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I first heard about Donkey Kong Country via snail mail, back when snail mail was still a thing, and before I got AOL. I had a subscription to the magazine Nintendo Power, and occasionally, the good people at Nintendo of America would send me free stuff. Sometimes it was a video game guide; sometimes it was an entire video game (that’s how I got the original Dragon Warrior for the NES). And this one time, it was a promotional video cassette tape that gave fans an exclusive look at Nintendo and their developmental process. The featured game was Donkey Kong Country, and Nintendo showed off exclusive footage of the soon-to-be-completed title.
For a generation of gamers, this game was a revelation. We thought we had seen it all—that 16-bit graphics had been pushed as far as they could go. The Sega Saturn and the Sony Playstation were on the horizon. It was time for 32-bit and discs; out with the old, and in with the new.
But then here came Donkey Kong Country’s incredible, 3D rendered graphics, and the Super Nintendo, which once seemed like it was on life support, had new life breathed into it. The Super Nintendo persisted for years afterwards—Nintendo didn’t stop making the console until 1999, long after its 32-bit competitors had bitten the dust.
But it wasn’t just the graphics that made DKC great. The game also had impeccable level design—including one of the best opening levels in video games ever.
INTRODUCTION TO GREATNESS
Donkey Kong Country had a diversity of levels—you could swing from vines, ride minecarts, propel yourself from barrel cannons, and ride giant frogs. And the very first stage, “Jungle Hijinx,” was a textbook example of how to make an opening level engaging, and above all, instructional through its variety. It was an endorsement of the philosophy that “learning by doing” was the best way to gain and retain knowledge.
You began by exploding out of your treehouse as Donkey Kong. The first impulse, as with most games, was to move from left to right. But, if you decided to go left instead and go back into the treehouse, you could see where DK lived, and even earn a 1-Up balloon:
If you went into the cave beneath the treehouse, you got a bit of exposition. Donkey Kong bounded into his cave, eager to see his famous banana stash, but instead was greeted with an empty room. He slapped and shook his head before heading back outside; here, you saw a trail of bananas leading away from the treehouse. So that was your basic storyline, no words needed. Your mission was to recover your massive stash, one banana at a time. Everything relevant was told through action and stage dressing.
You followed the banana trail and eventually came across a barrel with the letters “DK” painted on it. When you busted it open you were introduced to Diddy Kong for the very first time. And it was here that Donkey Kong Country distinguished itself from other games of its ilk.
It wasn’t a new concept for two game characters to have different, complementing abilities in the same game. In the Mario franchise, Luigi jumps higher than Mario, but with less precision. In Maximum Carnage, Spider-Man was quick and weak, whereas Venom was slow and strong.
But rarely, until Donkey Kong Country, had the differences been so numerous and consequential. A few were fairly obvious; Donkey Kong himself was far bigger than Diddy, and thus, it was easier for him to get hit.
But most differences were less clearly defined—the superiority of one over the other was entirely dependent on the exact situation you were facing. For instance: Donkey Kong could not jump as high as Diddy, but his arms could reach higher. Most of the time, you were jumping to get to the next platform, and for those purposes, Diddy was the clear, best choice. But sometimes, you needed to reach an item that was placed in an awkward high spot, and that’s when Donkey Kong came in quite handy.
Each Kong had a ground melee attack—Donkey Kong had a cannonball roll, and Diddy Kong had a cartwheel. But Diddy Kong’s cartwheel was superior, because it pulled double duty as a Super Jump. If you cartwheeled off the edge of a platform, you could jump again, mid-air, to reach a distant ledge. The very beginning of the level gave you an opportunity to practice your Super Jump. You appreciated the difference between the two Kongs—only Diddy could scale the treetops in “Jungle Hijinx”, and by using the Super Jump properly, he could earn up to four 1-Ups that Donkey Kong could not.
This modeling was a recurring theme throughout “Jungle Hijinx”—you played and learned about the differences between the two Kongs, not because anyone sat there and explained them to you, but because the level itself was structured to make those differences apparent.
Take the head stomp attack, for example. Donkey Kong’s was stronger and there were some enemies that Diddy simply could not kill with a head stomp. The developers taught us this in "Jungle Hijinx” by siccing us with Klumps, fat, brutal looking lizards with army helmets. We wouldn’t see these enemies again until much later in the game, but the developers inserted them early, into the very first level, for a deliberate purpose—to teach players they that should select their Kong based on who they were up against.
Then there was the science of barrel throwing. Donkey Kong chucked the barrels like soccer balls, which gave him greater reach, and he held them directly over his head, which shielded him from above. Diddy Kong, on the other hand, tossed the barrel directly at his feet, and held the barrel directly in front him, as a shield for ground-based enemies. Neither throwing/carrying style was objectively better or worse; it depended entirely on the context. How far did the barrel need to be thrown, and from what direction was the enemy coming? Halfway through the level, you were attacked from above by an overhead vulture hurling walnuts. Only if you were Donkey Kong, holding a barrel above your head, did you feel safe.
Near the end of the level you were taught about bonus areas and how to find them. You opened a crate that contained Rambi the Rhino, and when he bumped into the side of the hill a few yards away, it broke open the door to the first bonus level of the game.
The very first time I played this game, over 20 years ago, I found this bonus level on my very first playthrough. I must have played this level hundreds of times over the subsequent years, and I’ve come to realize that this bonus level was pretty much forced upon the player—everything, from the height of the hill itself to Rambi’s lack of mobility, conspired together; you had to try, deliberately, to avoid bumping into the wall to not find it. No other bonus level in this game was as easy to find, but I held onto the lesson it taught. I spent the remainder of the game chucking barrels into the sides of walls and hills hoping to find something secret and rewarding.
“Jungle Hijinx” is as close to a perfect video game level as you can get. And after you beat it, that wasn’t the last time you saw it. You found yourself going back to “Jungle Hijinx” over and over and over again to stockpile lives before heading into battle. A careful gamer could collect four 1-Up balloons, one 2-Up balloon, two 3-Up balloons, 100 bananas, and the golden letters ‘K’ ‘O’ ‘N’ ‘G’—a total of 14 lives on a single play through. And that didn’t even include the bonus animal tokens, which could award even more extra lives.
At the very end of the level, the sun sets and the clouds roll in—it’s a nice atmospheric touch to close it out. Most notably, however, it tied in with the subsequent level’s ongoing thunderstorm. This added a sense of time and place to the game—that we were roaming far from familiar territory, from the comfort of our cozy treehouse. Donkey Kong Country was a dynamic, interconnected world, not a series of set pieces and levels that were mindlessly strung together. It told a story, however simplistic, and trusted its audience to follow its instructional subtleties.
And that is why, over two decades later, we continue to salute Donkey Kong Country and remember it so fondly—its 3D graphics may have caught people’s attention, but its gameplay is what made it endure with such permanence.
Wing-Man has written about video games and popular culture since 2013, and has been published in multiple online and print publications. Follow him on Twitter to learn more.
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