, and it seems that his words were brought on in no small part by the pressure that had been put on his then-current project – Yoshi's Island. Why? Well, because Nintendo now expected all its games to look as good as Donkey Kong Country.

That had to have been irritating to the man who had almost single-handedly built Nintendo into the company it was. And as he created Donkey Kong, he really should be able to say whatever the hell he wants.

Even if he has since backed down from it – something made even more understandable when you factor in that Miyamoto worked on DKC, if only a small amount – I'm just going to agree with him. The game was mediocre, and when you play it again today through the Wii U's Virtual Console, it's just... empty.

All of the pretty looks and great music in the world can't make up for the fact that it was a tired formula even back then. Of course, maybe I'm just mad at myself for being suckered in as a gullible child, like I'm mad at myself for being suckered in by Destiny as a gullible man-child.

Or maybe I'm just completely wrong. Nintendo certainly seems to think so, because after years in the wilderness, with nothing of particular interest or note released with Donkey's name on it, the company rolled back the years with Donkey Kong Country Returns – and its follow-up, 2014's Wii U title Tropical Freeze.

Tropical Freeze: a better game than the original, but more revered, DKC

While Rare was no longer at the helm – it's been bought by Microsoft and neutered even further into a studio that produces, well, crap – Nintendo did take the template set down by the Leicestershire developer and send it the way of Austin, Texas-based Retro Studios.

The results were good. Not brilliant, but better than the original. Sure, we were no longer wowed by the graphics, and the renders, and the VHS tapes being doled out. But the fact Nintendo couldn't just distract us with that smoke and mirrors crap meant the games had to be better to make up for it.

I mean, Mario's still trouncing old man Donkey, and the banana-chomper can't hold a monkey candle to Rayman's recent output. But it's a step in the right direction. Maybe one day we will get a truly great Donkey Kong Country title.

And maybe one day Rare will be freed from its shackles and allowed to do what it does best once more: bewitch us all with the pretties while bringing out substandard, shallow games. (Oh, and GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark and Jetpac Refuelled, of course.)

One thing I wonder, though, is why all these new games that look old don't emulate the Donkey Kong Country standard. Never mind your blocky, pixelated affectations – it's all about 3D-rendered apes in a 2D parallax-scrolling world. Because, well, it looked brilliant, didn't it?

@ianinthefuture

Previously:

The Best Video Games of 2014 Are Exactly the Same as Last Yea

How Sega's Mega Drive Made Gaming What It Is Today

These Are the Video Games You Should Buy If You Have Any Self Respect