History is written by the winners, be they ape or dinosaur.
Donkey Kong Country was the big crazy holiday release for the Super Nintendo. It was a revolution in graphics available on the SNES, or so we were told, and a pretty alright game to play to boot. The console wars were over, Nintendo was the victor, and Donkey Kong carried the victory barrel over the kremling finish line. Somewhere, a Genesis kid wept bitter tears as everyone abandoned the diminutive blue hedgehog for a pair of primates. They had to go fast.
The following year, the war won, Sega floundering and assembling green balls into strange vectors, the Playstation still waiting with baited breath for the cloud of prosperity that would still be two years away, (Super) Nintendo games only had each other to battle. In one holiday season, we saw eternal triumphs like Chrono Trigger clashing for a child’s wallet with the likes of beloved mascot games, like Earthworm Jim 2. And, direct from Nintendo, we had two amazing games: Yoshi’s Island and Donkey Kong Country 2. The rivalry between the two games would echo through the annals of the then fairly fresh internet (popularly known as AOL in those days), and now, decades later, much is still made of the competitors, story book graphics vs. prerendered, indepth gameplay vs. run ‘n jump, “Trojan horse” marketing vs. charming, and I think I’ve even heard some good ol’ East vs. West enmity in there.
But here we stand, two decades later, and are forced to ask ourselves: who won?
First, we look at Donkey Kong Country. Poor, sweet, forgotten Donkey Kong Country. Oh? What’s that you say? Yes, I can hear you, gentle reader, out there in internet land, as your monocle flies from your face and your top hat reaches disagreeable heights, propelled by the steam rising from your ears. Yes, I stand by my statement, your incredulity aside, Donkey Kong Country has been forgotten by gaming at large, and I realized this only while playing the ol’ girl.
Donkey Kong Country is, and I apologize for the heresy you’re about experience, Super Mario Bros. 3. I realize this may be antithetical to every belief you have, but attempt a run of Super Mario Bros. 3 without ever acquiring a super leaf, without ever taking to the skies, and then play Donkey Kong Country. Things will seem oddly familiar, I guarantee. Make no mistake, Super Mario Bros. 3 is one of the greatest platformers ever for a reason (that reason is The Wizard), and DKC cannot be held to its exacting standard, but if the folks at Rare were going to… ape any game in the Nintendo anthology for their creation, they may as well grab one of the best. Much though I’m sure the impulse was there, I’m glad they didn’t choose to introduce the new Donkey Kong in a game emulating, say, Clu-Clu Land. Who would want to play that?
I shouldn’t have to elaborate on this point, and I might be high on pesticides right now, but Donkey Kong Country is, like the finer, old Mario games, a game where you run from left to right, jump on an eclectic mix of antagonistic animals, and then clear the goal before wandering into the next obstacle course. The main theme of Super Mario Bros. 3 is titled “Still Running Around”, and that may as well be the central theme-theme of the game. Donkey (and Diddy, can’t forget the smart one of the stupid apes) are “still running around” through their entire adventure, with occasional breaks for swimming labyrinths (not unlike the more maze-y stages of SMB3) and maybe a minecart or two. Donkey Kong’s animal friends (is that redundant? That always seems to be the phrase used, but they’re all animals, apes, fish, frogs, etc., so aren’t they all just “friends”?) recall Super Mario World’s Yoshi mechanics; so much so that I still expect DK to punch Engarde in the face every time he wants the swordfish to propel forward. Dinosaur abuse is deeply rooted in my psyche. And then every world concludes with a boss battle that is primarily a skirmish of well timed jumps, save a few gimmicks that may include Bowser-baiting or Bee-barreling.
There’s a gameplay mechanic here that exists, but is no more important in Donkey Kong Country than it is in Super Mario Bros. 3, and that’s “collecting”. Yes, there are hidden stages in DKC, and, yes, there are KONG letters in every stage, but neither “collectible” is any more gameplay important than Mario’s Warp Whistles or Flying Coin Ships. Yes, you can score “100%” in DKC the same way you can collect every last coin in SMB3, but neither game ends with a message reminding you that you missed something, or a final boss that is locked away behind some outlandish condition. There are collectibles and “secrets” on Donkey Kong’s island, but they’re fairly insignificant compared to the fun of rolling toward the finale over as many lizards as possible. That banana horde is going to fill up no matter how many exclamation points you weld onto stage names.
And then came Donkey Kong Country 2, and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. As mentioned previously, they were released at nearly the same time, and much has been made of their differences through the decades. No one ever seems to take a moment to compare DKC2 to DKC, though, as DKC2 is seemingly universally lauded as the victor in that ape fight.
But we lost something between DKC and DKC2, and it was the same thing that was “lost” when Mario landed on Yoshi’s Island. As I mentioned in my Yoshi Touch & Go article, Yoshi’s Island introduced the “collection” elements to the Mario platformer universe, and that acquisition has never gone away. Whether it be stars or shines or giant coins, every Mario game is now expected to have some collection element, lest gamers just get bored with running from left to right, in 2D space or three, and additional game content is locked behind these collectibles. Some games are more intensive than others, but it’s there in every Mario game since 1995. Similarly, either thanks to some collaboration in the halls of Nintendo, or just a coincidence of parallel development, Donkey Kong Country 2 acquired a significant collectible element, adding DK “hero coins” and making the hidden stages of the previous game a requirement to see the complete ending and battle the true final boss.
This is why I see Donkey Kong Country as forgotten, as the first thing most gamers mention when the DKC series rears its furry head is the “collectathon” elements that have been a staple of the series ever since 1995, DKC2 and DKC3 made the franchise lock significant content behind collecting, and Donkey Kong 64 made the collectathon elements its central focus, to the point that it basically retired the franchise and made the idea of collectibles in a game more of a threat than a feature. This is all absent in Donkey Kong Country, where running and jumping is all that’s required. Go go gorilla!
All of this is just circling back to my original question: Who won, Donkey Kong or Yoshi? As I write this in 2015, both franchises have enjoyed a new renaissance despite a decade or so of inactivity. DK has returned to his roots in Donkey Kong Country Returns and its sequel, and both games have been well received and fun. Yarn Yoshi is on the horizon, and Yoshi’s New Island didn’t cause any noticeable lesions on my body, which is more than I can say for most of the Yoshi franchise since its debut. Assuming Yarn Yoshi is everything it appears to be, both franchises seem to be at about the same plane of “alright”, so we can’t really judge them on that level.
Let’s look at Mario. Mario has had a record number of 2D platforming games released recently, compared to the N64/GBA/NGC era when we never saw Mario just enjoying the simple pleasures of turtle stomping in limited dimensions. There’s even a pretty easy argument to be made that the recent Super Mario Land 3D branch of the franchise, despite being, obviously, 3D, is much more rooted in the 2D Mario games than the likes of Mario 64. And what happens in those games? Mario runs from left to right, often as quickly as possible, and collects along the way, three special star coins.
Huh, that sounds kind of familiar.
Replace those star coins with KONG letters, and you’ve got Donkey Kong Country to a T. Yes, Mario has power-ups and bob-ombs and whatever crazy platform mechanics that are based on how many people in the room you can get to sneeze or whatever Nintendo came up for the latest game, but in the end, it is nearly the exact same gameplay as the original Donkey Kong Country. It might be a plumber hopping on a dinosaur as opposed to an ape utilizing a rhino, but, in the end, it comes out very similar. And that’s what Nintendo is hanging their number one mascot/cash cow on in a series that doesn’t show any signs of stopping.
Your revolution is over, Yoshi. Condolences. The dinosaurs lost.
FGC #9: Donkey Kong Country
- System: Super Nintendo
- Number of Players: 2, though it’s a much more frustrating experience with two players than one. Have you ever tried it? Whatever you do, don’t try it with a potential mate. I speak from experience. Just play Double Dash with DK and Diddy and claim it’s the same thing.
- Donkey Kong or Diddy Kong? Despite Donkey having the clear advantage with his unparalleled ground pound and ability to tackle enemies that laugh off Diddy’s pounces, Diddy is my boy, and his cartwheels are just the bee’s knees. Worst part of Donkey Kong Country Returns is that they saddle you with Donkey and his stupid tie while Diddy is right there!
- Been kinda hard on Yoshi lately, ya know? Blame ROB! I swear I like Yoshi’s Island just fine. It’s an excellent game! Its sequels and lasting impact on gaming seems to wither as I pay more attention to it, though.
- Did You Know? Rare told me they studied actual real live apes to perfectly animate the Kong’s movements. I learned this from a VHS tape that arrived, unsolicited, at my home. I presume that Nintendo is waiting for the day it is profitable enough to fund time travel expeditions for Miyamoto to study real live Yoshi in their natural habitat.
- Would I Play Again? I only re-played through the first three worlds for this article, and I am just fascinated that all this time I have been ignoring this game for its “superior” sequel, DKC2. I am seriously considering heading back to Donkey Kong Country in my nonexistent spare time.
What’s Next? Random ROB has chosen… Ice Climber!? ROB, you %^*$ son of a $$%@. Please look forward to it! I’m not!