Month Of Kong: What Donkey Kong Country Means To Me

Dave Letcavage on growing up with Kong as company

We know what you're going to say. Our Month of Kong celebration should have ended with the close of February, and we're now two days into March. However, in very much the same way that Nintendo refuses to be tied down by conventional calendars when it comes to plotting The Year of Luigi, we're prepared to turn a blind eye and keep our Kong-related content alive for a little longer. With that in mind, we'll pass you over to Nintendo Life's resident DK expert Dave Letcavage, who has a few words to impart on the how much the franchise means to him on a personal level.

There comes a point in life when many of us get pulled in a direction we never expected to go. For most, this commonly occurs as we’re transitioning into adulthood, when the world puts forth expectations that we feel obligated to meet for fear of failure. Some people undergo this transition without missing a beat or compromising a modicum of their character, while others struggle to fit into the demanding mold crafted by the world around them. Friends and family are getting married, having kids and advancing in their line of work, while the rest of us feel like we're stuck standing in place just watching them race by. Those in the latter category then rush to catch up to the pack, sometimes leaving bits and pieces of themselves behind. I know this because I've experienced it first-hand.

A while back I had relocated across the United States for a more-than-promising position in a line of work I wasn't all that particularly interested in – because money and advancement, of course. As time went on and I was inching closer and closer to a lucrative career, I began inadvertently sacrificing nearly all of the things that made me happy throughout the years — things I was extremely passionate about. Life became synonymous with work, and money was taught to be a trophy indicative of success. These were never ideals that I sympathized with previously, but for whatever reason I was fully embracing them.

That is, until E3 2010.

The stage is set. Nintendo’s press briefing is underway and Reggie Fils-Aime is front and center, shifting gears and seemingly about to introduce a new game. “Retro Studios”, he says, and my full attention is his. Then that music played. Was it…Donkey Kong Country? My gut was fully aware of what I was hearing, but my brain was uncertain. Even though I was familiar with that iconic tune through-and-through, I was struck with confusion, laced with an equal measure of disbelief. When the trailer rolled and Donkey Kong came crashing onto that beach front, I felt something I hadn’t in ages – an uncontrollable dose of youthful excitement.

You see, the Donkey Kong Country series played a huge role in my development as a gamer. Prior to 1994, deciding on which video game to buy next was a family affair – either we were all interested, or we didn't get it. Donkey Kong Country was the first game I recall getting that appealed only to me. My sister and I didn't have to fight for playtime, making it a much more personal gaming experience. For the first time I could explore at my own pace without another person impatiently waiting or pleading for their turn. This level of focus meant I practiced, triumphed, and earned the confidence to finally see video games as a conquerable challenge. I grew into my gaming shoes that year, and the Super Nintendo was solidified as my main source of entertainment.

The next Christmas when Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest showed up under our tree, an unexpected thing happened – my sister was majorly interested. (In retrospect I would have to say the addition of playable female lead is what captured her attention, so way to go Rare!) Her level of enthusiasm was off the chart compared to any game before it. She was actually determined to prevail and earn success even when the going got tough – much like the original Donkey Kong Country thrust me forward in terms of skill, DKC2 was doing the same for her. It was the first time that I can recall us not only playing together amicably, but also working toward the greater good. A video game united a brother and sister separated by four years of age and an interest in completely different hobbies, and for that reason – on top of many others – I'll always remember it fondly.

When the trilogy was capped off with Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble! at the end of 1996, my family was enduring tough times. Thankfully, the postcard-worthy Northern Kremisphere was a captivating place to escape when the weight of the world around me was a bit too heavy. Being able to traverse the inviting overworld by means of vehicles expanded upon the sense of adventure the series was known for, and I really dug that. I was so immensely into it that I completed the game in only a handful of days, which was a first for me. This accomplishment propelled me into the era of the Nintendo 64 with conviction, and cemented video games as commonplace in my lifestyle for the next 12 years.

But when the adult world came calling, I lost track of gaming for a while.

I was so consumed by that job I didn't like, and so focused on chasing a standard of living that I thought I had to meet, everything "trivial" faded out of sight. Everyone around me was making that major step into the next era of their lives and I was rushing to do the same. I was dabbling in a little creative writing at the time, but most days I didn't have the mental stamina to produce anything worthwhile after a busy day of work – which unfortunately was every day. Life was all work, and there was little time to pursue happiness.

When I finally got my mitts on Donkey Kong Country Returns — the game that Reggie had unveiled at the aforementioned E3 2010 presentation — everything began to change. It was like a long-dormant portal to the past was reopened and I was getting back a part of myself that I hadn't been familiar with in ages. If I had an unlimited amount of time to accurately and appropriately express the overwhelming amount of satisfaction and happiness I extracted from my first playthrough of Returns, I don't think I could do it. I would concede to a loss for words. It was an experience that led to life-altering realizations and a major wake-up call.

Solely attributing this revelation to nostalgia would be inaccurate. In fact, it was Retro Studios’ dedication to distinguish Returns from the SNES trilogy that really resonated with me. While the core gameplay remained largely intact, the level design was elevated to all new heights, incorporating more secrets to unearth than ever before. There was a unprecedented degree of charm and personality apparent at every turn, which really reinvigorated my creative energies. I began making music again, drawing cartoons, and — as you may have guessed — I started writing about video games. Over the course of the next six months I had begun distancing myself from my job, and I made the decision to move back across the country to my hometown – ultimately resulting in me reconnecting with an old high-school crush and turning her into my wife.

“Take the thing you love and make it your life.”

I couldn't think of a quote more fitting to convey the effect Returns had on me. It’s a piece of dialog from an episode of the television show Californication, and it has stuck with me since the moment I first heard it. When DK and Diddy came swinging back into view, it reminded me of what I wanted in life before the world and societal standard attempted to sway me in other directions. I’m now not only fully aware of the things that make me the happiest in life, but I'm also constantly making an effort to keep those things an important part of my day-to-day. I may not be the richest man when it comes to money, but each and every day I'm surrounded only by things I'm infinitely passionate about, and when you’re always happy, well…I don't know what makes a man richer than that.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I've got to go play through Tropical Freeze for the third time.

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