Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.
I’ve never had much of an affinity for Donkey Kong. The big ape has never done much for me. He’s a giant, clumsy monkey, and I’ve never really understood the love he and his bro Diddy get.
It’s probably because I never played the Donkey Kong Country games growing up. The Super Nintendo trilogy—developed by Rare while the famed studio was still under Nintendo’s wing—are often heralded as some of the best platformers of all time, and even now, 21 years after they came out, they really stand the test of time.
I finally decided to play through all three games, Donkey Kong Country, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Quest and Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!, all on the Wii U Virtual Console, now that they are finally available. And, well, they still hold up.
There’s this feeling I get when I’m playing a great game. It can be hard to describe, but it is a little surreal to start playing a game from several generations ago and just have it still feel great. It can be intangible, but there’s almost a timeless quality to traversing Donkey Kong’s jungle home. The graphics—while outdated by today’s standards—still actually look pretty good, mostly due to the 3D sprites used for Donkey and Diddy Kong.
The level design is another area that shines bright all these years later. Almost every level is a beacon of design genius, with ideas that I’m surprised haven’t been copied ad infinitum by now. There are unique and great ideas in single levels that could almost spawn their own entire games, used in smart and clever ways. How many other games boast a skull roller coaster in a theme park run by the game’s main bad guys, with fireworks blasting off in the background as you wiz by?
There’s a built-in sense of progression through the games’ worlds, with each of the levels almost handing you off to the next world. it’s something not enough platformers do anymore, and it’s a small detail, but one that counts. There’s also progression within each level, as the game will throw new idea after new idea at you, and then twist and make that idea even more challenging the longer the level goes on.
It’s interesting playing these games now, as you can see the start of ideas that Rare would continue to use in later Donkey Kong games and even Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie. And fair warning, if you’ve never played any of the DKC games before, you’d better get ready to die—a lot. These games are hard.
But the difficulty is part of the charm. Donkey Kong Country represents the perfection of precision pinpoint platforming—jumping from platform to platform, swinging from vines, and riding mine carts—where every second counts. Every level is a battle against your own reflexes, and when you finally reach the end, it’s a breath of relief before you dive to the next challenge.
The difficulty can be a blessing and a curse, though. These games are tough as fucking nails. Maybe it was because I played all three games in a row (and I do think I was wearing thin by the third one, which sits in the other two’s shadow, for the most part), but they are almost like running; it can be painful to do while you are doing it, but when you are done you feel like you actually accomplished something.
There’s a reason that every remake of these games has had changes to make them slightly easier. There were definitely times where I was madder at the game than i was enjoying them, but damn, does it feel good once you finally make it through.
Not every aspect has aged gracefully, however. The ability to only save at certain points (and that saving costs in-game currency in DKC 2) is killer, and I’m honestly not sure how anybody can play through the game straight through without losing all of their lives, especially when it wasn’t uncommon for a level to take, you know, 20 or 30 lives in order to complete. I figured out quick how to get a lot of lives in 1-1, which helped to a point, but losing them every time I turned the game back on was rough.
There was also one instance in the second game where I saved as soon as I could, but got stuck on the level following it and couldn’t go back to get lives and had to play that level over and over and over and over and (have I made my point?) over again until I could clear it. Screw you Bramble Scramble!
But above all, I’ve finally gotten a chance to play a classic game from one of my (used to be, at least) favorite developers, and start to understand why people hold the Donkey Kong Country series in such high regard.
My affinity for the Kongs is growing. Dixie Kong is my shit (she’s one hundred times cooler than Diddy, so take that!), and I’m already starting to feel a growing attachment to the series, even though I didn’t play it in the nostalgia-building years of my youth. I’ve already gone back and played some Donkey Kong Country Returns, the series reboot on Nintendo’s Wii, Wii U and 3DS (which I had played before, and quite loved). I’m itching to go through the Donkey Kong Land Game Boy games, I’ve been blasting K Rool’s Theme on my phone, and part of me already wants to go back and try to find every secret coin, banana and bonus game and level in the original trilogy. Oh, and I’ll never look at bees the same way again.
And with Donkey Kong Country behind me, it’s time to jump into 3D. Donkey Kong 64, here I come.
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