Back in 1994, before 3D games had taken off, a little UK-based games developer called Rare decided that if it couldn’t have good looking 3D models in a game, it'd have to get creative. Donkey Kong Country used a pioneering new technique for the time that took images of pre-rendered three dimensional models and turned these snapshots into frames for typical 2D sprite animation, resulting in one of the best visual treats available on the SNES. That’s the part of Donkey Kong Country that will survive throughout history, but like so many other things, you don’t measure fun in polygons.
Donkey Kong Country was just one of the dozens of great 2D platforming games that were prevalent throughout the late eighties and early nineties, but although the visuals were the hook for many hungry gamers, it was the gameplay that kept them interested; this holds up to today’s standards better than even some of the more iconic titles of the time. The controls are incredibly tight and responsive, every moment you make feels precise and calculated. Even using the control stick on this Virtual Console version feels natural and effortless, especially when compared to some other titles where you need to use the D-Pad for optimal control over your character. It uses the classic trope from the Mario series wherein the run button also functions as the button used to pick up items, but the items you can pick up are never placed in a position where your chances for survival are affected by doing so. The controls are so well refined that they’re comparable to the latest title in the series, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.
The basic gameplay revolves around the Donkey Kong we know today (grandson of the original Donkey Kong from the arcade game of the same name) on a quest to retrieve his banana horde that was stolen by the evil King K. Rool and his army of Kremlings. Our hero isn’t alone though, his nephew Diddy Kong is along for the ride as well — tagging along behind his uncle — but despite his size he’s just as capable an adventurer. You can also switch between the two Kongs at any time in order to take advantage of Diddy’s speed and higher jumps or Donkey’s strength and more powerful attacks. You’ll require the help of some other members of the Kong family as well; Candy Kong provides you with a location to save your data, Funky Kong allows you to travel between areas, and Cranky Kong (the aged form of the original Donkey Kong) sometimes provides you with hints about the game, but often just complains about how rotten everything is in his eyes.
The level design in this title is utterly superb. Every level has little nooks and crannies hiding secret areas where you can try and earn some more bananas or an extra life, and there’s no indicator to show where they are, meaning that you’re going to have to scour each level thoroughly to find all of them. This would usually be a problem, but given that there’s never any necessity to visit any of these locations means that even if you don’t manage to find any in a level you’re not really missing out on anything more than a few bonus items. It’s best to try and keep a healthy curiosity for these areas, but try not to become obsessed, as Rare managed to hide many of them so well you may never find them.
Don’t expect the same level style every time you enter a new world, either — each level has its own unique blend of gameplay mechanics, be it rope-swinging, deep-sea diving, blasting between barrels or charging underground on a mine cart, you’ll never feel like you’re repeating any experience. You’ll also have to have your wits about you, as the game is not one that’s especially easy to pick up and play; differently functioning enemies will spring towards you without any warning, so you’ll have to be alert every time you enter a new level. Does the sometime cruel difficulty sour the experience? Not at all, the trial-and error frustration only adds to the determination you’ll feel to get through that one level that’s been driving you mad for the past half an hour, and the euphoria once you complete it is all the sweeter for the torment.
Scattered throughout some of the levels are a number of helpful animal friends that strive to help Donkey and Diddy in their endeavours, and these critters also help to really vary the gameplay. They’re always completely optional though, so if you don’t want to dive into an entirely new style of play at the risk of losing one of your precious lives – which are indeed precious in this game towards the latter half – you can always just ignore them and continue as you were. You’re likely to miss out on a few extra goodies, but sometimes you’ve got to play it safe to get to the end of a troublesome level.
The only real downfall of Donkey Kong Country is the boss battles; whilst not explicitly bad, they really do pale in comparison to the rest of the game, which is a tremendous shame. These enormous enemies have very basic attack patterns that while not necessarily easy in all cases, are repetitive and uninspired. The bosses themselves are nicely designed and pretty to look at, but fighting them can become a bit tiresome after a while.
If you’re wondering whether or not to buy Donkey Kong Country, just buy it. It’s a game that should be on every Wii U console, it’s as simple as that. It’s not a perfect game, but considering that it came out twenty years ago it’s still better than even many of the best games on the Virtual Console at the moment. Long, engaging and never boring – except with some of the boss fights – Donkey Kong Country is an absolute must-buy for anyone who hasn’t played it, and even those that have, as it’s a perfect port of the original.