Upon its release on the Super Nintendo in 1994, a year marked by phenomenal games like Super Metroid and Final Fantasy VI (and also my birth), many gamers and video game outlets selected Donkey Kong Country as the greatest game of the year. In response to this, legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto had this to say: “Donkey Kong Country proves that players will put up with mediocre gameplay as long as the art is good.”
Unfortunately, it’s 2018, and the art for Donkey Kong Country isn’t even that great anymore, leaving me with a by the numbers 2D platformer that lacks any sort of flair to make it stand out among the countless other titles within that genre.
Donkey Kong Country is by no means a bad game, but it is marred heavily by its focus on style over substance and, even more damningly, its reliance on trial-and-error gameplay. I couldn’t record the number of times I had to reset my SNES Classic after dying to an enemy that was invisible less than a second prior or falling to my death into a pit that was inobservable from my limited frame of view. While this sort of artificial padding may have extended DKC’s gameplay length in the ’90s, now all they do is serve to annoy the player and detract from the experience.
DKC’s other greatest flaw is its bland level design and lack of progression. While other 2D staples from the time give players a sense that they are progressing through difficulty curves and new level types, DKC seems to merely rotate through a shallow selection of level variations with little rhyme or reason. You may play through a standard jungle level before advancing to a mine cart and then progressing to an underwater section and moving on to a cave area before cycling through them again. Admittedly, this doesn’t become a problem until later in the game, but by the time I reached the halfway point, I felt like I had seen all that the game had to offer and everything else I had to accomplish was a chore to reach the end.
Although they’re thankfully rarely used, DKC also suffers from some absolutely horrendous boss designs and fights. I beat the game just last week, and even I still couldn’t run down the list of bosses without looking them up. Not only are they unmemorable, they all follow a similar, predictable pattern. In fact, the only reasons most of them are difficult at all are the lapses in DKC’s gameplay parity that plague the game. King K. Rool is the only really memorable one in the bunch, but his fight was a frustrating slog of yet more trial-and-error gameplay. I felt relieved when I beat him not because he was a threat that I had wanted to take down throughout the game, but because I was so happy I didn’t have to fight him anymore.
It’s understandable that Donkey Kong Country was lauded upon its release. It probably was the best looking game ever made up to that point, it features an iconic character in Donkey Kong, and checks many of the boxes 2D platforming fans of the day maintained on their personal checklists. But in the year 2018 with so many amazing games to experience, Donkey Kong Country should be nowhere near the top of anyone’s to-beat list.