Back in the day, videogame stories were only available through their attendant instruction manuals. The manual for Donkey Kong Land opens with this plot excuse:
Cranky Kong, ageing video game pioneer and primate patriarch, swayed back and forth in his rocking chair as he harassed his grandape, Donkey Kong and his little buddy, Diddy Kong.
“Well, I’ve got to admit, your last adventure was a bit more successful than I ever thought it would be…” he jibed. “Course, put a few fancy graphics and some modern music in a game, and kids’ll buy anything nowadays…”
Donkey and Diddy tried to discreetly cover their ears as they stared out into the jungle surrounding Cranky’s cabin. The old ape continued his taunting.
“Back in our days, understand, we had an extremely limited colour [sic] palette to work with, and we still made great games… No way you could duplicate that feat today, Donkey my boy! No siree!”
Cranky had been going on and on like this for what seemed like hours, and Donkey Kong had finally had enough.
“People liked Donkey Kong Country for more than just the ‘fancy graphics’ you old coot!’” he snapped. “The number of colours [sic], the resolution, it doesn’t make a difference. It was just plain fun!”
“Yeah, and we worked hard fighting K. Rool and his goons!” Diddy chimed in. Both he and Donkey still had the bumps and bruises to prove it.
Cranky nodded his head knowingly. The two youngsters had predictably risen to the bait and swallowed it hook, line and sinker.
“So you’re saying that an adventure like your last one would be a success even on an 8-bit system, like… Game Boy, for example…” Cranky said slyly.
“That’s right!” DK exclaimed without hesitation. Diddy joined him in accepting the challenge.
“We’ll even let the Kremlings steal the banana hoard again, and this time we’ll get it back on Game Boy!” Diddy boasted. “Hey a golden opportunity to get out of DK’s ridiculous guard duty training,” he thought to himself.
“I’ll believe it when I see it!” Cranky scowled.
And, with that, Rare laid down the gauntlet: Donkey Kong Country was a success because it was a great game with amazing gameplay, and not just because it had fancy, “next gen” graphics. If Donkey Kong Country were “demaked” onto a less powerful system, it would be just as powerfully popular.
And thus did Donkey Kong Land actually prove that graphics and gameplay do go hand in hand.
Against all odds, Donkey Kong Country was one of the great momentum-platformers of the 16-bit era. When Super Mario Bros. was released, it inspired a cadre of imitators that all tried to capture that Mario charm, but generally fell short of the mark. Mario controls in a very particular way, and, when you don’t understand the exact physics of a portly plumber, you wind up with a dozen platformers that can all be described as “slippery”, “clunky”, or “dogshit”. When Sonic the Hedgehog dominated the discourse and entertainment centers a few years later, those same copycats came out of the woodwork to make the same crappy games, but faster (and sometimes with an obnoxious animal). Donkey Kong Country could easily have fallen into similar traps, but, in the deft hands of Nintendo and Rare, the big gorilla came out as something truly unique and extraordinary. Donkey Kong is definitely not Mario or Sonic, but he was something special all the same.
The best verb for Donkey Kong is, appropriately enough, “barreling”. DK initially feels slow, but, as is proper for a powerful primate, once he gets going, there is no stopping this king kong. Donkey Kong Country is at its best when DK can barrel forward: rolling, bouncing forward off enemies, and sometimes even using that roll to dip down into a pit and leap off thin air in some mimicry of a double jump. What is important is that Donkey Kong feels great when he is moving forward at high speeds, but also feels different from when a certain blue hedgehog pulls off the same general moves. There is an omnipresent weight to Donkey Kong, and steering that weight ahead to the level goal feels genuinely attractive. The usual Donkey Kong Country stage has neither a timer nor a reason to rush, but it always feels like you are being rewarded when DK is continuously barreling.
Then there’s Donkey Kong Land. This miniature adventure somehow does not understand its titular star.
If you think you are going to make progress as a barreling ape in Donkey Kong Land, you are sorely mistaken. The pre-rendered, pea-green sprites of Donkey Kong Land are delightfully large and chunky, but that means there isn’t much screen real estate to actually maneuver. And, given your average Kremling exists exclusively to bonk into our heroic apes, this translates to a whole lot of damage incurred by lizards, vultures, and the occasional flying pig that will spawn right on top of our protagonists. And this limited space doesn’t only lead to reptile-inflicted injuries: Donkey Kong Land has a bevy of pits and moving platforms that would be passable on a larger screen, but are now all but unavoidable due to a complete inability to see what is below your monkey’s toes. Any way you slice it, unless you’ve been preserving your clairvoyance skills for 90’s Gameboy games, you absolutely cannot play Donkey Kong Land with any kind of speed.
And everybody involved knew this, too! This tip appears plainly in that same instruction manual:
“Take it slow when you first explore a level. Some of the enemies are well camouflaged and might be hidden, waiting to spring out at you!!”
Memorize every trap and trick, kiddies, or you’re going to have a bad time!
And this is all such a tremendous shame because Donkey Kong Land did go the extra mile and create a new, separate experience from Donkey Kong Country in every other way that mattered. Donkey Kong Country was already a game loaded with ideas (your main hero could run, jump, and even swim!), but Donkey Kong Land added some interesting concepts that seemed to only exist within the confines of the Gameboy. Sunken ruins! Bosses that feature “counter” gimmicks! Nemo the whorly thingy! An entire level featuring some kind of weird “turn your K-O-N-G letters into platforms” dealy bopper! And some of the locales and features of Donkey Kong Land were later adapted to future Donkey Kong Country concepts. Gangplank Galleon and whole areas devoted to climbing around rigging got their start here. Kremlantis the half-sunken ancient temple and Monkey Mountain both feel like areas that would be right at home while exploring the wilds of Donkey Kong Country 3. And Big Ape City and its reliance on construction sites seems to be the only spot in the Rare-era of Donkey Kong history wherein OG Donkey Kong is referenced as heavily as it would by the future of Mario & Donkey Kong titles.
But it is also inconsequential before the fact that Donkey Kong Land is a bear to play.
The Swirlwind is an excellent example of the issue here. This mobile, miniature tornado initially appears as a typical kongponent, but leaping on it will reveal that it is practically a mobile trampoline (or tire, as is proper to the gorillas). This can lead to some interesting level design, as the added height from a shifting (and potentially dangerous) object means a lot in a world where your playable character has jumps that are best described as “hefty”. And this is the kind of object/enemy/tornado that would appear in future Donkey Kong Country adventures to great success. But here? The screen is so limited, every time you get a perfect “high jump” off the whirlwind, you don’t know if you are going to be landing on solid ground ever again. And when they combine this moving object with its best friend, the moving platform, you are all but guaranteed to watch ape-death again and again. You can probably guess where it would be best to land, but odds are good that a Krusha or bottomless pit is waiting for you. And the end result here is that every time you see the Swirlwind, something that should guarantee a new and interesting challenge, you just sigh, because you know you are going to have a pile of gorilla corpses in front of you by the level’s end.
And that’s Donkey Kong Land in a nutshell: a lot of fun ideas smooshed onto a screen that absolutely cannot support them. Cranky was right! Donkey Kong Country was good because of its “newfangled” graphics! Because without the Super Nintendo, Donkey’s island goes from thrilling to tedious.
Donkey Kong Land deserved colors and a better resolution. But what we got just proved why graphics and gameplay are as inseparable as Donkey and Diddy.
SBC #03 Donkey Kong & Donkey Kong Land
Donkey Kong in Super Smash Bros Ultimate
- He any Good? He’s the original heavy in the cast, but he is never as heavy as you think. I would venture to state that Donkey Kong’s bulk is evidence that the weightier Bowser was planned for the original, but didn’t make the final cut. In the absence of a barrel tossing special, his signature now seems to be a bevy of helicopter punches that are surprisingly effective.
- That final smash work? At this point, we simply have a generic punch flurry. This is a tremendous step down from his previous DK Bongo Blast, but one can forgive the emphasis on a final smash that doesn’t switch to an entirely different gameplay style. At least both of these moves directly reference Donkey Kong Jungle Beat.
- The background work? DK Kong Jungle has a delightfully moody sunset, and includes a mobile barrel. It doesn’t get more Donkey Kong Country than that!
- First Appearance: He was a slow guy before they even figured out how smash attacks should work, so he might be the worst character in the original Super Smash Bros. But, hey, sometimes you just want to make a comeback after suffering 150% damage, and carry a victim off the stage.
- Classic Mode: Donkey Kong journeys to New Donk City by recruiting Diddy, banishing K. Rool, and then fighting a series of “partner” duos, culminating with Mario & Luigi before defending the city against Master Hand. So I guess the moral of Donkey Kong Country is that Donkey Kong always has a buddy?
- Smash Trivia: Was Donkey Kong the first Super Smash Bros. boss? He appears in the original one-player mode with a gimmick like any of his original eight contemporaries, but his stage is a 3 vs 1 fight with a gigantic gorilla. Considering this appears on the hit list before Metal Mario or Master Hand, this could be read as the series’ first big bad. He is at least big…
- Amiibo Corner: Looks like we have three Donkey Kong Amiibos. Turbo Charge Donkey Kong is a used car salesman. Super Mario Series Donkey Kong has goofy bulging eyes to look like a muppet. Dynamic jumping Smash Bros Donkey Kong has a cool open mouth. That’s the pick of the primates right there.
- Does Smash Bros Remember Today’s Game? Donkey Kong is primarily based on his Donkey Kong Country incarnation, and everything about that game was designed in a cooperative parallel with Donkey Kong Land, so… kinda? Smash Bros Donkey Kong is like the more successful brother to Donkey Kong Land’s weird dude that never left his parents’ basement. Or always left his parents’ basement? How does that work with a portable game…
Donkey Kong in Donkey Kong Land
- System: Gameboy initially, with full Super Gameboy support. It also saw rerelease on the Nintendo 3DS, which theoretically ups the odds it will appear to menace us again on the Nintendo Switch Online service.
- Number of players: Nobody bothered to cram link cable support into this one, so just one monkey at a time.
- Support Network: Other than the rhino and the ostrich, every other buddy from Donkey Kong Country does not appear in Donkey Kong Land. There is no Funky Kong to usher you between levels, no Cranky to offer advice (outside of the manual), and nary a giant frog to be seen. The forgotten Candy Kong’s save ability has even been replaced by saving being tied to collecting the K-O-N-G letters. It is difficult to imagine a weirder choice than forcing the player to scour a level repeatedly just for the ability to turn off their Gameboy.
- Say something nice: The Donkey Kong Country game pak is banana-yellow. I always appreciate a uniquely colored cartridge.
- Donkey or Diddy: It feels like they didn’t quite get the distinct momentum differences between Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong 100% correct in this game, so Donkey wins due to being able to bounce off bigger Kremlings. Sorry, Diddy, he’s just built different.
- Favorite Level: Big Ape City is the clear winner here. Vaguely urban environments have been a part of the series since DK first ventured through a Kremling factory, but swinging across chains over a skyline feels special.
- Watch it, Buddy: We played Donkey Kong Land, Donkey Kong ’94, and a variety of other, not-gorilla based games on Even Worse streams back in February. You can watch the stream right here:
Original Stream Night: February 7, 2023
This was based on a vote as to which Donkey Kong game I should play, and I did technically play the winner for a little while. But I also have the attention span of a gnat, so this kind of thing happens.
- An End: King K. Rool is responsible for all this misery, and once you beat the guy (who has a jumping splash that now has an outlet outside this game), you get… credits. That’s it, folks! Not even a Cranky denouement!
- Did you know? According to interviews, Paul Machacek of Rare advocated for Donkey Kong Land to be its own game (and not a simple port) due to the success of the original-to-Gameboy Battletoads game. This is the first I’m hearing about Gameboy Battletoads being successful… or.. uh… existing as its own game at all, so it is debatable on whether or not Donkey Kong Land was grounded in a flawed premise from its inception.
- Would I play again: Not on your life. There are better Gameboy platformers out there (Super Mario Land 2 springs immediately to mind) and better Donkey Kong Country games (like, any of them). Slumming it with Donkey Kong Land is good to see what’s cooking, but it is not ever going to be a filling meal.
What’s next? Pyra is going to be featured, but Mythra will have to wait a week after that. Please look forward to it!