Name: Donkey Kong Country Trilogy
North American Release: Nov 1st, ’94; Dec 1st, ’95; Nov 1st, ‘96
Console: Super Nintendo
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I know, I know, you’re thinking, “Hey Chris, these are three full games that you could talk about individually, why would you bundle them all into one article?” but bear with me here, I want to try something different. Each of the three DKC games is its own thing and each offers a similar, but ultimately unique experience from the others. With that in mind, I wanted to do a collective piece about them to illustrate the unique factors of each game while talking about what made the series great as a whole. You tell me if it works in the comments here or on social media. Let’s get into it.
The first DKC entry hit store shelves for the holiday season of ’94. Rare’s platformer revival of Mario’s old rival needed to stand out to sell, as it was hitting store shelves alongside amazing games like Final Fantasy VI, Earthworm Jim, Sonic & Knuckles, Super Metroid, and Shaq-Fu. Okay, that last one might be a stretch, but I will say that while it’s certainly flawed, and its premise is ridiculous, Shaq-Fu not as wholly terrible as the internet has made it out to be. I plan to write about it in the future, so we’ll get into it then. The point is that ’94 was a standout year in video games.
Not only were the major game developers for the SNES and Genesis at their peak for those consoles, but 3D gaming had begun to make its mark both in the arcades and at home. The 32-bit generation was, admittedly, in its infancy, with arcade cabinets like Sega’s “Virtua” line and PC games like Doom being the bulk of its market share at this point. Sure, there were some home console options, like the Atari Jaguar and the 3DO, but they were either too obscure for third party developers to invest in and suffered from small, lacklustre game libraries (the former’s case) or were overly expensive (the 3DO’s case). This left the home console market to be fought over by the two 16-bit juggernauts: the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis, and that battle was raging; even if Sega, Nintendo, and Sony were already hungrily eyeing the 3D landscape.
To further illustrate what a wild, transitional year ’94 was for video games, think about this: in December of that year, Namco dropped cabinets containing the very first Tekken game into arcades. In the exact same month, Nintendo released Wario’s Woods for the NES.
I kid you not, the 3D fighting game staple series Tekken came into existence while games were still being made for the NES, and not just SNES games with NES ports like Wario’s Woods, either. Exclusive NES games like Star Tropics II: Zoda’s Revenge, Flintstones: Surprise at Dinosaur Peak, and Mega Man 6 all were released in North America in 1994.
It should be said though, that the NES was on life support, having arguably outlived its lifespan. Even to Nintendo, the phoenix of the ’83 video game crash had become the company’s budget console in the early 90’s, and they decided that Wario’s Woods would be its swan song.
In a way, Donkey Kong Country helped push that point. Rare, as a developer, fully immersed themselves into the 16-bit consoles, and DKC saw them experiment with pushing the limits of the NES’s successor: the Super Nintendo. They intended to not only raise the bar for 16-bit gaming, but also demonstrate with that hardware just what sort of future lay ahead for video games.
With the help of a major marketing push from Nintendo, Donkey Kong Country proved to be an instant hit. Nintendo were all-in, too, and they did everything to capitalise on the best looking game in the 16-bit market up to that point. It even had the rare (pun intended) distinction of being a pack-in title with new SNES consoles. In no time, it joined the likes of Super Mario World, Super Mario All-Stars, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past in the “Million Seller” line.
Sure, DKC wasn’t full 3D like in the arcades or what the PlayStation and Saturn were promising, but the SNES was never built to be capable of achieving that. Sure, they had Star Fox, Mario Kart, and F-Zero to show off the effects of their impressive Mode 7 chip, but true 3D that was more than crude polygons or a flat, scrolling field with a vague horizon was out of reach for tech that was already five years old. What Rare could achieve with DKC, though, was to push that slightly dated technology to its absolute limits in every direction, and that was precisely what they did in DKC and its two subsequent installments.
They started with a game that had a simple premise: Donkey Kong, his chimp/monkey hybrid pal Diddy, and their gorilla friends are all chilling on DK Island when a bipedal crocodile king named K. Rool and his flunkies show up and steal Donkey Kong’s beloved hoard of bananas. Your goal is to route the raucous reptiles from DK’s island and recover those precious bananas. Not the most engrossing plot, sure, but this is about highlighting the power of computer-generated imagery in the form of a fun and accessible game. They made a trilogy, but they weren’t trying to write the Lord of the Rings, if you get my drift.
With that in place, they built a platformer game set on this island that used every theme and environment they could think of. Nothing was off limits. Jungle levels? Of course. Caves? Well, if it’s good enough for Mario to go underground, DK can too. Mine carts? Let’s not just use ‘em, let’s make ‘em a series staple! Roman-esque temples? Wouldn’t dream of leaving them out! Coniferous forest inhabited by vultures and beavers? Okay, we’re pushing it, but okay. Snow-capped mountains? On a tropical island? Yeah, alright, we’ll make it work. Even Kilimanjaro has snow on top. Of course, what would a gorilla’s island paradise be without oil refineries? According to Rare, it would be downright incomplete, that’s what.
It may seem as though I have painted a picture of a random hodgepodge of visual themes crammed into a single SNES cart. The truth, though, is that the development team definitely had a clear vision for how they intended to use each theme.
Along with these themes came a variety of visual effects unseen on 16-bit consoles at that point. The graphics themselves far outpaced anything else available on the SNES or Genesis. The foregrounds and backgrounds of each level changed as you progressed through the levels, weather patterns emerged, and the lighting dimmed and brightened as each theme and level dictated with each passing step. Rare used these visuals for not just aesthetics, but actually incorporated it into the design and difficulty of its levels.
For instance, in the outdoor snow levels, you start in a bright, sunny day, but as you proceed, the sky turns grey, and snow begins to fall in the background. With every step, you see the storm closing in, until now the snow is in the foreground, obscuring your view just enough to throw you off. I still remember the first time I experienced that, and how it blew my young mind.
It’s not all just visuals, though. The platforming of each level is wonderfully done and as the difficulty increases, it never feels like it’s unfairly done. There are no cheap deaths or artificial difficulty due to poor controls. I’m going to assume here that I don’t need to explain how the platforming works. I mean, if you’re reading this, chances are you like video games on some level, (pun not intended, but it works) and since the debut of Super Mario Bros. in 1985, platform games have been a major staple of the medium. The things that separate DKC from other platformers are a few major elements that I’ll touch on briefly. The first is that you have two characters to play as and they’re both on screen at the same time. I always liked that Donkey and Diddy controlled differently, and depending on whom you were playing as had a role in how you approached that level. Donkey is the heavyweight, who can stomp on objects, slam his hands off the ground to find hidden objects, throws a barrel the farthest (barrels are a big part of the Donkey Kong franchise, paying homage to the original arcade game), and can stomp on nearly any enemy. Diddy’s strength is his speed, cartwheeling, and superior jumping abilities. If the Kong you’re playing as is hit, you have to switch to the other, and in a blink, your whole strategy might have to change. It keeps you on your toes. The second element that makes up the Donkey Kong Country series is the aforementioned barrels, which are used as a stand in for every sort of item in the game. Some barrels are found on the ground to be used as projectiles, others serve as the halfway marker of the level, another restores your partner if you lost them, and finally, they act as cannons to launch you about the level.
For the last type of barrel, the whole series has entire levels built around navigating by barrel cannon, which might be for better or worse, depending on your experience with them. It’s different, and the mechanic remains unique to the series. The last major defining element is the animal friends, which is not different in and of itself, (see Yoshi in Super Mario World) but Rare made the mechanic its own, and you don’t quite see such a cast of characters anywhere else.
There’s all sorts of bonus rooms, which typically offer free lives and bananas (100 bananas earns a free life) and the bonus rooms count towards your completion percentage. Want 100% completion? Gotta find those secrets!
Rare had more than great game design and standard-setting visuals to bring to the table in this game: they brought a killer soundtrack too.
David Wise was tapped to score the game, and though it’s a silly platformer pitting animated gorillas versus anthropomorphic crocodiles, he took his job seriously. Each different theme has its own, unique track, and they seem to cover every part of the sound spectrum. From driving jungle beats, to the calming underwater theme above, to the pounding urgency of the industrial theme, David Wise takes the player on a musical ride.
As said before, the game was a major hit, and it and Super Metroid heralded a revival for the console that was starting to fall behind. It bought Nintendo time to get their next generation console to market properly, and the two games proved that there was still life in the SNES yet. Consumers were enthusiastic, and responded in kind with their wallets. For now, the SNES could keep on chugging along.
So did Rare, and one year later, they followed up on their success with Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong’s Quest. The sales poured in for the sequel, and the critics raved about it, saying that it improved on everything that the first game delivered. This was the first Donkey Kong Country game I personally owned, and I played the heck out of it.
Rare wrapped up the trilogy just one year on from that, bringing Donkey Kong Country 3 to the SNES right alongside Nintendo’s release of its newest home console: the Nintendo 64. Nintendo had survived with its 16-bit console-that-could thanks in no small part to Rare and the DK series. Sony had stormed the market with the PlayStation, and the next generation of games were taking over the market, but Nintendo was finally ready to fight them on what they felt would be an even playing field. With a last hurrah to the SNES, Rare sent out Donkey Kong Country 3. Despite its arrival at the end of the SNES’ life, it still sold over 3.5 million copies.
“What about those games, Chris?” you might be thinking. “You promised a retrospective on all three DKC SNES games, and we’ve thus far only seen the first one. What gives?” I did that intentionally. You see, while I find you can compare the second and third game to one another competitively, it might not be fair to hold the first game to their standard. The first game set a template that the other two followed, and it’s an amazing game that holds up remarkably to this day. Yet, the sequels both built on the first game so much that it doesn’t feel like an even fight to weigh the first DKC game against what came after. This brings me back to the themes I spoke about earlier. It feels like there’s so many of them because the first DKC was a Hail-Mary play by Rare. They had bought the company Silicon Graphics so they could attain the assets needed to make a game as ambitious as DKC.
Once they had it, they then infused it with every feasible idea they had in that moment, which was quite a bit, as we saw. However, there are always limits. There’s only so much time to make it and only so much funding to get to the finish line, meaning that not everything will make the cut the first time around, no matter how cool and ambitious the idea might be.
Therefore, while they were getting ready to pull off their masterpiece, there were certain ideas that had to be left out. Things that, if this game does well, they could work on for the next one, if they get to do that.
Suffice it to say, the risk paid off. Now, with a template to work with, they could infuse the new games with the pieces that they just didn’t have the time to flesh out the first time.
Now we come to DKC 2 and 3, and the real comparisons can begin.
DKC 2: Diddy Kong’s Quest hit store shelves in late ’95 for the holiday season. Our villain, K. Rool, is back again and this time he’s kidnapped Donkey Kong. Diddy sets off with his girlfriend Dixie on their adventure to K. Rool’s personal island. Starting out on the same ship that K. Rool sailed in on in DKC 1, our duo work their way toward his dreaded fortress at the top of the island. It has a dark vibe going for it, with the game taking us through such settings as a volcano, a swampy ship’s graveyard, a haunted theme park/giant beehive, a haunted forest, and K. Rool’s dreary fortress.
They followed this with DKC 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble in late ’96. This time we find ourselves in the Northern Kremisphere, a world that has a visual aesthetic that would not look out of place right here in Canada. Our themes revolve around a rural and wilderness setting, with levels taking place on lakeside shore, docks, and boardwalks; in barns and mills; a return of sorts to the coniferous forest; mountain climbing terrain; more snowy peaks; industrial factories and giant pipelines; caves; waterfalls; and of course, underwater levels. Dixie has travelled to this world with her cousin Kiddy because our nefarious klepto-croc upped his game by kidnapping not just Donkey Kong this time, but Diddy too. K. Rool is consistent, if nothing else.
Right out of the gate, the two games stand apart for the vibe and colour palette. DKC 2 went dark and gloomy, and while that certainly went a long way in building the atmosphere of K. Rool’s island, it may not exactly scream ‘fun’. It was family friendly, of course, nothing was overly macabre, but it might make for a harder sell. The third game went in the complete opposite direction, and tried to make everything brighter and vibrant, which feels more akin to the first game.
The stark contrast between the two always stuck with me, and it felt at times like DKC 3 was meant to be some other franchise entirely. Perhaps this was the type of setting and game they would have intended for Conker the Squirrel. The lewd, crude Conker we know today is far from your average happy woodland critter, but originally, he was just that. Diddy Kong Racing on the Nintendo 64 and Conker’s Pocket Tails on the Game Boy Colour certainly paint a picture of a cuddly little guy having PG adventures in a lively, cheery forest setting. Banjo the Bear, who debuted in the same game, might have also had a wonderful time in DKC 3’s world, with or without Kazooie.
K. Rool’s island in DKC 2 though, doesn’t look like a place that anyone would want to live. It feels like a place where some terrible, awful things have gone down, and all that’s left are the haunted remains, a ton of indifferent insects, depressed wildlife, and some surly reptilian pirates. It’s strange to see such a dark atmosphere for a game rated K-A, (the original “E for Everyone” rating), but it actually works quite well. You wouldn’t expect K. Rool to live in anything but some sort of dystopic doomscape, so if that’s where the game is going to be set, that’s the way to build it.
In that way, DKC 3’s setting also works. The premise in this one is that K. Rool has gone into hiding. In fact, you’re not even told at first that it’s K. Rool who has kidnapped Donkey and Diddy. So, where better for him to squirrel himself away than in a secret laboratory that’s seemingly in the last place anyone would look for him? There’re props to be given for that, as it’s admittedly quite clever of the creative team.
The biggest difference between the two games isn’t the atmosphere, though. It’s the player characters. Remember how I said that Donkey and Diddy both played differently in the first game? Well, DKC 2 kept that formula, but instead of one speedy and one heavy character, they changed it up by pairing up two similarly sized characters in Diddy and Dixie. Dixie is nearly as quick as Diddy, but her slightly slower speed isn’t a drawback, as she makes up for that with her helicopter glide. By holding the jump button during descent, Dixie can use her hair to spin and slowly glide through the air, allowing you to reach platforms and overcome obstacles in a way that Diddy and Donkey never could. It added a whole new element for the developers to play with, and they put the feature to great use in both DKC 2 and 3.
In DKC 3, we keep Dixie, who plays exactly the same, and pair her with a new heavyweight: Kiddy Kong. This new character, who has only appeared in this game and Donkey Kong Land 3, plays almost as Donkey did in the original, but somehow, he’s worse. Of the four characters you play as across the three games, he’s by far the least useful in his respective game, and though he’s similar to Donkey, at least he had a game built around his strengths. Kiddy is built into a game clearly designed primarily around Dixie.
Before I get ahead of myself, though, I should say that both DKC 2 and 3 added a new feature unseen in DKC. For the first time, both characters could work together. With a push of the A button, the secondary character would leap to your shoulders and from there, you could either use them as a projectile to hit enemies and collectibles, or throw them upward to reach otherwise inaccessible platforms. It worked wonderfully with Diddy and Dixie in DKC 2 and was a great feature to add variety to the gameplay.
In DKC 3, the heavy Kiddy Kong can toss Dixie around easily, but having him piggyback on her slows their walk down to a waddle and she can toss him forward by a few feet (relative to their size) or toss him up for a big slam that can break certain platforms. So, if you want to reach something high up that Dixie’s jump or helicopter spin can’t reach you need to switch to Kiddy, have Dixie piggyback him, then toss her to the platform. It seems like only an extra few steps, but it definitely slows the pace of the game. In addition, the breakable platforms sort of disappear after about the second level area. In fact, I’m drawing a blank trying to think of any after that point, making it a useless move for the last three quarters of the game. His other talent is skipping the surface of the water like a rock. This, like his platform busting, is useful in only a handful of levels that happen to have water surfaces. It’s also not that intuitive, and I used it only when absolutely necessary to reach bonus areas that were designed to be accessible via the move. Other than that, yeah, Kiddy’s not going to be much more than your backup if Dixie gets hit, and even then, it’s only to hold you over until you can get her back.
Oh, and speaking of those bonus areas, that’s another aspect where DKC 2 and 3 added from DKC 1. In both of the subsequent games, there are now three different forms of collectible currency. In DKC 2, they added banana coins, bonus coins, and DK coins. The first is the most common currency. Its use is to buy passage on Funky Kong’s plane that transports you to previously played areas, to pay Wrinkly Kong to save your game or give you general tips, to Swanky Kong for a DKC 2-themed trivia game (with extra lives as prizes), and to Cranky Kong so he can give tips on where to find the DK coins. Bonus coins are found in the bonus stages, and you collect upon completing the given task of the stage. Those coins are then traded to a disgruntled kremling named Klubba in exchange for access to K. Rool’s hidden world, allowing you to challenge five extra levels and the true final boss battle. Finally, there are DK coins, which are hidden in each level. They can’t be spent, but collecting them all counts toward 100% completion and a place in Cranky’s Hall of Fame.
The third game switches that up a little. Banana coins are now silver bear coins, and they’re used to pay Funky Kong for vehicle upgrades, play a target practice game with Swanky Kong (who rewards you with more bear coins and bananas this time), and they’re used to buy advice and objects from your new allies, the brothers bear. The bears are located all throughout the Norther Kremisphere, with some within level select areas, and a few on the overworld, with their major function being to act as a simple barter system. Granted, the coins get pretty worthless after you buy the last of three water vehicle upgrades from Funky. Swanky’s rewards are not worth playing his game (but it is kinda fun on its own), and bears basically swap items with one another with you serving as their delivery system. The bears are a fine enough game mechanic, and add a little bit of a challenge trying to figure out which bear wants each item, but Funky is the only one you’ll absolutely need to pay. The bonus coins help to unlock another set of hidden levels just like in DKC 2, and oddly, it’s a bear you’re handing the coins over to. Why is that odd, when there’s a whole pack of them? Because he’s the only one with something major to offer for his services and he won’t accept the damn bear coins.
Even the DK coins have purchasing power this time, as you’ll need to give every last one to Funky to afford the helicopter needed to access the true ending.
Now, I got a little ahead of myself there in mentioning the vehicles of DKC 3, as that’s another unique feature of the game. Unlike in the previous two games, which were entirely linear in that you progress from one level to the next and then from one area to the next, DKC 3 allows a little bit of movement. You’re located on a lake, and use boating means to travel to each area. The boating (and swimming, in level areas) on the overworld actually allows for free movement, which is kinda neat, and the boats handle well, making cruising around kinda fun in its own right. However, to get to the later areas, you’ll need better boating options to overcome obstacles in the lake, and Funky is your mechanic with the means to get you there.
Furthermore, in each level area, you have the ability to leave and go back to the overworld at any time, allowing you to backtrack to previous levels to collect coins or grab some easy free lives at will. However, apart from the third and fourth areas and a few extra brother bears, and banana bird caves (another collectible needed for the true ending), the game remains on the rails, so to speak. You can’t really cut loose and go where you want; you gotta follow the general level progression.
I should add at this point that I recently replayed all three in order, and that experience is what brought me to want to write this piece. Upon finishing DKC 3, I couldn’t help but feel like it maybe was not as good as DKC 2. Back when I first played DKC 3, I would have said otherwise. Now though, playing them in close succession, DKC 2 felt like two steps forward, and DKC 3 took no steps forward and maybe even half a step back.
The primary reason for my conclusion is that at about the third and fourth areas of DKC 3, I really began to feel like the developers were leaning heavily on gimmick levels. DKC 2 used gimmicks like the roller coaster levels, at about the same rate as the original, which was every once in a while. DKC 3, by contrast, seemed to lean on gimmicks heavily. In fact, it got to the point that it became a welcome treat just to get a normal platforming level. What I mean by gimmicks are levels that rely on one enemy type or mechanic to dictate the whole level. The layouts in these cases seem fairly milquetoast, and your primary objective is to work around or with the gimmick. For example, one level had you being chased by a swarm of bugs that would knock off a Kong if touched. Another revolved around water that reversed your controls while submersed in it. In the industrial levels, you were either on the rails inside a pipeline or dodging projectiles fired from either the foreground or background in factories. It was like platforming itself had become boring to the developers or they were coming up short on ideas by the last DKC SNES game. Personally, I found only a handful of these gimmick levels enjoyable, and most were a bit tedious. Perhaps others enjoyed them and if you do, that’s cool too.
DKC 2, as said, did play with gimmick levels too, but it was not to that extreme, or at least it never felt like it was. It felt instead like they chewed the scenery of each area’s theme. Take the ship graveyard in the swamp, for instance. The idea of putting a ship in the swamp gave them the ability to reuse the ship themes from the first area, but they also introduced new themes in the swamp levels and the thorn bramble levels. They then took typical scenery of such themes, like masts and rigging in the ship levels, and reeds and lily pads in the swamp levels, and made them not just window dressing, but interactive pieces of the level. In this whole area, they did one gimmick level, that being an underwater world that’s almost pitch black dark, save for an anglerfish that lights your way.
DKC 2 was also the more difficult platformer of the two, in my view. DKC 3’s difficulty seemed from my experience to stem from the gimmicks and I then found the pure platformer levels to be only modestly challenging. DKC 2 felt more complex on that front, as though they had more ideas in the tank to make their platform levels work and the gimmicks were used just to change it up. DKC 3, on the other hand, came across at times as though the developers had far fewer ideas for the platform levels and filled out the areas with gimmicks to make if feel like a challenge. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy DKC 3’s platform levels, as I do, but at times they just felt a little uninspired.
That brings us finally to the last comparison to make between the two games: their soundtracks. This, above all, is what I found to be the most striking contrast between the two games.
DKC 2’s soundtrack was enveloping. There were times when I was paying more attention to it than the game going on around me. At points, it was oddly calming in such a gloomy setting, and when it needed to, it dialled itself back up to eleven and made you sit up and acknowledge its presence.
While I’ve been typing these last few paragraphs, I’ve gone back through the DKC 3 soundtrack in full, in search of something that might stand out to me, and I’m having a much harder time than I did with DKC 2. None of the tracks in DKC 3 are bad. On the contrary, many are catchy and they tend to suit the level s in which they appeared. Yet, nothing feels like it lives up to the two previous games. Maybe it’s the heavy emphasis on bass and percussive instruments, maybe it’s the more pedestrian settings of DKC 3 that the songs were arranged for, but I don’t know, it doesn’t quite add up to the previous two games.
My takeaway, ultimately, was that everything in DKC 3’s soundtrack felt sorta… Muted. At least when you compare it to what came before it just a year ago.
I mean, it’s difficult to compare the two.
There might be a reason for that: David Wise handed most of the composing duties off to Evaline Novakovic while he was focused on Rare’s first N64 game: Diddy Kong’s Racing. This brings us full circle to DKC 3’s place in the SNES history. It completed the trilogy, and carried the SNES to its final days, with one last excellent game to see it off while everyone turned their attention to the new and shiny N64. Novakovic is still a great composer in her own right, and you can hear more of her work in the aforementioned Conker’s Pocket Tales and Perfect Dark, and the latter game’s soundtrack is firmly embedded in my head to this day. David Wise had scored a masterpiece in DKC 2, and there’s no shame in placing second to it.
Overall, I still enjoy the heck out of all three DKC games, and I’d categorise them all as must-play for the SNES. If you’re looking to play them now, they’re all on the Nintendo Switch Online service for free, and the first game is on the SNES Classic. For the old school console experience, the carts themselves go for anywhere between $20 and $30 CDN usually in online markets, so they’re not terribly pricy to add to a budding collection.
If I was to rank them, younger me would have to list them at:
1. DKC 3
2. DKC 2
3. DKC 1
As an adult though, after my recent playthrough, I would rank them:
1. DKC 2
2. DKC 1
3. DKC 3
That’s it for me for this entry. Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments or wherever you find us on social media. Have a request for a game or a topic you’d like to see covered? Email us at thegoldandsteelsaga”at”gmail.com and make a suggestion.
Thanks for reading and stay safe out there.
*Screen shot and cover art images sourced from Moby Games