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Memory Leaks: Donkey Kong Country

🍌 Take Your Stinking Paws Off Me You Damned Dirty Ape...

Donkey Kong Country was a 2D platformer for the Super Nintendo released in 1994 by Rare. It served as a reboot of the Donkey Kong franchise that had been languishing for a decade. It featured a new gameplay paradigm, a completely re-designed Kong, and the introduction of new characters like Diddy Kong and Funky Kong.

How I Remember It...

It's kind of bonkers how out-of-the-blue this game was. Just two years prior Super Mario Kart had included Donkey Kong Jr as a driver, a character built on the old DK design in a first-party title. And then with DKC not only is Junior out of the picture entirely, these apes have a brand new look. And not only was it good, it quickly became one of the must-haves for the system.

The DNA of this game feels like it owes something to Super Mario Bros., what with it's two-player semi-coop, it's mix of land and underwater levels, its enemies you defeat by jumping on them, and its many hidden bonuses. And yet it feels so different. Donkey Kong moves like a lumbering giant, and yet the pace is frenetic. There's a real emphasis on momentum, as you can't as easily turn mid-air like most other platformers, but you can jump out of a mid-air roll. One thing that set it apart was its use of barrels. Frequently navigation was less about where you moved and more about what barrels you fired yourself out of. As you collected tokens you unlocked bonus runs to gain you more lives. There were fast-paced mine-cart vehicle levels as well as three basically-a-vehicle animals you could ride to get some gameplay variation. And on top of that the levels were just littered with secrets.

The graphics looked unreal for 1994, thanks to round pixels on CRT TVs. More than any other game of that era, Donkey Kong Country has aged very poorly visually, as its attempt at a more naturalistic design is completely undermined by modern screens and their square pixels. That said, the sound design was, and remains, very impressive. People still talk about the music on the water levels--a haunting ambient track that really pushed the limits of what the SNES's sound chip was capable of in terms of building new sounds out of complex layering.

The game spawned two direct sequels that are at least as-well regarded. The series is considered to be a bit more challenging than the family-friendly Mario games, and is more geared towards hard-core platforming enthusiasts. It transitioned somewhat clumsily to 3D with Donkey Kong 64. Things were a little touch-and-go when Rare was acquired by Microsoft in 2003, with Nintendo experimenting with weird peripherals and rhythm gaming. 2007's Barrel Blast for the Wii was widely panned. When Retro took over the franchise in 2010, the fans saw a return to form with DKC Returns and Tropical Freeze, which was later ported to the Switch. Rumors of a new Donkey Kong game have been circulating for a few years now, so it will be interesting to see where the series goes, but in the meantime, the original SNES trilogy can be played on NSO.

In MEMORY LEAKS, Kurt is going through his favorite video games. See more posts.